How "Arrow" Finally Got Superhero Television Right
In Season 3, Oliver Queen's alter ego, Arrow, will face Ra's al Ghul as the Big Bad. But for fans and The CW, he's already won.
On the Vancouver set of Arrow, during an uncharacteristically sweltering August day in the usually cool city, Stephen Amell was bewigged. The star of Arrow was shooting a scene set in Hong Kong, where Oliver landed in the Season 2 finale, finally sprung from the island where he had been captive in flashbacks during the show's first two seasons. As a present-day billionaire superhero, Oliver veers between his (green) Arrow costume and designer suits, with a cropped haircut that matches his grown-up rich-kid station (despite some current financial problems). In flashbacks, however, Ollie is often dirty, bedraggled, and shaggy. Amell apologized for his appearance, and told a story about going home in the middle of a workday — while still in flashback costume — to say hello to his wife and baby daughter, and how he ended up terrifying his child. In a flattened tone, Amell said, "I hate it."
Too bad. Because the nature of Arrow is that Amell, 33, plays multitudes. He is the Oliver Queen who is a Starling City socialite returned from the dead two years before; he is the Arrow, who was fueled by rage upon his return to the world, but now seeks justice and aspires to heroism; he is the Oliver of the flashbacks, who has had to transform from a hapless prisoner to a shrewd, hardened ass-kicker; and in wayback flashbacks, he's Ollie the playboy douche. And within all of those personas, Oliver is keeping secrets, calculating his future moves, and trying to remain a human being.
Andrew Kreisberg, who developed Arrow with Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, said to BuzzFeed News: "We always say, every week we're trying to make a movie. And that wouldn't work if we didn't have a movie star in the lead."
Season 3 of Arrow begins Oct. 8 on The CW. For its first two seasons, it has been the network's most-watched show, averaging 3.8 million viewers in Nielsen's Live + 7 ratings. On Tuesday night, relying on Arrow's strength and presumed audience desire, The CW launched a spinoff, The Flash, also based on a DC Comics property. The Flash, starring Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, was born out of an Arrow Season 2 arc; the two shows are set in different cities, but exist in the same universe, and will cross over. The premiere did incredibly well, drawing 4.5 million viewers. Even at this early stage, executives at DC, The CW, and Warner Bros. (the studio that produces the show), are eyeing a third character who could possibly lead another show. "There are discussions going on," said Mark Pedowitz, the president of The CW, in a recent telephone interview, "but I can't tell you what they are."
In addition to Arrow and The Flash, television currently has a number of comic-book-based shows — AMC's The Walking Dead, Fox's Gotham, ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and NBC's soon-to-premiere Constantine — but let's face it: It's a hard row to hoe. Especially when the genre gets further whittled to superhero TV. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled to find itself creatively in its first season, and Gotham, three episodes in, is making those attempts now. The fanboy community, once won over, is among the most loyal pop culture consumers — but first you have to drag them, screaming, from throwing the project off a precipice of knee-jerk hate.
"When the project got announced, there was a lot of cynicism we were met with online — which, by the way, I totally get," Guggenheim said. "Green Arrow is a character that hasn't always had the most success in comic book form. So the idea of bringing him to a TV show is really hard."
Arrow, as first imagined by Berlanti — the television writer/producer behind Everwood and Brothers & Sisters, among many others — when he got an overall deal with Warner Bros. three years ago and they asked him whether he was interested in developing any DC properties, is an origins story. The show is set to run for five seasons, each flashing back to a year of Oliver's captivity. By the end of the show, Oliver will have evolved from the Hood to the Vigilante to the Arrow — to Green Arrow.
Like Oliver Queen, Arrow has its own origins story. Berlanti said that when asked about doing a superhero show, "I was a little bit hesitant." But when he thought about the hero's journey of Green Arrow, and thought about making it "real, and grounded in reality," he got excited. Berlanti enlisted Guggenheim, a frequent collaborator, and then Kreisberg, who had worked with both of them on the short-lived Eli Stone and had genre credits ranging from Vampire Diaries to Fringe. (It has likely helped that all three of them are comic book devotees — Guggenheim is writing the female-centric X-Men title, and co-writes the Arrow tie-ins. "The fans can smell a fraud," said Guggenheim.)
None of this would matter, though, if they didn't find the right Oliver Queen. The pilot's casting director told the producers that Stephen Amell, a Toronto-born actor who had done arcs on The Vampire Diaries, HBO's Hung, and ABC's Private Practice, was coming in — and they had to decide on him right away.
