You’d think, today being the last day of Game of Thrones, I’d be doing another post about the show. However, I’d prefer to talk about shows I’m still enjoying, so I’m going to talk about some CW shows. We live in a world where CW is producing genre shows with more consistent quality than HBO. This is why time travel is bad, Barry.
If that reference doesn’t make sense to you, then you haven’t been watching the Arrowverse shows. And you should be. Granted, I’m a bit biased – I may have mentioned a time or three that I’m a big fan of superheroes. (Seriously, ever single word of that is a link to something I wrote about superheroes – and there’s more later on in this post.) Put a colorful – if not outright stupid – costume on a person, give them a code name and powers, and put them in punch ups with other people in stupid costumes and silly names. I am so there for it.
So it was surprising that when it first came out, I had zero interest in watching Arrow. Just…kinda shrugged and moved on. Part of it was because costumed vigilantes are less interesting to me than people with actual superpowers. Part of it was because it was a CW show, and writing on the CW is…not always the best. And part of it was because, at the time, I was still buying into stupid Marvel vs DC tribalism.
Then, a little while back, I had a few months where I was laid up for health reasons. I used that time to catch up on video games and TV shows I’d missed, and since it was on Netflix, I decided to watch Arrow. Then Flash. Then Supergirl. Then I wanted more. Fortunately, the CW obliged by doing another spin off, Legends of Tomorrow.
I was hooked.
With a new Batwoman spin off announced for fall and with the current seasons of those four shows having just wrapped up, I figured this was a good chance to take a look at the Arrowverse as a whole and why I still enjoy it after all this time.
(Note: the CW show Black Lightning is a superhero show with a similar format to the Arrowverse shows, but so far has not been put into the same continuity as the ones I talk about here. Still a good show though, just outside the scope of this post.)
Minor spoilers ahead, but none for the real twists.
Before I get into extolling the virtues of these shows, I want to take a quick moment to talk about the weak parts. These shows aren’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. The acting can be spotty, outside of the lead actors for each show. The dialogue is often weak, with characters outright stating how they feel. The twenty-two episode length of the seasons means the metaplot can drag on in the middle, and individual episodes can have variable quality. The shows lean heavily on the melodrama, especially for relationships. It never sinks to, for a totally random example, Game of Thrones season eight levels, but it also never rises to Game of Thrones seasons one to four levels.
Okay, we clear on that? Good.
Now let’s talk about why you should totally be watching these shows.
The Arrowverse does what the MCU and DCEU can’t
I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of the big draws of the MCU is that it all takes place in the same universe. Well, due to the presence of the multiverse, they take place in the same universes. Characters interact and, once a season, they have a big cross over between all of the shows to bring them together – while at the same time, managing to solve a problem the MCU has long struggled with.
If you remember, a big complaint leveled against Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was “why didn’t they call the Avengers?” The movies presented no real reason for it. It was just because they weren’t Avengers film. In the Arrowverse, the shows all take place at the same relative time in their universes. Which means while the Arrow is fighting Ra’s al Ghul, Flash is fighting Zoom, Supergirl is fighting Astra, and the Legends are dealing with the Legion of Doom. So the answer of “Why doesn’t the Flash show up to help Arrow” can be answered with “watch Flash to see what he was dealing with that week.”
Another thing that you just can’t get in the movies – small villains doing small crimes. No one wants to watch a two and a half hour movie about Iron Man hunting down and stopping a petty thief who can teleport. It’s perfect for a forty-two-minute episode of The Flash. The world doesn’t need to be in constant peril from every foe they fight. It can be small, which the movies can’t do – at least, not in the same way.
It can also take more time to build up the big bads. Each season of each show has a primary antagonist lurking in the background, driving the events of roughly two-thirds of the episodes – either on camera or behind the scenes. Given that the shows have 22 episodes each, you get to know the monster as well as you get to know the heroes.
They aren’t afraid to embrace comic book weirdness – and use it to make a point.
Comic books are weird. Where else can you find a literal god fighting alongside an alien fighting alongside a science experiment gone wrong fighting against a telepathic gorilla? Outside of comic books, it wasn’t really an experience you could get anywhere else, a blending of genres that only appeared in that medium. The Arrowverse isn’t the first to embrace all that, but nothing else I can think of has done so in the live action space. Even the MCU limits how weird they’ll get with things, but the Arrowverse…let me just describe a few scenarios that actually happen in these shows.
- A guy with a bow and arrow fights a dark wizard.
- A telepathic gorilla fights a giant shark-man.
- An army of villains with superpowers invades from an alternate reality…twice.
- One time, that army of villains is made of Nazi versions of heroes.
- A genius forms a council of alternate versions of himself.
