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Arrowverse: 2017/2018 Year In Review
When the CW launched Arrow six years ago, it's unlikely anyone thought it would become a big enough hit to launch a shared universe of superhero shows. It was a show about the Green Arrow, after all, DC's bargain-bin Batman. He's a rich playboy who decides to fight crime, but with a bow and arrow. That's cool, right?
Launching a show about the Green Arrow, all on his own, is like putting a show together about Hawkman. Sure, someone will watch it (one person, maybe), but how many people were really clamoring for the sexy teen adventures of Robin Hood?
Actually, I have a feeling the sexy teen adventure of Robin Hood would do really well on the CW. *jots that down*
Despite the word of the nay-sayers, Arrow was a hit. It was a "dark and gritty" take on the Green Arrow character (although he didn't use that name for the first few seasons, instead going as "the Hood" or just "the Arrow"), one obviously inspired by the Christopher Nolan Batman films (albeit on an obviously smaller budget). Considering everyone was willing to ignore it because it was on the CW ("what, is this gonna be 'Green Arrow High'?"), it's amazing the show worked.
With the success of Arrow, eventually the CW figured, "hell, there are these other superheroes in the DC universe. Why not bring some of them in for their own shows?" Thus, in season three of Arrow we're introduced to Barry Allen who would, eventually, go on to launch his own show: The Flash.
Where Arrow was grim-dark, The Flash was light and zippy. It felt like a superhero show, one about powers and mad-cap villains and weird capers. It was a blast and became its own hit, so it only made sense for more shows to launch into the universe. Legend of Tomorrow was the next for the CW, and it was essentially a play on the Justice League -- a bunch of heroes (mostly B-listers from the other shows) come together to travel through time and fight evil. While not a huge success on its own, it grew into a great show (after a lackluster first season).
CBS then got in the game, launching Supergirl. DC has always had a weird relationship with its TV and cinema sides -- if a character is showing up in live-action movies, they can't show up in live-actions TV shows, too. That's how you get a Supergirl show on CBS where Superman never appears, or Gotham on FOX which is basically "Batman before Batman". It's weird.
Despite the strangeness of having a character integral to the Superman-mythos get her own show and never actually have Superman show up (at least, not in the first season), Supergirl worked. Like The Flash it was fun and bright and zippy, an enjoyable superhero romp that just so happened to feature a female lead (still a rare instance, sadly). While the show didn't have the greatest ratings (on a CBS scale), they were great in comparison to the CW shows, so after the first season (with a fun crossover with The Flash), Supergirl moved to the CW to officially join the Arrowverse family of shows.
That eventually leads us into the last year, with Arrow turning six, The Flash hitting four, and both Legends and Supergirl grabbing the big three. Since these shows are all very much established, let's take a look at how the last season played out for each of them:
Arrow has struggled in recent seasons, waffling between tones. This is, in large part, because the show is trying to balance the grounds, gritty realism that's a core part of its storytelling (well, as much as you can have with a vigilante that fights crime dressed in Robin Hood cosplay) with the fact that the show takes place in a word of meta-humans and superheroes. The show swings at times between grim-dark and goofy, and while sometimes it's works, there are a number of plotlines that have been more miss than hit as of late.
Season six started strong with the introduction of villain Cayden James who was looking to bring Oliver Queen (aka, the Green Arrow) down. He started this by revealing to the public who the Arrow really was which then pinned a number of crimes on Oliver (killings that the Arrow admittedly did, but since it was bad guys we weren't supposed to think too hard on that before now). This left Arrow fighting a war on a few fronts between trying to stop Cayden's criminal plans (something something bomb in the city) and trying to clear his name. Oh, and the team of heroes he'd gathered around him (Spartan, Wild Dog, Black Canary II, and Mr. Terrific, most of whom you probably haven't heard of outside this article) had its own little civil war and split apart.
The thing was that Arrow has always worked best when it focused on Oliver and kept the plotting grounded. While Cayden was interesting for a number of reasons, he wasn't really a fresh idea. There'd already been a plotline to blow up Arrow's city (season four) and there'd already been a villain looking to bring Arrow down and expose him for who he was (season five), so there was nothing new here. The show could just go bigger, and spread itself thin trying to explore all these various heroes and their personal lives, instead of doing what it did best: Oliver, with an arrow, kicking ass.
The whole back half of the season was a mess, with a villain whose name I can't even remember, a plot that really didn't make much sense (something something crime organization shoved in at the last minute), and then a finale that would have been much more satisfying if it had developed more organically. While the season wasn't a total loss, it could have been so much better.
There is hope, though, as it looks like next season will, at least in part, be an adaptation of the unproduced Green Arrow film Escape from Supermaxx. That should give us a different storyline, at least, which might spur Arrow to good heights again.
If Arrow was a mess, The Flash was an absolute waste this season. The new villain for the season, The Thinker, was just an absolute bore. This was a villain who, through his own means, made himself the smartest person ever. He could out-think anyone else and was always five steps ahead of Team Flash. Thus, whatever they did only fed into his plans.
Here's the thing: villains of infinite power aren't interesting. If they can always do anything, and can always be ahead of the heroes, then nothing the heroes do matters. That's how we end up with 22 episodes of, essentially, filler all because the villain is super-powerful and never loses. Nothing the team does has any consequence against the Thinker, and they only win the day in the end, essentially, because the season was over so they had to win. There's an anti-climax of a resolution and then the day is just kind of saved.
