The Season Finales for Flash and Arrow Were… Not Good.

DC’s television properties are generally not very good shows.  I’ve been watching Arrow and The Flash in real time for two seasons now, and I’ve never made bones about the fact that I think Arrow is a remarkably shallow show with an underdeveloped ideology that apes liberal values while promoting things like the efficacy of torture and devaluing its women charactersThe Flash honestly isn’t much better, but I’ve always been willing to give it a pass simply because it’s a show that isn’t ashamed of its identity as a goofy superhero series.  The CW’s newest entry in the DC universe, Legends of Tomorrow, is more in the vein of The Flash than Arrow thankfully (with a huge heaping of Doctor Who for good measure, though I’m pretty neutral on that series), but after watching its inaugural season I’m not sure how I feel about it long term; the early episodes had a lot of promise, but I’m kind of apathetic about the ending.

Getting into more specifics, let’s look at The Flash and Arrow in turn, because I thought they both had pretty flawed finales, but for surprisingly different reasons.  What I realized as I was wrapping up the second season of The Flash is that while you have all the fun parallel universe stuff going on (that stuff’s my jam; I am a pretty committed X-Men fan after all), the basic structure of the season was practically identical to the first season.  The Flash is confronted with a rival speedster who’s not afraid to do all the terrifying things you expect someone with super speed and poorly developed morals to do.  This rival’s identity is unknown, but he’s clearly bad news, and so Barry and his crew do everything they can to help Barry get fast enough to beat said rival.  Then, three quarters through the season, it’s revealed that the rival speedster’s identity is actually that of Barry’s mentor figure, and so they have one final showdown that’s basically about who can run faster.

This structure’s kind of infuriating because the early part of Season 2 of The Flash did so much to point the audience towards a different story arc.  There was even an episode early on that dealt with Barry’s anxiety over trusting a new mentor after the last one turned out to be a supervillain; now that it’s happened twice, Barry better have a severe complex next season, or the writers are seriously dropping the ball on this thread.  Anyhow, the point is that you can only feint and do the same plot so many times in a row before the audience is going to notice.  I know there are some challenges in coming up with an arc villain who is a credible threat to the Flash without just making them another speedster, but it’s superhero fiction; the writers can come up with something that’s plausible enough with some generous hand waving.The Flash Intertitle.png

On the subject of the finale itself, everything simply felt poorly motivated all around.  Zoom reveals that he wants to race Barry because he plans on using the energy from their running to power a multiversal bomb, which is perfectly fine as a motivation for a nihilist villain; what’s weird is that Barry is completely invested in going along with this idea simply because Zoom’s threatening to kill all his friends and family (the power of this threat isn’t necessarily unrealistic; the emotional component of having your loved ones personally killed versus them being annihilated along with everyone else shouldn’t be underestimated, even if a simple utilitarian examination of the problem renders the threat empty).  Barry’s been doing some really stupid stuff all season, so I’m willing to accept that it’s just part of his character that he sucks at thinking through consequences.  With that factor, it makes sense that his entire team would agree to lock him up in their illegal prison for metahumans (“Barry, you don’t make good decisions when you’re upset; take a time out.”).  What doesn’t make sense is why after everything goes south after the crew tries to stop Zoom without Barry’s help, they just let Barry go on with his original plan to do exactly what Zoom wants.  Really, if Barry’s as fast as he’s supposed to be (and it seemed like the show had established pretty firmly that Barry was fast enough to beat Zoom after he got his Speed Force upgrade) then there’s nothing to explain how things play out.  Yeah, Zoom has Joe hostage, but that doesn’t mean Barry can’t get Joe to safety (for that matter, the fact that Barry had no opportunity to save Henry Allen is pretty sloppy too).

