We are in an era of renaissance when it comes to comic book adaptations – and not just in film, but most definitely in television as well. And there really is one show above all the others we can thank for starting all of this. Because back in 2012, Arrow (unknowingly at the time) set off a new round of comic book television. Larger and greater than anything ever had been in the past.
And for the first couple of years, Arrow wasn’t just the leader of the pack, it was at the top of its game – arguably producing some of the greatest material the genre had ever seen. With a spectacularly well-rounded cast, ever increasing dips into the DC well, and a fantastic new take on the archetypal [super]hero’s journey, Arrow really laid the groundwork for the genre as it’s existed.
But as Arrowverse (as it’s come to be known) has expanded, the show itself has struggled creatively. Likely influenced by the stretching of resources, as Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, Marc Guggenheim, and their cohorts have further divided their time between the original show and the growing repertoire in The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow.
Still, I hold out hope that the show can rebound creatively. Plenty of shows have ebbed and flowed throughout their own runs – and down periods are nothing unusual. So as we prepare for the new season – premiering again in just a few weeks – these are some of the biggest things I’d like to see from the series in its fifth season.
Let the series be the dark one in the family
After the success of The Flash – a brighter, (no pun intended) flashier counterpart to this little branch of DC tv-verse – there was a growing sense that lighter fare was the nature of the day. That “light” and “fun” equal “better” – demonstrated in the degree to which Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow have embraced this way of thinking. Both take inspiration from Flash more than they do Arrow – with far less interest in the darker sensibilities that informed the first three seasons of the latter.
This in turn influenced Arrow, that took its own pivot after the notoriously dark third season. With a fourth year outing that involved a lighter take on Oliver Queen, and much less pressure all around to inhabit those dark sensibilities that had so strongly defined Starling City and its residents in those early seasons.
The problem with this, of course, is that it’s acting very much like Warner Bros did after the success of The Dark Knight – only in reverse. In that instance, the studio took the film’s acclaim to mean that all comic book movies should be a grim and gritty affair. And it’s dogged them in their early attempts to establish their own film universe to compete with the MCU.
But what is being unrecognized in the process is something that Marvel has already figured out: everything in its own place, rather than a particular mindset applied to all properties. You don’t turn Guardians of the Galaxy into an espionage thriller just because The Winter Solider was a hit. Nor do you demand that Ant-Man become a gritty exploration of crime due to the success of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Rather instead, you let each separate property find its own tone – one that’s appropriate to the material – and let that guide them individually.
The same should be done with Arrow. Making it lighter fare to match Flash isn’t going to make it a better show. Kind of the opposite, in fact. Oliver Queen’s story, as it was established in the first season, is by its very nature, a darker take on life. And not only does this complement Flash in its own right, but at its best, it also allows for deeper examination of moral complexities and what it means to be a killer/vigilante vs a hero in ways more profound than any almost anyone else in the genre.
Give Oliver an emotional journey (that’s not all about Felicity)
One of the bigger issues in the opening half of fourth season for the show was the Oliver was no longer growing emotionally as a character. He reached a plateau in the third season finale, and going into the fourth year, the series itself no longer seemed capable of – or even remotely interested in – exploring his growth in any way. He would still play a supporting role to others – as he often had in the past. But at the same time, the show was very much lacking in having his own emotional journey at the forefront of its narrative.
First and second (and to an extent third) season worked marvelously way precisely because of this. Not just that it existed, but that it was often integral in driving the thrust of the main narrative. In no season is this better demonstrated than the second year. Oliver’s guilt over Tommy’s death, his desire to be a better hero for Starling City and not to kill, and the complicated relationship he had with Slade Wilson, as well as the role played in Shado’s death. These pieces were constantly at play on multiple levels of the narrative – and it made for the richest storytelling the show has accomplished, as it used those many conflicts to guide and challenge Oliver in spectacular ways.
But fourth season, there was none of that. In the back half of the year, things picked up a bit – in that they primarily became wrapped up in his relationship with Felicity. Instead of giving him another stepping stone of the path of self-discovery, the show curbed any emotional conflict and growth into his increasingly tense relationship with Felicity. Which, in turn, was dogged by a contrived plotline regarding Oliver’s wayward heretofore unknown (to him) son.
A part of this problem stems from the fact that Oliver was made the Green Arrow about two seasons too early. Since this show began (as origin stories often do) as a story of self-discovery, and since it was framed as occurring over a ten-year journey (five on the island, five after his return) then the story should’ve culminated with him finally achieving that self-actualization at the end of those ten years. It would’ve provided the perfect moment to transition Oliver away from Hoods and Arrows and vigilantes and killers – and into the superhero we always knew he would become.
It’s not a decision the show can go back on. But given that there’s one more year of flashbacks still to go, I do rather hope for some backtracking in this regard. And with things in limbo (and hopefully a less melodramatic place) between he and Felicity, hopefully the writers will re-focus up properly on its central hero.
Which leads me to…
Make the flashbacks matter again
The flashbacks of the first two years reached such a high point (particularly in its second season) that perhaps it’s not a surprise that the show eventually faltered. The third and fourth seasons have struggled increasingly to make the flashbacks relevant – or even very interesting.
A part of this stems from the loss of Oliver’s emotional journey. After all, the first year alone was able to utilize them – often in impressively minimalist ways – to emphasize the dramatically different versions of the character. The foppish, clueless playboy stumbling his way through danger on Lian Yu stacked up against the efficient – and clearly damaged – killer taking to the streets of Starling City. It was great stuff.
What’s more, the stories of what happened on the island were, in it of themselves, just great narratives. Second year in particular really picked up its game, letting us see the evolution of Slade Wilson into Deathstroke in both the past and present. All the while enriching and enhancing the thematic elements at hand, and seeing the important moments that made Oliver into the killer he ultimately became.
Reportedly, fifth season is when we’ll finally get to see the Russian mafia storyline. Which is great. At the same time, I’d love to see a re-framing of Oliver’s mindset. Supposedly, he’s moving down that darker path, venturing closer to the dangerous vigilante he becomes in the pilot. Yet fourth season’s lackluster flashbacks rarely (if ever) emphasized or explored that. In turn, this lessened, the comparison of the two different Olivers, and we no longer got to witness the show stacking of the “hero” Oliver against the “killer” Oliver.
Also…stop killing people
Look show, you’ve more than met your quota at this point. Sara’s death was the last one that really mattered in any capacity. And while I’m glad it was undone so we can have White Canary on Legends of Tomorrow, you’re just not making your deaths resonant anymore. Laurel’s death felt perfunctory. (I’m also rather troubled at the show’s willingness to kill off one of the oldest superheroines in the book.) Don’t kill characters just to kill characters. Kill them because you know it’ll be in service of good story.
It’s been a rough couple of years, but I’m still rooting for the show. Of all the series in the pack, it still stands out as my favorite in the genre. I hope this year it can reclaim all those reasons why.