Arrow Season 3: Literally Everyone Is A Ninja Now
Well, another year of empty warehouses, teenage romances in adult bodies, and scowling has come to an end. The superhero television landscape has changed considerably since Arrow‘s pilot episode almost three years ago. At the time, live-action superhero drama was pretty much limited to Arrow and reruns of Smallville, but now the field is crowded with contenders. From DC’s other TV series Gotham, to Marvel’s movies-tied Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Daredevil, and Agent Carter, to Arrow‘s own successful spinoff show The Flash. And many more cape-and-mask shows on the way! So how is Arrow stacking up now that the competition has gotten so stiff?
*WARNING! SPOILERS ALL OVER THE PLACE!*
The season opened boldly with the surprise murder of Sara Lance aka the Canary. I suppose it was always in the cards. Sara’s sister Laurel has always been on track to become the Black Canary comics fans know and love, and I guess the Canary mantle is a lot like Highlander.
But the show essentially burns up one of its strongest players to make emotional fuel for the rest of the cast, and having seen the payoff I’m still not convinced it was a strong play. Sara, as a dramatic character, had it all – torn between two ninja lovers, a compelling ninja backstory, and a muscular ninja body to give Ronda Rousey chills. I can’t help but feel like the hole she left was never quite filled.
Perhaps it would be easier to forget the fierce yet sympathetic warrior if it weren’t for her sister parading around in her skin. Laurel’s decision to honor Sara’s death by becoming the new Canary never clicked for me, first and foremost because I was never able to take the skinny Katie Cassidy seriously as a physical threat. Secondly, I was never able to take lawyer Laurel Lance seriously as a threat. The show feeds us a few shots of Laurel’s thin arms being swallowed by her boxing gloves and expects us to believe she’s a “rookie with promise” type, and it just never worked for me. You know, vague, cartoonishly exaggerated training is a sort of a superhero origin in itself. You’ve got a guy over here who trained for “five years on a hellish island,” and a girl over there who spent years in a secret ninja killer society..and then you’ve got a grieving attorney in an Everlast ad. Even when Nyssa swoops in to give her a little of the League’s Secret Stuff, it’s just no dice.
What was crazier was that no one but Oliver thought it was crazy! In fact, when Oliver balks at the untrained Laurel jumping across rooftops with nothing but her Edward Scissorhands cosplay, the rest of the team shakes their heads at him! The show’s writers seems to take it in stride that angst gives a person both the right and the capability to hit the streets, when in real life it’s almost the exact opposite. Honestly, Laurel was never stronger than in the first season, as a crusading legal eagle. Even today, all Cassidy’s best scenes are at the police station, confidently shoving papers with official stationery in her police captain dad’s face.
Of course, the options for the Laurel character are few, now that she’s been supplanted as the romantic interest. It’s easy to see why one of comics’ most cherished relationships has had difficulty taking hold on the small screen. There is a sweet fun and cheer to what’s between the Green Arrow and Black Canary of the comics which is impossible between their stony TV counterparts. In fact, between Stephen Amell’s unyielding poker face and Cassidy’s resting bitch face, any scene with just the two of them threatens to collapse the show into a scowling singularity.
But this doesn’t mean I’ve ever been sold on the fan-favorite “Olicity” option. There’s no doubt that since her IT girl’s unassuming early appearances in season one, Emily Becket Richards has managed to light up a considerable flame. It’s likely her star will shine even after Arrow has aired its final episode. Felicity is the missing piece this iteration of Green Arrow didn’t even realize it needed, an effervescent presence (with a bottomless bag of computer jargon-based plot devices to boot) in a sea of grim frowns.
And yet the moment the show, based on a vocal fan minority, attempted to push Oliver and Felicity together the pairing has felt horribly wrong. At least Cassidy and Amell had a sizzling chemistry. Felicity’s schoolgirl crush on Oliver Queen’s abs has slowly morphed into a kind of Stockholm’s, with the bubbly tech genius chasing an agitated Oliver around the Arrow Cave. It’s incredible to me that we’ve seen Felicity burn not one but two healthy and (more importantly) entertaining romances in favor of Oliver’s sneering rejections, and even more so that the show opted to pivot an entire season around this deeply dysfunctional romance.