Now, setting all that stuff aside (like I said, The Flash is not a pretentious show, so I’m willing to cut it some slack as long as it’s entertaining), the really infuriating thing about the Flash finale is that it ends by setting up Flashpoint as the primary plotline for next season.  Now, I’m cool with the time travel and parallel universe stuff.  I’m just not sold on the idea that The Flash has to delve into all the dark stuff surrounding Barry’s mother’s murder.  I like this show because for all its melodrama trappings it’s a relatively lighthearted series.  There’s peril, but mostly we’re watching the characters have fun being superheroes (my favorite moment of the series is still a scene from the first season where Barry and Joe are cracking up over the fact they can have fresh pizza from Coast City any time they want because of Barry’s speed); veering off into Barry’s traumatic past feels like a turn towards making the show go dark, and I just don’t think that’s the right direction.

Speaking of things that shouldn’t be so dark, let’s talk about Arrow now.  I have to say up front that this was not my favorite season of Arrow.  I thought the first season was goofy and overwrought, but Seasons 2 and 3 were plenty entertaining.  Season 4 just felt really aimless in comparison.  I think that thematically there were a lot of struggles to redefine Arrow as belonging to the same universe as Flash, which I’m guessing is the more popular of the two shows at this point.  The Flash is silly, and it’s filled with patently absurd pseudoscience, but it’s firmly positioned as a sci-fi superhero show; Arrow by contrast was always just an action show where the heroes wear colorful costumes but don’t actually do anything superhuman.  This season, they tried to embrace their comic book roots more firmly, but instead of upping the absurdity with extraordinary human stuff (there’s a strong tradition of superheroes who are just regular humans in peak physical condition with a bunch of gadgets) they decided to go for a weird mystical thing where the key to beating the villain, who’s basically a D&D wizard in a nice suit, is embracing some metaphysical stuff about hope as an actual force to counteract his magic.  It dovetails with the season’s major themes of hope versus doubt and a person’s ability to find redemption, but the end result just feels really clumsy to me.Arrow (TV series)

Now here’s where my opinion on the two finales diverges.  Where I think the Flash finale was perfectly entertaining but riddled with character problems that strain plausibility, I was fully on board with all the decisions that all the characters were making in Arrow.  Oliver doubts his ability to beat Damien Darhk until he has an eleventh hour epiphany about the importance of trusting your friends to support you; this makes perfect sense in the context of the show and what the writers have been doing all season with Oliver’s character arc.  I’m even cool with the ending resolution that Digg and Thea decide to quit vigilantism so they can get their heads straight after they made some very questionable decisions this season; all the character stuff makes total sense to me.  I just found that I didn’t care about anything that was happening.  The Arrow finale is supposed to be full of tension and all these moments for emotional highs with thousands of nuclear missiles flying through the air and Oliver making a couple of stirring speeches to rally Star City around both his personas in the contexts where they’re most needed.  On paper it’s all very textbook, and I don’t have an issue with any of it.  On the screen… well… I couldn’t get excited about any of it.  Part of that might be my own viewer’s fatigue (it’s been a long time since I followed any television series in real time, and I kind of hate it, but it’s the only way to stay current on CW shows without paying extra to see them), but I think there’s also just something about this most recent season of Arrow that’s been off.  Also, and this seems like a really obvious criticism, but the flashback plot of Season 4 was really boring on pretty much every level (there’s no narrative tension left when you know that Oliver will get some interesting scars but otherwise he’ll be fine, and his pretty female companion of the season will end up dying tragically), so that was a quarter of every episode that I just wasn’t invested in.

I know there’s a three month break now, but I’m already dreading jumping into next season for all these shows.  The CW’s announced it plans on doing a four-way crossover event with The Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, and now Supergirl, which is changing networks (I’ve not even tried to keep up with Supergirl this season; I had hoped I could catch up later, but since it’s going to CW I’m doubtful the first season will be made easily available to binge now).  Like I’ve already mentioned, I really don’t like having to schedule out time each week to watch television, and the idea of having to set aside four hours each week strikes me as super daunting (this isn’t a communal activity that I do with friends, so it’s one of the most introverted pastimes I have; that makes it hard to prioritize).  I expect I’m probably going to spend some time this summer thinking about whether I really enjoy these shows enough to continue committing to them.