That's not to say a lot of stuff doesn't happen in the season as there's all kind of events: Barry and Iris (his love throughout the whole series) married. Barry gets framed for a murder, goes to jail. Barry gets out of jail. New heroes, like the Elongated Man, are introduced. Most of them die. And through it all the Thinker keeps chugging forward, every step a part of his plan.
The best episodes of the season, really, were the ones that didn't have anything to do with the Thinker: Crisis on Earth X, which was the big crossover between all four of the Arrowverse shows as the heroes team up to fight evil Nazi versions of themselves from an alternate dimension (and it's just as dumb, and as awesome, as that sounds). When your best episodes aren't part of the main plotline and could, essentially, be considered a mini-series and not part of the main season, you know your show has gotten lost in the weeds.
To be frank, I don't know if this show can recover. The Flash got so bad this season I almost stopped watching and, if it wasn't for the fact that it crosses over with all the other shows (and I wanted to keep up with those events so I would understand the crossovers) I totally would have bailed. If it gets worse next season, I likely will tune out (crossovers be damned).
I'm a fan of this show, but I will fully admit that Supergirl season three is the weakest of the run. Some of this can be attributable to Kryptonian fatigue: every season so far we've essentially had Supergirl go up against a Kryptonian, someone equal to her in power. I get it: she's a super-tough lady so you need to give Supergirl a villain that can actually defeat her. But three seasons in, we've pretty well seen it all.
I didn't hate the villain of this season, Reign (who is, essentially, the female version of Superman's enemy Doomsday), but a lot of the season did feel like treading water. "Reign is going off and doing this, go fight her!" and then Supergirl wins or loses (usually loses) and Reign retreats. Her whole big plan doesn't really come to fruition until the last three episodes so, like with The Flash much of the season feels like plate-spinning.
Probably much of this is down to serialized storytelling. Since the writers clearly wanted every episode this season (outside of Crisis on Earth X) to relate to the Reign storyline, there wasn't a lot of room for the old villain-of-the-week episodes the show used to do. And it makes sense, in a way: Reign viewed herself as a hero so if another villain shows up, Reign would have fought it. But hey, maybe that could have worked. Instead of having Reign be a bad guy from the beginning, automatically diametrically opposed to Supergirl, maybe they could have worked together fighting other crimes before Reign went evil.
Maybe it sounds a little formulaic, and certainly we've seen the "dark hero slides into evil" story before (Buffy did that whole plotline in third season with Faith) but it would have been more interesting that what we got and it would have helped to at least delay the feeling that we were just seeing Supergirl fight yet another Kryptonian for yet another year.
Sadly, I don't know that we'll be getting away from Kryptonian fatigue any time soon. The season ended with a duplicate Supergirl showing up in Russia (with no explanation why) so presumably Supergirl will be fighting an evil version of herself the next time around. Yay?
Legends of Tomorrow
So this show shouldn't work. First season of Legends was absolutely awful with a grim-dark storyline that rotated around Hawkman and Hawkgirl. And maybe that storyline could have been okay, but Hawkman was an absolute snore (the dude playing him had less charisma than Keanu Reeves dosed up on Ambien doing his best impression of a wooden board). It's no wonder they ditched the Hawks at the end of the season and have never, ever brought them back (and this is a show that's more than willing to revisit characters just because it can).
Thankfully, with second season forward, the show ditched it's dark and gritty plotting and became something better: a bouncy, stupid show that doesn't take anything seriously. This last season featured the return of recurring villain Damien Dhark, a sorcerer that first showed up on Arrow before being a part of an "Injustice Society" of a sort on season two of Legends. Bringing him back initially seemed like a terrible idea -- honestly, hadn't we already seen enough of Damien. But then the season introduced us to his daughter (who was a vessel for a demon), and we started getting this weird family sitcom vibe from the two of them. Damien suddenly became a compelling character, and the whole season fused together into a better whole.
And, again, this is a show that doesn't give a shit. It did a time loop episode where characters inside the episode name-checked both Groundhog Day and the time-loop episode of Star Trek: TNG, "Cause and Effect". It's a show that devoted an episode to the Vikings taking a time-displaced Tickle Me Elmo-style doll, Beebo, as their new god. It is, in short, stupidly fun.
Whatever the producers have planned for season four, I'm in.
Special mention should also be made of the newest CW superhero show, Black Lightning. Although not technically part of the Arrowverse (it presumably takes place in some dimension the rest of the heroes haven't visited yet), the show has the same production values, same vibe to it.
I did really enjoy this show. It had a shortened, 13 episode first season and the show hit the ground running. Since the character of Black Lightning had already had a career for years before the show picks up, we don't have to sit through another origin story. So much of the story happened before the characters are even introduced that we just get snippets of it over time, which allows the actual super-heroics to unfold organically. It's great.
I'm interested to see where this show goes and if the solid pacing of the first season can be replicated when the show comes back to a full, 22-episode order.
Now to see if the other superhero projects that Warner Bros. have announced from the Arrowverse creative team (such as Titans) can measure up to the heights of what the CW has done so far.