As far as the villains this season, Vinnie Jones’ “Brick” was fantastic, whose stunning takeover of the Glades and revealed past as murderer of Malcolm’s wife gave him incredible resonance. I loved seeing his rise and fall. As far as Ra’s al Ghul, perhaps no one could have lived up to the two seasons of hype this character received. Still, the leader of this guild of master assassins came off as less an undefeatable fanatic and more a somewhat arrogant karate instructor. And a hint of an exotic accent could not disguise Mathew Nable’s thoroughly Saxon features, but he comes in with his best Liam Neeson impression and does the job.
The greatest “villain” this season, however, was probably police captain Quentin Lance. Paul Blackthorne has long been delivering my favorite performances in Arrow, so when Lance discovered the secret identity of the Arrow and finally puts the cuffs on Oliver, I knew I was in for some good stuff. I was not disappointed. The incredibly intense one-on-one between Lance and Queen in the police van in episode 18 (“Public Enemy”), as Lance just unloads on Queen for the problems he’s caused the cop’s family, is easily my favorite scene of this entire season.
John. Motherfucking. Diggle.
If David Ramsey got his own spinoff I’d be watching that and probably leaving Arrow behind altogether. His struggles this season with being a crime fighter, occasional soldier, and family man have been enthralling. And critically, I always still LIKE him afterwards (unlike certain other arrow-slinging sourpusses). His own conflicts with his wife’s employer and secret government agency A.R.G.U.S. were always many times more well-founded than Oliver’s often self-made difficulties with the League.
And the same way Digster acted as the rock to Team Arrow, so too has he been the rock for Task Force X, a team you can always tell the CW is ready to spin off into their own program should the fan reaction warrant it. But while the Suicide Squad has sadly never been stocked with the right mix of characters to justify more than the occasional self-contained episode, the end of Diggle’s arch-nemesis Deadshot was an unexpectedly powerful little arc. Flashbacks traced his dark career back to his war-born PTSD. Haunted by his own unerring accuracy on the battlefield, Deadshot slowly disintegrates until an act of violence against his wife costs him his family. Sometimes the show allows itself to unmoor from its secret societies and magic steroids to tell a human story, and when it does it holds a lot of power.
Nyssa was a great presence as well. Although her budding training relationship with Laurel is little more than show filler (did I mention Laurel barely figures into the season’s denouement, except to appear in group shots?), and her moments of humanity where she is befuddled by modern luxuries like milkshakes are cringe-inducing, I at least never felt that she was being characterized poorly. Now serving in a League of Assassins led by her lover’s murderer, I look forward to seeing her struggle to take leadership of the League out of Malcolm’s slimy hands.
I can’t say I didn’t believe in Malcolm’s motivations either. Truth be told, my only issue with the character is the characters around him and how they keep falling for his paper-thin ruses. I honestly wonder if the writers could get away with keeping him even in cease-fire position with the main cast if the archvillain weren’t played by the captivating John Barrowman. His natural charm resonates even when he’s playing the basest kind of weasel.
Let’s get to the 180-lb elephant in the room: Oliver “I know what’s best for you” Queen. I can’t help but be bitterly disappointed that Oliver did not take his place at the head of the League of Assassins. His resistance to taking the position (at least before we discovered that brainwashing and eradicating Starling City were part of the deal) was bewildering and frustrating. After all, he had been trying to dole out justice with one bow, and here he was being offered thousands. It was Team Arrow taken to where it would be decades from now, overnight. And as soon as Oliver has all that power in his grasp, he chooses to give it away to a mass murderer.
