Friday, 23 May 2014

Post-mortem: ARROW - Season Two

Friday, 23 May 2014

Having recently completed its second season on The CW, I remain singularly impressed by ARROW. While it's clearly an ersatz Batman, it has enough to differentiate itself from the Caped Crusader's more famous milieu. Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) has more allies, isn't so downcast/disturbed, and unlike Bruce Wayne has a family who are alive and able to complicate his dual life. A plain-spoken elderly butler pales next to a Machiavellian middle-aged mother, and a petulant half-sister who bears grudges.

This gives Arrow an emotional texture that Batman struggles to achieve in its current 'big-budget movie' incarnations, and by the very nature of its long-form storytelling you can't help becoming invested in the characters. It helps that, these days, even a minnow like The CW can sink enough cash into a drama that its action sequences and stunts don't look cut-rate compared to what cinema-goers expect. There's an argument to be had that Arrow's sequences of hand-to-hand combat surpass anything Christopher Nolan shot in his Dark Knight trilogy.

I can't possibly recap the entirety of season 2 without this becoming a tedious article only fanboys would enjoy, but broadly speaking I though Arrow improved on its first year (which took until mid-season to figure its strengths out). Inevitably, it was a more confident show in its sophomore year and didn't fall prey to the burden of audience expectations. If a backlash is due, the third season is where the real danger lies—especially as the "Unthinkable" finale ended by drawing a veil on the island-set flashbacks and opened a door on Oliver in Hong Kong working for A.R.G.U.S boss Amanda Waller (Cynthia Addai-Robinson).

Arrow also likes to cherry-pick the best ideas from its genre and tweak them to appear fresh. The return of Oliver's erstwhile island mentor/friend Slade Wilson (Manu Benett) as this year's supervillain, intent on destroying Oliver's family and ruining his life, felt similar to Bane's arc of The Dark Knight Returns at times (especially when the Queen family business was hijacked, and Slade invaded The Arrow's secret lair), but Arrow found ways to improve on the formula. Unlike Bane, Slade had a complex prior relationship with Oliver and, on some level, was a more sympathetic character—fuelled not only by super-serum Mirakuru (which inflated his neurosis), but a deep grief for the loss of a lover he believes Oliver could have saved when given an impossible 'choose who dies' situation. (Itself a modern superhero trope, if you recall Spider-Man's 'MJ or the cable car?', or The Dark Knight's Joker and the two boats.)

Considering the sheer number of people rubbing shoulders on Arrow, I'm impressed by how well the writers service them all. I'm especially relieved that potentially tiresome characters, like Thea's (Willa Holland) Arrow-fan boyfriend Roy (Colton Haynes), became integral and gratifying parts of the larger story. And when a character outstays their usefulness or relevancy, this show isn't scared to kill them off—most memorably in a shocking scene when Slade ran Moira (Susanna Thompson) through with a blade, as payback for what happened to his own loved-one. Well, she was entangled in a mayoral election campaign storyline that was tough to care about. Her days were numbered.

Indeed, this show became so good as juggling characters that Arrow even found time for a short mid-season arc introducing another DC Comics superhero, The Flash (Grant Gustin), ahead of his own CW show next season. I haven't even mentioned all the ancillary characters who populate Starling City (lawyer/love-interest Laurel, acolyte cop Lance, creepy alderman Sebastian Blood), some recurring villains (one-eyed marksman Deadshot, assassin Nyssa al Ghul), and all the folk castaway Oliver met on the Pacific island. Only occasionally do a few people slip your mind after their introduction—like Isabel Rochev (Summer Glau), a business rival of the Queen family, who felt like a monumental waste of Glau's talents until she revealed herself as a leather-clad villain for the final three episodes. (Even if that face mask did make her look like a ninja duck from certain angles.)

Was it a home-run on every level? Certainly not. The island storyline started promisingly, but once Shado (Celina Jade) was killed and Slade blamed Oliver it became increasingly dawdling. I found myself blanking out by the time Russians and a submarine came into play; and beyond the occasional moment when you could see Oliver's past directly influencing his present, it was hard to care about anything that was going on.

I also wasn't too excited by some of the episodes fans were going nuts for this year, like the Suicide Squad. Green Arrow isn't a comic I'm very familiar with, and sometimes this season felt like the writers believed everyone would get a kick out of episodes where comic-book characters or plots would enter the mix—and, you know, I think they could have done more to make non-readers care. In particular, Deadshot is a character I want to find much cooler than I do, but the show seems to think his very presence is enough.

Looking ahead, I'm not sure the finale set up enough that I'm excited to see. John Diggle (David Ramsey) as an expectant father? Uh, okay. Oliver has a love-child he's unaware of? Could be good. Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) might die? Would we care? Laurel (Katie Cassidy) may take the mantel of her sister, to become Black Canary? I'd rather Caity Lotz stuck around. Thea taken under the wing of her villainous biological father, Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman)? Definitely cool. The flashbacks now focusing on Oliver in China? Could be just the tonic to make next season's B-stories feel worthwhile again.

What did you make of Arrow season 2?