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Arrow Has a Violence Against Women Problem

This post discusses spoilers from the April 6, 2016 episode of Arrow, “Eleven fifty-nine.”

Despite my recent disdain for the Batman v Superman movie, one piece of DC’s media empire that I actually quite enjoy is its series of live action television shows.  I’ve been a regular viewer of both Arrow and The Flash for the last two years (I caught Arrow‘s first two seasons on Netflix), and I’ve also been keeping up with DC’s Legends of Tomorrow this season.  It’s a little exhausting maintaining a regular viewing schedule along with all my other responsibilities (the funny thing about committing to online viewing is that having so much flexibility in when you can watch recent TV means that it often drops lower on the priority list in comparison to other things that need to be done more immediately; mid-season breaks don’t help either), but I’ve enjoyed all the series enough to stick with them.  Among the three Arrowverse shows, Flash and Legends are definitely the two that I prefer; Arrow‘s always been a show that’s nominally about the dark, gritty side of being a costumed hero (while still serving the CW’s regular mandates that everyone on the show lead beautiful, glamorous lives), and while there’s a place for such things, it’s a lot more of a drag than its spinoffs which fully embrace the idea that superheroes should be fun.

Still, Arrow has its moments, so I continue to watch it.  Since I’ve been on spring break (and I spent twelve hours in an airport the other day; long story), I’ve had time to get all caught up, which means that I got to see the most recent episode of Arrow, “Eleven Fifty-Nine” this morning instead of having to squeeze it in sometime later this week after all the conversation about it’s passed.

Now, to give some context here, it’s important to know that in the fourth season of Arrow the show has been regularly teasing that one of its main characters was going to be killed off.  We had a fake out at the mid-season finale when Felicity, Oliver’s long time love interest, was paralyzed after their limousine was shot up by the henchmen of the season’s Big Bad, Damien Darhk.  I didn’t believe Felicity would really die (she’s perhaps Arrow‘s most popular character), but when they revealed that the attack left her paraplegic I did roll my eyes.  Felicity’s the closest analog the Arrowverse has to DC’s Barbara Gordon as Oracle, and actually putting her in a wheelchair struck me as a rather facile bit of fanservice (complete with problematic injury as a result of being collateral damage in the feud between a couple of guys!).  When they reversed the paralysis a scant few episodes later I rolled my eyes again, because God forbid you actually try to incorporate a character with a visible disability in a permanent way on a CW show.

Anyway, that’s a tangent.

Sorry, Laurel. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

The point is that Felicity’s shooting was a fake out.  I figured it was much more likely that they’d go with killing off John Diggle, Oliver’s best friend, because he’s a character who as far as I know was created specifically for the show without a comics analog.  The introduction of Curtis Holt (who will in all probability eventually become the DC hero Mister Terrific) struck me as a clincher, because I am a cynic about television and the capacity of a mainstream show to cast multiple Black actors as series regulars whose characters aren’t already related (no kidding, Agents of SHIELD did this very thing in season 2 when it killed off one Black character shortly after another one had been introduced).  For all the problems that I anticipated from making such a move, I figured it was probably the safest one to go for.  The only other unobjectionable choice I could see would have been Quentin Lance, who every season just begs to be killed by virtue of being the “old” unconventional looking guy.  I figured that Thea, Oliver’s sister, had already been near-killed the previous season, and Laurel Lance, who’s the Black Canary, a hero with a long history that’s deeply intertwined with Green Arrow, wouldn’t be a possibility.

Of course, I was totally wrong about that last one, since “Eleven Fifty-Nine” ends with Laurel dying in the hospital after she’s critically injured by Damien Darhk.  It’s a pretty affecting ending for what it is, but that doesn’t change the fact that it establishes a really consistent pattern on Arrow.