Why does no one ever mention the hundreds of people Merlyn massacred in season one? This whole season we’ve only heard about Sarah, as if that were the first time Merlyn showed his true colors. Sometimes the characters of Arrow appears to suffer amnesia in between each season. “Earthquake machine? No, I don’t recall anyone covertly assembling and setting off a devastating earthquake machine.”
Speaking of amnesia, how has Oliver never mentioned he had every possibility to head home after his adventures in Hong Kong, but chose not to because he was sad? I’m not saying that this more mature Oliver, his soul heavy, MIGHT not have opted to delay his homecoming, but isn’t it incredibly unlikely? Furthermore, it undermines the show’s essential premise, that being Oliver spent five years desperate, but unable, to return home. That he had this open window at one time to do so, but chose to let his mother and sister go on believing he had died with his father, is just another terrible and selfish decision on the part of the show’s main character which the show almost flippantly tries to frame as deep.
And this, to me, is the show’s greatest problem: I’m sick of Oliver Queen’s BS, and I’m sick of most every other character on the show swallowing Oliver’s BS. Arrow insists on framing Oliver’s “grey” decisions as being the result of noble flaws, failings stemming from his self-sacrificing nature. In the finale we do at see at least some frustration from the other characters at Oliver’s constant deceptions, but it’s temporary sanity at best; before you can say “Manson Family” they’re all smiling warmly at Oliver while he gives a self-aggrandizing speech about the importance of teamwork.
Only the big Diggletoni reacts with something like proportionate emotion, giving Oliver a more-than-deserved punch in the face. Yet twenty minutes later he’s grudgingly accepting the responsibility of continuing Team Arrow in Oliver’s absence. “You have been a rock to this city,” Oliver says. It takes big brass ones to kidnap the mother of a man’s child, then ask that same man to be the Peter for your church while you whisk your hot girlfriend off to Bermuda.
Man, who else? Thea and Roy, wow. I often felt that, without the Thea romance, the writers struggled to find a place for Roy in the story beyond being the Arrow’s shadow. So during Oliver’s mid-season absence, watching Roy and Diggle keep the Team Arrow operation going was easily on of this year’s highlights. Thea, meanwhile, fell under the dominating presence of her father Merlyn, and she’s been under the dominating presence of some man or another ever since. I’ve always felt Willa Holland was one of the strongest actors on the show, and any chance she’s given to work good material, she takes it – see the scene where Thea finally learns that Oliver is the Arrow this season for proof. And her line “I have to go buy milk for my evil supervillain dad” during Malcolm’s in-house recuperation was one of the season’s only laugh-out-loud moments for me.
Yet the show only values a character if that character is a ninja, and so we’ve been treated with many scenes this season of Thea’s “combat prowess.” Cassidy has trouble convincing me she could battle grown men; the petite Holland doesn’t look like she could drag an especially large cat to the vet by herself. Meanwhile, the confident club manager from season two is gone, replaced by someone groping for a man to tell her what to do. After Roy takes the fall for being the Arrow and fakes his own death in prison, he leaves Starling without so much as a goodbye to Thea. And when she is able to track him down, he decides life with him will be no good for her and leaves her a note and a superhero suit. Because apparently she can use a bow now?
Alright, I need to wrap this up, so let’s finish with a quick thought about Ray Palmer as the Atom: he’s awesome. It’s great to see Brandon Routh get another shot at superherodom after 2006’s ungainly Superman Returns, and he has not wasted a moment of it. Has the show basically turned the size-changing Atom into a bootleg Iron Man? For the moment, yes. However, I don’t mind a little build-up to one of DC’s more ridiculous superpowers. All I can say is, I’m looking forward to Legends of Tomorrow.
So basically, this season was an insane race to make absolutely everyone a ninja. Mostly I did not feel this worked. Oliver is less likable with each passing episode, and the Olicity romance may generate twitter chatter but it does nothing for the characters.
Losing Its Edge But Still Sharp
The believability of the show is dampened as the characters start to unravel, but for the moment it’s still fun superhero romance-action