Arrow has one of the most effective opening hooks for a comic book nerd dork like me I’ve seen in a series in a long time. It feels a little ridiculous to warn about spoilers because when you get down to it I am talking about the literal first thirty seconds of a TV series that has at this point been running for six years, and has been manging to maintain itself healthily throughout that whole time.
I don’t really want to talk about specific events in Arrow – I’ve not watched the whole thing, only the first two seasons, which had about one and a half seasons’ worth of good stuff, smeared across two seasons of time, and padded out with a little bit too much in the way of flashbacks to boats and storms. Yet in that time, while still maintaining a general tone of comic book pulpy idiocy, it managed to solve two major problems in superhero narratives when they come to the small screen.
I definitely got sick of watching Caity Lotz die over and over though.
First of all the problem: When dealing with a character like Oliver Queen, or Batman, or Moon Knight (are you listening, CW?) there’s a recurrent problem where the character without supernatural advantages must represent being resourceful and connected to overcome their problems. Batman usually just uses money, and this tends to get represented in movies by having him playing with million-dollar suits and toys, an idea that gets in the craw a little as a sort of grotesque waste, and is part of why the more time goes on, the more The Dark Knight looks deeply vile. Your character doesn’t have superpowers, and you want to both endanger them and demonstrate their ability to overcome danger, so you tend to need to show them facing a variety of problems, like in the comics. The problem is that in the comics they have years of history and the capacity to do big, comic-long diversions and cross-referencing into where or how a wonderful toy came from, or they can just label it Bat Shark Repellent, and either of those solutions works.
When you go for a more grounded style of Oliver Queen, one of the things that’s always meant to stick out for Olly is that he’s a changed person using his old persona as a useless partyboy and eventual lefty politician as a way to keep people distracted from the other things he’s also doing. And that means that you need that resourcefulness and cleverness to do a lot of heavy lifting. In Comics, we have a pre-existing acceptance of extremely silly things just solving problems, but in TV you sort of need to do something to connect it. How the heck is Olly going to get access to an information network when he comes back home? We probably want to explain that? And that introduces us to the device of the running backstory.
The running backstory is how Olly’s story takes a sharp fork from the start of the series. One half of it is leading up to the first moment of the series, and the other half is leading away. These two stories are presented in the same order, just flashing back and forth between them, so the backstory can be represented easily, and they also use wildly different visual signifiers. In one, Olly is scarred and tattooed and damaged, but also is in a city and has access to a totally different cast of friends, while in the other, Olly in a jungle environment and lacks several of those visual traits, letting you know they will happen, even though they haven’t happened yet.
This is a really cool device that works well for TV. It does a few things – it lets you jump out of a story when it needs to do a boring bit of time-waiting or bookkeeping, and into something interesting, it lets you show characters in contrast to their current and past like Slade, it lets you show change and progression, and it lets you tell two stories wending around the same theme. In one, Olly is reluctant to kill, but recognises he must; in another, Olly is too eager to kill and recognises he can stop. This is just great use of the episode as a container and the island and flashback as a device.
Shame it all went to buggery in Season 3, but whatever.
The other device I like is the diary. In the context of the DC TV universe, even if it’s not explicitly stated anywhere in Arrow until there’s an explicit appearance of superpowered villains and the Flash, there’s always a big S-shaped shadow cast over the Superhero settings of DC, and the other Big Name Heroes that shall not be named and shall not show up. The question why a superhero might not network with those people and maybe save more lives often lurks around the edges of the mind, and the only real answer most series do is ‘i unno.’ Hell, in Batman V Superman the answer had to be ‘Superman kinda doesn’t give a crap.’
In Arrow the device that keeps the story contained is conspiracy.
This is a beautiful, wonderful, excellent device because even if the superhero is someone really ridiculously powerful, if Superman showed up out of nowhere, unless he’s at his most ridiculous of Golden-Age Still-Loses-To-Gokuness, he’s not going to be able to fix the conspiracy, and his presence will probably kick it into overdrive, because he’s an obvious thing to plan your conspiracy around. What do we do if Superman shows up? Guess it’s time to drop a bomb on our plans and rush them to fruition because we don’t have much time, heck!
The other thing is, the conspiracy just makes the whole puzzle personal and stops you from utilising conventional authority. In Nolan’s Batman universe, the police are all corrupt and all incompetent even after years of Batman fixing things multiple times, but that’s good, because Batman sees solving them as his personal solution to the problems presented to him, and he doesn’t want anyone else to be solving Gotham’s problems. In Snyder’s, Batman takes the presence of Superman as an existential threat (I wonder if he has contingencies in mind for Gamma Ray Bursts) and sees himself as having to deal with it because there’s nobody else who can, even the other people who are already trying to. In both these cases, these are the perspectives of a character who wants to solve the problem personally, and is really only doing so out of a trauma response, because the story doesn’t really work if the character behaves rationally (not that Supes is blameless, what with the whole ‘no conversation then a fist-fight’ approach to getting Batsy’s help).
In Arrow, Olly is both the only person he knows untainted by the conspiracy, and he knows the conspiracy is laced through his pre-existing friend network and he knows that even if someone isn’t directly involved, they’re likely to be surveillancing his friend network and also he knows that his father is directly responsible. That means there is both an extrinsic reason (don’t want to get stopped fixing it) and an intrinsic reason (I am in part a beneficiary of this evil) to want to make things right himself.
I guess I’m saying Arrow is a better series than The Dark Knight is a movie, or that Batman V Superman sucks. But really, we all know where I stand.