State of the Multiverse Address Part 1: Arrow

Posted in Screening Room by - June 06, 2017

The 2016/2017 season of the DC CW shows is over, and we can finally look back at what went right, what went wrong, and where we go from here.  Because we’re up to four shows now, and each has enough unique setups and needs to focus on, we’re going to break this review up into three parts.  So here is part one, all about Arrow.

Spoilers ahead for Arrow.

So Many Green Arrows to Choose From

Arrow this year is going to be a difficult show for me to review because while this was the best year since season two, it’s also the year the made me want to keep watching the least.  It all goes back to the beginning.  When it comes to Green Arrow, there are a couple of versions of the character to choose from.  There’s the Golden and Silver Age version, which was more or less a lighter toned, arrow-themed ripoff of Batman; the Bronze Age, Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams version, who was a hyper-liberal wise-ass; and the 80’s era, Mike Grell/Chuck Dixon/Judd Winnick version, who was gritty and serious and realistic.  Arguably, the most popular version remains the Bronze Age liberal version, because he’s entertaining regardless of how much you agree with his politics, because he’s the version which feels the most like a modern, trickster, superhero Robin Hood, and because he was the version featured on Justice League Unlimited where he was basically perfect in every way.  Arrow opted for the gritty 80’s version because, at the time the series began, the writers were emulating a Christopher Nolan approach to superheroes.  Now, it worked well for the beginning of the show, because he was fresh off the boat from his hellish, 5 year fight for survival on a distant, desert island, and because it was made clear that his then-present persona was inspired by those recent, traumatic events, the show left an opening for him to develop into a lighter version of the character as the series went on.  Indeed, the second season changed the weekly, intro dialogue to say that moving forward he needed to become “something else” other than the person he was at the beginning of the show.  And for the first two seasons, the show was slowly developing him from the ‘survivor’ he became on the island, into the superhero we wanted him to be.

And then seasons three and four happened, and they were just not good.  Without taking the time to review them in full, the core issues with those years was poor pacing, bringing in the main villains too soon, dragging out the A-plot much longer than it had to go, a constant spiral of darkness that included killing characters off in increasingly cruel ways, and many of the characters (Oliver especially) acting out of character.  The slow but steady progress Oliver made through the first two seasons stopped, and his character suddenly started getting darker and darker and darker.  Because those two seasons also had many general writing problems, it was difficult to distinguish whether the growing darkness and the lack of character growth stemmed from an intentional direction of the show or just sub-par writing as the showrunners stretched themselves across an additional three shows.  As season five started, it was another opportunity to see if they could fix the downward spiral the show found itself in.

And they did fix it, and that’s part of the problem.  The writing for this season was good.  It was back to form, emulating the more successful plotting of season two, and with a larger ensemble that made the main cast all the more interesting.  The problem is that Oliver is still dark and grim and sad and serious, and with the general writing no longer displaying the previous issues, and the characters all acting way more in character, it now feels like confirmation that his arc is over and that we’ve already seen as optimistic and fun and snarky as this Oliver is ever going get.  And that can’t help but be disappointing, even when the rest of the show is chugging right along towards greener pastures.  So to give it a fair review, despite my disappointment with the apparently permanent angry Oliver we’re now kind of stuck with, let’s take a look at the positives first, and then get into what they can do to improve an already much-improved show.

Right on Target

So what did they do to pull this show back to near top shape?  Quite a few things.  Probably the most obvious are the new ensemble cast.  If there’s one thing that could be said to have been a consistent positive of Legends of Tomorrow’s shaky first year, it was the ensemble, and the lagging Arrow seems to have looked to that show’s strongest point as a source of inspiration.  Thus we get the main premise for the season: the defeat of last year’s villain, Damian Darhk, left a power vacuum in the criminal underworld, and pretty much everyone in Team Arrow (save Oliver himself and Felicity) have gone their separate ways, so to combat the newest threats attempting to rise to power, Oliver puts together a new team of vigilantes to help him on his quest.  This introduces us to an interesting team of players, featuring some new and returning faces; teenage vigilante Artemis and Olympian athlete/tech wizard Mr. Terrific (one of the highlights of last year) return, while newcomers like the gruff and sarcastic Wild Dog, Dinah Drake, a replacement Black Canary, and Ragman, a vigilante powered by magical Jewish rags, round out the cast.  The emphasis on interactions between interesting characters is strong this year, as we also involve the return of fan favorites Anatoli Knyazev, Nyssa Al Ghul, Slade Wilson, and even Malcolm Merlyn.  And it works.  Filling the show with interesting people makes for some very fun stories and storytelling so that even when the main plot slows down in places, there’s entertainment to be had.

