Review by C.J. Bunce
The CW Network’s Arrow series premiered this Wednesday, and for those who missed my review of the pilot episode originally published here July 17, 2012, I am reprinting it here updated with my additional comments after seeing a second showing all these months later. Spoilers!
The CW previewed the entire pilot for the series on Comic-Con Wednesday and Friday this year to thousands of attendees. The auditorium erupted in cheers to several scenes in the series opener, starting some worthy buzz for this newest DC Comics Justice League superhero to hit the small screen. Was it good? Absolutely. And even for a big fan of the traditional character’s story, updates made for TV were well thought out and did little to detract from the core of what makes Green Arrow the unique character that has survived as a key comic book character for 70 years. The pilot deftly managed to alter far less of the source material than, for example, the Green Lantern movie released in 2011, and in doing so created a believable, refreshing story with appropriate nods to the past, and one that promises to survive, should it find its fan base. On second viewing this past Wednesday, my thoughts haven’t changed one bit. If you are a fan of superheroes or read comic books at all, Arrow is the one series you should be watching.
Oliver Queen, played by Stephen Amell, is son of one of Starling City’s preeminent business magnates and head of Queen Industries, Robert Queen (played by Jamey Sheridan). Oliver was on a yacht with his father and cheating below deck on his girlfriend Dinah “Laurel” Lance (a legal aid lawyer played by Katie Cassidy) with Laurel’s impressionable younger sister. A surprise storm sinks the craft, the sister is sucked into the sea and drowns and Oliver, his dad, and a crewmember are left floating in a lifeboat. Before running out of food Oliver’s dad kills the crewmember and himself to give Oliver a chance at survival. All of this backstory is interspersed throughout the episode, building up to the revelation that the father and crewmember were dead by his father’s hand. Oliver stays on the island five years until rescued by natives of another island sailing by. By then he has become a sort of Grizzly Adams, hairy, physically strong and singularly adept at survival, including impressively wielding a bow and arrow.
When he returns home to Starling City, his mother, played by Susanna Thompson, is now married to his father’s former business partner and this does not sit well with Oliver. Despite his numerous apologies, Laurel Lance has no place in her life for Oliver and blames Oliver for her sister’s death. Oliver has his own sister, Thea (Willa Holland) a misguided youth tempted by parties and the like, and Oliver immediately returns to his role as big brother, irking the girl. In one of the best updates to the traditional Green Arrow story, Oliver’s nickname for the sister is Speedy. Green Arrow fans will know Speedy as the long-time sidekick of Green Arrow. In the Phil Hester, Ande Parks, and Kevin Smith run of the Green Arrow comic book, a wayward girl with HIV named Mia was taken under Oliver’s wing, and she became Speedy, so there is some history with a female Speedy (in my view the best incarnation of his sidekick). Hopefully the series will survive long enough for this to take on the Speedy story as its own fleshed-out subplot. The first Speedy had drug issues, and you could see that history seeping into his sister’s character arc.
Laurel has been friends with Oliver’s best friend Tommy, played by Colin Donnell, since Oliver was presumed dead. Tommy immediately steps back into a supportive role for his friend. Another wealthy late-twenty-something guy like Oliver, Tommy surprisingly fit in well in the pilot. A tad smarmy, he is the only one to really celebrate Oliver’s return and give him the “welcome home” party he deserves. In his party scenes we see Oliver’s only similarity to Batman’s Bruce Wayne, a little window into the excesses shown by Christian Bale in his stints as the the caped crusader that were echoed in the traditional Oliver Queen. Despite that slight similarity, series writers/creators Andrew Kreisberg and Marc Guggenheim have shown Oliver to be a completely different superhero. And this is best highlighted when Oliver begins cleaning up the streets of his former home, donning a green suede hooded outfit like Robin Hood. The city is riddled with crime and nasty masked characters who try to kidnap Oliver, only for Oliver to kill them off one by one. A superhero that kills is definitely against mainstream norms but it also has history with this character, most recently in the superb Justice League Cry for Justice mini-series, which left Oliver murdering the villain Prometheus in part for maiming the original Speedy, now called Red Arrow.
How often have you watched Batman let the Joker live after committing horrible crimes and wondered why he didn’t just end the Joker once and for all? After Joker killed the second Robin (Jason Todd) in A Death in the Family? After the Joker assaulted Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) and left her disabled in The Killing Joke? It’s long overdue that the vigilantism that is the undercurrent of both Batman and Green Arrow comes through in a story. It didn’t occur in the original Flash TV series, in any Superman movie or in the Green Lantern movie. So Arrow has introduced to an element never before seen in a major DC Comics character on film and it’s about time. And Amell, in his Comic-Con panel this past July, proved that he understands his character, saying, “You couldn’t expect that Oliver was going to undertake something so monumental without there being collateral damage. You don’t have to agree with his tactics, but you should respect what he’s trying to do.”
