Right on Target: Thoughts on ‘Arrow’

 

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Contains spoilers for several episodes.

When it comes to comic book adaptations, there are, generally speaking, two methods of approach: the safe route, relying on a set formula and/or sticking close to the source material to tell the story (see The Avengers), or the balls-out, all-or-nothing route, aiming to transcend the property’s pulp roots to potentially varying effect (see The Dark Knight on one end, Ang Lee’s Hulk on the other). The CW’s new superhero show “Arrow” is unique in that it finds a comfortable balance between the two, sticking to an established formula while still, in many ways, deviating from it.

Since its October debut, Arrow has centered on billionaire playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), who washes ashore a mysterious island after a yacht carrying his father and girlfriend’s sister capsizes. Fives years later, he returns to his home town of Starling City alive and well, but things of changed; for one, he’s returned with a mission, adapting his bow-and-arrow survival tactics he learned on the island to oppose the city’s corrupt and criminal. Along the way, family and friends, new and old, including sister Thea (Willa Holland), mother Moira (Susanna Thompson), stepfather and new CEO of Queen Industries Walter (Colin Salmon), former girlfriend Laurel (Katie Cassidy), partner Diggle (David Ramsey), and Detective Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne), present conflict upon Oliver’s return.

There are elements of DC Comics’ Green Arrow mythology here. Queen’s origin is kept largely the same, and the look of the vigilante is a logical update from the classic Robin Hood-esque ensemble. If the series can be traced back to any particular comic incarnation in terms of tone, substance, and overall approach, it’s both Andy Diggle and Jock’s Green Arrow: Year One and the entirety of Mike Grell’s run. The writers have also snuck in several other nods to the mythology, though some work better than others. Case in point, Ollie’s sister Thea is nicknamed “Speedy” because she used to run really fast as a kid. Yeah.

On the whole though, the series closely adheres to a lot of the storytelling methods employed by Christopher Nolan for both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And by closely, I mean that if the show was produced under a company other than Warner, it’d be accused of plagiarism. In both its style and scripting, the series shamelessly takes cues from the former films, whether it be the protagonist flashing back to his early years, or throwing people off by playing a drunken playboy. Even some of the show’s staging seems to be emulating Begins in particular. It could be argued that the CW’s inability to convince parent company Warner to produce a Bruce Wayne TV show (something the network has wanted since before Smallville over ten years ago), the network settled for a similar hero in Green Arrow and altered much of his mythology to be closer to the Caped Crusader’s. Originality aside, the conceit works.

Arrow’s initial episodes quell concerns that an adaptation of the character might come off as merely a Batman/Iron Man clone, another billionaire-turned-superhero that returns to fight crime after losing his way. By adding a good number of original characters, including the family dynamic, Arrow stands out as something else entirely. Even the show’s pilot in particular is merely the standard hero’s journey, yet it’s executed near-perfectly – Queen is characterized as human and relatable, constantly struggling in the new world he’s faced with.

Initially, I was worried the familial drama would distract from what should largely be Queen’s story, but over the course of the first season, it’s evolved to a place where I don’t mind it as much. I like a lot of the more intriguing subplots, one of which explores Walter’s investigation into Moira’s position in a criminal organization that recovered the wrecked yacht from the island where Oliver was found, for reasons yet unknown. Despite this, certain episodes do tend to veer too closely into soap opera territory. More curious are the Hamlet allusions with Moira and Walter, Oliver’s father’s former partner. It’s an unnecessary added dynamic that goes nowhere, less an effective literary parallel and more illustrative of how shallow the writers can be.

The vigilante himself, as he’s called in the show (because god forbid they just call him Green Arrow), is actually quite cool, yielding lots of intense, well-shot action, even if the camera shakes a bit much. A stark contrast to many of DC’s heroes strict “no-kill” policies, including Queen’s, the show turns Oliver into a killer, treating casualties in battle as collateral damage. Still, the change isn’t as jarring as one might suspect. It’s not particularly well thought-out – Queen could’ve just as easily been written as a more restrained hero and the story not lose its poignancy – but it isn’t blasphemous. The character did kill criminals for the duration of Mike Grell’s run, so there’s that. Still, you have to wonder when characters like the Huntress (Jessica De Gouw) show up, and Queen begs them to stop recklessly killing people, if his argument isn’t a tad hypocritical.

In his alter-ego, Amell’s Oliver Queen is thoughtful, if a bit stilted, as is the case with most CW actors. His pained, determined brooder is a far breed apart from the outspoken, liberal charmer as written by Denny O’Neill, an incarnation that came to define the character. Again, it’s not so much blasphemous as it is just different. I cannot, sadly, say the same for Katie Cassidy’s “Laurel” Lance, a mere poster girl for CW’s female demographic. In early episodes especially, she plays the stereotypical busy, uptight businesswoman, flat-out cold to all and yet, despite Oliver sleeping with her now-deceased sister, she’s still somehow in love with him. It’s a character begging to evolve, preferably in the form of leather and fishnets.

On its antagonists, the show employs the standard villain-of-the-week angle, which is hit-and-miss. China White, one of the supposed leaders of the city’s underground crime ring, only appears onscreen occasionally. Deadshot gets wasted after a single appearance, and Deathstroke has yet to speak a single line of dialogue. These are some of the best villains of the DC universe, why not use them more conservatively? Wouldn’t spreading them around several seasons draw in more comic readers over a longer period of time? Still, in truth, I’d rather see the series take a page from both O’Neill and Grell’s runs, focusing on more realistic, hard crime or social issues. In those stories, the real villains were the drug dealers, the sexual deviants, the corrupt cops, etc. Some truly great writing could make that a reality; using the iconography of famed DC villains as a crutch will only get you so far.

Most episodes so far have been jam-packed with plot, so there’s very little time for the show to keep a so-called “status quo.” Things are constantly changing up, keeping the show’s pacing fast and loose. I only hope the writers don’t run out of steam before Season 2. One such fast-paced episode features Queen, suspected of being the vigilante, on house arrest, and Diggle being forced to don the green hood to throw people off his trail. I’m reminded of the old 1960s Batman show, when Alfred had to dress up as Batman whenever Adam West’s Bruce Wayne and Batman had to be in the same place at the same time. The silly solution always made me smile – really, people can’t tell the difference between a white guy and a black guy under a hood, or an old guy and a young guy beneath a cowl?

Arrow is my new Wednesday night ritual. It’s a solid, if not excellent start to a series I will hopefully be tuning in to for a long time to come. It’s certainly not any kind of definitive statement on the mythology, but on its own merits, the show works. Now if only Warner could accomplish the same with their silver screen efforts.

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