Eight episodes in, Arrow is officially a mega-hit, at least by The CW's standards. And not only that, but Arrow is actually... pretty decent. The Christopher Nolan-inspired "gritty" superhero soap opera manages to be addictive fun, blending some solid action with the kind of relationship drama that makes Vampire Diaries our crack.
So we have to ask... is the era of embarrassing superhero TV over? Could this actually be the beginning of a new golden age of superhero shows?
Not too long ago, superheroes were in the same boat as science fiction generally — absurdly successful at the movies, doomed on television. The year's top 10 box office hits regularly included superhero films, but the closest thing to a superhero hit on recent TV, Heroes, crashed and burned after a successful first year. When we met the producers of Arrow at San Diego Comic Con, our very first question to them was: Can Arrow break the superhero TV curse?
And apparently, the answer was yes.
Arrow is a big enough hit that it's actually made people start watching Supernatural, it's lead-out show, once again. And Arrow deserves its popularity. For people who've been skipping it, Arrow is a moderately faithful adaptation of the Green Arrow comic, in which immature zillionaire Oliver Queen gets stranded on an island for five years, and comes back with mad bow-and-arrow skills and a hunger to save the corrupt, crime-ridden Star(ling) City. And he learns to care more about the victims of crime, and less about punishing the people on the list of evildoers his father left him.
Here are six reasons why Arrow succeeds as a piece of television, and particularly as a superhero narrative:
1) It's a superhero show that actually has something to say about what it means to be a hero. Ollie is not always a perfect hero, by any means — but watching him make mistakes and learn is entertaining. 2) It engages with the "secret identity" trope in good faith, without too much winking. Ollie struggles with the cost of keeping secrets, and the episode where he gets arrested for being the Arrow is genuinely kind of clever. 3) In general, nothing ever seems like it's happening purely because some genre trope requires it. 4) The "mythology" on the show is (thus far) relatively straightforward and non-wheel-spinning. 5) The characters are note-perfect. I actually care about the relationship between Ollie's Mom and his stepdad Walter more than I do about the main characters' relationships on a lot of other shows. I'm bizarrely rooting for Tommy and Laurel to work out. Diggle, Ollie's suave confidant/mentor, has become one of my favorite characters on the show. And so on. 6) Abs like Michael Keaton's moulded Batsuit.
Of course, Arrow is cheesy and over the top at times — the recent Huntress two-parter was just dripping with cheese, as our recaps amply demonstrate. ("Thank you for the coffee and the sex": our new catch-phrase.) And Ollie is kind of a psychopath, but that's possibly part of the show's charm.
Of course, Arrow benefits immensely from the bar having been set so incredibly low. Since 2000, there's been one unquestioned hit superhero show: Smallville, which started out as a fairly grounded soap about Clark Kent's relationships with Lana Lang and Lex Luthor, in a small Kansas town. Eventually, the show got more and more comic-booky, to the point where Clark Kent was still in his civvies but frequently surrounded by people in garish costumes.
In any case, apart from Smallville, the history of live-action superhero shows since 2000 was pretty dismal. Off the top of my head, failures included Birds of Prey, SciFi's Painkiller Jane, and more recently The Cape and the bland No Ordinary Family. All of those shows seemed to share a certain... archness and irony about their superheroics, and the kind of cheesiness that feels fake, as opposed to the more lovable cheesiness of Arrow. Oh, and there was also Who Wants to be a Superhero?. Which, guh.
And then there's Heroes, which started off strong, with a sprawling ensemble cast and the feeling of a huge world where anything was possible. We've written a billion words about why Heroes self-immolated (most notably: not letting Sylar stay dead after season one) but you could argue the show made the same decision as Smallville at some point: it became too comic-booky, letting the heroic tropes that Hiro had lightly commented on in season one become the whole theme.
There was also David E. Kelley's Wonder Woman show, which never even aired but still scarred our collective psyche, with its awkward attempt to graft "working woman trying to have it all" tropes onto superheroic "secret identity" tropes.
