Queen’s Gambit: Revisiting Arrow

The comic book television series came of age with Arrow, but how do the early episodes hold up in a world loving Daredevil?

Arrow shouldn’t be as fun as it is, and it’s easy to forget now that we were genuinely starved for comic book telly back when it first aired. What helped this show then was the lack of any anticipation. That isn’t to say comic book fans went into it hoping for a disaster, but when you’re on the teen-friendly CW network that had previously run Smallville into the ground, there were reasons to be concerned. The Superman show ran for ten years, but in that time, it had managed to piss off many self-respecting DC readers with its disregard for comic continuity. Not to mention the detrimental focus on treacly romance which is still trotted out in these shows. That said, the Man of Steel series had its moments, featuring groundbreaking effects work for TV that proved super heroics could be achieved on a weekly budget. For almost a decade, fanboys prayed that another hero would be given a similar scale on television with greatly-improved scripts. We wanted one that finally did the characters in question justice. Arrow was that show… and now it appears to be a tie between spin-off The Flash and Marvel’s stupendous Daredevil.

So, how does the start of Oliver Queen’s adventures hold up in a post-season three world? Very well, in my own humble opinion. While many have moaned long and hard about the much-maligned third year’s soap-y elements and the use of a certain Ra’s al Ghul, I still felt it was entertaining, well-made genre television with elements to improve, and revisiting the first season only proves that that was always the case. This editorial, then, will be less about fan griping and more about getting newbies up-to-speed before the inevitably superior season four.

The general gist of Arrow will be familiar to anyone who’s ever picked up a comic in their lives. Mr. Queen (Stephen Amell) is a spoiled rich kid left deserted on an island after his family yacht sinks into the ocean. The event claims the life of his billionaire father and his girlfriend, who just so happens to be the sister of his former flame, Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy). Somehow, Oliver survives for five years on the island before he is rescued by chance (or so we initially presume). His return to the crime-ridden Starling City is a series of brutal home truths. His mother Moira (Susanna Thompson) has remarried, his now-teenage sister Thea (Willa Holland) has gotten used to life without him, and his relationship with Laurel is naturally strained. But Oliver is going to work through his problems by becoming a hooded vigilante, fighting the city’s pervasive crime with finely-tuned senses and a never-ending supply of green-headed arrows (see what they did there?).

I know what neophytes are thinking; this is a poor man’s Batman crossed with Robin Hood (the writers jokingly refer to the latter in the very first episode). It’s a claim Green Arrow fans have worked against since day one, but with Warner Bros. keeping the Dark Knight firmly on the big screen (except for his capeless presence in Gotham), this is surely the next best thing to a serialised Caped Crusader. While that sounds like an outright recommendation for Arrow, it comes with a few caveats. First off, star Amell takes a few episodes to warm to. While never bad, he comes off a little wooden at first. After a while, this relatively inexperienced actor grows into the role and gives Ollie plenty of dimensions. This is a man coming home after some life-changing events, and when the writers really start to grapple with his experiences, Arrow begins to resonant.

Cheesy moments abound but the concept dictates a little levity, which is needed in a show that is surprisingly bleak… or, at least, it was before Matt Murdock arrived on the scene. At first, Ollie isn’t afraid to kill his targets if he has to, and the relentlessly moody cinematography by Glen Winter proclaims that they are taking the material seriously. If we could compare Arrow to anything, it would almost certainly be Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It has a flashback structure interspersed with Ollie’s early crime-fighting experiments, gradually showing us what happened in those shadowy five years. Outright steals from that classic have continued through the duration of the show, with all events having some kind of impact on future instalments. There is a lot of forward momentum and character development in Arrow that gets deeper the longer you stick with it, and while the stories are typical of the genre, the writers don’t shy away from intriguing moral questions. Like Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen is almost on a knife-edge between good and evil, and it wouldn’t take much to nudge him into the abyss. That gives the writers plenty to play with.

