Superheroes have always struggled to translate convincingly into film, let alone TV. For all your fond memories of Sixties Batman Pow!-Zap!ping people dressed as clowns or the green-painted slightly above average physique of the Incredible Hulk straining as he bends bardboard pipes, you were never utterly convinced by it.
Even Smallville, which despite being born in the same dull ditch of post-Dawson’s Creek angst as Roswell High – building up a convincing internal mythology across its ten seasons – was a little silly, requiring enough suspension of disbelief to power a Baptist church.
Arrow isn’t a convincing real-world superhero saga either, but that’s something it shares with the Batman movie it’s gleeful aping.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins wasn’t the definitive real-world superhero franchise – there was very little ‘real world’ about it – it was all effective sleight of hand, where growling and allegory eased some of the more outlandish Caped Crusading concepts into the urban thriller universe he’d built around them. Ultimately, Nolan went halfway, making everything leather and Kevlar and rebranding the Batmobile as the pseudo-paramilitary Tumbler. We, the audience went the other half, going “Yeah, alright then, he’s a man dressed as a bat driving a tank that fires a motorbike out of the front – it’s the definitive real-world superhero movie. This could happen.”
Arrow retraces those steps, slipping its Lincoln Green into the grooves where once Bat-treads trod – almost shot for shot in some cases as we’re sold on the idea that the best way to fight crime in a densely packed urban environment is with a spot of Bourne-grade parkour, a green hood and a longbow. That star Stephen Amell takes his shirt off so much suggests he’s on course to be pin-up of choice for the Hunger Games generation of teenage girls with a fetish for string-powered projectile weapons.
The pilot episode alone offers up the tense reunion with the woman once loved, the flashback to a period of isolated training in Asia, the servant-turned-confidant, the dead father with a moral lesson to impart, the pretending-to-be-a-drunk-playboy-dickhead to bring a social encounter to an end, the new head of the company less than thrilled to see the prodigy return, and even the drive through the under city with accompanying monologue about how the metropolis went to ruin when the benign influence of the family’s company waned.
If you’re going to rip something off, it might as well be the best, and into this creators Greg Berlanti (Green Lantern), Marc Guggenheim (No Ordinary Family, loads of comics) and Andrew Kreisberg (Justice League, Fringe, Warehouse 13 and most importantly, perhaps, the fantastically good fun Green Arrow And Black Canary comic-book) bring their obvious love for DC lore, rebending the mythology of the Green Arrow – in the funny papers depicted as a sort of gimmicky Robin Hood version of Bruce Wayne, with arrows instead of Batarangs – to fit.
The Vampire Diaries’ aforementioned and frequently shirtless Stephen Amell plays Oliver Queen, once a hedonist rich kid, but now changed by the shipwreck that killed his father and left him marooned somewhere in Asia, has finally made it home, albeit as a darker, more troubled figure. He’s a man on a mission, though, and using a bow he brought back from his mysterious island adventure, he fights crime – somewhat lethally – and liberates cash from the bank accounts of those who haven’t earned it, while flashbacks show snippets of the bigger story on the island (including the mask of the presumably dead or vanquished DC universe bad guy Deathstroke).
Black Canary, Dinah Lance, is reinvented as crusading lawyer and ex-girlfriend Dinah ‘Laurel’ Lance (A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Katie Cassidy), still understandably livid with Queen’s returned-believed-dead playboy who she blames for the death of her sister, who he took off for a sexy boat jaunt. Her father’s bitterness has grown more toxic, however, and Detective Quentin Lance (24’s Paul Blackthorne) promises some hefty Captain Stacy-style antagonism. The old, carefree Queen’s best friend, Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), clearly knows something’s up (and he’s got eyes for Lance) and his comic-book guise as rival archer Merlyn suggests their relationship will follow the almost Shakespeareanly obvious Clark/Lex pattern established in Smallville as near-brothers become fractured and grow violently apart.
Queen’s little sister, Thea (The OC and Gossip Girl’s Willa Holland) struggles with substance abuse developed in the years of her brother’s absence – her name echoes Green Arrow’s latter ward Mia her, and her problem with drugs echoes his first ward Roy Harper. To lampshade the connection, Oliver affectionately calls her “Speedy” as a pet name, the moniker under which both sidekicks have operated.
Into this already complex tangle of relationships is thrown an overarching quest that the first season will doubtless develop – a list of bad bastards left to Oliver by his father in a flashback during the shipwreck (these are another labyrinthine raft of comic-book references) – and a conspiracy that rears its head in the shock OMG ending.
With tightly packed drama that promises future payoff as soon as each dynamic is established and amazingly choreographed action sequences of gunfire, martial arts and bow-fu – over the first 60 minutes of its existence Arrow establishes itself as by far the most thrilling, narratively rich and downright impressive genre TV debut of 2012.