In 2012 we were introduced to the first part in a series of shows we all came to consider the Arrowverse, a name we have clung to as it connects the four shows in its shared multiverse while also paying tribute to the show that started it all – Arrow. That isn’t to say it isn’t a dumb name, it is but it’s the easiest way to speak about it in a general way so you will be reading it a lot in this little exercise.
I will make it clear that at the time of writing this I have recently finished the first four years of shows which brings me to the end of season 4 of Arrow, season 2 of The Flash and the 1st seasons of Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl. That amounts to around 190 hours of television and what I learnt surprised me in many ways, some good, some bad. It also taught me a great deal about developing a world, both for film and television. A lot has been made of DC’s failed DCEU (the film branch of DC’s shared universe) but while Batman and Superman were floundering on the big screen, other heroes were thriving.
There may be many reasons for that but for this I’m going to concentrate on this shared world and how the development of it led to success and failures in equal measure. I think the best starting point for that is a discussion of tone, how this idea of a shared universe leads to a blending of tone across shows, something that solidified the world we know as the arrowverse but also drastically changed shows within its sometimes limited boundaries.
When we were introduced to Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) as the Green Arrow in 2012, he was the figurehead of a dark series. One about death and destruction as well as hope. It was a series about a man who did good in the darkest way possible and the tone reflected that. Fast forward four years and Arrow is a drastically different show that still proclaims to be about the same things but rarely takes the steps to prove it anymore. No longer bound by a sense of realism, the show dealt in magic and metahumans, spending more time on the fantastical and villains of the week than diving into the characters it had developed and how this lifestyle had both improved and corrupted them. The lofty goals the series had when it started had been forgotten.
The only reason for that I could find is so that the show could fit in with its counterparts which due to their fantastical elements had to have a lighter and more dreamy tone. The Flash’s introductory season fit around Arrows world and not the other way around but when Legends of Tomorrow came on the scene with time travel and immortals there was no putting Oliver Queen back in a world that made sense to the regular human. Not only did he have to adapt but so did the world he proclaimed to belong to. Arrow and The Flash changed to ensure viewers were more comfortable with watching all three series.
I might be spending a lot of time concentrating on the negatives of this transition and although it is disappointing that a show had to course correct for something it shouldn’t be bound by, it has given way to some clever plot devices and some unique character beats. The way these heroes interact with their equals is something not really touched on in the DCEU or the Marvel Cinematic Universe as there isn’t enough time. Sure they bond in the MCU but they never really get into the kind of ethical and moral dilemmas that their TV counterparts do. When you do 23 episodes a year these are the kind of stories you have the time to dive right into.
On the other end of the spectrum both Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow work best with this tonal shift as despite Supergirl taking on some weighty topics it is escapist viewing. This amazing world is a thrilling escape from real life, the woes of our world and an idealised universe that strives to be better than the one we have to put up with. Legends on the other hand never wants to make a point, it isn’t trying to make its characters better, it just wants to be a romp across time and space. That might put a timer on how long it can survive without finding its relevance but for now it works because it doesn’t ruffle any feathers. It’s characters and its world are apart but still connected. This slight gap gives the show freedom that Arrow, Flash and Supergirl can’t find.
If anything Arrow is the father of the group, dependable and always there, Flash is the mother, the show with the most heart and Supergirl is this worlds daughter, bound to her parents but striving to be better. Legends is the uncle that only really shows up for family gatherings and even then he is a little out-of-place around the rest of the family. The problem with this analogy is that the shows creators understand this and because of this every show suffers from an identity crisis of sorts as they try to live up to what the universe wants from them, not what its characters need.
This leads me to the idea of themes and how these series have bound themselves to different themes to differentiate themselves from their brother and sister shows. That being said they are all linked by the idea of family, one that is vital to this universe but also damaging as it means for someone watching all these shows, something their creators actively encourage, they are hit four times over with similar plot points and character beats. It’s not a complex idea that family equals good, loneliness equals bad but due to this being drilled into us four times a week it creates a kind of fatigue for this approach to storytelling.
In its first two seasons Arrow was a study of a man linked to both the desire to do good and the ability to do the exact opposite and the constant struggle that brings. Sure in season two this point of contention is resolved taking away most of the complexities of the character in a single step but it still lingers in minor ways. Arrow seeks to better its characters because they are flawed and that becomes the main point of the show. We are flawed individuals and although we might take two steps forward at times, we take one back every now and then. The other shows on offer present perfectly put together humans that never struggle with the good and bad inside them and ultimately its a theme that should be intrinsic to all superhero fare, not just the ones with a darker tone. Our actions have consequences and this world paints our heroes as perfect heroes in a perfect world which might just be the most unbelievable thing about it.
My point here is that these shows have plenty to say and many different ways to do so but their invisible ties to each other drag them down in more ways than just the themes they proclaim to be about. While Supergirl exists within a world of its own and Legends escapes the world around it by avoiding it, this works for them. Supergirl is a show about finding where you belong in a world you don’t understand and one that never really wanted you. At its core it is about isolation and this sets it apart. Legends is about running away from your problems, something the characters aboard the Waverider (the time ship the series misfit group of heroes calls home) are doing, whether or not they want to admit it. These shows feel large in scale and vast in where they could go, both storywise and within their own world. There is no limit to the worlds they have built but Flash and Arrow are stuck in their respective cities, Star City and Central City. These characters visit similar places and spend their weeks fighting throwaway villains in a world that seems small.
Even when these two cross over into each others realms it doesn’t feel like an adventure. Oliver and Barry going to get coffee at Jitters (The coffee shop in Central City that Barry frequents in The Flash) is exactly that, two relatively normal people going to get coffee. These shows aim lower than their counterparts and because of it their place in this shared universe seems almost insignificant. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the small things in either series. Be it Oliver’s emotional growth over four years or Barry’s changing idea of what it takes to be a hero, the shows handle their individual heroes with dignity at least.
The creators have spent much time setting up the Arrowverse and the rules of the individual shows. This is no small task and linking them all while making them exist on their own is an unenviable task. My problem is that these characters, and its a shame to have to say it, deserve better. Much time has been spent, for lack of a better term, birthing these shows and not enough time and effort has been put into maintaining them. Plotlines and themes that should have legs to them lack muster as these shows have relaxed into expected patterns. Characters that seemed complex and conflicted have forgotten themselves in favour of outlandish adventures. While I’m more than up for a crossover every year, I want my heroes to be human, have human emotions and puzzle over their decisions and thanks to a world that has ventured out of this world we live in, up to this point it seems to have lost itself in cheap thrills.
Maybe when I’ve watched the next 190 episodes I might have changed my mind. I guess I’ll find out.