Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Idiot Box: My Thoughts On Arrow

As I've pointed out before on this blog, I've never really been a huge DC comics fan. At the same time, I've always felt that the one thing DC had over Marvel was a greater degree of freedom in its capacity to adapt their comic properties into other mediums. That's not to say that I think the adaptations of DC properties are better (and obviously it would be hard to argue that with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, except possibly in one case), just that I think the general focus on iconic characters over memorable stories gives DC a wider range of options. While their movies of late outside of the Nolan Batman series have suffered for unrelated reasons owing mostly to the lack of a unifying vision, classic DC characters have flourished on television in a way that even Marvel has yet to be able to do (though we'll see how that changes with Joss Whedon's upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D. series)

When I say they have more options, what I mean is, they have the ability to maintain some sense of credibility with their characters whether they adapt the actual original stories associated with those characters or not. It's why you can do a show like Lois and Clark, re-casting Superman into a kitschy romantic comedy soap opera, and it can still essentially work, while something like the live action Spiderman show from the 70's where he's basically just Spider Cop, doesn't. You can't tell the Spiderman story without, well, telling the stories that we remember and love, but you can do Superman or Batman without ever doing Death of Superman or Knightfall, and as long as you get the characters right, it can be a good show. I think Smallville was sort of the apotheosis of this distinction, seeming to delight in reinventing and some might argue going against the canon of classic DC characters.

And yet, you can't really argue against it. Anytime the show did something that smacked the fans in the face and they wanted to scream betrayal, all you had to do was hold up any Silver Age Superman comic and point to things like Super Ventriloquism, or the issue where Superman becomes a hobo. And if they came back and said that none of that stuff is canon, than you could just remind them that since the new 52, neither is the post-Crisis shit they love. In short, DC's lack of consistency with its history and apparent lack of concern with canon can be an advantage when branching out and trying to target audiences that haven't necessarily read the comics. I thought the character of Doomsday for example was much more interesting in Smallville than he ever was in the comics, and my favorite DC character is The Question despite never reading a comic in which he is featured, solely on the strength of his appearances in Justice League Unlimited. And without the freedom of reinvention, we wouldn't have the Nolan Batman trilogy, or the tragically reimagined Mr. Freeze, or Harley Quinn, both products of the animated series.

And now we have Arrow, the latest live action DC TV show, and the closest thing we have to Smallville's successor. Obviously, given Smallville's epic ten season run, it's too early to say whether Arrow is an adequate replacement, and it would be unfair to try to hold it to that standard. But the question is, is there any reason to think this show has the potential to be what Smallville became - a platform to expand the universe of the central character and explore how other DC heroes and villains might be translated into a new context? We're now three episodes in as of this writing, and while I was initially optimistic based on the pilot, what I'm seeing so far is making me less and less inclined to stick with it.

For those who haven't seen the show and don't know much about the character, he's basically Batman crossed with Robin Hood, a trust fund kid returned to civilization after being lost on a deserted island for five years, where he was forced to learn how to be a bad ass crimefighter in order to survive. Now back home, he's been given a mission from his dead father to clean up the streets by shooting people with a bow and arrow. That's the show's take on it anyway, which is basically consistent with the depiction from season six on of Smallville, though I don't know enough about the character to know what does and doesn't match the comic version (other than the comicbook Green Arrow having a much manlier beard). I know the supporting cast is a lot different in this regard, with his sidekick now his baby sister, his superhero girlfriend now his non-superhero ex-girlfriend, and one of his minor enemies now his best friend, but its the kind of thing that you have to do when adapting something for television, expanding the cast so it's not just one guy brooding to himself in his secret lair.

