Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thoughts on Season 3 of Arrow

It seems like the better The Flash got, the worse Arrow became.

Wait, let me back up here.  Hi.  I haven't written anything in awhile.  I'm Ed.  I'm a geek.  Sometimes, far too rarely, I feel compelled to write things down.  So let's talk about Arrow.

I only sat down to give The CW's Arrow a real shot (ha) about a month and a half ago.  I'd heard good things from friends and fellow geeks, but I've been very, very wary about anything coming out of DC Comics for the last several years.  I was born and raised a DC fan, coming into my geekiness around the same time that Knights were Falling and Doomsday and Clark Kent were punching each other so hard that buildings were shaking around them.  My dad, though not a particularly nerdy soul himself, had fond memories of his own childhood comic book days and encouraged my interest.  He'd return home from garage sales (this being the rural Midwest) with boxes full of old comics and trade paperbacks, almost always published by DC or Archie--and my deep-seated love of Archie is a whole 'nother subject--and I'd delve into this strange, colorful, violent, and often inexplicable world of superheroes and villains punching each other in dramatic fashion.

Around the same time, Batman: The Animated Series was kicking off.  B:TAS begot Superman: The Animated Series, Supes begot Justice League, and basically, throughout my childhood and into my burgeoning adult years, I had Bruce Timm's legendary version of the DC Universe keeping me company.  I also began to discover DC-oriented comics blogs like Dave's Long Box, the Absorbascon, and Chris Sims' Invincible Super-Blog.  These helped me finally understand some of the stories I'd been confused by in my youth and connect to aspects, characters, and bits of DC apocrypha I'd otherwise never have been exposed to.  I grew from a guy who liked comic books and superheroes to a dyed-in-the-wool DC Fanboy.

And then Christopher Nolan happened.  I enjoyed Batman: Begins quite a bit; I loved The Dark Knight and lauded Heath Ledger's performance (even if he still wasn't as good a Joker as Mark Hamill).  But by the time The Dark Knight Rises hit, DC's editorial staff seemed to have succumbed to the exact same madness that had, thirty years earlier, caused every comics writer in the industry to take a shot at recreating Alan Moore's Watchmen.  On the film side, it was obvious; Man of Steel's promotion (and eventual execution--no pun) made it clear that whoever was in charge of making these movies thought anything from DC that hit the silver screen needed to be dour, grim, dark, gritty, and absolutely humorless.  Sure, Green Lantern looked like it might be kind of fun (I won't lie, I had high hopes for Ryan Reynold's Kyle-Rayner-disguised-as-Hal-Jordan film), but its box office demise apparently sealed the deal at Warner Brothers: DC movies are totally serious business, man.

And on the comics side?  Well, after the high concept fun and humor of the early 2000's, the DC Universe was well on its way to darkening after Identity Crisis.  (Here's the Wikipedia entry on it.  It's even worse than it sounds.)  Mary Marvel turned evil.  Black Adam pushed a guy's skull through the back of his head.  Superboy Prime... hoo boy, Superboy Prime.  (Mind you, I think he's a terrifying villain, but the arm-ripping got a bit gratuitous.)  But we also had Ryan Choi as the Atom, and Jaime Reyes as the third Blue Beetle, and Booster Gold and Rip Hunter were saving time itself, and there basically was enough light to balance out the darkness.

But then the New 52 began.  DC wiped out their 80+ years of history and started (sort of) fresh.  And by fresh, I mean with a level of grimdark that makes Warhammer 40k look like a pleasant afternoon in Equestria.  And that is when I finally gave up on DC.

Since then, my comic book nerd needs have been met by Marvel (and some IDW, because I am a dork who likes ponies).  Matt Fraction's run on Hawkeye is my favorite thing in the world, I adore Kamala Khan and No-Longer-a-Mystery-Woman Thor, I even got a kick out of The Superior Spider-Man.  I've been working my way through Walt Simonson's legendary run on Thor from the 80's, I'm gradually building up a base of Marvel trivia knowledge to almost, sort-of, vaguely challenge my hard-won mastery of DC lore, and let's not even get started on how much I love Marvel's cinematic offerings.  (Even Iron Man 2.  And Thor 2.  Though getting Chris Eccleson as Malekith but not having him camp it up is one of the great tragedies of modern film.)

All of this is a ridiculously overlong way of saying that I've become very, very wary of DC.  And so I resisted checking out Arrow for two and a half seasons, until I kept hearing over and over how lighthearted and bright and flat-out good CW's new Flash show was.  That's what won me over: the idea that somehow, some way, somebody in charge of a DC product managed to sneak fun into their story without the higher-ups noticing.

