It’s no secret that The CW, oft overlooked because it lacks the artistic edge and money to garner the prestige of cable yet is too niche to commercially compete with the “Big Four” broadcast networks, is telling some of the best superhero stories in any medium right now. After a promising yet uneven freshman season, Arrow found its voice in a confident, entertaining and emotionally compelling second season, and its spin-off show The Flash already brimmed with energy when it debuted this past fall.
Though the two shows are tonally disparate (The Flash is bouncy and at times proudly cheesy, while Arrow’s brooding darkness is more reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films), they work well together, as evidenced by a pair of delightful crossover episodes that aired in December. Not only do they share a creative team, anchored by creator Greg Berlanti, but they also succeed for many of the same reasons: talented, charismatic actors; sharp yet understated visual flair combined with efficient pacing; and perhaps most importantly, plots driven by characters and their relationships to each other rather than by MacGuffins or convoluted mythology. In a way, they benefit from not having the enormous budgets given to big-screen ventures, because they’re forced to employ action in the service of story instead of the other way around, and even the set pieces, of which there are still plenty, dazzle more through impressive choreography and stunt work than expensive CGI effects, particularly in Arrow. They suggest that comic books, with their installment-based structure, love of twists and cliffhangers and sprawling ensembles of characters, are much better suited to TV than film, where even the best adaptations still often feel cumbersome and incomplete.
Watch and learn, Avengers. Watch and learn.
Though both shows readily embrace their comic book origins, Arrow especially spends a lot of time playing with various stock plot and character tropes. There’s the brooding, traumatized hero, the loyal sidekick, the tech support, the protégé, and various villains and fridged characters (usually women) that primarily serve as, respectively, obstacles for conflict and motivation for the hero. Of course, the writers are good enough that all of these characters eventually become much more layered and interesting than a simple description suggests, but for the most part, they don’t radically depart from the superhero action genre’s conventions. While David Ramsey’s pragmatic, no-nonsense John Diggle and Emily Bett Rickard’s Felicity Smoak, who has evolved into the show’s moral center, have always probably been my favorite characters, the most fascinating and thoughtful narrative arc throughout the series so far belongs not to them or hero Oliver Queen, but rather to resident token love interest Laurel Lance, who’s played by a very game Katie Cassidy.