"Stephen was the very first person to come in and audition for any role," said Guggenheim. "Our casting director David Rapaport said, 'He will be off the market on Friday.' We were, like, 'You've got to be kidding me, the very first person coming in?'"
It ended up not being a problem. Guggenheim said, "I saved the audition on my computer, thinking, well, even if we don't get to cast him, I want to have this guy's audition. Because he's going to be a big star one day."
Pedowitz was already a fan from his previous job running ABC Studios, the producers of Private Practice. "He's a man! He's a man. He was not a, um —" Pedowitz paused to try to describe what he meant. "He was the opposite in what we were seeing in a lot of superheroes at that point. Or heroes in that time. He played a man. He acted like a man."
Shirtless in the pilot.
Arrow has done well since its series premiere. But it still had to get its sea legs. The show began with lots of action, of course, but it also featured some unwelcome soapy elements, as Oliver landed back in Starling City in the middle of a love triangle with his ex-girlfriend Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) and best friend Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell). And critics weren't sure yet what Amell was doing. "I remember reading a lot of reviews, some of which were saying, 'The actor playing Oliver Queen is stiff,'" Amell said. "And in my head, I was, like, I'm not stiff! He's stiff!"
What was working better than Oliver trying to find his way back into his emotional life — with his mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson), and sister, Thea (Willa Holland), as well — was Oliver the "dark purveyor of justice," as Kreisberg put it. He literally had a list and was taking names, exacting revenge on villain after villain (some of whom were familiar from the comics) — and killing a lot of people. As Season 1 began, with critics and fans weighing in, the writers realized the show's strengths. As a result, Berlanti said, "We got to pull back on some of the relationship drama."
Yet no matter how brooding a superhero is, he does need friends. John Diggle (David Ramsey), Oliver's bodyguard, soon realized his charge's secret, and began to help. But more important, the writers created — completely by accident — the character of Felicity Smoak for Arrow's third episode, and cast Emily Bett Rickards to play her. It was just a brief role for an IT person, stemming from story necessity. But it ended up changing the show.
"Andrew Kreisberg, Greg Berlanti, and I, we all come from the same school of writing, which is very quippy and bantery and funny," said Guggenheim. "Basically, we designed a show we couldn't write. The voice of the characters is completely opposite to our voices as writers. Oliver doesn't talk that much! Dig is a man of few words. It's a very dark show." Exhausted from work, Kreisberg and Guggenheim, who were writing the episode, used their own voice to create an ancillary character. "That turned out to be Felicity," Guggenheim said.
Rickards' Felicity was a scene-stealer from the jump — and she's that exact nerdy, smart, appealing person a portion of the audience wants to imagine as its stand-in. Her chemistry with Amell was obvious as well (Google "Olicity fanfiction" if you dare). "We discovered that the show needed an element that we didn't realize it needed, and that was this levity — this other point of view for Oliver," Guggenheim said. "And it really opened the show up."
They began immediately writing her into future episodes, and she became a series regular. With Colton Haynes joining the show later in Season 1 as Roy Harper, Arrow had found its crew, and was on a roll. Guggenheim remembers when he realized the show had won over the once-reluctant fanbase. "It was March of our first season," he said. "We brought some of the cast down for WonderCon in Anaheim. We did a panel, and we were walking around the floor, and we were like Sally Field: They like us! They really like us!"
The Arrow pilot, directed by David Nutter, set a high bar for its future visuals and action — the world was lush and rich-looking, and the fight scenes were no joke. Warner Bros., Guggenheim said, was initially concerned that the show could even be produced each week, much less live up to the expectations it had set. "We've had to develop a whole new way of producing a television show on our budget and on our schedule," said Guggenheim.
In addition to the usual storyboards for action scenes, he said, the stunt team pre-tapes the set pieces. That means the director and producers have already seen a version of what the actors (and stunt actors) will eventually enact for the show. In the same vein, the costume designer and prop master camera test everything in order to avoid cheesy disasters. Guggenheim said: "It's hard to get these comic book costumes right. Maya Mani, our costume designer, and Ken Hawryliw, our prop master, they've basically had to figure out a way to design and produce these comic book costumes that in feature films take years, or at least a year, to develop. They have to do it on an episodic basis."
The show also squeezes its dollars. "The amount of time we spend sometimes trying to save $2,000 or $1,000 — it's very unconventional for a show," Guggenheim said. "But for us, we always say $1,000 is real money."