In order to watch The Flash, of course, I had to watch Arrow.  So I did.  And lo, it was good!  The first season took a bit to find its feet, but right from the start it was apparent that, despite the fact that Green Arrow was clearly more Bruce than Oliver in this series, it had a humor and sense of adventure to it that DC's latest film offerings had seemed deathly allergic to.  The second season was even better, building steam over the entire season as we learned more about Ollie's relationship with Slade Wilson.  I firmly believe that the home stretch of episodes, with their constantly rising stakes and beautiful, satisfying payoff, rank up there with the best that television has to offer.  "Seeing Red" is no "Ozymandias," but it's quality.

And The Flash... man, I could spend hours praising everything about it.  Sure, maybe it's not everyone's bag; hell, I'm pretty sure I am the exact audience it's targeting.  But it hits me right in the happy center of my brain, and I giggle like an idiot through every episode.  (And man, is Cisco just the best character on TV today or what?)

But the third season of Arrow didn't come anywhere near the heights it reached during season two.  I've given it a lot of thought over the last few days, and during the finale I just finished tonight, and I think I can identify the areas where it started going south.

Be warned, Netflix-waiters: spoilers ahead.  They're necessary for a real discussion.  Sorry.

Let's start with the positives, though.  The first half of the season was generally pretty good.  We had an intriguing mystery with the murder of the Canary, I was thrilled to see the show introduce Ray Palmer (played by Brandon Routh, of the not-nearly-as-bad-in-hindsight Superman Returns), the introduction of Ted friggin' Grant as a mentor (and, weirdly, possible love interest) for Laurel, and the kickass crossover episodes between Arrow and Flash.  This culminated with the ninth episode, "The Climb," with Ollie's climactic duel against Ra's al-Ghul, and his subsequent (apparent) death.

Man, that was good stuff.  Shocking.  Surprising.  It opened up all kinds of interesting possibilities for Team Arrow.  It provided a great setup for the introduction of the Lazarus Pit, a subject that Chris Nolan was afraid to bring up for his Ra's.  Obviously, Ollie was going to be brought back, but how would the Pit change him?

(Also, an interesting tidbit.  Remember way back at the top of this post, when I mentioned that Arrow got worse as Flash got better?  If "The Climb" was the pinnacle of Arrow's season, Flash's ninth episode, "The Man in the Yellow Suit," is where that show went from "I really enjoy this" to "HOLY GOD THIS SHOW IS FANTASTIC!")

Well... it wouldn't.  Because Ollie didn't go into the Pit.  He just didn't die.  Despite falling off a cliff.  After being impaled.  And four days without food or water.  Completely exposed to the wind and the cold.  Without a shirt.

Meanwhile?  Well, remember the mystery of Canary's killer?  Turned out to be Thea--and that was awesome.  What a story!  Thea, warped by her father's tutelage, becoming a killer.  Maybe she'd join the League of Assassins like her old man.  Maybe she'd become this dark, twisted reflection of Oliver, a symbol of what kind of damage the lies and deceptions he'd told for years could do.

Nope.  Merlyn just drugged her.  You know, guys, that didn't really go over well when they did that to Cassandra Cain, either.

How about Ray Palmer?  He was a seriously likable dude, a good guy through and through, but setting him up as an antagonist to Ollie could have yielded some really interesting conflicts.  Plus, he seemed to have way more chemistry with Felicity than Oliver does.  I was excited to see how the show would handle him.

For the most part... not terrible?  I mean, sure, we didn't get to see him shrink; he was more or less a lower-budget Iron Man.  But I've yet to be able to really buy into Olivicity... Feliciver... whatever.  The whole star-crossed lover schtick worked well enough in the first season between Ollie and Laurel, but doing it again with these two always seemed very forced to me.  Felicity and Ray seemed like a much more natural pairing, based on shared intelligence and interests as well as physical attraction, and I thought they played well off of each other.  Alas, the writers seemed bent on shipping Felicity and Ollie come hell or high water, and Ray got the short (ha) shaft.

Okay, but Ted Grant!  Ted Grant is awesome!  I mean, sure, he's always been portrayed as this grizzled old bastard of a mentor figure, but casting him as a young, good-lookin' dude puts an interesting new spin on his relationship with... okay, quick aside?  I get annoyed every time I have to stop myself from typing "Dinah" to type "Laurel" instead.  She's Black Canary, she's goddamned Dinah.

