Let’s begin by stating the obvious: I like superheroes. I like them enough that I read a lot of comics about them, and I regularly watch TV shows that are built around the superhero premise. The last decade has been a wonderful time for me, as one of my particular areas of fandom has gone mainstream, allowing me to talk about superheroes with people who in my teens would have looked at me askew and backed away slowly while I talked about what makes various heroes interesting and whose powerset is the coolest.
Okay, given that premise, let’s talk about the latest season of Arrow (I just finished watching it a couple weeks ago) and why it feels like it’s kind of falling apart as a superhero show.
First, let’s set aside all the inherent problems that come with a premise that involves a rich straight cis white guy taking the law into his own hands to fight crime. Batman’s a fascist and the Green Arrow clearly doesn’t understand the systemic underpinnings that promote the crime world he’s fighting against. Move past all that stuff and focus on what Arrow began as: a show about a guy with a very specific purpose who works as a vigilante in order to achieve that purpose. For all the flaws that I saw in Arrow Season 1, I have to at least commend it for doing something different with the typical superhero formula of having your protagonist be fundamentally reactionary. Oliver didn’t know what the deal was with the names in his dad’s book, but at least he had something he was working towards. That dynamic got lost in the shuffle as the show moved into Season 2 (which I think is objectively the best of the three seasons that have come out so far), but it was still a relatively compelling story since there were personal stakes motivating the conflict between Slade and Oliver that had been developed since the previous season.
Season 3, in contrast, is kind of aimless. Oliver and the rest of Team Arrow begin the season just doing their thing, catching bad guys, and the real plot doesn’t kick off until close to the middle of the season when the League of Assassins show up to figure out who murdered Sarah. From this point everything about the plot is reactionary, with no one acting towards a specific goal except for Ra’s Al Ghul and Malcolm Merlyn (and Malcolm’s motivations don’t become apparent until the very end of the finale). The heroes have pretty much no desires beyond clinging to the status quo in this season, and it really drags things down into what my friend James called “Dawson’s Creek territory.”
It’s important to remember that Arrow is on the CW, which has as part of its hour drama formula lots of relationship melodrama between absurdly beautiful people. That’s in the show’s DNA for better or worse, and when the heroes don’t have any specific goals in mind, it leaves the writers often falling back on the melodrama to try to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, that approach generally leads to very sulky characters who mope because they can’t have what they want and don’t even realize they’re not sure what they want in the first place (besides to be in a relationship with whomever they’re currently pining after). The fact that the happy ending for Season 3 involves Oliver and Felicity finally getting to be together and then driving off into the sunset away from the vigilante world highlights just how much the heroes have stopped caring about whatever nebulous mission they’ve been operating under ever since Malcolm’s Undertaking came and went at the end of Season 1.
On the one hand, I don’t necessarily mind this ending for Oliver and Felicity. If the writers were really daring enough to write out their two leads for next season because their character arcs have landed outside the purview of the show’s premise, I’d be cool with this ending and happily go on watching the rest of Team Arrow to see what new dynamics emerge in a team that consists primarily of the seasoned Diggle and two relative newcomers to crimefighting in Laurel and Thea. That’s unlikely to happen though, and some trauma will likely happen in the beginning of Season 4 that forces Oliver back into costume.
I just hope that when that does happen, it’ll come with a new goal that the heroes can work towards, because the concept of the reactionary hero is pretty played out.