All of this isn’t to say that Arrow is pretentious or po-faced, as the humour is there as a counter-balance. Ollie’s interactions with his friends and family, all of whom are trying to welcome him back to society, provide some good memories in the early goings. His best friend, Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), grapples with the fact that his buddy’s womanising ways have changed, whilst his mother assigns him a bodyguard to keep him out of trouble. One of the best characters on the show, honourable security man John Diggle (David Ramsey) starts out as a foil in Ollie’s attempts to fight crime, but quickly becomes an appreciated member of the supporting cast and Oliver’s conscience manifested. Characters that might not seem all that interesting in the typically exposition-heavy pilot soon become well-rounded personalities that have surprising longevity.

On the other end of the scale, Ollie’s tortured relationship with Laurel and the resultant love triangle(s) is typically snooze-worthy episode filler that only exists in the show for women. That’s all well and good; a little soap opera is a fair trade-off for all the action, but Cassidy isn’t the greatest actress in the world. She also isn’t helped by the largely-male screenwriters who fall into the trap of not knowing how to write women, or how to make the incessant moaning integral to the plot. This is summed-up by his sister Thea, played by the utterly beautiful and competent Holland, whose sole function on the show in season one is to whine to Ollie every chance she gets (steady on, love, he’s been on a fucking island for years). It’s not a portrayal of women that’s really acceptable these days, especially after a decade of Clark Kent’s insipid romance with Lana Lang. Thankfully, this isn’t Smallville and the violin moments don’t overwhelm the overarching story arcs… for the most part.

The staff have at least attempted to make their heroines stronger, personified by previous fan-fave Felicity Smoak  (the stunning-yet-convincingly-geeky Emily Bett Rickards). We were introduced to this adorable Queen Industries tech nerd early in the first season, and watching her become one of the regulars was an absolute joy. Rickards was tasked with much of the show’s humour and it’s almost a shame that she had to go on to become another lover for Oliver to moon over (oh, in addition to our star being shirtless much of the time, he’ll always bed any female character he isn’t related to).

Season one had a running plot concerning the dodgy dealings of Ollie’s father, who was mixed up in some unsavoury business that was gradually paid-off or glossed over completely. Naturally, his mother is also in on the dirty secrets, working in conjunction with the devious Malcolm Merlyn, Tommy’s father (played in a recurring role by the fittingly-hammy John Barrowman). Whatever’s really going on is merely fuel for action scenes, of course, as Mr. Queen works through a list of corrupt names left by his late father. And speaking of the action, it’s good, really good, just about making up for the show’s faults. The Green Arrow has no super powers, making CGI work thankfully minimal, with the character relying on his archery skills as well as his hand-to-hand combat. It has always given real punch to the show’s set pieces, all of which are lensed cinematically. Again, this “realism” relates back to the grounded world of Batman Begins, and that’s a good thing indeed.

Most importantly of all, though, Arrow did improve for the first-rate season two. A slightly uneven beginning gives way to a show which grew more confident in what it wants to be. You’ll see Ollie go toe-to-toe with actual DC villains including China White (X-Men 2‘s Kelly Hu), the Clock King (Robert Knepper) and Deadshot (Michael Rowe), later leading to the first live-action Suicide Squad. Even the formidable Deathstroke (a peerless Manu Bennett) has a long-running stint. The Arrow writers don’t fuck about with their stories, moving things along at a fair clip to stop the formula from becoming routine. Events that would’ve taken two seasons to occur in most shows only take a fraction of the time here. I’ll put that down to the fact Arrow wasn’t commissioned as a full season when it began, only receiving an extended run when reviews and ratings proved agreeable. It’s almost as if the writing staff took stock of what worked and what didn’t, and strengthened their goals accordingly. Those moaning about the past season will do well to remember that.

Has Arrow maintained its relative quality? There’s no doubting that the last year was the weakest – no doubt due to the same team also making the fantastic Flash – but I have faith that the series will regain its footing. The DC catalogue is giving them everything they need, and it’s a testament to the quality of the CW’s DC-verse that I pine for more of their episodes and less for the impending movies. We’re now in an oasis of comic television and some have been quick to dismiss Arrow as yesterday’s favourite, but for me, this still beats the likes of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Gotham. Grab your quiver and give it another shot.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at SquabbleBox.co.uk. Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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