The other major point worth mentioning is the season’s frequently recurring theme of past sins coming back to haunt our heroes, as Oliver’s main problem takes the form of the villain Prometheus, whose slowly developing plot involves a tale of revenge for the wrongs Oliver committed in the first season.  To echo this theme, Felicity has to face the fallout of the snap decision forced upon her last year, where she decided to divert an airborne nuke from a densely populated city to a less populated area, thus making her partially responsible for the death of a small town.  Ragman, who hails from the town and survived via his super suit of magical Jewish rags, ties directly into her story and makes it one of the more compelling arcs this year.  Diggle, meanwhile, faces his turmoil after killing his brother last year.  It was a less compelling arc, but at least not a boring one.  The themes tie in directly throughout the season, with most characters involved facing some regret of the past, particularly when you get to the season finale and Oliver’s team up with multiple villains from previous years.  The fact that this theme recurs and finds its footing in nearly every prominent character this year lends a certain cohesion to the story, making the whole year feel more thought out.

And, of course, perhaps one of Arrow’s consistently strongest features is the action, which is well choreographed and top notch pretty much every episode.  While there probably isn’t a single episode that stands out quite as much as last year’s “Brotherhood”, which saw the directorial debut of longtime fight coordinator James Bamford and thus a whole episode of ridiculous, amazing action and beautiful, purposeful camera movements to follow it, this year has some good standouts to compete.  Probably one of the best is “The Sin-Eater,” which features a villain team up between China White, Cupid, and Liza Warner.  This episode had strong action all around, with unique styles for individual characters on display.  Additionally, it also featured an interesting, if underplayed new element: mood lighting.  I’m sure there have been moments where the show has played with lighting a scene with colors before, but none spring to mind as much as the mid-episode confrontation here, where a warehouse is lit by alternating red, green, and blue lights, adding an interesting flavor to the action, while a chase leads down a bright red corridor that highlights the dramatic confrontation between Quentin and Liza.  There are sparse few other moments this season where they play with lighting like this, and really, I think they should go all out with it in the future. Compared to every other show in this shared multiverse, Arrow’s Nolan-inspired dark atmosphere has fallen from noirish to just dull and boring.  Taking some cues from Nicolas Winding Refn and adding some colored lighting to evoke moods and affect scenes, would add a unique flavor to the show that could start getting it to compete with the others regarding visual spectacle, without necessarily taxing the budget.

So, bottom line, there were some smart elements at play this year that helped raise the general quality of viewing on an episodic and even overarching basis.  But unfortunately, there some flaws as well.

Missing the Mark

Probably the most consistent problem across all of these shows is plot drag.  There reaches a point in the season where the A-plot of the year has done just about everything it can do before hitting a conclusion, but there’s still a certain number of episodes left to fill, so the show gives us a handful of episodes in a row where it reiterates how powerful the villain is and how unlikely it is the hero will win.  The plot doesn’t progress because it can’t.  One of the biggest mistakes of last year was introducing Damian Darhk at the very beginning, because most of the season fell into this exact rut, leading us to a couple of different plotlines that ended up being meaningless, dead-end, closed-loop plotlines that accomplished nearly nothing in the long run except to stall the main plot.  Even the good seasons tend to run into this problem, as once the main villain reveals themselves and most of the major elements of their evil plan have been set up in some way, the show can’t do a whole lot except wait.