It's a get-it-done mentality. Paul Blackthorne, who plays Quentin Lance, the police detective/officer/captain (it's been a sliding scale for Lance), described the attitude on set. "Let's just get the TV show made, all right? No drama, anybody," he said. "Let's just get shit done."
The rewards are obvious. The show has, if anything, elevated its production; The Flash, which Kreisberg is running, now exists; and in April, Time called Arrow the "the best, most fully-realized superhero franchise out there." (Yes, including movies.)
Grant Gustin as Barry Allen, aka The Flash.
Each season, Arrow plans out what Oliver's emotional journey will be, and this year we will see, Guggenheim said, "Am I a hero, or am I a human? Am I Oliver Queen, or am I the Arrow?" Having defeated Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) — Deathstroke — in the Season 2 finale, and not killing him, Oliver will begin this season feeling pretty good about himself. "It's a very different character," said Amell. "He smiles, he laughs, he's relaxed. It's a much closer proximity to me as a person. So it's been a lot of fun to play."
According to Amell, Oliver has also been, at least as of the first several episodes, less shirtless than usual. Arrow's popularity is based on many, many things — and one of those things is Amell's body, which the show uses to great effect. Sitting in his decked out trailer on the show's set, wearing a hat to cover up his wig, Amell talked frankly about how that feels. "Listen, I'm not gonna complain about it," he said. "I will say that every once in a while I get my back up when the first question is about my abdomen and not about the fact that Time magazine wrote that we might be the best superhero TV show ever. If the show was about my abs, then people would have watched the pilot, created a GIF on the internet, and not watched the second episode. So part of me wants to be, like, Fuck off."
This more fully realized Oliver has a lot to contend with in Season 3. Thea will be dealing with the revelation that her father, the one-time (and future?) villain Malcolm Merlyn (played by John Barrowman) wants her in his life; Dig is going to be a father, which complicates the group's tenuous, risk-taking existence; and Felicity and Oliver will take tiny steps in trying to deal with their feelings for each other. There will be interactions with The Flash that are both on a smaller scale (character exchanges) and a full-blown crossover in both shows' eighth episodes — even as the two dramas seek to maintain their very different tones. "If you're looking for superpowers, you're more likely to find them on Flash than on Arrow," Guggenheim said. Then he thought for a moment, and added that the crossover will have "the most superpowers we've had on the show."
As far as DC canon goes, Laurel's trajectory — now that she knows who Oliver is —will also be key. Without using the words "Black Canary," Katie Cassidy spoke obliquely about what's to come for Laurel. "If you follow me on Instagram, if you follow me on Twitter — people are, like, 'Have you been working out?' Yes!" It's a relief; the show hasn't served Laurel well yet. "Laurel's always been sort of a tricky character for us," Guggenheim said. "Especially with female characters, you don't want to define them by their love affairs." The remedy for that begins immediately, he added (also without saying "Black Canary"). "This is a big year of evolution for Laurel. And that starts in the very first episode."
It's Ra's al Ghul, the mythical supervillain, though, that has excited fans the most. Describing the Hall H reaction to Ra's at Comic-Con, Amell said: "When we said Ra's al Ghul's name, and we revealed him, that was an incredible sound. It wasn't a cheer, it was more like an, 'OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.' Like someone got dunked on in a basketball game or something." He will be the Big Bad of Season 3.
Played by Liam Neeson in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films, the Arrow braintrust was thrilled to read that Neeson said he'd consider reprising the role. "We never thought he would," said The CW's Pedowitz. "We quickly went to him, just on the off-chance that he had the time to do it." (He did not; Matt Nable, an Australian actor and former rugby player, got the part.)
Guggenheim said they approach huge comic moments "with a great degree of trepidation, I would say. But also excitement." Kreisberg said they've veered from Neeson's interpretation of the character. "What we're trying to do is something a bit more elemental," he said. "Presenting a Ra's al Ghul who's a bit more primal. More of a legend and a whisper and something to be feared."
What you can be sure of is that the show won't tiptoe around the character, and his interactions with the Arrow world. That is not the show's way. "Greg Berlanti always says, 'You have a hit TV show until you don't.' That's his thing," Amell said. "So why are we saving something? We just press on. Press on, press on, press on, press on."
Arrow's Season 3 premiere is on Wednesday, Oct. 8, at 8 p.m. on The CW.
This story has been updated with the ratings for The Flash premiere.