There will be no This Week In The Arrowverse column today, as no new episodes of the Arrowverse TV shows aired during the past week. Instead, I’ve decided to take a look back at where this franchise began, with the very first episode of Arrow. I hope you enjoy this retrospective review, and if you’d like to see more reviews of older Arrowverse episodes, let me know in the comments!
Arrow 1×01: “Pilot”
Story by Greg Berlanti & Marc Guggenheim
Teleplay by Andrew Kreisberg & Marc Guggenheim
Directed by David Nutter
Originally aired October 10th, 2012
What is this show about?
That’s the question all pilot episodes need to answer. They need to give viewers an idea of the show’s identity, what they can expect from it in the weeks ahead, and whether what it has to offer is for them.
Arrow’s identity, especially in these early days, is a complicated one, drawing from many different sources of inspiration, and trying to do many different things. Given that, its pilot episode is a marvel. In the course of 42 minutes, it establishes all the key elements that will define what Arrow is for years to come, while still telling a story that can stand on its own as an exciting and intriguing hour of television.
Rather than going through the episode scene-by-scene, I’m going to go through each aspect of Arrow’s identity that this episode sets up, from its pop-culture influences, to its thematic interests, to the real world politics surrounding its creation. Take your bathroom breaks now, folks, ‘cause this is gonna be a long one.
Why’s Batman Wearing Green?
Let’s state the obvious: Green Arrow is a Batman knockoff. He’s the answer to the question, “What if Bruce Wayne’s parents took him to see The Adventures of Robin Hood instead of The Mark of Zorro the night they died?”
It’s not just that they’re both the heirs to vast fortunes, and pose as idle playboys while secretly fighting crime using colorful costumes and highly inefficient weapons. In the comics, Green Arrow adopted his own boy sidekick with a bright red costume, drove around in an Arrowcar, and for a while even operated out of an “Arrowcave”, despite how little sense that makes (for one thing, all the moisture in a cave would be terrible for bowstrings). Smallville, the CW superhero series that preceded Arrow, made Green Arrow into a major character specifically because Warner Brothers wouldn’t let them use Batman, and everyone agreed this dude was close enough.
Arrow does not shy away from the Batman comparison. No, it wears its Batman influence with pride. Specifically, the influence of Batman Begins, the 2006 film starring Christian Bale and directed by Christopher Nolan, which retold Batman’s origins and sought to make the character as plausible and grounded in reality as it could (while still having him fight a giant laser cannon and an ancient cult of assassins).
The son of a wealthy and prestigious family returns home after several arduous years in Asia. He finds his city has fallen into decay, and takes justice into his own hands to fix it and restore his family’s legacy. He reunites with a woman he loved, even though their reunion is strained by the events of their past and the new person he has become. Police target him for being a criminal, though they loathe the criminals he attacks. The camera lingers lovingly on scenes of him preparing his equipment and honing his body, even as it plays up the brutality of the violence on screen. All the while, a more sinister conspiracy than he could have guessed at is being put in motion.
If you’ve seen Batman Begins, all of that is going to feel mighty familiar. And why shouldn’t it Arrow try to feel familiar? Batman Begins had been a hit, and its 2008 sequel The Dark Knight was beyond a hit: it took Batman and his supporting cast to an even darker and grittier place than before, won heaps of awards and critical acclaim, and was the highest grossing superhero movie of all time, bringing in over a billion dollars.
When Arrow entered production in early 2012, The Dark Knight was still the gold standard that live action superheroes were judged by. Marvel’s The Avengers (which broke all new box office records by being The Dark Knight‘s polar opposite, amping up the ludicrous, comic-booky elements instead of toning them down) wouldn’t come out till that summer, after Arrow’s pilot had been shot and the vision for the series laid out. So it’s little surprise that, in constructing this episode, a big part of its pitch to potential viewers is, “If you liked Nolan’s Batman movies, you’ll like this.”
But there’s a lot more to this pilot episode than simply aping Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In fact, perhaps because of those films’ clear influence, the places where Arrow does something different stand out as establishing its identity.
Let’s start with the most eye-catching of those differences . . .
Thou Shalt Kill
Should your hero kill people?
