Arrow debuts tonight on The CW at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Erik Adams: Origin stories are the pilot episodes of the superhero-comics world. For decades, new characters and teams have been introduced to readers by way of explaining how these super-powered entities came to be. How did they discover their powers? What personal trauma pushed them to assume an alter ego and fight for what’s right (or wrong)? Were the members of the team fast allies or initial adversaries? The good origin stories answer these questions succinctly before launching newly born heroes into their first published adventures. When it comes to hooking in moviegoers and TV viewers unfamiliar with four-color source materials, an origin story is often the best way to get newcomers on the same page as the well-acquainted.
Like many characters in the DC Comics canon, the story of how Oliver Queen became the Green Arrow has been told and retold through various retcons and brand-wide crises, but the basics—made up of equal parts Robinson Crusoe, Robin Hood, and Batman—remain the same: Wealthy playboy Queen is stranded in the wild, where he must develop archery and martial arts skills to survive. Upon returning to his home of Star City, he assumes the mantle of Green Arrow, mapping what he learned in his time away onto his own form of vigilante justice, fighting on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves.
In the 1970s, on the drafting board and typewriter of Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil, Queen and The Emerald Archer picked up what has proven to be their defining characteristic: a social conscience. In Arrow, The CW’s live-action adaptation of the hero, that empathy and progressive verve is also a late-blooming facet of Oliver Queen’s personality. A TMZ editor’s wet dream before the boating accident that leads to the deaths of his father, a Queen Industrial associate, and his girlfriend’s sister (with whom he’s sleeping), Oliver (Stephen Amell) has a lot of time to think about the things he’s done wrong—all the while working on his aim and toning the abdominal muscles the network is using to sell Arrow to the non-comic fans in its audience. Thankfully, in the series première, that five years is compressed and confined into flashbacks, lest it delay the jumping, kicking, sleeper-holding, and bow-and-arrowing.
His identity as a street-level advocate for change would’ve made a Green Arrow TV adaptation particularly relevant one year ago; after the hubbub surrounding the Occupy movement has died down and the Arab Spring has curdled over into occasional bouts of fanatical violence, Arrow debuts too late to join in on the revolution. Which is for the best, seeing as the hand it extends to the disenfranchised amounts to little more than the faceless denizens of a shanty town and a one-off villain who’s a real-estate shark. It’s a wasted opportunity, but a move that could prevent the series from being haunted by the specter of some Occupy-related variation on Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85’s infamous, once-cutting-edge, now-hokey exclamation, “My ward is a junkie?”
Of course, Arrow already has a jump on its print counterpart in that department: Its Speedy—introduced as Oliver’s younger sister Thea (Willa Holland), as opposed to Dick Grayson-esque sidekick Roy Harper—already has a nasty little habit, albeit one that goes up her nose. Thea’s rich-girl-gone-bad behavior is one of the many concessions to the real world that mark this series as another extension of the Green Arrow franchise indebted to Batman—specifically The Caped Crusader of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. Like The Cape before it, Arrow often resembles an attempt to bring Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy down to scale for the small screen: The musical score “THWOMP”s like the Hans Zimmer compositions of that film series, and the scenes of Oliver escaping from gray Asian exile and cobbling together his secret lair ought to cut a check out to the Inception director. But despite obvious budget constraints—the yacht disaster that strands Oliver features some shoddy CGI work—Arrow rarely pales in comparison to those films. Sure, Amell lacks the standard-operating gravitas to back up his character’s playboy side to the same degree as Christian “I’m buying this hotel and, uh, setting some new rules about the pool area” Bale. But like the Green Arrow of the comics, this pilot sets about drawing on its inspirations without lingering in the shadow of the bat.
To that end, the first episode of Arrow adopts a uniquely acrobatic style for its action sequences. The choreography of these fights requires Amell and/or his stunt double to move like a werewolf trained in parkour, a smooth swiftness that matches the movement of Oliver’s arrows. Oliver sports a motivation all his own, as well. He’s out to avenge his father’s death, sure, but his is also an arc of redemption. As the too-on-the-nose voiceover indicates, the man who washed up on that island and the guy undermining fat cats while donning a green hood are totally separate entities. An additional area where Arrow diverges from its predecessors is in its flouting of Smallville’s “no tights, no flights” rule; Green Arrow shows up in full costume by the pilot’s climax, an outfit that circumvents the problems of translating comic-book getups to three-dimensions by ditching the Battling Bowman’s domino mask for a streak of green eyeshadow that’s more Adam Ant than Neal Adams. It’s a good look, though.
Of course, the challenge of relying on an origin story for Arrow’s pilot involves moving past that initial hook and transitioning into the type of episodic adventures that have been the bread-and-butter of superhero comics since the dawn of the medium. The roster of DC properties due to arrive in Starling (not Star, for some unexplained reason) City in upcoming weeks—a CW press release lists Deathstroke, Deadshot, China White, The Royal Flush Gang, and a Geoff Johns-penned appearance by The Huntress—suggests this approach, though there are enough lingering questions from this first episode to suggest weeks of flashbacks, names crossed off of lists, and conspiratorial whispers to come. That’s just the type of mythology-building that’s bound to play a part in any modern-day broadcast-network genre series. If Arrow is to retain the crackling energy of its first hour, the past can’t take precedence over the self-contained stories of the present, or the development of characters in Oliver’s orbit—especially given the Easter Egg teases involving the characters played by Willa Holland, Katie Cassidy (as a driven young attorney who’s also Oliver’s ex), and Colin Donnell (playing the back-from-the-dead billionaire’s cad of a best friend). Kicking off the hero’s journey is the easy part. Keeping it interesting page after page, issue after issue, episode after episode is where things get tricky.
Alasdair Wilkins: An unexpected strength of Arrow is how well it understands its limitations. Trying to recapture the tone of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy on a CW budget should be a recipe for disaster, but Arrow is careful in playing to its strengths and minimizing its weaknesses. Amell doesn’t show a lot of range in the pilot—and voiceover is clearly not his forte, although anyone would struggle a bit with Oliver’s over-explanatory monologues—but he’s good at playing a grim badass, as well as someone pretending to still be a rich jerk, which are the two main modes the pilot requires of him. The task of making arrows look cool onscreen might seem like an obvious case for some bad CGI, but Arrow demonstrates Oliver’s incredible skills by showing just his initial shots from the bow and then the final results, leaving the seemingly impossible part of the shot to our imagination. The flashback scenes set on the open ocean—an area the CW has rather infamously struggled to portray well in previous shows—are carefully shot to minimize the amount of dodgy-looking green-screen backgrounds. The result isn’t perfect, but Arrow’s strong sense of what’s in its wheelhouse and what isn’t results in a pilot refreshingly low on cheese.
The show also has some fun as it fleshes out its supporting cast. While there are certainly a few scenes of clunky exposition and obvious setups, Arrow also holds back on revealing some of the key relationships until the final few minutes of the pilot. Indeed, one character positioned as the obvious adversarial figure proves to just be a misdirection for the real foe, providing the episode with a very solid twist and giving an unexpected jolt to what at times seems like fairly rote mythology-building. There are still some logical problems that need addressing—in particular, Oliver seems to possess skills in his superhero toolkit that couldn’t possibly have been learned on a deserted island—and it remains to be seen how the coming, welcome influx of other DC Comics characters will mesh with the fairly self-contained approach of the pilot. But most everything about the Arrow pilot suggests the show is in strong, confident hands, and this might be the one gritty superhero show that doesn’t embarrass itself in the attempt to live up to Christopher Nolan’s definitive blueprint.