The popular superhero soap is running the grim-and-gritty arc in reverse, and that’s pretty cool.
Before we talk about the TV show Arrow, we need some background on the comic book character it’s based on.
When he first appeared in the 50s, Green Arrow was a straight-up Batman clone, except that instead of a utility belt, he had a quiver full of trick arrows, which were too often just otherwise-useful devices inexplicably stuck onto the ends of arrows.
In 1969, Green Arrow underwent a reinvention courtesy of the great Neal Adams: a snazzy new line to his costume, a sexy goatee, and most importantly, a new narrative role as the superhero Robin Hood. The new Green Arrow was the proud lefty superhero who stood up for the poor and disenfranchised against the forces of oppression, injustice, and rich bastards.
He even gave up his “millionaire playboy” status when he learned that his family company was built on war profiteering; he broke up the company, sold off the pieces, gave the money to charities dedicated to undoing the damage that had made him rich, and started over again as a broke dude living in an apartment, having to make his own trick arrows.
The next reinvention came in 1987 with Mike Grell’s landmark miniseries The Longbow Hunters, which established a new era for the character and launched an ongoing series written by Grell. It became the epitome of the “grim and gritty” trend in superhero comics, as Oliver Queen adopted a new costume without a mask, abandoned his trick arrows, and started killing people.
Grell’s comic became its own mini-universe in which superhuman powers didn’t exist; even Green Arrow’s longtime girlfriend the Black Canary lost her sonic scream powers whenever Grell was writing her. Instead, the grimmer, grittier Green Arrow existed in an action-movie world of assassins, serial killers, martial artists, and spies. Grell’s right-wing style even had the formerly anti-authoritarian Ollie Queen taking black-ops missions for the CIA.
That era of comics is largely recalled with embarrassment nowadays; a lot of reconstruction has been done in superhero stories, getting back to what makes superheroes cool when they’re not doing bad Red Dawn impressions. Green Arrow’s “Punisher with a bow” phase is often cited as the perfect example of just how unfortunate that trend could be.
So it was with trepidation that I saw the CW’s show Arrow initially start off exploring that same territory. It had terrific action scenes and a solid structure, and the writing was intermittently inventive and charming. The main cast seemed to be made up of buggy first-generation sexbots: extremely beautiful humanoids who could almost convincingly simulate human emotion and behavior. The secondary characters, though, were a lot of fun, and the guest stars, like John Barrowman and Alex Kingston, were some of my favorites.
The problem, though, was that this was a grim, growly, vengeance-driven Oliver Queen, gleefully perforating perps right and left without a flicker of moral qualm. The moral universe it drew tended strongly toward a might-makes-right model, where whoever’s the most violent and badass gets to decide what happens. The villains were either generic mobsters and terrorists, or “realistic” versions of comic book characters, stripped of their powers, their costumes, their nicknames, everything that made them comic book characters.
In short, it felt an awful lot like one of my favorite heroes was getting his own TV show, but that show would be drawn from his most uninteresting era.
Over the course of the first season, though, there were hints of change. Helena “The Huntress” Bertinelli was introduced, her comic-book origins intact. The season climax involved our heroes trying to stop an earthquake-causing doomsday machine, of all the classic supervillain devices. There was a gradual drift toward the embrace of the crazy, which is less dull than the alternative.
In season two, we’ve seen that drift accelerate, until the show is clearly steering directly into the crazy. The opening credits now emphasize that Oliver no longer kills. Characters who were introduced in their toned-down versions are being brought back, amped up to full comic-book proportions. A mysterious drug keeps giving people super-strength. Characters are unabashedly using comic-book names for themselves without acting as though they’re too cool for them.
Longtime comics favorites like Brother Blood and the Suicide Squad are appearing. They’ve even got a proper Black Canary now, and as though in deliberate defiance of the Grell period, she’s got sonic powers. Sure, they’re (for now) in the form of little screaming gadgets, but that’s better than nothing. Oliver’s pulling out more trick arrows now, rope arrows and explosive arrows and other gleefully unaerodynamic devices.
Best of all, season two has introduced Barry Allen, a dorky, overenthusiastic police scientist who is last seen getting struck by lightning while being doused in a variety of chemicals. His debut in his own series, as the super-fast Flash, is expected this fall. His best gift to Arrow, though, is his gift to Green Arrow: an old-fashioned domino mask to better cover his identity.
Domino masks are often made fun of by those who feel like mocking superhero comics. “How could that hide someone’s identity?” is the question, gleefully missing the point. It’s an objection usually raised alongside “Why not just kill all the villains?” and “LOL, guys in tights look gay.”
There was a period when superhero stories absolutely bought into these surface critiques, and yes, some good stories came out of it, but it was ultimately about a genre being embarrassed by itself. In hindsight, it looks like a kid who goes to a new high school and tries to assume a new persona, all leather clothes and tough talk about how he’s a real badass, fervently in denial of who he still is underneath. And just like that kid, superhero stories have had to grow out of that phase, perhaps keeping a few life lessons and points on style.
Arrow is the only superhero story I’ve seen deliberately run the grittification process backwards, starting with the pseudo-realistic vigilante-killer routine and then, one piece at a time, dismantling it to uncover an older, more interesting version of the character. A hero who shoots trick arrows that don’t kill anyone, who teams up with the Flash, who wears a domino mask without a flicker of irony. That’s a sufficiently gutsy creative choice to keep me watching, because I want to see where they take this story, and this world, next.