If you’re not watching Arrow and The Flash, you’re missing two of the best superhero comic adaptations on TV ever. And by DC Comics, no less!
I’ve attacked DC Comics’ wrongheaded film efforts many times in the past on this blog as well as to anyone who would listen, but I did so before seeing Arrow and The Flash. Both shows are more than worth your time. In fact, they’re successfully doing on TV what Marvel has mastered in film.
DC Comics and Warner Bros. have been chasing Marvel Studios “Cinematic Universe” for years now. DC’s first genuine “lap” in that race was 2013’s Man of Steel, a new Superman reboot and a starting point for their shared universe. Despite my criticisms, I genuinely like the film.
I am still not sure how Man of Steel stands as the first step in a new shared movie universe, though. It’s Superman done “realistic;” at least as realistic as an alien made invincible by the sun’s rays can be. And it feels embarrassed to embrace its comic book roots. That’s not to say it’s embarrassed of spectacle, because it has oodles of that. To a fault. The foundation of DC’s cinematic universe is built on a film in which Superman introduces himself to the world and then destroys Metropolis in a knockdown drag-out fight with General Zod and his mini army in the same film.
Superman is supposed to be a boy scout, a beacon of hope, and a savior. He did put himself on the line to save humanity, but left a path of destruction behind him that would leave the most optimistic supporters hard pressed to defend him. So, we’ll see how Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice develops this universe further. In my heart, I am a DC over Marvel guy — I love Batman — but it’s hard to defend how badly they’ve treated their properties on film (Nolan-verse aside, of course).
Yet, in 2012 Arrow premiered on the CW as a gritty re-imagining of the laughable Batman rip-off superhero Green Arrow. In the comics, Green Arrow is probably most famous for sometimes shooting people in the face with a “boxing glove” arrow and looking like a Robin Hood rip-off. Although, Green Arrow appeared in the Bruce Timm animated universe, specifically Justice League Unlimited, as a pretty cool character who questioned the league’s authority as a voice of the “common man.” He was also voiced by the guy who played “Scotty” on General Hospital in the 90s… uh, *ahem*, not that I would know much about that.
In any case, Arrow is better than it has any right to be. It plays sort of like Batman Begins with the would-be hero, Oliver Queen, returning from a long exile and setting up his crime-fighting apparatus, complete with a training montage featuring salmon ladder pull-ups which my wife very much enjoys watching. But it’s OK because I ogle Ollie’s sister, Thea, a young woman who never met a shirt that didn’t show her midriff.
The story plays out, at least initially, with “villains of the week” and serialized elements guiding the story forward. Interestingly, Oliver Queen’s crime-fighting persona is not “Green Arrow.” At least not at first. He is “The Hood.” Playing into the Batman Begins comparison, Ollie is not fully baked at the end of episode one. Part of the fun is watching Ollie learn how to wage war on his city’s criminals and learn the ropes of urban vigilantism. As he does, the show’s story and characters expand and become more complex. Even better, the show’s leadership and writers are very comfortable geeking out with DC comics minutiae. For example, Ollie faces off with a version of Batman’s Royal Flush Gang in one episode.
The fight scenes are well done and surprisingly brutal. Ollie is not above filling guys who pose a threat with arrows. The costumes are reasonably good… although as with any superhero property there is necessary suspension of belief after a point.
Arrow eventually introduced crime scene investigator Barry Allen aka: The freakin’ Flash and spun him off into his own show, which introduced the concept of super powers and “meta-humans” into this universe. The Flash has been a fantastic show with an endearing lead and surprisingly good effects for a CW show. It’s also developed a very strong central mystery which has been propelling the story forward.