Any Smallville fan will probably be hesitant to join in on this simply for the fact that its a new, original show, rather than a spin off of the same character from the established franchise, and I have to wonder why they didn't just do that. I can't imagine the actor turned them down, especially considering he's now on another, and I would guess far shittier CW show this season, and if they were going to continue the character anyway, it would seem to be a no-brainer. Maybe it was a budget thing, better to start fresh rather than carry over a ten year production, but ultimately it hurts the show, if only because you can't help but think of the potential of that already vast universe being explored through this character instead of starting from scratch and re-introducing him. And quite frankly, the new actor just isn't nearly as charismatic in the role. He's not terrible, but he's a little wooden, and seems to have trouble shifting back and forth between the fake playboy secret identity and the dark action hero as the show demands him to. He's good in the action scenes, and pulls off the look of a nighttime crimefighter, but the rest leaves much to be desired.

The set up is intriguing enough, with this Green Arrow working from a list of names of all the people who have wronged his city, while flashbacks reveal a more complex history of his time on the island beyond simple survival, and a growing conspiracy emerges concerning the circumstances surrounding the boat crash that put him there, and so far its just enough to keep me interested. The problem is, the week to week stories just aren't nearly as engrossing, and I'm skeptical about how far they can go with it. It seems to me that there are only so many ways you can tell this modern day Robin Hood tale of rich guys getting their comeuppance before you just start repeating yourself. It would be different if, like Smallville's Kryptonite infected supervillains, there was some common theme or source uniting all the villains he's going to be facing each week, but as it stands, I don't see where they're going to go with it.

Also, the Green Arrow's personal story is the only one that is even remotely interesting to me, and even then only slightly. The rest of the cast aren't bad, but they just feel like stock TV characters surrounding a central hero, only there to complicate his life rather than having any independent personality or characterization on their own. The rebellious, drug addicted teenage sister, the bitter but forgiving ex-girlfriend, the grizzled cop out for revenge, all seem like automatic placeholders whose lives I don't care about except to the extent that they relate to the main character. Thomas Merlin's comic relief best friend is at least somewhat charming and isn't as annoying as characters like him tend to be on shows like this, and the growing friendship between Oliver Queen and his bodyguard Dig is somewhat fun to watch, and by the end of episode three shows enough promise to at least bring me back next week, but overall, the ensemble kinda falls flat.

I think there's probably just enough good in this show to justify sticking with it at least until the end of the season, but it will need to establish a more defined path if it is going to retain my interest. I need more of a reason to keep watching than what I'm getting. Going back to the Smallville example one last time, I think this show would benefit greatly from mining the DC universe a bit more than it seems to want to. The death knell for this show will be if our hero is just busting up random rich guys or criminals every week that we have no reason to care about. From what I understand, the creators are establishing their own rule similar to the No Tights, No Flights rule, where they are going to try not to introduce any superpowers or supernatural elements to the show. I'm not sure if this is wise, but regardless, there are a lot of non-powered characters in the DC universe to work with, or characters whose powers can be tweaked to fit a more gritty, realistic tone. I brought up The Question before, and I think he'd be a perfect foil for the Green Arrow in a recurring capacity, for instance. Or if they do decide they want to make his sister his sidekick Speedy, or his girlfriend a non-powered version of Black Canary, fine, just do it sooner rather than later. Don't get bogged down in combating drug smugglers and hit men when you have a wealth of more interesting bad guys and potential allies all ready to choose from.

And stop with the narration already. Every episode starts with this voice over recap of his mission and his dedication to cleaning up the streets and his need to hide his identity and all this other crap that we already know, or will easily learn in the coming episode. Its unnecessary and really cheesy to listen to, setting a tone that distracts from any given episode.

Yeah, I looked for an image of narration in Google.

Anyway, personally, I'm gonna at least give it the rest of this season and decide from there. If you haven't seen it yet, I'm pretty sure the previous episodes are available on Hulu, and it's easy enough to jump in. Not much has happened so far that would get you lost. If you liked Smallville, thought you'd like Smallville, or just enjoy this kind of costumed vigilante story (all you fans of Night Man, I'm talking to you), then I'd suggest at least giving the pilot a chance to see if it meets your threshold for entertainment. Otherwise, probably no reason to bother. There's not much else for the more casual viewer.

This happened twice. Fucking twice!
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