I’ve been enjoying the Marvel movie renaissance as much as the next geek, but I’m a DC guy and proud of it. DC has had renaissance of its own that far exceeds Marvel’s, albeit on the small screen. Thanks to the sure hands of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, they have created the most fully realized adaptations of any comic book characters to date: Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman/Superman Adventures, Batman Beyond, Krypto the Superdog (entertaining and underrated), Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited, as well as a fun Duck Dodgers revival, which had some DC fan-service. (Witness “The Green Loontern.”)
DC animation also gave us Teen Titans, the sorely-missed Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Legion of Superheroes, a slew of feature-length animated films (some of them, like Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, superior to almost all the live action fare), and a decentish Green Lantern show. (I didn’t like The Batman at all, however.)
Smallville ran for a decade and was quite good, and now Arrow is filling the gap left by Smallville, including using Luthor Manor for Queen Manor. (Near the end of Smallville‘s run, a pilot was shot for Aquaman but it didn’t get picked up, for the very sound reason that no one gives a crap about Aquaman. The best use anyone has made of him, ever, was John DiMaggio’s voice work in Brave and the Bold. And this.)
I’d argue that DC’s achievement is the more impressive one, since we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of hours of continuity-based entertainment using a format closer to the original medium. Animation certainly fits better with comics than live action, as does the serial storytelling potential of good television. Indeed, I think the Batman animated series is the finest superhero adaptation ever, and Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the best Batman and Joker.
When Smallville went off the air, it left a superhero sized hole in the CW schedule, quickly filled by Green Arrow. The title was shortened to Arrow when the film version of Green Hornet failed and executives decided it was because people hated the word “green.”
Oliver Queen is not anyone’s idea of an A-list superhero, even though DC keeps pretending he is. He’s Batman with a bow in a Robin Hood costume, tricked out with silly accessories like a boxing glove arrow and a sidekick named Speedy.
Despite this, he’s carved out his own niche as DC’s voice of liberal doo-gooderism, which is appropriate because of the whole “Robin Hood” thing. Neal Adams and Dennis O’Neil reinvigorated him in the 70s with a strong series of team-ups with Green Lantern, a little long on the preachiness but still entertaining. In recent years, the comics went off the rails a bit, although Kevin Smith did an acceptably decent job with him. Only in the animated series and in Smallville did he really show some potential.
The CW Arrow series messes with the continuity quite a bit, but most of it works pretty well, and it’s giving the character a depth he’s lacked. With the exception of the actress playing Laurel Lance (who’s rather bland), the cast is strong, grounded by an effective performance by Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen.
Since this is the CW, it’s full of too many pretty young faces and soap-opera digressions, and would benefit from the addition of older performers. Smallville had the likes of John Glover, John Schneider, Annette O’Toole, and Terence Stamp to give the proceedings heft among gleaming teeth and blow-dried hair. Arrow has Paul Blackthorne as Detective Lance and … that’s about it, except for rare and brief appearances by Colin Salmon, who seems to have made a career out of doing a lot with small parts. John Barrowman (of Torchwood and Doctor Who) had an important part in Season 1, but he’s not likely to return.
Despite this, the series is turning out good superhero action laced with moral depth. Arrow charges back to Starling City after missing for five years and starts killing the hell out of bad guys, instantly becoming Public Enemy Number 1. Following the loss of a close friend, he vows to kill no more, and struggles to be a better hero for a city in dire need. When Black Canary enters the storyline, we see the trials of people attempting to overcome their sins and find forgiveness, while also fighting for the right.
It’s not a heavy show, and I don’t want to overstate the moral qualities: it’s still 42 minutes of a guy in green leather shooting people with arrows. But amidst the fun it manages to tap some of those deeper elements lurking at the heart of good superhero stories.
For DCers, Season 2 has been rolling out the fan service big time. Season 1 gave us Merlyn (sorta), Felicity Smoak, Huntress, a pre-Deathstroke Slade, a pre-Speedy Roy Harper, Deadshot, and China White. In only 6 episodes, Season 2 has already introduced or named-checked Black Canary, Brother Blood, Amanda Waller (played by a tall, skinny actress; just … no), The League of Assassins, HIVE, Bronze Tiger, Professor Ivo, Ra’s al-Ghul (mispronounced, as usual, “Roz”), and Dollmaker. Roy Harper gradually is becoming a sidekick, and we’re starting to see what drives Slade to become evil. It’s already stronger than the first season: more assured, more tied to DC lore, with characters settling into their performances and excellent supporting turns by Blackthorne, David Ramsey (Diggle, a new character), and Emily Bett Rickards (terrific as a smart, funny Felicity Smoak).
You don’t even need cable to watch it. We cut cable last spring and stream all the episodes on Hulu. I think all of season 1 may be there. I know it’s all on Amazon and Netflix, and well worth catching up. Give it some time. Like any show, it takes a while for writers, actors, and production to settle into a good working groove. If you don’t like superheroes, this won’t change your mind, but if you liked Smallville and want a something a bit less high-school and a little more mature and darker, Arrow is a great choice.