Thursday, December 12, 2013

Arrow, or The Breakdown of a "Gritty Reboot." By Mike Fatum

Here's a well known secret for you: I hate "gritty reboots." For the last few decades it seems, everyone wants to take well known characters and strip away everything about them except the name, churning out the same group of chiseled jawed broody heroes for every story. For some characters, it works fantastic - thank god they did a gritty reboot twenty years ago on poor Batman. But a lot of characters thrive in the sun, and a little bit of cheese, and taking them to the stark color palate and constant window-gazing of your typical gritty reboot, and they fade into absolute boredom.

Whoa, how did this picture get here?

So, you can imagine my disinterest when the CW launched their new take on Green Arrow, "Arrow", last year. It had all the hallmarks of the worst reboots - the hero kills someone in the first ten minutes of the first episode, for very silly reasons. Looking at the cast photo above - the people involved all look like your typical CW actors - cast for their looks, but probably not their acting talents. I watched the pilot, gave it a big "meh," and moved on with my life.

But then, you people wouldn't stop talking about it. The show I thought I'd seen could not have inspired that kind of love. So, this year, after everyone on my Facebook collectively flipped out over a season two cliffhanger, I decided to sit down and give the show another chance. The pilot still didn't grab me, but with your collective voices screaming in my head, I sat down to watch more.

And now I'm hooked, damn you.

Here's the thing: Arrow is not a "gritty reboot." Not really. The hero is dark and broody. He does kill people. The supporting cast is full of characters with soap opera like problems. And the color palate is so dark and plain that I often have to close the blinds to watch it correctly. So how is it not a gritty reboot?

Despite all of these trappings, or perhaps because of them, the show actually seems to be a show about deconstructing that narrative rather than celebrating it. It's almost as if someone told the writers they had to do a gritty reboot, and they said "Fine, we'll show what's wrong with that." Yes, Ollie is a killer. But unlike your Deep Space Nines of the world, when Ollie crosses a line there's no one patting him on the back and telling him he did a good job. Every single member of his supporting cast is terrified either of The Hood, Ollie's vigilante alter-ego (They haven't had the guts to call him Green Arrow yet), or if they know his secret, of Ollie himself. The fact is hammered home over and over again that killing is not ok, that Ollie needs to find another way. And it's starting to sink in.

What the show is building is a strange opposite of your typical origin story. Instead of a tale of a idealistic hero who loses hope and learns the only way to win is to play like a bad guy, Arrow is starting with a hero who believes he has to go to that dark place and is consistently learning that he doesn't. It's the story of a person on a mission of revenge that's slowly shifting to a mission of justice. And it's fascinating to watch.

A great deal of this rests on the back of Stephen Amell - a man who has almost no pictures of himself on the internet with his shirt on. I'm not sure if Stephen was that cut when he was cast, but my worries of him being cast for his six pack were very quickly dispelled by the show's flashback sequences. Part of the backstory of the show is that Oliver was trapped on a "deserted" island for five years, where he learned to fight and shoot his bow and arrow. The show frames every episode in flashbacks to the island, in chronological order, so that you're learning the story of Oliver's time on the island at the same time that you're leaning the story of his new live in Starling City.

Amell's Oliver in the city and Oliver on the island are completely different people, unrecognizable from one another. I haven't seen a transformation like this in an actor since Leonardo DiCaprio in The Man in the Iron Mask. It's an impressive feat that each and every episode we see the journey that took the selfish, spoiled Oliver to the driven, murderous vigilante of the present day. And it's very interesting to watch.

The rest of the characters, who all seemed so one note in the pilot, are filled with layers. Characters that you think are selfish become selfless, characters that you think are good become evil then good again - it's much more dramatic than you'd expect from a story like this, and certainly has more character growth than a show like Smallville. (And I loved Smallville.)

There are some weak points. I've only gotten most of the way through Season One, but Oliver's on-again-off-again love interest Laurel doesn't seem like she'd pass a Bechdel Test. And a couple of the one-off villains have been cheesy. But Oliver's story is interesting and well written enough to forgive all that. I won't say it's a perfect show, and there's definitely some groan worthy lines in there, but if you're like me and had written it off, Arrow is worth a second look.

UPDATE: In the time since this article was written, Arrow has had an excellent second season that weaved in material from the comics, and  really continued the theme of Oliver's journey into darkness (in the past) and out of darkness (in the present). My recommendation definitely stands. The show is seriously worth your time.

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