I break it down like this: In the four season history of the show only three series regular characters have been killed off.  Tommy Merlyn, Oliver’s childhood best friend, dies at the end of the first season; Sara Lance, the Arrowverse‘s original Black Canary, dies at the start of season three; and Laurel Lance dies in the most recent episode.  In addition to those three characters, the only other regular character to leave the show is Roy Harper, who fakes his death and assumes a new identity.  That’s an average turnover of one major character a season, and by that metric it doesn’t look so bad; a show about gritty vigilantism is going to have its share of dead characters.  Heck, Sara’s death got reversed in this season so that she could be a regular character on Legends of Tomorrow.

But when you factor in other ways characters have been victims of violence on the show, it gets worse.  In a series with an average of seven principle actors per season, the gender split is typically 4:3 male:female.  Among those principles, every major female character has been killed or maimed, often directly by a major villain.  In the third season, Thea was stabbed in the abdomen by Ra’s Al Ghul and would have died if not for mystical intervention.  Sara was shot to death by Thea under the control of Malcolm Merlyn.  Laurel, the most recent casualty, was also stabbed in the abdomen, this time by Damien Darhk.  Felicity isn’t shot up close and personal like the others, but she is hurt as a matter of course in the feud between Oliver and Darhk, just like Thea’s hurt so Ra’s can send a message to Oliver, and Laurel is killed to make Quentin pay for standing up against Darhk.  All of these incidents happen with the primary motive of shocking the audience and raising the stakes for the conflict between male heroes and villains.  We don’t get the same sort of scenarios in reverse on Arrow (by contrast, The Flash has killed off guys to give Caitlyn Snow sad feels like four times now; three of them happened to be the same guy which is kind of hilarious, and highlights just how differently we view the deaths of male and female characters).

I’ve been trying to figure out what this pattern of casually maiming and killing women for the sake of the male characters on Arrow says about the show.  I know that when you fully examine all the ways violence is employed in it, Arrow reveals itself as a pretty shallow series.  We’re watching for the melodrama and the action (Arrow continues to have very good action), but it would still be nice if there were more time spent grappling with the fact that Oliver is a hero who regularly severely injures his enemies and employs torture as a valid form of intelligence gathering (there was one episode in the third season that actually tried to question this habit of Oliver’s, but it hasn’t been revisited in a serious way); that season four has thematically been about Oliver’s struggle to embrace a softer, lighter version of vigilantism as the Green Arrow in the face of Damien Darhk’s pretty ubiquitous corruption of Star City only highlights how often the show misses opportunities to tackle genuinely difficult subjects instead of just making Oliver feel bad because he’s bad at adulting.

And for all this, I know I’m going to keep watching.

Thoughts on Season 3 of Arrow

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.

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I do like the title card for this season a lot more though. (Image credit: Arrow & The Flash Wiki)

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.

There’s A Lot of Superhero Television These Days

Back in the early ’00s when the first X-Men movie came out, I was ecstatic.  I had really been into the X-Men for years at that point (like many children of the ’90s, I discovered an abiding love for them after watching the cartoon), and a live action movie was pretty much the best thing that could have happened in my nerdy world.  It’s important to remember that this was back before superheroes had proven themselves as a viable subject for live action cinema; the previous successful comic book adaptation had been Blade, which had the advantage of being grounded in supernatural horror, which audiences were a little more inclined to take seriously than the four-color world of conventional superheroes.  I was hungry to see more of what film studios could do with superheroes, so I was a pretty voracious consumer of every comic book adaptation of the early ’00s (my greatest claim to shame is the fact that I owned a copy of Daredevil and thought it was objectively a good movie; the only defense I can offer is that it’s clinically proven that teenagers have the worst taste in everything).  This was a rare breed of cinema, and I wanted to drink it all in, just in case the fad passed and there was never another superhero movie beyond Spider-Man 2 (fortunately, by the time Spider-Man 3 came out we had all figured out that Hollywood was going to bleed superheroes dry before moving on to something else, so I gradually learned to have more discerning tastes).

Flash forward a decade, and now we not only have two or three superhero movies coming out every year, but we also have a full range of television shows to choose from as well.  You can indulge yourself in capes and cowls on a weekly basis instead of just as an annual event.