What can we learn from that string of unlovable shows? A few things: 1) If your superhero show has your hero reading a superhero comic, it should be cancelled instantly. Preferably in the middle of the episode. (Bonus points if he reads it aloud, like The Cape.) 2) Costumes should be at least somewhat functional, and not look like cosplay. We love cosplay, but not as a serious outfit that people go out to fight crime in. 3) Don't wink at the audience or have the sort of self-mockery that says "We're really embarrassed to be doing this." 4) Voiceover monologues are best in small doses. Ditto with cute characters, and kids. 5) Re-read Kavalier and Clay, particularly the "why is this person putting on a costume and doing this?" sections.
So at this point, you're probably asking why we should proclaim a golden age of superhero TV, just on the basis of Arrow being a hit.
There are a couple other data points: Person of Interest, which is basically a plainclothes version of Nolan's Batman, is also a respectable hit. (We've argued before that Person of Interest is a superhero show, with surveillance and A.I. clairvoyance being the heroes' superpowers.) And Syfy's Alphas, while not a runaway ratings hit, is still a pretty satisfying spin on the X-Men concept that (mostly) respects the reality of the characters and their conflicts, with superpowers feeling like an organic part of character-based storytelling.
So arguably, there are three shows currently on the air which prove that the highest thing superhero television can aspire to is not just "so bad it's good" status.
(An aside: how do you define the boundaries of the superhero genre? What's the common element that unites Thor, the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Hercules, Superman, Iron Man, the Punisher, the Spectre, Adam Strange, Wonder Woman, the Human Target and Green Lantern? Other than being based on comic books? Superheroes encompass almost all other genres, and the common thread seems to be a certain heightened reality and the Battle against Evil.)
The other major reason for optimism, of course, is the hope that Joss Whedon's S.H.I.E.L.D. will be on our screens next fall. (And with Jeffrey Bell, who made the last season of Angel so watchable, helping to steer the ship, alongside Dollhouse's Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen.) No clue if S.H.I.E.L.D. would be a hit, but at the very least it seems likely to be a fun ride.
Plus The CW is trying to do for Wonder Woman what they already did for Green Arrow, with the new show Amazon. We read some casting pages the other day (even though you absolutely cannot make any judgments about a show based on casting sides that probably don't reflect the final script) and there seemed to be some good ideas about what makes Wonder Woman work, especially the fact that she's a warrior from an island of former slaves. (Fingers crossed the "ice cream orgasm" thing gets dropped before filming, or was only included in those pages to make sure the lead actress has comedic chops.)
So there's proof that superheroes can work on today's television, and a couple shows in the pipeline that could build on that. Even in this day and age, television is small enough that a few successful examples of something can feel like a trend. (Case in point: the success of Once Upon a Time and Grimm makes it feel like there's a boomlet in fairytale shows.) There are other superhero shows in the pipeline, too, but they seem less definite. A lot can change between now and next fall, too.
If we do get an actual boom in superhero television, it won't be the first time. The 1970s had a modest boomlet, notably with Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk, and for a while the Amazing Spider-Man show as well. Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk shared a simple template: the main character spends most of each episode in his/her secret identity, but transforms into the title character two or three times per episode for a fairly contained sequence.
When you watch those 1970s shows now, without nostalgia goggles, they look pretty schlocky and formulaic. But Bill Bixby and Lynda Carter were usually pretty great, and did a lot to make their characters feel like regular people — who just happened to turn into Amazons and green bodybuilders sometimes. And there's a reason Joss Whedon has said his version of the Hulk in The Avengers is based on Bixby/Ferrigno's — because Bixby's Bruce Banner went around trying to help people, instead of just being self-absorbed.
One of the main features of superhero comics is their soap-operatics, thanks to the serialized comics format. One of Stan Lee's great insights on the genre was to take its innate soap opera nature and amp it up — when you read the phone-book-sized Essential volumes of the 1960s Marvel comics, you can't help but be struck by the endless churn of romantic problems and life dilemmas, fueling the heroes' non-stop angst in between costumed battles.
And mainstream television is experiencing a pretty soap-operatic moment, thanks to the increase in serialized storytelling and the decrease in episodic "back to square one" stories. So maybe we're ready for an influx of shows that combine the "trying to help people" ethos of the 1970s with the present-day emphasis on love tetrahedrons and lingering angst.
All in all, it's probably too soon to say that we're going to see a new boom in TV shows inspired by superhero comics. But things are looking quite a lot more hopeful than they were a year ago. And feeling optimistic about this particular subgenre no longer feels like an exercise in tilting at windmills.