That’s a question every superhero story has to ask itself. Given that superheroes save the day largely through violence, it makes sense that the violence they dish out would sometimes be lethal. On the other hand, given that superheroes originated as entertainment for children, there’s a long tradition of them refusing to even consider using lethal force, because that sort of thing just doesn’t fly when you’re stacked on the newsstand next to Archie Comics and Mickey Mouse Magazine.
Live action superheroes vary wildly in how they answer this question. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the response is usually, “Sure, why not?” Marvel heroes will kill scores of enemies during combat, because they’re popcorn action movies, and that’s just what popcorn action movies do. Meanwhile, the Dark Knight Trilogy, for all that it steeps itself in darkness and realism, and depicts its violence with bone crunching brutality, has Batman hold to a vow of never killing (well, except for that one time with Harvey Dent, but people seem to pretend that never happened).
Arrow, by contrast, not only makes its hero a killer, it makes him a murderer. He doesn’t kill just in the heat of battle; we see him disarm a bad guy, restrain him, and even as the man begs for his life, make the cold and calculated decision to snap his neck.
That’s a line few superheroes have crossed; certainly not as one of their establishing character moments. But this is not a Punisher situation, either, where the story’s about someone killing any and all criminals without remorse. We see Oliver leave other opponents alive; hospitalized or left in financial ruin, but still breathing, when he could have easily ended their lives. Why this discrepancy? It comes down to one word, said first at the beginning of the episode, and again near the end: “Survive.”
That was the dying request (or dying curse, if you will) of Robert Queen, that Oliver would live through his ordeal, make it home to Starling City, and lead a better life than Robert ever managed. In his voiceover, Oliver says this was his one thought, one goal during the five years he was marooned. But, as he tells us, “To live, I had to make myself more than what I was, to forge myself into a weapon.”
The Oliver who returns from Lian Yu is a man who’s had to commit horrific violence, become a horrific person, in order to survive. And however noble his goals might be, of helping the poor and exposing the corrupt, he responds to any threat to his survival with cold ruthlessness. That threat may come from a criminal’s bodyguard spraying bullets at him, or it may come from a kidnapper who’s learned too much about Oliver Queen, information that could bring too many enemies down on his head. Oliver’s response is the same: eliminate the threat.
That is a harsh portrait to paint of your hero in his debut episode. It risks making him too cold, too unlikable for viewers to want to see more of. But there’s another part of Oliver’s identity, and of Arrow’s identity, that balances that out.
Friends, Family, and F*ck-Buddies
Bruce Wayne is an orphan. That’s kind of his thing. He’s also an only child. And while various aunts, uncles, cousins, and the like have been trotted out over decades of comics, none of them have been a big part of his life. And until he’s well into his Batman career, teaming up with other crimefighters, he’s not usually shown to have much in the way of friends, either. For most of his life, the only meaningful relationship he’s had is with his butler.
That’s not the case for Oliver Queen, at least not the version in Arrow. His father may have died, providing the requisite tragic-motivation-for-superheroism, but his mother and his sister are both still alive and very much a part of his life (and they have a new stepfather waiting for him, to boot). He lives in the same house as them. They’re the first people he went to see when he returned from the island. His efforts to reconnect with them, and their efforts to do the same, form the emotional core of the episode.
He also has a best friend. Fun-loving, party-boy Tommy may seem out-of-step with the new, serious-minded Oliver, but their friendship isn’t simply some front Oliver created as part of his “playboy billionaire” disguise. Their bond was real, and though it’s not made clear here in the pilot, we’ll eventually be shown that it still means quite a lot to Oliver.
And he has an ex-girlfriend. One who hates his guts now, and who he’s trying to keep his distance from for her own protection, but still someone he’s clearly pining for. Even if he did cheat on her with her sister.
That’s another sort of relationship you don’t usually get with Bruce Wayne. It may not make Oliver more likeable, but it does make him more human, knowing that he once did so much harm to himself, and to someone he loved, because he couldn’t say no to getting laid.
Oliver may do his crimefighting solo, but his life is full of people. His feelings for them soften the edges of his character, let us relate to him as a vulnerable human being, even as he commits methodical violence. Oliver’s chief struggle this episode is not with the criminal-of-the-week, or with the police investigating “the hood guy”. It’s finding a way to connect with the people he cares about, to be the person they want or expect him to be, despite his experiences turning him into something else.