It’s a good time to be a comic book nerd.  The fact that I sometimes still have trouble shaking that nagging feeling that this really is just a pop culture fad that’s going to run its course in a year (particularly on the television front) means that I’m having flashbacks of my youth when I wanted to see everything because it might be all we get.

I have never claimed that being a genre fan is an entirely rational experience.

Of course, being a good deal older this time around, I do try to engage with the media that I’m consuming and evaluate what’s good and what’s problematic.  Enjoying something doesn’t mean you can’t question its presentation.  So in that vein, here’s a (very brief) rundown of my thoughts on the superhero series I’ve been watching on a regular basis for the past few months.Arrow Logo.png

Arrow – I’ve written a few times in the past about my thoughts on Arrow, and much of my earlier assessment still stands.  Arrow is a show about a very rich guy who feels guilty about his unearned privilege and decides to make himself feel better about that privilege by becoming a vigilante who targets white collar criminals.  The later seasons have given in to slight mission creep as the conflicts have shifted towards fighting organized crime (which often fails to explore the implications of a justice system that’s focused only on punishing crime instead of trying to correct the circumstances that lead to the crime in the first place), but the general attitude of the show is still very engaging.  As someone who has never been a major DC Comics fan (aside from the various adaptations of Batman that have popped up over the years), I’m surprised with how much I enjoy watching this series, though I’d chalk that up to it being a generally good action-drama rather than just being a superhero show.TheFLASHlogo.png

The Flash – This show’s still in its first season, and in some ways it’s still incredibly goofy (I want to giggle whenever I see Grant Gustin in the Flash costume, just because he looks so gangly in it; of course, then I think that he actually looks like he has a runner’s body, and I get over my giggles because a hero who’s all about moving fast probably shouldn’t look that buff anyway), but I have to say I’ve been taken with it from the first episode.  If Arrow is a show that’s trying to explore the pathos of vigilantism, Flash is a show that’s trying to explore how much fun it would be to be a superhero.  The two shows inhabit a shared universe, and I think that connective tissue went a long way towards helping me get into Flash.  One thing I particularly love about it is the cast’s diversity.  Of the show’s seven principle actors, three are people of color, and interracial romances are treated as nothing unusual (I know it’s weird to be praising something like this in 2015, but I’m having trouble thinking of other shows that have diverse enough casts to even make such a plot possible).Agents of SHIELD logo

Agents of SHIELD – I’m playing catch up on season 1 at the moment, so I haven’t seen very much, but generally I like it.  Though the main cast is a little white-washed (aside from Ming-Na Wen), the half dozen episodes I’ve seen do a good job of integrating people of color into the stories so that they’re significant players instead of just background.  Of course, this show has Joss Whedon as a guiding influence, so it does slightly better in the realm of gender representation (the six principles are evenly split between men and women, and there’s an even distribution of skills across both sexes).  If they introduce a recurring trans character who’s not a villainous stereotype, then I’ll be pretty happy with the casting.  Plotwise, I know that there’s apparently some drag in the first season as they spend way too long circling the reveal that the shadow agency they keep running into is HYDRA and that it’s infiltrated SHIELD (thanks Captain America: The Winter Soldier!); I’m hoping that because I’m bingeing the season it won’t feel so aggravating for me.AgentCARTER.png

Agent Carter – I’ve only seen the pilot episode at this point, and generally I liked it.  My biggest complaint at this point is probably reflected in my assessment of the other shows that I’ve been watching: this show is white.  Yes, it’s doing some great things depicting an independent woman who’s allowed to be competent at her very dangerous job, but it’s also running into the period piece pitfall of assuming people of color didn’t do anything in the 1940s.  There was a nice bit in the pilot where they made the owner of a swanky nightclub that Carter investigates for fencing one of Howard Stark’s inventions a black man, but then they killed him off once his scene was over.  I was disappointed that he didn’t turn into a recurring character (and from what I hear, he’s the last black person you see until episode 4, so that’s not very encouraging).  I’m hoping for great things from Agent Carter, but I worry it’s going to be end up disappointing as it falls into the trap of pitting one axis of feminism against another.

