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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

I didn’t have high hopes for the new CW show Arrow. I may have read a couple of issues of Green Lantern /Green Arrow as a kid, but missed the groundbreaking Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil team-up of the early 70s. Whatever relevance the character mustered had vanished by the time Jimmy Carter took office. I preferred the Avengers’ Hawkeye anyway, unaware he was a Green Arrow knock-off. Of course the 1941 Green Arrow was a knock-off too, of Robin Hood. George Papp and Mort Weisinger even dressed him in Errol Flynn’s 1938 feathered cap and tights. Or maybe they were ripping off Paul Gustavson’s Arrow, the first hooded superhero with a bow and quiver, in production before Superman premiered in Action Comics #1.

So, I thought, this is the character the creators of No Ordinary Family pick for their next prime time flop? And the CW, in panicked mourning over the close of their decade-long Smallville, grabs it. A second-string superhero on a second-string network.

To be fair, I’m not the target audience for either corporation. DC aims at twenysomething males, the CW twentysomething females. I’m a fortysomething feminist male, not even second string in demographic terms.

But the network’s and the character’s relative obscurity may be an advantage. Old fans don’t like new writers mucking with their stuff. And the bigger the hero, the louder the outrage. Green Arrow, while a venerable member of the DC multiverse, is no Batman.  That gives the writing team some much needed wiggle room. Fitting spandex to the big screen is hard. Fitting it to the TV screen is even harder. Witness the non-launch of David E. Kelley’s Wonder Woman pilot last fall.

Also last fall, in The Death of Spandex, I concluded that 21st century TV superheroes aren’t allowed to wear costumes anymore (Smallville, Heroes, Misfits, Alphas).  Arrow costume designer, Colleen Atwood, challenges that trend, cladding Stephen Amell in leather (the film fabric of choice since X-Men) and spraying a swath of paint across his eyes to replace the dinky domino mask (neither is much of a disguise, but I appreciate the innovation).

But the changes in Arrow aren’t just skin deep. He may dress like a Dark Green Knight, but the creative team is aiming for more than Batman Lite. The Amell incarnation of the character is homicidal. The villain of the week is likely to end up with an arrow through the eyeball. My wife and I watch the show with our twelve-year-old son, and I worried the writers were going the lazy route, giving their hero an unexamined license to kill because he’s, you know, the good guy and good guys are, you know, good, so, like, you know, don’t worry about it, okay?

Instead the killer instincts are questioned, and not just by the Sheriff of Nottingham police chief. Oliver’s love interest is repulsed too, and the flashbacks frame his transformation into a hardened hero in terms of psychological damage. Which is one of the supposed reasons his former bodyguard signs up as his sidekick, a writing trick equivalent to a get-out-of-jail-free card. But at least the writers are keeping all those cards on the table.

This millionaire scion also reverses the Bruce Wayne motive. Instead of witnessing Dad’s murder, it’s Dad’s suicide, a final self-sacrificing gesture meant to redeem his life of villainy. The result is the same—son chases down blamable baddies—but I appreciate the moral twist. And redemption plots tend to trump vengeance plots because the hero and his world aren’t so numbingly black and white.  Also, points to the writers for the literal list of bad guys Oliver is checking off. It’s a perfectly plausible season one gimmick, plus it beats lurking in dark alleys waiting for someone to get mugged, the hidden plot nuisance in most superhero tales.

Finally, some credit to the CW, former home of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I wouldn’t call the network feminist, but their marketing bias is a decent antidote to the otherwise testosterone-swamped world of the superhero. That means when Amell goes shirtless, which is comically often, it’s not for my heterosexual pleasure.

It also means that actress Katie Cassidy gets to play a love interest that’s more than a hapless Lois Lane. Sure, most lawyers would recognize their ex-boyfriend despite a hoodie and Christian Bale sound-alike grumble, but otherwise Cassidy’s Laurel Lance is able-minded. She also shares the alter ego name of the DC superheroine Black Canary, so there will be more work for Colleen Atwood if the show makes it to season two. Meanwhile, Jessica De Gouw is slated as the Huntress later this month. And there’s even a rumor the CW is revamping that failed Wonder Woman pilot.

Could superheroines soon have their own cable channel?

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