That’s not to say becoming something else is treated as an entirely bad thing. Quite the opposite. It may be painful, it may be hard on those close to you, and it may lead you to paths you shouldn’t go down, but to change yourself is an admirable thing, because if this episode has one theme above all others, it’s redemption.
The Lian Yu Redemption
Oliver Queen did not become a hero to avenge a great wrong. At this point, he has no reason to believe the shipwreck that stranded him on an island and led to his father’s death was anything but an accident. And prior to that, Oliver led a life of privilege and debauchery. He didn’t become a hero because he was done wrong by the bad guys. Oliver Queen became a hero because he realized he was one of the bad guys.
The Oliver who boarded the Queen’s gambit was a spoiled, selfish manchild, who thought nothing of getting into drunken brawls or cheating on his girlfriend. And he was able to live such a callow, wasteful life because of the indulgence of his family. A father who, in his final moments, admits he’s guilty of more sins than he can confess to, that he failed their city. And a mother who, in the present, hires murderers to kidnap her own son, all for some secret agenda. Oliver Queen was the rotten scion of a rotten family legacy.
Throughout the episode, people who know Oliver wonder whether his time on the island changed him, and though he hides the truth from them, we know that he has. Arrow, then, is the story of Oliver’s redemption, of him growing up, taking responsibility for the harm done to his city, and becoming a hero.
For the first target of his redemptive quest, he doesn’t choose bank robbers, or drug dealers, or the other low-level criminals that vigilantes normally cut their teeth on. His target is Adam Hunt, a wealthy man oozing self-involved entitlement, preying off the people of Starling City through white collar crime. Or, as Detective Lance puts it when Oliver (feigning ignorance) asks who Adam Hunt is: “He’s a millionaire bottom-feeder, and I’m kind of surprised you aren’t friends.”
Oliver seeks to redeem himself, and the Queen name, by saving Starling City from people very much like the Queens. And there’s a reason why, in 2012, audiences were eager to see wealthy, financial predators get shown the error of their ways.
Occupy Starling City
The Queen’s Gambit sank in 2007. A year later, the 2008 financial crisis occurred. Millions of people lost their jobs, their homes, their savings, all because of the greedy and the short-sighted, who manipulated the working class for their own benefit, escaping on golden parachutes as the economy collapsed on the people beneath them. In 2012, the effects of this Great Recession were still deeply felt, and people were pissed.
The hottest of hot button issues was the continued flourishing of the ultra-rich, the “1%”, at the expense of everyone else. People wanted the damage done to the economy fixed, and more, they wanted those responsible to face consequences for what they’d done. More than they had in ages, people wanted to see someone rob from the rich and give to the poor.
It’s in this environment that Arrow was created. Oliver returns to a city that’s “gone to crap”, with homelessness running rampant. The Queen family continues to prosper in their mansion outside of town, because they pulled their money out of Starling City just before everything went belly up, leaving their old factory to sit abandoned, and the people they once employed jobless. And Adam Hunt? He straight up stole millions from people’s pension funds, and because he has an army of lawyers and a judge in his pocket, there’s jack-all the law can do about it.
It’s a fictionalized version of what people were seeing in the news everyday, tapping into their sense of outrage and injustice. But into that vision of financial dystopia, this episode inserts a hero. Someone who can swoop in, not be bound by laws designed to protect the wealthy, and give justice to the people.
Superheroes were born during the Great Depression, when people were desperate for a larger-than-life figure to punch their way through problems that seemed insurmountable, and Arrow followed in that model, creating a hero for the Great Recession.
It’s strange, with Arrow now in its seventh season, to look back at the show’s early days and see how they were so clearly a product of their time, a time that’s not that far in the past, yet still feels like a whole different era. You can sense that of-its-time quality in another of Arrow’s major influences . . .
They Were All Dead . . . I Think . . .
Lost had its series finale in 2010. And though enthusiasm for the program had waned over time, and its ending was controversial, it remained one of the biggest television hits of the decade, and even in 2012, networks were still trying to create “the next Lost”.