Alright, I Finished Arrow Season 2

So, the last time I mentioned Arrow I kind of went on a bit of a rant about how the show plays in a white liberal fantasy world where all the privileged people are doing pretty much everything related to helping out the community (which is conveniently circumscribed to be just Starling City, because in the DC universe the only real world locations we can use are outside the United States).

This is a post where I literally just watched the last episode of the season a few hours ago, so my thoughts on the series as a whole are still a little scattered, so bear with me.

For anyone who might be wondering, my opinion of the show kind of followed the trajectory of “The first few episodes really suck; hey, this is getting pretty interesting; that’s totally absurd but it somehow works; I must finish this show.”  If you haven’t seen it yet, then just trust me that it’s a very entertaining superhero serial with a really rough start.  By the time I got to the end of Season 2 I stopped obsessing over the fact that everyone on the show is improbably beautiful regardless of their background (as an example, Roy Harper, who is supposed to be a guy who grew up in Starling City’s slums and has a checkered past before becoming an ascended Arrow fanboy, is referred to repeatedly as “Abercrombie” because even the writers can’t resist poking fun at their cast’s looks).  One glaring exception (to my preoccupation with the cast’s appearance) is Amanda Waller, who heads ARGUS, the DC equivalent of Marvel’s SHIELD.  In the comics, Waller is an overweight black woman (or at least, she was before the New 52 reboot that DC did a couple years ago), and she is not someone to be crossed.  On Arrow, she retains her comics personality, employing methods for dealing with problems that easily fall into morally gray areas compared to the show’s heroes, but now she’s thin and pretty and wears those expensive high heels that have the red soles.  Waller’s makeover, while consistent with the current comics continuity, is really problematic because it narrows down the show’s diversity for reasons that are purely cosmetic (even if we accept that it’s for consistency with the comics, that just shifts the problem over to DC for deciding to redesign a female character who was established as being interesting for more than her appearance).

Waller’s treatment is a minor thing, but it does lead into another complaint that I have about the show overall.  The female characters are generally well written (for a primetime superhero drama), but a few too many times it felt to me that the writers were just giving them nonsensical motivations in order to heighten the drama.  Oliver and his family are about to lose their fortune, so they need to shift their assets into a new trust, but they need all three beneficiaries (Oliver, his mother Moira, and his sister Thea) to sign the papers to make it happen; Thea is angry with Oliver and Moira at this point because she’s discovered that her biological father is actually the primary villain from Season 1 (melodrama!).  When Oliver discovers that his father knew Thea wasn’t his biological daughter, he confronts her with this information to show that the genetics are irrelevant because their father loved her anyway.  Thea’s takeaway from this revelation is that her father was a liar too, and she refuses to sign the papers, consigning the Queen family to middle class status for the start of Season 3 (presumably; I’ve not seen any of Season 3 and probably won’t until it comes to Netflix next year).  On the one hand, I totally get Thea’s anger here, because she’s pretty much the only person on the show who doesn’t know anyone else’s secrets (it’s kind of absurd, but I suppose someone has to not be in the know in order for secret identities to mean anything) and she’s just found out that her father kept secrets from her too.  The problem is that the show depicts the scene in a way that makes Thea comes off petulant and spiteful instead of acknowledging her legitimate frustration with the way her family has treated her all her life (with a big set up for Thea to disappear with her biological dad and make a dramatic come back as a villain at some point in the future, I’m sure).

Of course, Thea’s small potatoes compared to Laurel Lance, Oliver’s ex-girlfriend who spends her season arc dealing with substance abuse and systematically losing the trust of everyone on the show despite being the one closest to figuring out the season’s conspiracy (somehow she ends up becoming more clueless about what’s going on after she starts recovery).  Laurel’s another character who acts in seemingly irrational ways that the show doesn’t want the audience to sympathize with, but every time something happened between her and another character, I really sympathized with Laurel, even when she was wrong.  You stumble across a conspiracy headed up by the city’s leading mayoral candidate and no one believes you because they simultaneously find out you’ve been abusing pain killers and alcohol?  That might be gas lighting.  You find out your sister, who you thought dead for six years, is alive and back in town, and within a week she’s dating your ex, who cheated on you with her on the trip where they both supposedly died?  Yeah, I can understand why you might pitch a fit and kick them out of your home.

