Superhero stories tend to be power fantasies. The whole appeal of Superman or Batman is he knows what’s right and just and can just do it without our petty human concerns. But that makes them hard to mix with real social issues, and last night’s episode of Arrow, “Spectre Of The Gun,” just illustrates how tough that is.
The episode revolves around a shooting at Starling City’s city hall, where vigilante/mayor Ollie Queen (Stephen Amell) is trying to square away some business when a terrorist walks out of the elevator and begins spraying city hall with bullets. Most of the episode is consumed with Ollie trying to hunt down said terrorist, while his superheroic coworkers Curtis (Echo Kellum) and Rene (Rick Gonzalez) serve as bickering opposite sides of the gun control debate. We also learn Rene’s tragic past that drove him to become the vigilante Wild Dog.
Part of the problem is that Wild Dog and Diggle (David Ramsey), two of Ollie’s fellow vigilantes, shoot a lot of people every single episode, which doesn’t seem to bother Ollie. And they’re nothing next to Ollie, a former assassin and secret agent who is likely in the triple digits for homicide himself and who is currently having a subplot set in his past where he’s trying to kill a Russian gangster. That they’ve all suddenly got an opinion about gun violence feels a bit hypocritical considering what we see them do week in and week out.
Another factor is that the show simply isn’t prepared to deal with the sheer complexity of gun violence and gun control. For example, a key predictor of a terrorist committing a mass shooting in America is domestic violence. 57% of mass shootings are connected to a previous incident of domestic violence on the part of the perpetrator. The reason is simple: If a victim leaves the abuser, he knows where she works and what her schedule is. The episode is rife with these problems, ranging from barely mentioning the racial aspects of gun control, themselves a near-bottomless quagmire, to saying the “assault weapons ban” worked to reduce violence, a controversial statement at best.
It’s hard to fault Arrow‘s production team for wanting to be more than just a show about rich ninjas. While the show has an ongoing theme of Ollie struggling with whether or not his means are justified by his ends, it’s particularly poignant this episode as Ollie wonders if he’s inspiring hope or just copycat crimes. The issue is simply that the show is so apart from our own reality it really can’t grapple with the issues we face. Starling City has been invaded by superpowered mercenaries, nearly destroyed by an earthquake machine, and last season was nearly wiped out by a nuclear weapon. It’s a train ride away from a city that regularly sees a man who can run faster than a fighter jet who next week is visiting an alternate reality full of talking gorillas. A terrorist with an assault rifle isn’t a shocking event in this city; it’s a Tuesday.
Generally, when superheroes have tackled social issues effectively, it’s either used them as a metaphor for a problem, or acknowledged that even the greatest superhero is just one person. DC’s recent miniseries Omega Men, for example, had writer, and former CIA operative, Tom King draw from his experience in the Iraq War to discuss why and how people abandon peaceful means and resort to violence. Marvel’s ongoing Black Panther series discusses the complex issues surrounding Africa and African politics without attempting to pretend to solve them. Both, however, have the luxury of time and spacing that a single episode of a TV show just doesn’t have. Gun control is so expansive an issue that nobody could sum it up in a 43-minute TV episode. Supergirl‘s recent intelligent and sensitive approach to Alex coming out as a lesbian was scattered over several episodes and approached it from several different facets, for example.
Superheroes are always going to have a tension between the power fantasies they are and the real world. It’s noble to try and overcome that, but it’s also much harder than it looks. Hopefully Arrow picks these questions up again, but with a more considered approach.