I used to have a recurring argument with a reader of the site. I would always say that Arrow was blatantly Batman Begins: The TV Show, and he would always counter that it was more like Batman Begins merged with Brothers & Sisters, the ABC family drama Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim worked on before co-creating Arrow. I was focusing more on the seemingly countless story beats and plot points Arrow stole from Batman Begins in its first season, and he was more interested in the soapier family dynamics with the dysfunctional Queens, Merlins and deeply damaged Lances. The first season of the show was about Oliver becoming TV’s stand-in for Batman, but it was also about a mother who’d do anything to protect her children and a father who’d stop at nothing to avenge his wife. Even Oliver’s initial quest was tied to unresolved issues with his dead father.
Cut to today and I’ve been having an on-going debate with myself throughout the current season of Arrow: Is it really better this year, or have I just finally adjusted to the more comic book-y direction the show has taken in recent seasons and lowered my expectations? If it is better, in what ways has it improved over last season’s orgy of plot twists?
For example, the show’s most recent episode, “Haunted,” unequivocally introduced magic into the Arrow-verse. Sure, we’ve already seen the Hot Tub Resurrection Machine in Nanda Parbat, but “Haunted” gave us John Constantine chanting spells to break out of handcuffs and hunting down magical artifacts in the flashbacks and transporting Oliver and Laurel to some kind of hell dimension to save Sara’s soul in the present. I had no problem with any of it even though at one point the notion of magic becoming a thing on Arrow would have been laughable. Now, eh, I’m cool with it.
Is it because the show is simply better at expanding its universe at this point? Or have I finally accepted the fact that the gritty, Christopher Nolan-esque Batman Begins show is long gone? As Marc Guggenheim told MovieFone, “We started out with the clear intention of doing a grounded show: no superheroes, no metahumans, no powers, no magic. But then Warner Bros. and The CW said they really wanted us to spinoff Flash — so we said, ‘Okay, I guess we’re doing superpowers now!'” It was an awkward transition for Arrow, and maybe they’ve only just now moved past that.
Why? Because they’ve accepted that if your universe is going to get progressively more comic book-y you can’t keep taking it all so damn seriously. During that second season, it was hard not to laugh when everyone kept saying the word “Mirakuru” like it was the most normal thing in the world, e.g., fight drug dealers one week, Mirakuru-enhanced super soldiers the next, just like anyone else. No, it’s a stupid, made-up word that’s shorthand for “miracle drug.” Own that, and have fun with it.
During the third season, Felicity cried so much that even Emily Bett Rickards grew sick of it, and Oliver’s fear of someday ending up a corpse on a slab in the Arrow cave just like Sara never quite materialized into a compelling season-long story. The show seemed to go darker just to better differentiate itself from The Flash, making sure we totally understood that Oliver is the Christopher Nolan Batman and Barry is the Richard Donner Superman.
We were promised a lighter tone this season, though. Guggenheim told io9, “I think that one thing we all collectively understood was season 3 beginning with Sara’s death, because it’s the death of a major character on the show, it set a tone for the remainder of the season. And I’m not the least bit apologetic for that tone. I happen to like dark and I like the fact that Arrow is a pretty dark show particularly for a network show. That said, every year you want to mix things up and there was sort of a collective desire on all of our parts to try to inject a little bit more lightness into the show, a little bit more humor.”
The villain, Damien Darhk, is good with a one-liner. Felicity’s new workmate and future Team Arrow member Curtis (Echo Kellum) has fit into the show perfectly. Sure, it’s not exactly like it’s become a laugh riot, but Arrow is noticeably funnier, often in little ways on the periphery. Like, in “Haunted” while Oliver and Thea are training in Arrow cave 3.0 and debating his mayoral campaign policies (the campaign manager wants Oliver to distance himself from Laurel for PR reasons) Felicity interrupts them via the PA system, speaking in a comical, low scary voice, “This is your overlord, Felicity Smoak.” They, of course, both roll their eyes, Oliver quickly quipping that he might regret putting that PA system in the new Arrow cave. The moment segues into Felicity giving them the details on the villain-of-the-week, who turns out to be Sara Lance. It’s a significant little joke because it’s a reminder that Arrow is actually trying to have fun with itself this season, even upping the number of meta-jokes, like Felicity’s instant classic one-liner upon meeting John Constantine, “I’m just glad that the latest person from Oliver’s past is not another gorgeous woman.”