Anyhow, despite the problems I have with the way several of the women are portrayed on this show, I still think it’s pretty good television.

Arrow is a Liberal Ally’s Cookie Begging Fantasy

That’s kind of obvious to anyone who’s seen the show or is familiar with the Green Arrow character.  It’s basically a superhero version of Robin Hood.

Even so, the fantasy is an interesting one, primarily because while it’s trying to be progressive, Arrow still really shies away from going full out 99%.

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I’m enjoying this show, but it’s riddled with crime drama weirdness. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s look at it this way.

Oliver Queen is a rich white guy who has a traumatic experience, realizes that he’s been part of the system that contributes to the problems that exist in his hometown, and decides that he’s going to do something about it.  In the show, Oliver’s impetus comes from his father explaining that he was a very bad man, and there’s a massive list of people who have made life in Starling City very difficult for everyone who isn’t a one-percenter.  It’s apparently not enough that Oliver just decide to clean up white collar crime in Starling City because it’s the right thing to do; he also has to have a personal stake in redeeming his father’s legacy.

On the one hand, that personal stake is probably necessary because it makes for some good drama.  If Oliver were just a white knight who was doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, then he’d end up being more like Superman (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but Superman exists as the platonic ideal of a selfless superhero; he’s not such a great character model for a gritty drama that’s trying to ground superheroics in reality) rather than Batman (if you strip away the overarching missions, they’re the same character but with different gimmicks).  Anyway, that personal stake is there because it helps us relate to the character.

The problem with all of these personal motivations is that they undermine the show’s apparent liberal politics.  Oliver’s an ally for the underclass, but his mission doesn’t really address larger systemic problems.  Starling City’s a wreck because of lots of corruption and white collar crime, but there’s never any talk about how the social systems in place might be contributing to the problems too (it’s almost like we’re living in a pseudo-Randian fantasy world where all the rich people, if they aren’t criminals, are perfectly moral people who don’t do anything questionable with their vast amounts of wealth).  Our cast of beautiful people are busy fighting crime and the problems that it causes, but they seem to be blinded to the fact that crime’s usually a symptom of a flawed social system.

I think that problem’s best encapsulated in the Season 1 episode “Legacies” which deals with Oliver trying to stop a family of bank robbers who were driven to crime after their father lost his job due to overseas outsourcing.  Oliver’s reluctant to get involved with the robbers because they aren’t part of his mission, but his partner, Diggle (it rhymes with giggle!), argues that Oliver should widen his net to deal with more than just the white collar crime he’s been fighting.  I think Oliver’s reluctance to get involved is actually the right call in this case.  His mission, while still very narrow, focuses on the larger problem that’s causing this family to be bank robbers.  If we’re to believe that Oliver’s uniquely suited to fighting white collar crime, then it’s a waste of his resources to go after bank robbers that the police could ostensibly handle on their own.  Instead of sticking to that point, the episode says that Oliver’s diverting his efforts towards dealing with symptomatic problems like bank robbery actually makes him more of a hero.

Here’s where the fantasy really sticks out.

Remember, Green Arrow is supposed to be the super liberal version of Batman (Batman, by contrast, is actually pretty conservative with his emphasis on making sure criminals don’t escape justice), but we’ve just seen an episode that lauds Oliver for losing focus on the larger issues that he’s fighting against to do some work that’s symbolically satisfying, but less impactful.  It’s classic cookie-begging, and it highlights how Arrow exists as a fantasy for people who want to identify as liberal but don’t actually want to consider how they can realistically advance liberal causes (we’ll say nothing about the white male savior narrative, because it should be obvious that this is a major problem in most superhero stories).

