The year 2012 is turning into quite the landmark year for the badass archer on screen. Hawkeye, Katniss, Merida, and now the latest attempt at a weekly superhero show in primetime with “Arrow”, which is looking quite promising with its recent full season order.
I must admit, when I first heard that The CW was planning a Green Arrow spin-off, I was worried. When I learned the new show would be unaffiliated with “Smallville”, I was relieved. And when I heard Marc Guggenheim and Greg Berlanti would be running things, I was worried all over again. Their work as writers/producers on the lackluster “No Ordinary Family” and the disappointing Green Lantern movie suggested a passion for superhero stories without an understanding of the little details that make those stories work properly. But the new series “Arrow” starts out so strong in all the right ways that I was amazed that the same creative minds could be responsible for it.
The character of Green Arrow started off as Batman with a bow and arrow, a street-level costumed crimefighter who was more Robin Hood than Zorro or Dracula, but still had his own sidekick and arrow-themed vehicles and gear. In the 70’s Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil came along and gave the character some much-needed edge, revamping him into an outspoken working-class vigilante.
“Arrow” hews close to the major points of the O’Neil/Adams era for its story and tone, but still brings in plenty of original elements to make the show stand on its own for viewers who haven’t read the characters comic exploits. The plot centers on Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), a wealthy playboy who returns to his home of Starling City after five years stranded on a deserted island. The experience has clearly hardened him, much to the dismay of his family and friends who all thought he was dead along with his father, who Oliver buried on the island.
But unbeknownst to them, Oliver’s returned with a new purpose: His father revealed that his wealth and business was built on a pile of bones, and for years he’s reaped the benefits while Starling City’s unscrupulous business magnates have driven the city and its people into the ground. Armed with a bow and arrow, a green hood, five years of combat training and a list of names, Oliver plans to exact some vigilante justice on the fat cats who are destroying his city by preying on the poor and disenfranchised.
While the list of names gives Oliver something to shoot arrows at and intimidate every week, the writers have wisely built a strong foundation in the right place: the relationships and character dynamics.
I wasn’t entirely sold on Stephen Amell’s performance at first. His Oliver sports a stoic visage through most of his scenes, but the flashback scenes revealed some interesting contrast. It’s not just that he looks younger and his hair is different. There’s a distinct difference between Oliver’s playboy persona in the past and the act that he puts on after his return. All that party boy bravado can’t hide the hardened edge of the man he is now, and Amell plays the two versions of Oliver with surprising skill. He really seems like two different men, as the overused voice-over so helpfully describes.
Oliver’s ex-girlfriend Laurel Lance isn’t a simple sprite-swap of Rachel Dawes from Nolan’s Batman films. On top of her work as an attorney at a legal aid office, she’s also cheesed at Oliver for bedding her sister Sarah, who was killed when the yacht went down in the storm that stranded him on the island. And while Oliver was away, she started seeing his best friend Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), who still carries a torch for her despite his cad behavior. And as if that wasn’t enough, the lead detective (Paul Blackthorne) chasing after the mysterious vigilante is also Laurel’s father, who’s understandably upset with Oliver for getting one of his daughters killed while breaking the heart of the other.
I was intrigued when I learned that Oliver’s mother and sister were included in the cast, because dynamics of the immediate family are something that superhero stories usually avoid, the better for our hero to commit to his mission if he has fewer loved ones to tie him down and remind him of his old life. Both of them, especially sister Thea (Willa Holland), feel like characters in their own right rather than sounding boards for Oliver. Thea has been getting into drugs because she’s angry at her brother for almost dying on the island, coupled with alienation from her mother. As she explains Oliver at the site of his empty grave, “I felt closer to you when you were dead.”
Oliver’s mother Moira (Susanna Thompson) bring plenty of tension to the table, having married her dead husband’s business partner while Oliver was away. But at the end of the pilot we learn that she was in on the plan to kidnap Oliver after his return (to find out what dirty secrets his father shared with him) and even helped engineer the yacht accident. Although the show is slowly doling out the conspiracy one detail at a time, it’s an intriguing twist that Starling City’s corruption goes much deeper than Oliver’s little grocery list, and I look forward to seeing what kind of affect it will have on Oliver when he must inevitably put his own mother at the business end of a notched arrow.
The second episode “Honor Thy Father” does little more than reiterate the basic beats of the pilot. Even the guest villain of the week China White (Kelly Hu in a Lady Gaga wig) is more of a generic Triad enforcer meant to give Oliver a formidable opponent before disappearing by episode’s end. One of the highlights is Oliver’s modest attempts to patch things up with Laurel over ice cream, and she hears him out rather than continuing to blow him off with one-note resentment. They both come off as complex individuals who, although they care greatly for one another, still have a boatload of baggage to shed before they can hope to resume a healthy relationship.
The third episode, “Lone Gunmen” is already the first attempt to shake up the mark-of-the-week formula, but unfortunately does so by sacrificing the potential of its guest villain, the master assassin Deadshot. Aside from the cool wrist-gun and the goofy eyepiece that serves no visible purpose, he’s pretty much a one-off super-marksman with no personality.* Maybe the character’s charm and moral ambiguity from the comics is a lot to get across in just one outing, but even the 12-minute segment from the Batman: Gotham Knight anthology gave Deadshot more development than this entire episode. For their climactic showdown, he and Oliver share a few seconds of dialogue about their common penchant for killing before Oliver puts a single arrow thru the assassin’s goofy eyepiece. I should say that Deadshot is killed in such a way that the writers could bring him back if they decide they’re not done with him. Probably with a cybernetic eye that won’t seem the least bit out of place after the show starts dipping into the sci-fi well.
But it’s not all downer endings as Oliver’s bodyguard John Diggle picks up a stray shot during the fight, forcing Oliver to take him back to his hideout to treat his wounds. Diggle was immediately likable but was proving a tricky balance to maintain, as Oliver’s routine of ditching him at every opportunity to go play superhero was getting old by the second episode, and Diggle was proving to competent to be continually outfoxed. So when Diggle wakes up and sees an unmasked Oliver standing over him, it feels like a natural progression of the story. After all, who better for Oliver to bring into his inner circle (especially at this early stage) than the man tasked with following his every move who has already proven he can handle himself in a scrape? Hopefully it will cut down on those clunky voice-overs.
In addition, the details of Oliver’s Island Adventures take some strange turns as the flashbacks inch along. Picking up from the previous week’s cliffhanger, we learn that after burying his father on the island, Oliver was taken in by a mysterious hooded bowman who offered vague promises to keep Oliver safe in between ensnaring Oliver in various traps. Also, Oliver uses his credentials with the Russian mob in his quest to track down Deadshot. I know a lot can happen in five years, but becoming a captain in the Russian mafia while stranded in the middle of nowhere is going to require a lot more explaining than this show typically dedicates to those flashbacks. However, I’m willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt; you don’t introduce a twist this strange without a plan.
I’ll be back with a full review of the next episode “An Innocent Man”. Until then, try not to binge on candy, or you’ll never be able to match Oliver’s six-pack.
*Note: I always roll my eyes when assassins in movies and TV shows use a laser scope and demonstrate right away why real snipers don’t use them. It would be more effective if a random bystander stepped in front or the target ducked out of the way at the last possible second. Future writers, take note: if you’ve written yourself into a corner and the hero’s competence isn’t enough to prevent a major character death, blind luck trumps blind stupidity.