Like with the Batman influence, Arrow is not shy about admitting the debt it owes to Lost. Tommy even references that show’s finale as one of the pop culture touchstones Oliver missed while he was away. And in 2012, there was simply no way you could tell a story about someone stranded on an island, told by alternating a present day story with a flashback storyline, without people immediately making the connection.
Few of the shows that attempted to be outright successors to Lost were any good. That program’s mixture of mystery, weirdness, anachronic storytelling, and extremely slow-paced character work . . . it’s fiendishly difficult to get right (and your mileage will vary on how well Lost itself managed all that). But Arrow isn’t trying to be Lost. Rather, it’s taking some of the techniques and style that Lost pioneered for television, and using them to help its own story.
Most significantly for this pilot episode, it follows Lost in keeping much of the main characters’ backstory a mystery, promising to slowly reveal it through flashbacks as the series progresses. While a time would come when many Arrow fans were sick to death of the flashbacks, in this series premiere, they work marvelously, because they let the episode avoid the onerous obligations of an origin story.
We’re not told here how Oliver became a master archer with abs of marble. We’re not told what sins Robert Queen was guilty of, or how Oliver knows the names on the List need to be punished. We’re not told how he learned Russian, got his scars, or became such a grim and violent figure. All of that is presented to us as an ongoing mystery, to be revealed to slowly over the course of the series.
The main story of the episode can thus begin with Oliver already possessing the skills, equipment, and determination he needs to become a bona fide superhero. Had the show been required to give Oliver’s full origin story right away, explaining how he got these abilities and why he’s putting them to use this way, one of two things would have happened: either we’d get a pilot episode so crammed with exposition that there’d be little room left for either drama or action, or we’d get an origin story stretched across so many episodes, we’d be halfway through the season before Oliver even put on the hood.
In borrowing Lost’s storytelling structure, Arrow was able to avoid the flaws that so many pilot episodes (particularly those for superhero series) fall into. Oliver’s origin story isn’t being rushed through or ignored; the question of how he got this way will be answered. But by leaving it a mystery for now, the show can keep the exposition to a minimum and present us with an episodic adventure that’s fairly representative of what we’ll get from the show going forward.
And exactly what kind of stories is Arrow promising to give us? Well, this pilot promises us two things in abundance. The first:
Soaphero, or Super Opera?
Arrow is a soap opera, full stop. But until you go back and rewatch this pilot, it’s easy to forget just how soapy it can be.
Tommy is Oliver’s best friend, but he’s secretly sleeping with Oliver’s ex-girlfriend, who hates Oliver because he slept with her sister, who died while having a secret affair with him, which makes the detective investigating Oliver hate him, because he’s also that girl’s father and blames Oliver for her death. Add in Oliver’s mom marrying her dead husband’s best friend, Thea’s secret drug use, the fact that Oliver returned from being lost at sea, and that so much of the story revolves around a wealthy family of beautiful people keeping sordid secrets from each other . . . if you summarized it in few enough words, it would almost sound like a parody of soap operas, the kind of thing Friends would do whenever Days of Our Lives came up.
It’s not surprising Arrow went this route. The superhero soap opera is a long and respected tradition in comics, and an even more respected tradition on the CW (and its progenitor network, the WB). Arrow’s spiritual predecessor, Smallville, was basically a teen soap opera that happened to star a young Superman (at least until the later seasons went completely off the rails). With the somewhat older cast and heightened moral ambiguity, this is more of a Dallas or Dynasty style program, but the intent is the same. There may be lots of superhero action, but there’s also plenty of salacious character drama and convoluted backstabbing to keep you interested whenever someone’s not being punched in the face.
Not to diminish the importance of people being punched in the face. Because there’s one final ingredient that makes Arrow what it is, a part of its identity that’s easy to overlook because of how obvious it is.
Yes, I Am Wearing Spandex
Arrow is a superhero show. More than that, Arrow is unabashedly a superhero show.
Oliver may not have any actual superpowers, and most of what happens may be presented in a stripped down, Nolan-esque style, but the fact remains: this is a show where a guy puts on a colorful costume and a quiver full of gadgets, and goes out looking for criminals to fight. It’s easy to forget, with our current smorgasbord of superhero programming, just how rare that was.