So I’m Watching the First Season of Arrow

Before I jump into today’s post, I just have to say that I’m either insane, or a masochist, or both.

For those who don’t know, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month for the fourth consecutive time this year, and I’m kicking butt and taking names.  At the time of this writing I’ve been consistently hitting my daily quota of two thousand words for nearly a week, and it feels really good.  In that time I’ve also been staying on top of daily blog post write ups and dealing with my full time job.  This is all to say that while I’m feeling awesome right now, there is the possibility that I’m going to have writing burnout at some point over the course of the month, and blog posts may become spotty (Update: As of this posting, my blogging backlog is exhausted, so blog posts will be spotty at best for the rest of November; on the upside, I’m still writing two thousand words a day for my novel).

So, the beginning of the month is always a magical time, because that’s when Netflix puts new stuff on their streaming service.  This month, notable things that were added were the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic movie (the one where Twilight Sparkle gets transported to a parallel reality where everypony’s a human in high school), the first four seasons of Dexter (I watched the first two seasons a couple years ago when Netflix still organized their online library with distinct seasons for each show in order to make it look like they had more titles than they really did), and the superhero drama Arrow (which is a pseudo-realistic take on DC’s own Robin Hood knockoff, Green Arrow; less generous commentators might say he’s Batman with an archery motif).

I watched a little bit of Arrow over the weekend, and while it strikes me as really cheesy (some of the philosophizing the characters do about the nature of justice just sounds really awkward coming out of the mouths of actors), I’m kind of enjoying it.

The premise of the show is that Oliver Queen, a young, spoiled heir to a multimillion dollar corporation that his parents built survives for five years on an uncharted island in the South China Sea after his father’s yacht sinks during a freak storm.  Oliver’s father survives the sinking of the ship as well, but sacrifices himself so Oliver can make use of all the emergency supplies in the life raft.  His last wish is for Oliver to right all the wrongs his father’s committed in his climb to the top as a wealthy one-percenter.

It’s a pretty timely idea, what with the recent rise in populist rhetoric as a tool for criticizing the actions of the extremely wealthy.  Of course, that’s Green Arrow’s whole schtick.

Green Lantern (vol. 2) #76 (April 1970). Cover...

Green Lantern (vol. 2) #76 (April 1970). Cover art by Neal Adams. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

See, as a Robin Hood clone, Green Arrow’s always been about taking the ‘rob from the rich, give to the poor’ concept and contemporizing it with a dash of progressive politics.  In the seventies, there was notably a team-up series that revolved around Green Arrow working with the Green Lantern as they butted heads over their different ideological perspectives (where Green Arrow had been reinvented around this time as a man deeply concerned with the systemic problems of society that fostered the crime he was fighting, Green Lantern was, and has always been, a space cop, primarily concerned with keeping the peace without focusing on the root causes of the evil he fights).

It’s a fun idea, but one thing that I’ve been thinking about in relation to this concept now is that it smacks a little of the trope of the privileged savior.  I think about this trope a lot, because it reflects on me as a straight white Protestant male who is very interested in the advancement of a more socially progressive agenda.  I know that I’ve won the privilege lottery, and I’m still navigating how I reconcile that privilege (which I can’t get rid of) with my desire to help less privileged people attain equal social treatment.  As I like to joke, my least favorite movies are the ones about inspirational white teachers who help a bunch of urban (read: not white) kids excel and find their way to better lives (but seriously, I hate those movies).  I’m only a few episodes into the season, but Arrow seems to be walking right into that territory of unacknowledged privilege, because I haven’t noticed anyone say to Oliver, “You know you can only do all this superhero stuff because you’re rich and don’t have a day job, right?”

Anyhow, I’m enjoying it as a bit of popcorn superhero fluff.  I look forward to finishing the season and seeing if it gets any more nuanced in its approach to the subject matter, but if it doesn’t, I’m still going to enjoy it for the bit of fantasy that it is.