The Arrowverse: How Arrow Impacted Superhero Television

‘My name is Oliver Queen.’ It’s a line that would recur for the next eight seasons of television, for what will end up being a run of one hundred and seventy episodes, and give The CW network not only another hit television series, but give it something that everyone in Hollywood is clamouring for these days; a shared universe.

In reality, Arrow was probably meant to be nothing more than a chance for The CW to try and find something superheroic flavoured to cash in on the success of the recently finished Smallville, as well as produce something for their network that could attract the ever growing audience for live action superheroes.

2012 was the year that cemented the genre as a dominating force in pop culture; The Avengers had grossed $1.5 billion worldwide, final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy The Dark Knight Rises was also a massive success, while the same summer also saw the release of The Amazing Spider-Man, with Marvel Studios about to cash in massively on the success of their ultimate crossover movie and Warner Bros. Studios about to attempt something similar with Superman reboot Man of Steel the following year.

While the movie division of Warner Bros. would struggle to get audience and critics to like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, the television arm of the studio was about to actually hit a home run with a B-list character that would be elevated to A-list and launch a plethora of spin-offs and critically acclaimed and audience pleasing crossovers.

Like Marvel Studios, the Arrowverse would start somewhat simply, and with a multi-billionaire character trying to use his resources to save the day. While in the comic books that inspired the series, Oliver Queen is something of a Tony Stark-type who actually enjoys his rich lifestyle and is incredibly charming and suave,an interpretation that Smallville had portrayed via Justin Hartley’s performance, Arrow, which dropped the green from the title but would deploy it within the series in later seasons, would take more of an inspiration from Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy and opt for a darker, more grittier approach to the material, even going as far, in the first season at least, to have Oliver actually kill people in the pursuit of justice, declaring before killing his prey that they had “failed this city.”

Premiering in October 2012 with a ‘Pilot’ directed by David Nutter, Arrow arrived on to screens in slick form. Its opening episode benefited greatly from Nutter’s cinematic direction, well staged fight choreography, superb use of Vancouver locations and central star making performance from Stephen Amell who prior to Arrow had made small appearances in FOX Network comedy series New Girl.

While the subsequent episodes took a few weeks to find their feet, once it did, Arrow became unmissable and while it was clear the writers room was taking inspiration from Batman Begins what with the whole plot to destroy the more impoverished part of the city by a villain who had been trained by The League of Assassins (John Barrowman as Malcolm Merlyn as opposed to the actual Ra’s Al Ghul who would have to wait until the somewhat muddled third season to appear), Arrow was massively entertaining, making good use of its twenty three episodes, proving to be entertaining in the manner that network television can frequently be with such a long run and being unafraid to delve into the darker, murkier areas of having a lead character based on a comic book who actually killed.

It may not have seemed it at the time, but the series would prove to be the springboard for a massive, interconnected universe. Like the first Iron Man film, one might not be able to have seen how vast a franchise that could stem from it, but clearly the writers room headed by Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg were thinking ahead somewhat when it came to season two which would see the introduction of Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, aka The Flash, with a two parter earlier in the season introducing the character and subsequently then starting the trend for multi-part crossovers just prior to the Christmas break.

Building on-screen universes are hard, and nowhere is that more evident than at how Sony initially failed to get a shared Spider-Man universe launched off the back of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Warner Bros. themselves struggling with what became known by many as the DC Extended Universe. While the latter would produce some massively entertaining films, not least the brilliant Wonder Woman and enjoyable Shazam, there’s no denying that Justice League and Suicide Squad left everyone disappointed by the messy nature of their final edits, the former mostly because of its problematic production, and while the movie arm of Warner’s would devote more time to less connected films, Arrow would pretty much give The CW the type of connected universe that major Hollywood film studios were clamouring for, and one even more expansive than the type that had been the mainstay of television networks for a while. While NBC had multiple Law and Order series and CBS had delivered multiple CSI’s and NCIS’s, none of them would be interconnected in the manner that the Arrowverse would be.

While those shows did some crossovers via cameo appearances featuring some characters from one show appearing in another, or actual multi-part episodes that would come about during the all important Sweeps period, the more series that was added to Arrowverse roster, the more like a shared comic book universe it became; a new episode weekly from each show felt like the latest issue of a comic book, sometimes events from one show would be referred to in another, one character from one show could sometimes show up as a guest star or for a cameo appearance in one of the other series, and come Christmas all of them would come together for a massive crossover event, each year being bigger than the last.

Beginning with Arrow and then spinning off with The Flash, soon executive producer Greg Berlanti would bring Supergirl to the screen on CBS, before that show would move to The CW and then play along with the other shows, while the same season would see the premiere of Legends of Tomorrow, bringing together some of the major guest characters from Arrow and The Flash as the stars of their own time travelling team up series; meanwhile NBC had produced a television series based on Constantine which they would cancel, but even that series would be brought into the Arrowverse fold with star Matt Ryan guest starring on Arrow and then subsequently joining the Legends of Tomorrow.

With Arrow on the cusp on finishing, thoughts have now started turning to the future of the shared universe it begun. The Flash is about to enter its sixth season and star Grant Gustin has suggested that the series might be on the cusp of winding down also. Like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s seven season run, one cannot help but think that maybe Arrow lasting eight seasons might end up setting up a tradition for the franchise its a part of with other shows possibly lasting for a similar amount of time.

Arrow and its universe has always flown the flag for diversity with characters of different races, genders and sexual orientation being put front and centre; the character of Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) was the first bisexual superhero on television, being introduced on Arrow then pretty much becoming the lead of Legends, while Supergirl in its fourth season introduced Dreamer, played by transgender actress Nicole Maines playing the first transgender superhero on television.

Even more brilliantly, the series have played with relevant political themes, not least the fourth season of Supergirl which didn’t shy away from immigration and racial themes that didn’t hold back all season and which very much felt like a response to the current political climate in the US, and while Legends of Tomorrow is the sillier, frothier show, sometimes with comedy and scenes that are deeply meta and self-referential, it’s time travel component means it’s not afraid to hit home with stories and ideas that deal with complex stories and material. That it can do that while also throwing in things like Beebo, and charming performances from Lotz and former Superman Brandon Routh means that it has become quite possibly the major highlight of the entire franchise. Not a bad thing for a series that was very unsure of itself in its first season.

Going forward, Batwoman is next out of the gate, and will not only be centred around the first out-lesbian superhero on television, but also the first to be portrayed by a lesbian actress, Ruby Rose, while the last few weeks have also seen the annoucement of Canaries, which will be an all female led series starring Arrow actresses Katie Cassidy, Juliana Harkavy and Kat McNamara.

Even with Arrow winding down, the universe it set up isn’t showing any signs of finishing or slowing down. How long it can continue for is a question that one can ponder, but we may not get an answer for a while. Supergirl and Legends are entering their fifth seasons and are comfortably into the latter stages of its run. With Batwoman premiering and Canaries (presumably the title, even if one gets the feeling it’s a soft reboot of The WB Birds of Prey series from the early 2000’s) in the works, it’s possible The CW might look ahead at other DC properties to develop and produce based on characters already set up within those shows or previously unfilled characters who would make for a potentially great series.

Whatever the future might hold, The CW and network television’s superhero landscape owes Arrow a massive debt. His antagonists may have failed Star City, but they’ve given The CW a franchise with which to sustain it commercially in an era when television is a changing entity.

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