The live action superhero boom began in the year 2000, and has only been expanding since. But for much of that time, you weren’t likely to see a television show truly embrace the tropes of the superhero genre. You’d get series about people with superpowers, and they might end up fighting crime, but rarely were they true crimefighters. More often, various criminal elements happened to turn up in their lives, and they dealt with those problems as they came up, rather than having any sort of dedicated mission to save the world. And they most certainly did not wear costumes.
Once again, Smallville was Arrow’s predecessor, and one of its cardinal rules was that Clark Kent could never put on the Superman costume. For ten seasons, no matter how many times they dressed him in a red and blue color scheme, Clark consistently wore casual clothes rather than his iconic outfit. And while later seasons had him become a more proactive do-gooder, seeking out criminals to thwart, in the early years he was simply trying to live an ordinary life; he just happened to live in a town full of murderous freaks who kept targeting him and his loved ones.
Much the same goes for Heroes, probably the most popular superhero-related show of the 2000’s. It evoked the mythology of superheroes, but insisted that it was really about “ordinary people with extraordinary abilities”. You never saw characters on that show seeking out bank robbers to catch or mad scientists to foil. They mostly just tried to live their lives, until one villainous conspiracy or another came knocking at their door and all but forced them to do something heroic. And none of them, not even comic book geek Hiro Nakamura, wore costumes; the idea of “wearing spandex” was brought up only so it could be ridiculed.
That was the norm for superheroes on live action TV. You want fully costumed heroes who actually go looking for bad guys to fight? All you’ve got are short-lived flops like Birds of Prey or The Cape. Until Arrow came along, the last successful show of that sort in the U.S. was Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, way back in the 90’s. Superheroes might have become cool in the movies, but on television there was still a belief that, if your show looked too much like a superhero series, no one would take it seriously.
I’m not going to give Arrow credit for changing all that. The Avengers came out the same year, and that more than anything opened the floodgates for embracing comic book absurdity in mainstream media. But Arrow’s pilot does stand out as offering something that no other TV show in 2012 was. For all its grit and darkness, Arrow was unashamed to be a straightforward superhero adventure, full of long and elaborate fight scenes, fanciful gadgets, and a full-fledged superhero costume (mask still pending).
That is Arrow.
- For comic book fans (or just people who’d seen the Teen Titans cartoon) that Deathstroke mask with an arrow through it was an amazing tease of future stories. It’s no polar bear from Lost, but still awesome.
- The elaborate stunt work and highly choreographed fight scenes in this episode? They weren’t like anything I’d seen in live action TV before. I know Arrow wasn’t the first TV show to have fight scenes of this caliber (I’d later discover the 2010 series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which oh my God!), but it was definitely ahead of the curve.
- That said, you can tell this was a pilot episode with extra time and money put into it, ‘cause they have Stephen Amell performing parkour moves outside, in daylight. I’d kind of forgotten that the characters’ athletic abilities could still work during the day.
- In his voiceover, Oliver claims he was stranded on Lian Yu for five years, even though future episodes will show he spent long stretches of those years in China, Russia, and even back in the U.S. Simple continuity error? Or is Oliver so secretive and paranoid, he even keeps secrets from us, the audience?
- The doctor who tells Moira about all of Oliver’s scar tissue? That’s Hiro Kanagawa, a.k.a. Director Bennett from the Time Bureau on Legends of Tomorrow. Presumably he’s undercover, investigating whatever temporal anomaly caused Sara Lance to become a brunette.
- Tommy’s character, and the role they set up for him, is interesting. He’s clearly meant to be the comic relief, the character who seems like he was imported from a more care-free, less life-and-death show than everyone else. Of course, Felicity had yet to be introduced, and the quippy, cheerful tech support role was not yet de rigueur for the Arrowverse. Makes you wonder, had Tommy stayed with the show, how those two characters would have gotten along.
- I’d like to remind everyone, the climax of this episode has Oliver shooting the bad guy’s computer with a USB arrow, which hacks into his bank accounts and transfers all his ill-gotten gains back to the people he stole it from. Arrow may be going for the stripped-down, Nolan-ized approach to superheroes, even using green facepaint in place of a mask, but that moment is pure comic book pulpiness, and it’s a frickin’ delight.
- Anyone know where the scene of Oliver and Laurel talking in front of that giant floating globe was shot? ‘Cause I wanna visit there.