DC Comics learned the lesson of Marvel’s Iron Man and applied them to television, with Arrow.
Back in 2008, Marvel Studios made their big play for big-screen relevancy with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. The film centered on a relatively B-level superhero, not one overly known to the general masses and one whose adventures took place in the real world which lessened the need for fantastical special effects. We all know how that turned out, with Robert Downey Jr. becoming a born-again movie star and Marvel using the success and popularity of Iron Man to launch an entire big-screen interconnected universe of superhero adventure stories. There has been much talk over the last several years about DC Comics’s attempts to do something similar with their superhero properties. The irony is that they did do something similar, and the results were indeed somewhat similar. But the medium was not film, but rather television. DC learned the Iron Man lesson not with the failed Green Lantern film, but with the 2012 television drama Arrow.
As DC and Warner Bros. (Time Warner Inc.) hope that Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice can kick-start their own interconnected big-screen universe, they already have a vibrant small-screen universe currently trumping the Marvel small-screen one. And tonight starts a two-part crossover with The Flash that amounts to a victory lap. For much the same reason that Iron Man was an ideal vessel with which to begin an interconnected Marvel big-screen universe, so too was Arrow the prime candidate for establishing a small-screen universe. Putting aside the obvious point that Stephen Amell wasn’t a cult movie star like Robert Downey Jr., but rather a relative unknown who looks great with his shirt off (think Chris Hemsworth instead), the formula fits pretty well. Many of the reasons why Iron Man was the ideal universe-starter apply to Arrow as well.
The character of Green Arrow isn’t a complete cult oddity, as he played a big supporting role in Justice League Unlimited, but nor is he a character with which general audiences have much familiarity and/or loyalty. With that lack of mainstream interest comes a certain freedom to screw around with the characters and source material to whatever extent you wish. The show may have been called Arrow and the characters and core origin story may have been from the Green Arrow universe (young billionaire returns to the city after five years on a desert island and takes up the fight against crime and corruption), but there was little attempt to hide the fact that creator Greg Berlanti was basically crafting a season-long variation of Batman Begins.
It was an ideal template for television. The “no super powers” format was perfect for the smaller-budget smaller screen, as it allowed the writers and producers to focus on character melodrama (because comic books are, at heart, soap operas with tights) and practical action sequences. Arrow has perhaps the best fight sequences and stunt-filled action set pieces on network television. The show worked out its kinks through season one and hit its comic book-y stride in season two (which often felt like a loose variation on The Dark Knight Rises, natch). Like Iron Man, the show tells a story of a reformed and formally selfish billionaire, one who chose to use his money for the betterment of all instead of his own selfish whims.
Stephen Amell has become a cult celebrity (he voiced the character in Lego Batman 3 and relishes interacting with the fans on social media) and the show has cemented the chemistry of its core cast (David Ramsey does wonderfully understated work every week), crafting a “brooding loner who is surrounded by surrogate family” ensemble that will remind viewers of Batman and/or Angel. Emily Bett Rickards‘s Felicity Smoak is the most popular quirky/brainy blonde in superhero-ville since Harley Quinn, and noteworthy in that she is valued and desirable for her intelligence as much as her looks. Heading into this year Arrow was probably the best live-action superhero show since Batman way back in 1966.