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How Arrow’s greatest strength became its biggest weakness

Photo: Jack Rowand (The CW)

In the very first episode of Arrow, the camera pans across the beach of the deserted island where billionaire playboy Oliver Queen was supposedly stranded alone for five years, and zooms in on the iconic black and orange mask of classic comic villain Deathstroke with an arrow stabbed through its eyehole. The implication was clear: For all of the Christopher Nolan trappings and overt rejection of unrealistic comic book-y aesthetics, this is going to be a superhero show. The CW won’t scare off viewers by saying a ridiculous name like “Deathstroke” (or even “The Green Arrow”) right away, but some characters from the comics will pop up sooner rather than later.

And pop up they did: Over the course of the first two seasons, Arrow not only put Slade Wilson in his full Deathstroke armor, but also featured appearances from other famous DC villains like Merlyn, Count Vertigo, the Royal Flush gang, Firefly, Deadshot, and even the Suicide Squad (complete with a Harley Quinn cameo, years before Margot Robbie started swinging a hammer around), not to mention some not-so-vague references to mega-villain Ra’s Al Ghul. By the end of season two, Oliver already had a sidekick, his city had been terrorized by multiple supervillain plots, his sister was given her own doorway into the superhero life, he answered the prayers of ’shippers by starting a romantic relationship with tech whiz Felicity Smoak, and—oh yeah—his friend Barry Allen got zapped by lightning, setting the stage of The Flash and the expansion of what would eventually be called the Arrowverse.

To put it simply, Arrow tore through big events in those first few years, and it made those initial seasons feel really exciting and fresh. Season two in particular, with Oliver facing off against a fully realized Deathstroke who is completely out of his mind and has built a mountain of elaborate schemes designed to hurt Oliver in every possible way, is one of the absolute high points of superhero television in general. Of course, the reason the early years were so satisfying is that they were explicitly designed that way.

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Six years ago, when Arrow’s second season was just about to kick off, series producer Marc Guggenheim told fan site GreenArrowTV that the writers explicitly tried to “burn through story” and not be “precious” with anything they wanted to do, in hopes of avoiding the sort of agonizingly delayed storytelling that plagued previous superhero shows. After all, The CW’s last big foray into the genre before Arrow was Smallville, and it infamously waited until the last second of the last episode to make its Clark Kent into Superman—and even then it was more of a glimpse than a reveal. Clearly, the team developing Arrow wanted to avoid that specific mistake.

Unfortunately, the problem with burning through story is that you’ll eventually have no more stories to burn, and it didn’t take long for Arrow to become a victim of its own success. By doing all of the cool things—like Deathstroke’s turn to evil, sidekick Roy Harper adopting the name Arsenal, and season one villain Malcolm Merlyn being identified as an acolyte of Ra’s Al Ghul—as soon as possible, Arrow eventually had to settle for plots and villains that didn’t have nearly as much punch. Guggenheim even predicted as much in that GreenArrowTV interview: “If we have the idea and we’re going to do it, let’s do it now. We’ll solve season five when we get to season five.”

Ironically, season five is actually one of Arrow’s better years, with Oliver reckoning with his legacy as a vigilante and looping back around to his initial time on the island for the formal conclusion of the original flashback storyline. That was an outlier, though, and the reason it worked so well was because its main season-long story arc was threaded through those good, early years. Even Slade, who had returned to sanity after a few years of being imprisoned, came back to help Oliver, recalling their season-one friendship.

Photo: Jack Rowand (The CW)
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Everything else beyond those two promising seasons, though, has been a mess. There are a number of culprits: A lack of compelling villains, the show’s devotion to its flashback framing device, and developments like Felicity failing to stop a nuclear bomb from destroying an American city—something that is barely ever mentioned again, despite (or because of) how utterly ridiculous it is. But they all go back to that philosophy Guggenheim articulated in 2013—forward momentum at all costs that wound up costing Arrow everything.

With Green Arrow’s canonical adversaries exhausted, and Ra’s Al Ghul’s screentime all but wasted (save for a classic, shirtless sword fight), the show strained to find new supervillains. Its take on D-list antihero Vigilante was fine, but you know you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when comic creations like him and Wild Dog are getting big spotlights instead of more prominent characters. Hence the rise of Ricardo Diaz, a glorified mobster who could hold his own against Oliver and his friends simply because the plot demanded it. Diaz is based on a martial arts master from the comics named Richard Dragon (or, more accurately, the criminal who killed Dragon and stole his identity in the New 52 continuity), but TV Diaz never does anything interesting enough to justify any association with the surname “Dragon.”

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The show’s pacing has left Oliver with a dearth of suitable allies as well. With Oliver’s story—or at least the story that had been set up since the pilot—essentially finished by the end of season five, the writers had a chance to go in any direction they wanted in season six. Unfortunately, they chose to pull the focus from their main character in favor of other vigilantes who were part of the crummy and annoying New Team Arrow—most of whom were just ineffective or less interesting variations on previously established characters. The original Black Canary died, but now we have multiple Black Canaries who are worse!

The one time the show managed to have any success in this area, it was in the service of characters and concepts who’d be better utilized on a different show: DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow. That excellent spin-off is a lot better at moving back and forth in time, too. By season three, Arrow was taking its flashbacks off the island for a story that was either too disconnected from the modern-day plot to feel important or so closely related that it felt cheap and distracting. (What are the odds that a killer virus Oliver encountered five years ago is the same killer virus being used by a villain in the present?) In fact, the most alive Arrow has felt since 2014 was when it ditched Oliver and the flashbacks entirely in season seven, instead flashing forward to a dystopian, Green Arrow-less Starling City where the lines between the haves and have-nots are distinctly drawn. There, a young woman—eventually revealed to be Oliver’s daughter—begrudgingly fights for justice alongside the aforementioned Canaries. It was a new energy for Arrow, one that cut off all of the aging threads from the show’s present-day stories, which still involved Oliver fighting Ricardo Diaz, with the added twist of Team Arrow getting deputized by the police department—always a good indicator that your dark vigilante show has lived a little too long.

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With a final season premiering on October 15, Arrow has one last chance to burn through story like it used to, and it seems like it should actually be able to end on a good note. The trailer for the season showed some complicated time-looping nonsense, with Oliver’s daughter and her future-friends sticking around for another year (and possibly getting their own spin-off). Plus, there’s the upcoming Crisis On Infinite Earths crossover, which is opening the door for Oliver to deal with some multiversal madness that can actually impact that show in ways that the writers no longer have to “solve” later. For the first time, Arrow really doesn’t have to worry about burning through stories too fast or figuring out what to do in future seasons—giving the show a vital freedom it hasn’t had since that Deathstroke mask reveal back in season one.

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