A compelling superhero origin story has a lot in common with a successful television pilot. The past few years have seen a glut of blockbusters explaining a superhero’s traumatic past and whence his powers came, then launching their respective franchises with the initial, bring-the-team-together fight. Just like in a pilot, character outlines and plot elements have to be made clear without dwelling too much on background or exposition, because, after all, we’re there to see some ass-kicking.
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What makes the “Arrow” so successful really doesn’t have much to do at all with the eponymous Green Arrow’s origin story, which the pilot leaves deliberately vague. To sum up: Wealthy playboy Oliver Queen is stranded on an island and presumed dead, then mysteriously becomes a martial arts and archery master and comes back to wreak havoc on the corrupt wealthy of his city. The absent mythology is unmissed. The episode had plenty of cheesy expository lines and hammy voiceover from Queen (Stephen Amell, “Hung”); it is, after all, a CW production. Despite that, it moves at a brisk pace, and if anything more had been added, it probably wouldn’t have sustained the viewer’s credulity or attention.
It’s clear that the Green Arrow of the original comics is heavily indebted to Batman, right down to having an “Arrowcar” and an “Arrowcave” — no, seriously. Visually, it’s all too easy to compare “Arrow” to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. It’s a little unfair that any superhero story without too much sheen immediately becomes categorized as a “Dark Knight” clone, but that speaks to the ubiquity of the Nolan movies more than anything else.
To its credit, “Arrow” doesn’t really try too hard to be “The Dark Knight.” The glimpses of Starling City, the New York clone du jour, show a clear (but not too on the nose) contrast between the lives of Queen and his plutocrat friends and those of the struggling poor. The action sequences are appealingly acrobatic and choreographed. Most importantly, there’s not a whiff of the self-important, intellectual ponderousness that critics of “The Dark Knight” accused of dragging down that franchise. While the dialogue is at times stilted and certain plot elements exasperating, the show is ultimately enjoyable for its straightforward approach.
Stephen Amell is a surprisingly solid presence as the Green Arrow. He had a hard time not sounding lame with the aforementioned voiceover, but Laurence Olivier himself would have struggled with lines that clunky. To Amell’s credit, he rises above the requisite CW cheese, bringing a certain asshole-ish élan to the millionaire playboy façade that serves as his cover and a strong physicality to his scenes as justice personified.
“Arrow” is a series that is well aware of its limitations, and never tries to overstep them. The pilot demonstrated that the show is well able to sustain attention through a dynamic hour, balancing generally well-executed action with sprinkles of exposition, and the end of the episode managed not to be the most hackneyed possible plot twist. For a CW superhero series, consistently staying out of its own way is a serious accomplishment, and “Arrow” is on target. (Oh God).