The pilot set up a web of subplots that can be handled throughout the first season. Oliver’s mother seems to be behind his kidnapping upon his return. Why? Who is she working with? How does it relate to some secret Oliver’s father may have disclosed to him on the yacht? Will Diggle be a friend to Oliver or spy for his mother?
British actor and genre favorite Paul Blackthorne (The Dresden Files) plays his American accent here as Detective Quentin Lance, Laurel’s father and an angry cop investigating the crime element in the city as well as trying to track the new hooded vigilante killing off local crimelords and their lackeys. He also can’t move beyond his younger daughter’s death these five years later. Adding further difficulty to Oliver’s covert superhero doings, after the botched kidnapping, Oliver’s mother hires a full-time bodyguard named John Diggle (played by David Ramsey) to accompany Oliver everywhere. Initially easily ditched by Oliver, Diggle learns quickly, giving Oliver an extra obstacle to fulfilling his goal of secretly cleaning up the city. Like Green Arrow in his history of DC Comics stories, his alias is not so expertly hidden and Tommy suspects that it is Oliver who is the new hooded vigilante–yet another future story element to investigate. The pilot also included a few throwaway characters that probably shouldn’t survive the pilot–typical stereotypes that you’d stuff into a pilot as filler, including Roger R. Cross as Detective Hilton and Brian Markinson as villain Adam Hunt. Does Detective Lance need a partner? If there was a downside to the pilot it was too many second tier characters.
Diehard fans of any character or story will always wrestle with any change or update to a character when translated from its original source material. Changes like updating Star City to Starling City actually help to pull the character from the comic book world into the real world, although my initial reaction was “why change that?” or “why not just place him in Seattle where he lived for decades as written by Mike Grell?” I asked Neal Adams at Comic-Con to give me his take on the new series, and he was just not interested. Adams, along with Denny O’Neil, created the modern, cocky and cool Oliver Queen at the tail end of the 1960s. The biggest changes to Green Arrow later came from Mike Grell, who really amplified the role of Dinah Lance into Oliver’s story, and made Green Arrow the ultimate urban hunter. I think Grell would at least like the direction this new Oliver Queen appears to be heading. Do I wish this was a scene for scene adaptation of Grell’s Longbow Hunters series or his other stories? You bet. But since nothing ever matches what you’d envision, this at least gets Green Arrow a long overdue screen adaptation (the rest of the key seven Justice League members: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, and Green Lantern have had at least their own animated series over the years), keeps Black Canary as his love interest, and features Ollie showing his stuff as urban archer. If the writers can keep the series interesting and fresh, people will watch and we can see some expanded stories if the series will last. When I look at series like Supernatural and Smallville, whose early episodes seemed to me to be very thin, it should be a no-brainer for CW to make this series into something just as successful. Amell said in July he hopes it makes it ten years. Wishful thinking.
During the pilot Amell’s voice seemed very familiar and I had to look away to figure out who I was hearing. He sounds a lot like a young, cocky Tom Cruise, from around the time of Top Gun. Amell’s command of the character comes through in his voiceovers and Cruise’s early “immature jerk” roles seem to be reflected albeit not intentionally in Amell’s performance as the cocky side of Oliver. I know many don’t like voiceovers, but I am one who prefers the Harrison Ford voiceover Blade Runner to the edited version, so I thought the voiceover here was also a good touch. Amell sounds like he is inside Oliver’s head, both in voice delivery and in the word choice drafted by the writers.
The series features an older cast than Smallville, less teen soap opera, less typical CW, and more adult drama, if maybe at the younger end of the adult set. Writer Andrew Kreisberg called the show a crime drama, a family drama and a romance. But even with that age block the actors appeared youthfully ambitious and eager.
A key scene shows Amell doing a nearly impossible feat arm-climbing a series of workout bars. Amell said no CGI was used, and he, indeed, did these scenes on his own. One of the writers at Comic-Con said that that was “something you won’t see in Batman.”
Kelly Hu will be guest starring in next week’s episode as the DC villain, China White, first appearing in the 2007 mini-series Green Arrow: Year One. As I had speculated this past February here, the writers at acknowledged at Comic-Con relying heavily on the modern origin story in Green Arrow: Year One, illustrated by the artist known as Jock. Not a classic Green Arrow story by any means, it did seem to serve as backdrop for at least the pilot episode. Deathstroke was disclosed as another villain we can look for in the series. The writers advised watching each episode for “Easter eggs,” like this Deathstroke mask found in the pilot:
All said, I had trepidations about taking my favorite character into his own series, but I am quite pleased so far and am looking forward to watching the next episode in the Fall CW lineup. CW is geering up with good genre shows, including a remake of the 1980s Beauty and the Beast series starring Smallville and Chuck actresss Kristin Kruik. A review of the pilot for that series is coming soon to borg.com.