Green Arrow began his superheroic life as a blatant copy of his corporate sibling Batman. Batman was a millionaire playboy who fought crime with the help of specialized weapons; Green Arrow (aka Oliver Queen) did the same with a bow and arrow. Batman had a teenage sidekick who wasn’t a blood relation; Green Arrow adopted a teen sidekick named Speedy. Batman had the Batmobile; Green Arrow had the Arrowcar. Batcave; Arrowcave.
As a result, Green Arrow was always a third-rate member (at best) of DC Comics’ stable. Who needs the imitation when you already have the real thing? No one paid much attention to him until the late ’60s, when writer Denny O’Neill took away Queen’s fortune and reimagined Green Arrow as an angry, vocal champion of liberal political causes. In a classic series of stories, Green Arrow and his frequent partner Green Lantern (representing the establishment point of view) went traveling together in search of the “real” America, and encountered issues of racism, corruption, pollution and – in a famous issue in which Speedy develops a heroin problem – drug addiction.
As a result of the O’Neill stories, and the work of other writers that followed (most memorably an adult-oriented ’80s series written by Mike Grell in which Queen ditches both his trick arrows and the usual superhero reluctance to kill), Green Arrow never ascended to the upper echelon of superheroes, but he had a distinct personality and role in the DC universe. You don’t use Green Arrow because Batman isn’t available; you use him because of his own unique attributes.
“Arrow,” the new Green Arrow TV series that premieres tomorrow night at 8 on the CW, is a competently-made superhero drama with an appealing lead performance from Stephen Amell. But it’s also in many ways a return to the character’s roots, as an attempt to do a TV spin-off of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies without having the rights to use Batman himself.
In this version, Oliver Queen is a spoiled rich kid whose life, personality and abs are transformed when he’s stranded on a remote tropical island after a yachting accident. During these years in exile, he picks up a wide variety of skills: not just archery, but a variety of martial arts disciplines, foreign languages, computer hacking, and more. (It’s implied that he was not alone for all this time.) He returns home still playing the role of drunken party boy, but it’s all a cover as he sets up his own underground lair and begins targeting the men who corrupted his city and did his late father wrong.
There are some hints of the character’s political leanings from the comics in the choice of the series’ first bad guy, a crooked businessman who swindled honest working folk out of their pensions. Mostly, though, Green Arrow(*) just seems out for revenge for his father, yet another bit cribbed from the Batman mythos.
(*) The character’s not referred to by that name at any point in the pilot, though that’s also in keeping with his history; the Grell series also never used the name in dialogue, as part of an attempt to divorce the character from traditional superhero trappings.
Amell has a strong physical presence, whether in the action scenes (or the obligatory workout montage where you see how he maintains his ripped torso) or simply watching the people he knew in his previous life. He’s surrounded by some interesting performers, including Susanna Thompson as Queen’s mother, David Ramsey as the bodyguard Queen has to keep evading so he can get in costume, and Paul Blackthorne as a local cop. Less impressive is CW regular Katie Cassidy as Queen’s former girlfriend Laurel.
The action scenes move nicely, thanks to both Amell and ace pilot director David Nutter. The creative team – including Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, who were less successful in transplanting Green Lantern to the world of live action with the Ryan Reynolds movie – approach the show and character with a very serious tone. There may be little Easter eggs (if not outright clues to where the story is going) for the fanboys and girls (both Laurel and Queen’s best friend Tommy have full names evoking characters from the comics), but there’s no winking at them. What little humor there is comes not from self-consciousness, but from Green Arrow playing a role as Oliver Queen.
It’s all well-done for what it’s trying to be. Perhaps in time it’ll find its own distinct take on Green Arrow, even if it’s not exactly what O’Neill, Grell and other writers did with him on the page. As a fanboy myself, I saw enough in the “Arrow” pilot to not mind coming back at a later date to see what the show’s become, but not necessarily enough to be in a rush to do it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org