This year is no different, and in fact feels like one of the worse offenders of Arrow’s five seasons.  Part of the problem is the fact that Prometheus, an extremely loose adaptation of the Batman villain of the same name, seems to share only one real trait with his comics counterpart, and that is his uncanny excellence at nearly everything he does.  Prometheus seems, at first, like he’s going to be a slow burn, appearing in the first episode, but making very few major moves, while charismatic crime lord Tobias Church takes on the role of the early season’s big bad.  But Church is ultimately defeated in episode 5, and from that point forward we begin the long haul arc of Prometheus always, always being two steps ahead of Green Arrow.

There are several sides to this problem.  The first is, however, present it is.  From episode 6 to episode 23, there are only four episodes that don’t feature Prometheus or his machinations in some major capacity, and that means a lot of time spent on the same, long plot.  Secondly, Prometheus always comes out on top, which undercuts the tension of every encounter.  We know the basic outcome of nearly every episode where Prometheus factors into the plot in some major way; either Prometheus will flat out win, or it will appear Oliver wins until you find out that his victory was just a part of Prometheus’ plan.  This gets repetitive quickly.  There are a few moments where the plot finds a way to break out of this cycle, with either Oliver or Prometheus doing something legitimately surprising, but those moments are too few and too short.

Perhaps this problem is most prominent in the season finale itself, which, spoiler, is a great big cliffhanger.  Now, cliffhangers, especially those at the end of a season, are not inherently bad, but there are two types of cliffhangers, and one is a lot more annoying than the other.  The first, the good one, is where the cliffhanger essentially gives you the first five minutes of the next major story, showing you a brief scene and cutting off just in time to leave you wanting more.  The other, the bad kind, is to cut off the last five minutes of the current story and save it for next time.  This is what they decided to end this season on.  We spend a whole year on Prometheus’ long master plan, and when we get to the season finale, they essentially opt to tell us that this story required more than 23 episodes to tell, which it did not.  Prometheus himself may have been defeated at the end, but the episode spends not a small amount of time setting up his final trap, and by the end of the episode, that trap is still ongoing.  We’ve essentially been denied the conclusion to this story for another several months.

And that’s not good for that conclusion, either.  The end of a story works best within the context of its journey.  By making us wait a few more months to see how this all plays out, the story is on a big, long pause, and thus there’s a great big disconnect between the conclusion and everything that’s meant to set it up.  Beyond that, the beginning of a new story needs its room to grow.  By cutting off the ending here and placing at the beginning of next season, they’re taking the time to setup out of the next story to give us what will likely be a quick resolution to what’s meant to feel like a huge moment.  It will almost definitely be anticlimactic, and that’s a shame.

Arrow is by no means the only CW show to suffer from this problem, but they’ve consistently suffered from it the most, so it feels worth mentioning in the review of this year that this continues to be an issue, even when they made the smart decision to break up the A-plot, at least a little bit, by opening the season with a different big bad.  Part of what makes this a little frustrating is that the first season handled this pretty well, and laid out a good groundwork for all the rest of the series in this regard.  Instead of fully focusing the show on a single plot for the season, the first year broke things up into smaller stories with recognizable beginnings and ends.  The first five episodes are an arc of themselves, and there are a couple of other specific points where the show feels like it’s reached a conclusion of some kind before kicking off another, small story.  Major, overarching plot elements can be seen from the very beginning, but they don’t take focus until the point where the show is ready to capitalize on them.  The first season is probably Arrow’s best year regarding not slowing down at some point.  They just went to the trouble of breaking the season into individual chapters that didn’t necessarily boil down to the good guys fighting (and losing to) the main bad guy.

All in all, despite these complaints, this season of Arrow was strong.  It was the strongest it’s been in a few years now, it was probably the second best show this season, and hopefully, indicates the quality the show will be at when we come back next year.  Until then, we’ll be back soon with the next part of the CW’s DC Universe year in review, this time focusing on Flash and Supergirl.

This post was written by
He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn't paying attention.
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