When Oliver Met Barry: Is That An Arrow In Your Episode Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?
Today’s millennial generation may have a hard time understanding that as recently as the early 2000’s comic book fans had to endure years between getting their comic book movie fix. Flash forward to 2015 and we are now on the cusp of a golden age for fans of the super hero genre. Since 2012, television has spawned weekly live actions series based on comic book properties such as Constantine, The Walking Dead, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Peggy Carter, Batman, The Flash and The Green Arrow with a plethora of shows including Daredevil and Powers just on the horizon. Although we are still in the infancy of seeing these beloved characters represented on the small screen, there have already been some fantastic high points. I recently “nerded” out after hearing that Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne would make their way to television on Gotham. I sat on the edge of my couch in eager anticipation of the revelation of what brought Agent Coulson back from the dead on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Despite stiff competition from several of televisions recent “geektastic” highs, no single television event thrilled me as much as seeing The Flash and The Green Arrow side by side on my tv screen.
I do not feel like I am putting my reputation on the line when I assuredly claim that Stephen Amell or Grant Gustin will not be awarded the Emmy for best actor for their respective work on The CW’s Arrow and The Flash. I’m definitely not going out on a limb saying that either program isn’t on the precipice of earning a Golden Globe for storytelling or best ensemble. To be honest, both shows bring in miniscule ratings compared to what the major networks broadcast opposite them on any given night. The one thing that I can definitively say that Flash and Arrow do better than any show on the air right now is send hypnotic signals over the airwaves that travel straight into my brain and manipulate my mind by turning off the parts of it that I use to rationalize and make sense of the world. In other words, Flash and Arrow are The World’s Greatest shows at providing me with 40-minute intervals of pure, unadulterated joy and nonsensical excitement.
Finding out that Flash and Arrow would being sharing the screen in a two episode cross-over event (Flash vs Arrow and The Brave and the Bold) engulfed me in a nerd-gasmic rapture on par with finding out that Haley’s comet would not only be returning early, but passing through several double rainbows and leaving a trail of Cocoa Puffs in its wake. Leading up to Tuesday December 2 and Wednesday December 3, I manically scratched each passing day off on my calendar with the feverish desperation of a federal prisoner counting down the last few days of his 25-year jail sentence. As much as I looked forward to seeing colourfully dressed masked men, using punches and kicks to the face to keep villainy at bay, there happens to be one significant element of their team up that I can appreciate on a much deeper level. The Flash and Arrow cross over event acted a superhero coming out party with each show finally acknowledging that for series about a couple of guys that run around their cities in colorful, skin tight leather, the subject matter is often taken far too seriously.
As much as I appreciate that these live-action superhero movies and tv shows exist, I also must acknowledge that we are getting watered down versions of our favorite heroes and villains. I attribute the disconnect between what comic book fans want and what studios are prepared to give them to the antiquated notion that superheroes and comic books are not “cool”. As nerd culture continues rapidly permeating modern day pop culture, the once pervasive line of thinking that comic book subject matter is for children and lonely, dateless men no longer holds up. Even as Hollywood continues to suck the lucrative comic book source material well dry, they refuse fully embracing the subject matter’s core elements (superpowers, code names, colorful costumes). We live in an era where a Batman film that raked in over a billion dollars at the box office refused to refer to Selina Kyle as Catwoman. On the series Smallville, Clark Kent spent a decade running around Smallville and Metropolis forging an identity as “The Blur” rather than follow his natural evolution into Superman. On Arrow, Oliver Queen spent most of his time in Starling (which should be Star City) being referred to as The Vigilante before the show almost gets it right by just calling him The Arrow. Changing the bright colors of a character’s costume so that it translates better on television is an unfortunate but necessary alteration that needs to be made to make the jump from the comic’s inked pages, but what’s wrong with getting the characters name right? It’s these kinds of adjustments that tell comic book fans that their heroes are silly and must be altered so that non-fans can accept them.
Much like Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Oliver Queen’s journey on the series Arrow begins in a world that was so similar to our own that it appeared as though super powered heroes and villains could not exist. As the show progressed, it started to lean more heavily on comic book tropes like men with enhanced strength (Solomon Grundy), Oliver wearing a mask (instead of a smear of make-up) and meta-humans (Barry Allen). It is no coincidence that as the series got more “comic booky” it got better. The CW only became comfortable giving fans a show like The Flash after Arrow slowly revealed that embracing Arrow’s comic book roots was not scaring the audience away.
The current television versions of The Flash and The Arrow characters perfectly represent the black and white decision making behind the way that movies and television prefer to represent the genre. The predominant line of thinking is that grim, humourless heroes will cater to mature audiences while light hearted, super powered, bright costumed heroes are juvenile. Lightning striking Barry Allen and leaving him with the ability to outrun bullets is ludicrous. And guess what? A man with a bow and arrow warding off a highly coordinated team of terrorists is ludicrous too. When television and movies pick and choose what elements of the characters are so geeky that they must be excluded they are missing the point. Spider-man is a story of a teenager who despite life knocking him down and kicking him in the teeth, carries on fighting and remaining optimistic. It shouldn’t matter how dark of a blue his costume is or if his web shooters are mechanical or organic. If a writer is charged with creating a Spider-man script and they think it’s silly that a teen-ager wears tights and can stick to walls, they shouldn’t rectify it by putting him in a gritty, humorless, realistic world. They should go and create another 90210 reboot.
Of the two programs, Flash is the truer to its origin and not coincidentally lighter in tone. The series Flash incorporates villains with names like Captain Boomerang and The Pied Piper and the team’s headquarters contains a secret underground super-villain prison. The show also happens to be a lot of fun. So far, The Flash is beating Arrow in the ratings. It’s also no coincidence that Arrow’s highest rated episode of the season by far was the Flash crossover (3.92 million viewers with the next closest episode bringing in 3.06 million). With Hollywood being what it is we all know what comes next. Over the top comic book based series are going to start popping up like the tiny critters in a game of whack-A-mole until market over saturation drives audiences away from the genre.
Although the intention of bringing the Flash and Arrow series together for a crossover event was initially just a blatant attempt to boost ratings through cross promotion, the true benefit of the amalgamation was that it took the shows out of their tonal comfort zones and redefined each of their narrative boundaries. Oliver represents the grim, humourless, brooding real world tales that studios have been feeding us with our comic book movies and Barry offers us the exuberant first steps into impossible fantasy worlds that ring true to their fantastic roots. By bringing these two series diametric worlds together the writers found a Meta way of saying to the fans that they know how silly each program becomes when they only embrace one end of a very wide emotional spectrum. In order to have a well rounded Arrow series, Oliver needs to fall in love, Diggle needs to crack wise and Felicity needs to…actually leave Felicity as she is, she’s great. The Flash series will be more compelling when the mood is not always so cheery, the stakes are raised and the Star Labs team treats their villains as more than impotent threats and silly punch lines.
Bringing the characters together extended the scope of both programs and created a narrative hybrid target that both series must continue to aim for. Somewhere between the 1960’s Batman and 2008’s The Dark Knight there exists a sweet spot for the perfect Batman iteration to exist. When the CW mashed together their two vigilante series, they overlapped The Flash’s exuberance and bombast with the grim machinations of Arrow and created the equivalent of a superhero television Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. For that brief 80-minutes of superhero television the stars aligned, the comic book gods were appeased and I enjoyed The Flash and Arrow more than ever because they did a better job at unabashedly recreating the elements that fuel my love of comics.