“My name is Oliver Queen.”
With that statement, my latest TV obsession began.
For several years, I was hooked on Castle. Hey, he’s a writer. Why would I not like it? The chemistry between Richard Castle and Detective Kate Beckett on screen was fantastic. And the writing? Terse, tense and often hysterical.
But lately the story got … old. Comfortable, yes, but there were few shocks or surprises for me. It has happened to me before, with shows like CSI. So I hunted for something to take me by the shirt collar and say, “Check this out.”
I found Arrow.
For those of you unfamiliar with this superhero show from The CW network — and if you are unfamiliar, I weep for you — it is a modern retelling of the classic DC Comics character Green Arrow. In the comics, Oliver Queen is a wealthy tycoon similar to Bruce Wayne/Batman who fights crime with astounding archery skills. (For you Marvel fans, he’s like Hawkeye, only with more flair and a goatee.) He was initially cast as an anti-establishment, stick-it-to-the-man foil for Green Lantern.
Arrow takes much from the comics but puts its own twist on everything, from the locale to the characters and most importantly, the story.
And it’s fantastic.
A human hero
Many times we see a superhero’s origin story, then a flash ahead to his or her current feats of derring-do. But we never get to see how one’s superhero life develops slowly through challenging and often torturous training.
Take Iron Man, as depicted by Robert Downey Jr. in the trilogy (and yes, I liked Iron Man 2. Sue me.) When Tony Stark finally gets the tech bugs in his suit worked out, he goes and fights the bad guys. How he fights the bad guys never really changes. Nor does his team: Pepper, Rhodey, and of course, JARVIS.
Arrow looks at things differently. When Season 1 starts out, you’ve got Oliver Queen, on his own, doing voice overs in his secret lair as he plans to attack his enemies. By the time the finale of Season 2 rolls around, he’s faced down terrible enemies with a team of allies who watch out for each other and, yes, love each other as an ersatz family. It’s a remarkable journey, one that I recommend you take from Episode One all the way through.
What’s fun is watching him tackle the nuts and bolts of how to set up his vigilante operation in Season 1. He puts together a base of operations in the depths of his father’s abandoned steel factory. Later he decides to reopen a nightclub in the renovated factory, so that he’ll have an alibi for both being out late at night and for being in the crime-ridden Glades neighborhood. Gradually he adds to his crime-fighting repertoire, changes the way he operates, and even his tools. By the time two seasons go by, Arrow is not the Hood.
Yes, I’ve heard the first season derided as “soap opera.” And it is—if by soap opera, you mean a show that focuses overly on the relationships between people. I don’t agree. I think the balance between Oliver’s personal life conflicts and his work as a vigilante is best played out in the way Season 1 develops.
There’s an overabundance of sex in Season 1, I will grant that. Oliver sleeps with, by my count, at least four women. And yet, it is shown clearly that these “intimate” moments are in fact meaningless in the long run. By the end of Season 2, he’s not in any relationship with these women. The one woman to whom he shows the most respect and treats the most in a Biblical fashion is the one woman he doesn’t sleep with. He cares for her, keeps her safe from harm, and makes sure that she is, well, loved.
Season 2 is more chock full of action. The writes ramp up the number of heroes and villains, and while there are nice slow beats in several episodes, the entire season has a more charged, frenetic pace to it. And just when you think it couldn’t take further tension, the writers stretch the finale out over three episodes.
And then there are the bad guys.
Arrow has some of the best villains I’ve ever seen on TV or in film. It’s not just because they get to deliver excellent lines, or sneer convincingly at the good guys—though they do both. These villains are the best because they are real men with real personalities, driven by key events in their lives, just like the hero is. The difference here is that while Oliver Queen seeks justice by righting wrongs, the villains seek a perverted form of justice they think will be achieved by bringing their local world under their control. Consider the following:
- Malcolm Merlyn: The death of his wife years before convinces him that the only way to cure the illness of violence on Starling City is by literally destroying the neighborhood that is the hotbed of crime. Can I just say? John Barrowman aka Malcom Merlyn makes it onto my Best Bad Guys Ever list. Right up there with Darth Vader and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.
- Slade Wilson: The death of someone he loves, coupled with an incident that warps his mind, drives him to vengeance against a friend. A great tragic figure.
- Anthony Ivo: His wife’s illness leads him into a frantic search for a cure that morphs into an obsession, and he indulges in the torture of others in pursuit of that cure.
Of course, like most superhero shows and movies these days, the theme of self-sacrifice runs deep. How much does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Well, Oliver Queen lives that life prior to his getting stranded on the island. He doesn’t find his soul until after that crucible—the name of one of the best episodes, by the way—and he learns what is truly of value. Honor. Bravery. Love. And not the “sex equals love” notion that some TV networks would like you to buy into, but the sacrificial love of Christ. The Arrow puts his life on the line night after night to fix what is broken in his city, and even if he doesn’t die, he gives up what we consider to be a normal life.
(Spoiler) Heroic sacrifices
But even here, the writers don’t put all their eggs in to the main character’s basket. Because the true Christ figure of Arrow is Tommy Merlyn. Set aside the journey he makes from irredeemable bad boy to one-woman-man. He risks his neck to save Laura from death, without any thoughts to his own safety, and pays the ultimate price so that she might live. There is no nobler deed, as Christ pointed out to us all: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 ESV)
That’s why, when Oliver is at one of his lowest lows in early Season 2, and the ghosts of his past literally haunt him, it is Tommy’s image that gives him encouragement. Oliver — the man who puts the fear of God into his targets by growling “You have failed this city” — wrestles with his own overwhelming sense of failure. Because of him, he reckons, many people have died, including dear friend. Including his best friend.
But it is Tommy who spurs him to victory, just as the apostles spur us to victory over sin and death in Christ. When Oliver is pummeled and his friends’ ghosts belittle him or tell him to give up, Tommy says, “You didn’t let me die, Ollie. You fought to save me. Because that’s what you do. What you have always done. You fight to survive. I know I called you a murderer, but you are not. You are a hero. You beat the island. You beat my father. So fight, Oliver. Get up and fight back.”
As far as I can see, this is the best advice to any Christian, especially ones who chase after superheroes.
The world hasn’t beaten you down. Our Savior has beaten it. So get up, and fight.