Although Arrow premiered to some of the best CW numbers in years, the not-actually-a-spinoff of Smallvillle series opener felt less like an exhilarating superhero origin story and more like a 43-minute travel infomercial.
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I think that’s a fairly good summarization of the first episode of Arrow, and I’m impressed. Not by the episode, mind you, just by the amount of skill sets they managed to cram into one man. A staycation on a desolate island might be a downer, but if you’re billionaire playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) and his alter ego Arrow, the vigilante archer who isn’t afraid to kill for his cause and go a little Bowie with his green eyeshadow, you’ll mysteriously pick up every hobby imaginable and not have to explain any of it. I can’t wait for next week, when Oliver reveals that not only is he a licensed midwife, but he can also bake an award-winning organic lemon meringue pie.
I understand that the rules of Pilot 101. You can’t give the gambit away too early, but that doesn’t mean you should offer a backstory this ridiculous with no tease as to the how. Van Wilder might learn to catch his own sea bass if left to his own devices, but that doesn’t mysteriously turn him into Jason Bourne. Other comic book origin stories—dead parents inspiring a crusade, alien baby landing on Earth, Amazon warrior fighting Nazis—don’t make you guess at the onset of the adventure. I’m sure longtime fans of Green Arrow already know what’s what, but as someone not overly versed in DC comics (unless it involves Batman and his bat-brood), I’m probably representative of a large portion of the audience who loves nerdy ambiguity, but isn’t loaded with 70 years worth of back issues to fill in the blanks.
When we first meet shipwrecked Oliver and his Grizzly Adams facial hair, he’s practicing some sort of forest parkour as he races to alert a nearby boat to his position. Rescued five years after the shipwreck that killed his father, he returns home to Starling City a changed man. Reunited with his scheming mother (Susanna Thompson), loving but troubled sister (Willa Holland), and smarmy best friend (Colin Donnell), Oliver must walk a fine line between his old life and his new as he seeks vengeance against the city’s most corrupt citizens (who apparently had something to do with his father’s demise). He also must make amends with his former girlfriend, Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), whom he was cheating on the night of the accident. Awkward.
My first real introduction to the character of Green Arrow was through Smallville. I was—albeit unreasonably, as this is a reboot— expecting Justin Hartley’s angry yet charismatic charmer, so I found little to love in Arrow’s dour stick-in-the-mud bowman. Stephen Amell might be sporting some very comic-y eight-pack abdominals, but that doesn’t make up for snoozy delivery. He does, however, make for a decent action star. The final guns vs. arrows battle is hilarious, but the hand-to-hand and rooftop action sequences felt almost theatrical. (The episode was helmed by pilot go-to director David Nutter.)
Instead of trusting the moxie of its viewers, much of Arrow’s first episode is narrated by Oliver. I have a hate-hate relationship with most voiceover, as it rarely serves as anything but filler. We should be able to pick up on the thematic elements from the story itself, not with the help of a disembodied voice emanating from an ADR stage. At the end of the episode Oliver scratches out a name in a long inventory of enemies, then minutes later adds, “There are many more names on the list.” Thanks, Ollie. I can also handle exposition-heavy dialogue—Laurel is a lawyer, and her sauciness says she isn’t afraid of crime lords!—but the word “dubious” doesn’t need to be pinned under the villain’s menacingly bald picture to get that he’s a Bad Man. There were times when I couldn’t tell if Arrow thought I was stupid…or illiterate.
Arrow is a darker beast than Smallville (or, to name an even earlier WB superhero remnant, Birds of Prey) but I’m not sure how I feel about the killing, even to protect his identity. We like our heroes, and we like our vigilantes, but rarely do the two meet like they seem to in Arrow. (Even Batman has a no-guns policy for a reason.) The first half of the season will set the final tone, and I’m definitely curious to find out which path the story takes. But even if my questions are answered in all their full-on Technicolor glory next week, Arrow missed the mark on its opening shot, and that will stick with me. While I look forward to such superpower potential, I think I’ll do it from the safety of an eventual Netflix marathon.