Since The Flash premiered, it has crossed over with Arrow several times yet both shows have maintained their own stories and arcs. In fact, I’ve been thoroughly impressed by how the shows have maintained ties to each other (whether characters from either show appear or not) and haven’t forgotten that these people exist in the same world. It’s one of few criticisms that I would make of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel — once the characters diverged, other than prearranged crossovers, the two worlds were entirely separate. Normally, this would have been OK except that on Buffy the world was ending every year and you’d think that maybe someone would have noticed a flying dragon (Season 5 finale) or the fact that the sun was blotted out in LA for several days on Angel (season 4).
Amazingly, while “kingmaker” Marvel was struggling to give it’s first TV property, Agents of SHIELD, solid footing, Arrow was into its second ambitious season developing a “big bad” that had been foreshadowed since the pilot episode and shaking up the status quo every week. It wasn’t until Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out that Agents of SHIELD improved drastically and made what came before a lot more relevant. But I would argue that Arrow was still the better show even though it was very cool to see how events playing out in the Marvel films affected the wider universe that Agents of SHIELD lives in week to week.
Which leads me to how DC is still screwing this up and lets me explain how I was only “sorta” wrong about them.
After Man of Steel came out there were questions about whether or not Superman and Arrow’s Oliver Queen existed in the same universe. Unlike Marvel, DC doesn’t have a unifying figure like Kevin Feige keeping these things locked down. DC was cagey about the continuity between universes for more than a year. Fans clamored for a shared movie and TV universe like Marvel has, although given the world changing events of Man of Steel it seemed odd that Arrow seemed unaffected by nor mentioned the near worldwide cataclysm. Then in late summer 2014, DC guru Geoff Johns confirmed what fans dreaded: Arrow/The Flash are not in the same universe as Man of Steel. They are “separate universes,” says Johns. The point was further hit home by the casting of a separate Flash for the upcoming Justice League and Flash movies (Grant Gustin plays an exceptional Barry Allen/Flash on TV and Erza Miller will be the movie Flash).
Disheartening news. DC had an opportunity to build off of a fantastic existing property, Arrow, and tie it to its big movie franchises and they have shut it down. Worse yet, CBS is developing a Supergirl TV show and there is a question as to whether or not that will be part of the same universe as Arrow and The Flash. Would it be part of the movie universe? It’s own thing?? It’s not clear yet and that, in of itself, is proof of DC’s shortsighted, bad planning.
Now, let me be clear about one thing: I actually would not mind, in principle, if the DC TV universe and the movie universe were separate entities. Let the movie world be one thing and the TV world be another. Sounds fair.
Except it’s not.
The DC movie universe has free reign to use whatever characters and properties it wishes (assuming licensing rights aren’t an issue, of course), but DC TV does not. For example, Batman and Superman are off limits. I don’t think I’ve seen it expressly stated anywhere, but I suspect that Wonder Woman is off-limits, too. Junior Varsity Batman villains are OK (Deadshot, Clock King, etc.) but not the Joker or even Harley Quinn for that matter (brief Arrow easter egg aside, that is). Now, it probably wouldn’t make much sense to have the Joker without Batman anyway, but my point remains: TV is limited in what characters it can use while the movies are not. This doesn’t make sense to me. If the universes are “separate” why does it matter if there’s a TV Batman and a movie Batman? Hell, at this point, there’s a TV Flash and a movie Flash; so why are we holding back on the characters that fans want to see?
DC has been schizophrenic about this for almost 15 years. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited were victims of a so-called “bat embargo” that gradually prevented the usage of Batman characters and villains on the shows for… reasons. In the linked article, it’s suggested that because of the Batman Begins reboot in 2004 DC was sensitive about confusing people with multiple versions of the same character. It’s also noted that because Aquaman appeared on Smallville (ugh), he couldn’t be used on Justice League anymore either. What is DC’s deal??
Anyway, I’ll drive myself insane trying to understand why DC is contradicting itself. But if you take anything from this post, it should be WATCH ARROW AND THE FLASH! They’re fantastic. You have to do it in chronological order, though. Watch the first two seasons of Arrow and then watch The Flash pilot and then trade off Arrow and The Flash episodes after that.