If the show is designed to mirror its protagonists’ current state of mind, then it’s not surprising to see things going so much lighter in the Arrow cave in “Haunted” because as Oliver stated in the final line of the season 3 finale he’s with Felicity and he’s finally happy. Regardless of whether or not you are an Olicity person, it’s hard to deny that the show seems to have let out a loud sigh of relief now that it no longer has to bend itself into will they, won’t they-shaped contortions for Oliver and his love interest of the moment. As the new co-showrunner Wendy Mericle told MovieFone before the season, the lighter tone is “coming from where Oliver is as a character. He’s happier now. He’s in love with Felicity. He’s no longer the post-traumatic stress disorder suffering soldier he was in the first three seasons.”
Go back and watch how big of a jerk Oliver was to Cisco, Caitlin and especially Barry in the Arrow half of the Arrow–Flash two-parter last season. He was like a spoiled kid forced to share his toys with his younger siblings. Then watch how he handled his confrontations with Thea and Laurel in “Haunted.” He’s still judgmental and hypocritical, but he’s not trying to exert his will over everyone. He even learns from his mistakes and actively tries to grow closer to his friends and family, even if still takes Felicity or Laurel to give him a nudge. At the start of “Haunted,” he was angry at Laurel and Thea for lying to him about what they did in Nanda Parbat, but by the end of the episode after talking everything out and hearing how Laurel and Thea view him he admits, “Thea, I don’t have the right to be mad at anyone for keeping secrets, but I’m sorry that I made you feel as though you had to.” They then hug it out, sharing a happy brother-sister bonding moment.
It feels so…so…like The Flash. Even the new Arrow cave has vaguely STAR Labs vibe to it:
And that’s what I hit upon when I was trying to pinpoint why I like Arrow season 4 so much better than Arrow season 3. It’s not just simply because it’s funnier and more adept at expanding the parameters of its universe. It’s also because it kind of seems like Marc Guggenheim and Wendy Mericle looked over at what Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg are doing on The Flash and wondered how they could incorporate some of that without totally changing the show.
The Flash is a family drama parading as a superhero show, or at least that’s the popular argument of the moment. In a recent piece about this over at Vanity Fair, Jesse L. Martin discussed the always tear-inducing Joe-ments (i.e., all of Joe’s heart-to-hearts with Barry and Iris) and argued, “I think it’s key to the success of our show. Yes, we have some of the best special effects on TV, that rival some movies, even. We have some of the best characters, but those little moments, they sew the whole thing together. If we didn’t have those little moments, if we didn’t have the actors that could do those little moments, I think our show would be dead in the water.”
The Flash is all about fathers and sons, and now Supergirl is all about mothers and daughters and sisters. Where does that leave Arrow? Well, lately Arrow seems like it’s trying to catch up. Prior to this season, there was always a Commission Gordon-Batman relationship between Captain Lance and Oliver, and if there was any hint of it also containing a surrogate father-surrogate son component it was subtle. Screw that noise. Oliver has almost flat out told Captain Lance this season, “You are my father figure now. Please give me the approval I so desperately crave from you.” And, actually, it’s kind of working for me so far.
Moreover, now that Thea is a member of Oliver’s crime-fighting family there’s been more brother-sister bonding for them, and Oliver’s lingering feud with his honorary brother Diggle has been squashed. Diggle’s quest to avenge his actual brother has been picked up off of the “discarded plot lines” pile and used to generate some more family drama now that he’s discovered his brother was possibly not the saint he remembered. Laurel stopped at nothing to bring Sara back, and rightly called Oliver out for not respecting her enough to tell her about the Lazarus Pit seven months ago. Plus, Malcolm will do anything he can to help Thea at this point.
Of course, this goes back to that recurring argument I used to have – Is this the Batman Begins show, or a family drama? The truth is that it has always been both, but the early goings of season four seem to have placed a Flash-like emphasis on family, be they blood-related or the workplace family that is Team Arrow, a group which now seems to include Captain Lance.
This might not be Flash mimicry. It might be a byproduct of the show reaching a point in its life cycle where there is no longer a need to care so much about secret identities. As Guggenheim told CraveOnline, “One thing we always say is, you know, obviously Oliver has a secret identity, and if we got more story mileage out of Oliver keeping his secret identity then it probably would have been a much better kept secret. We’ve certainly made jokes about it on the show, on camera. Oliver has acknowledged that far too many people know his secret identity. But for us it’s always a function of, what gives us more story? I think the main thing is that we’ve found we get a lot more story out of various people knowing Oliver’s identity, rather than keeping it a secret.” It might also be a result of Oliver finally becoming the heroic Green Arrow and striking a tone of hope in his bid to become mayor to save the city he loves.
Whatever the reason, Arrow’s fourth season seems like a looser show. We can assume via the flash forward that gloomy face Oliver will return after losing someone close to him , but the journey getting there is shaping up to be a far more enjoyable ride than usual.