- A man travels through time by running really, really fast. Multiple times.
- An immortal hunts a reincarnating couple throughout time.
- A solar powered alien that looks like a human hunts escapees from an alien prison.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. All these things happen, and they all feel like they organically belong in the same universe even though they’re also patently absurd. It’s the kind of crazy mash-ups that wouldn’t work anywhere else outside of an 80’s cartoon, and they all happen against a background of adults dealing with real adult problems like love, finances, love, watching their parents age, love, making adult friends, and love.
These shows have a lot of romantic subplots.
Although in the shows’ defense, they don’t drag out the “will they won’t they” elements – they’re not afraid to actually have people get together, then showcase the strain that being a superhero would actually put on a relationship.
And that’s what makes them so fun – they’re able to use this weirdness to place a lens up to real world issues, and aren’t afraid to do so. To showcase a particular example – a later season of the Flash has a subplot that centers around a cure for super humans. To avoid spoilers I’m not going to talk about what form this takes or how it’s resolved, but it’s a familiar trope for comic book fans. After all, this is a topic the X-Men have explored only three or four dozen times, so I rolled my eyes a bit when they started doing it.
However, since metahumans in the Arrowverse aren’t born with their powers, instead getting them from exposure to dark matter or strange science accidents, the show doesn’t go the X-Men route of “learning to accept who you are.” Instead, the cure is framed as a matter of bodily autonomy, about giving people control over what happens to their body. Certainly there is nothing going on in the real world this could possibly be seen as drawing parallels to.
Now stop what you’re doing and watch a telepathic gorilla fight a man-shark. You can thank me in the comments after you finish.
They’re willing to do a slow build
I’m gonna drop a slight spoiler for the first three seasons of Arrow here. In episode one, we meet Oliver Queen’s sister, Thea Queen. Shortly thereafter, we learn her nickname – “Speedy.” Now, if you know Green Arrow in the comics, you immediately will recognize this name – it’s his first sidekick, who was also named Speedy. However, Thea is a party girl who as interested in crime fighting as she is in doing well in school. You’re left to wonder how they get from party-girl to crime-fighting badass in a single season.
They don’t. It takes three seasons of organic character growth for her to get there, and as a result, it’s immensely satisfying when it does happen.
That’s the kind of lazy confidence you don’t see often enough in any media. So often shows don’t trust their audience to wait for the big moments. The Arrowverse is fine with taking its time. This is an advantage it has from being on a network that is basically the anti-Fox – they almost never cancel shows before they’re satisfied it’s complete. This is the network that kept Supernatural on the air for 15 seasons, after all.
That slow build gives them the ability develop the characters naturally. Relationships form and grow with time. Superpowers develop slowly and heroes learn how to use them – not over the course of a single episode, but gradually over an entire season or more. It all feels so wonderfully organic that I can’t not appreciate it.
They’re delightfully inclusive.
Superheroes, as a genre, are dominated by white dudes. This is a byproduct of most of these characters having their origins in the 1940’s or 1960’s, a relic of an older era. However, modern adaptations of superheroes have been slow to catch up with the popular culture in this regard – and it’s frustrating. We didn’t get a female-led marvel movie until this year! There are a ton of great characters from the comics that aren’t white dudes that are being ignored for more and more white dudes – and when they do headline characters that aren’t in that category, they often struggle with it.
While the Arrowverse started out with white dudes, its expanded beyond that. Of the soon-to-be five shows, one is a diverse ensemble cast, one is a lead by a woman, one is lead by a LGBTQ character, and two are lead by white dudes. With Arrow having its final season next year, the Arrowverse will be the first superhero universe I can think of where white guys aren’t the majority of leading roles. And given that next year’s big crossover event is Crisis on Infinity Earths, which in the comic books brought together the multiverse into a single universe, I strongly suspect the Arrowverse will be bringing Black Lightning into the fold.
Seriously I’m so excited for this show.
Even outside of leading roles, each show has a supporting ensemble of other heroes that is wonderfully inclusive. We’ve had people from across the spectrum of what humans can be don the silly costumes and get into punch-ups with other people in silly costumes.
And that’s a good thing, because there’s no reason silly costume punching matches should be limited to white dudes. Superheroes are meant to be inspirational figures, and while they’re so archly drawn that anyone can be inspired by them, it’s still nice to see the actual diversity of the world we live in reflected in the medium of punching.
Everyone, everywhere, should feel free to give themselves a code name and punch people…assuming they live in a universe where superheroes are real. Please don’t do that in real life, or if you do, don’t tell people I gave you the idea.
While you’re here, check out my free book! I don’t have a clever segue here. It’s good, read it.