(Besides, officially, "Laurel" is just her middle name.  She and her mother are both named "Dinah."  That's actually taken straight from the comics!  See, back before DC's continuity went completely insane, there were two Black Canaries.  The first Canary, Dinah Drake, operated during World War II, as part of the Justice Society.  Her daughter, Dinah Laurel Lance, became the Black Canary we know and love today.  Also, her dad, Detective Lance, was originally a Gotham detective... uh.  Right, back to the point.)

Unfortunately, this potential storyline was abruptly dropped mid-season after the reveal that Ted was a former vigilante himself.  Which, itself, was a really cool idea that should have been explored.  Alas, both Wildcat and his story threads vanished without a trace after that; I don't think anyone even mentioned him for the rest of the season.

Basically, it seems like the season was split messily in half.  Like the writing team drafted the first nine episodes, went on vacation, and came back months later with nothing but a vague idea of what the seasonal arc was going to be.  I'm sure it's more to do with contract disputes and budgetary concerns, but looking back, it's jarring how different the first chunk of the season was from what came after.

That also applies to this season's flashback scenes.  In the previous two seasons, we'd seen Oliver's arrival on Lian Yu, his growth into a competent fighter, and the building and demolition of his friendship with Slade Wilson, and it had all flowed seamlessly with the ongoing plot threads of the present day.  We learned what came between Ollie and Slade at the same time that we learned Slade was still alive.  As stakes rose in the present, they likewise rose in the past.

This season's flashbacks started fairly strong; Oliver in Hong Kong, being used as an assassin by (the still-kind-of-annoying-how-skinny-she-is) Amanda Waller, his partnership with Maseo, and his development of skills that would later help him as a vigilante.  However, the pacing of the flashback scenes and the present-day story was disjointed and weak; we knew far in advance, for example, that Akio wasn't going to survive to the current day.  The overarching threat of the Alpha-Omega Virus, which should have tied both stories together, seemed to be introduced or at least focused on too late in the season to establish the kind of ominous presence that was needed to effectively connect the two.

And then there's the League of Assassins storyline.  I'm not even sure where to begin dissecting this, but I feel it's safe to say that this plot was the heaviest burden weighing the season down.  Perhaps we should begin by picking out what did work with it.

The first couple of episodes after Ollie "joined" were effective at establishing doubt as to whether or not he had actually been corrupted by Ra's brainwashing.  Ra's attack on Thea was a shocking and effective way to end that episode.  The horror that Team Arrow, particularly Thea, felt at Ollie's supposed sacrifice rang true to me.  Merlyn stepping in as a substitute leader for the team felt natural and appropriate, helped in no small way by John Barrowman being awesome.

What didn't?  The reveal at the beginning of "This is Your Sword" that Ollie was deceiving Ra's robbed the rest of that episode of any suspense and tension, and taking the wind out of your own sails in the last episode before your finale is something you should never, ever do.  It also made the arranged marriage between Ollie and Nyssa a complete non-issue, and made Ra's look like an idiot for not taking further steps to ensure Oliver's loyalty.

The largest problem with this plotline, I think, comes from the choices that the writers made throughout the season's second half.  Why have Ollie survive his fight with Ra's, instead of using this opportunity to introduce the Lazarus Pit (complete with warnings about its potential to warp a bather's mind) and, thus, cast just a tiny bit of doubt on Ollie's motives going forward.  Why introduce this prophecy about "surviving Ra's blade" and not play around with it?  Ra's stabbed Thea, and she survived, too.  Why not do something with that?  In fact, why the hell is there's a prophecy in the first place?  And what is it supposed to portend?  Because it seemed more like a guide to establishing succession than any "prophecy."

Ideally, the endgame with the League would have had a series of escalating stakes, would have led the viewers to doubt the allegiances of characters like Ollie, Thea, and Merlyn, and would have tied more thematically to the flashback plotline.  Instead, it all seemed rather lackluster and obvious, and the flashbacks seemed more interested in introducing Maseo and Katana than drawing parallels between Ollie's past and present.  It just didn't hang together very well.

Next week, The Flash will get its season finale.  If trends continue, I'll be geeking out over it for hours after it's over.  Come next fall, hopefully it'll maintain its momentum--and hopefully, Arrow will regain its.  I want to remember Season 3 as a hiccup in an otherwise damn good show, and not beginning of its all-too-soon decline into mediocrity.

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