Comics On TV

How Arrow Changed Superhero Television

In the wake of Stephen Amell's announcement that the series will end after a shortened eighth season, here are five ways Arrow changed superhero TV for good.

by | March 7, 2019 | Comments

Arrow -- Image Number: ARR_S4_FIRST_LOOK_V4 -- Pictured: Stephen Amell as The Arrow -- Photo: JSquared Photography/The CW
(Photo by JSquared Photography/The CW)

In 2011, as Smallville came to an end, The CW began developing a show centered on another comic book hero: Green Arrow. The Golden Age DC Comics character came to prominence thanks to the Superman prequel series and actor Justin Hartley. But in a shock to Hartley and Smallville fans, the network decided against making the series a spin-off. Instead, it turned to producer Greg Berlanti and his team to build a completely new show. The result was Arrow, a darker take on the character — now played by Stephen Amell — that set out to tell his origin story via flashbacks while also charting Oliver Queen’s first few years as a hero. It would touch on certain hero milestones while also, eventually, introducing a sprawling world of characters.

With the announcement that Arrow‘s upcoming seventh season will be its last, here’s a look back at the way Arrow changed the landscape of superhero television.


1. It Changed the Tone of Action

Arrow -- "Kapiushon" -- Image AR517b_0016b.jpg -- Pictured: Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen -- Photo: Robert Falconer/The CW
(Photo by Robert Falconer/The CW)

Don’t let Felcity Smoak’s (Emily Bett Rickards) quips fool you: Arrow was a serious show from the jump. Some might even say it was too serious. Unlike the warm dynamic of Smallville, Arrow’s Oliver Queen was a lone brooding vigilante on a crusade to kill Starling City businessmen who failed the town and its people. It was an adjustment to say the least, but it re-framed the television superhero from the kids stuff of the 20th century or the teen feel of Smallville to a grounded action show.

In doing so, it upped the ante for on-screen violence and action scenes. In its first few years, the Arrow stunt team changed the way fights were shot. And while some would deny it, the hallway fights of Daredevil can be traced directly back to the work Arrow did first as it made vigilante justice look painful and real.

Beyond the fights, it also tried to address Oliver’s trauma from a more realistic place. While it may not have completely succeeded in that mission, it did open the door for heroes to recognize their faults in more compelling ways.


2. It Showcased Characters from Deep Within the Library

Arrow -- "Checkmate" -- Image AR516b_0146b.jpg -- Pictured (L-R): Kacey Rohl as Alena and Emily Bett Rickards as Felicity Smoak -- Photo: Katie Yu/The CW
(Photo by Katie Yu/The CW)

While Smallville pulled Green Arrow out of relative obscurity, Arrow excelled at showcasing lesser-known characters from the DC Comics library. Felicity, for example, was so obscure that her creator was surprised to see her on a TV show (and DC eventually compensated him for using the character). While not a one-to-one match of the original Felicity Smoak, she proved deep pulls from the library could make the series richer. Just imagine what the show would be like without Felicity bringing some levity to the deep-voiced seriousness of Ollie and John Diggle (David Ramsey).

In the beginning, executive producer Marc Guggenheim said his strategy was to break a story first and see if a character in the library could compliment it. This led to early appearances by the Royal Flush Gang, the Huntress, Deathstroke, Shado, and Wintergreen. In the second season, the writers’ confidence in the format grew with Bronze Tiger (Michael Jai White) and Brother Blood (Kevin Alejandro) recurring throughout the year. That season also saw the debut of Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a character we’ll come back to in a bit.

As the seasons rolled on, characters like Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh), Vigilante (Johann Urb), Ragman (Joe Dinicol), Wild Dog (Rick Gonzalez), Mr. Terrific (Echo Kellum), and even John Constantine (Matt Ryan) made appearances or became integral parts of the show.

OK, so John Constantine is pretty famous in his own right, but the point still stands: Arrow proved obscure characters could shine if given the right showcase.


3. It Proved a TV Universe Could Work

The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl 2018 crossover event (The CW)
(Photo by The CW)

Integrating obscure characters helped Arrow pull off an important feat for a single television series: It created a sprawling TV universe. Sure, the heyday of NBC’s Must-See TV saw different crossover variations (characters would appear on one another’s shows, or events — like, say, a blackout — would affect each show on a given evening). But a real, consistent sense of continuing unity between shows was practically unheard of for a variety of reasons.

Then Barry Allen guest starred on Arrow. The plan was in place before Gustin was even cast — Berlanti and The CW wanted a Flash show, and what better way to introduce the character than by featuring him on Arrow? It worked, of course, with The Flash joining Arrow on the network schedule during Arrow’s third season. That year also marked the inaugural (and now annual) crossover. But more connections spilled out from the crossover. The Flash’s Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) helped Team Arrow redefine and upgrade their tech. Characters from both shows wound up as leads on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, meaning certain events on one show would become key parts of another, like how the death of Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) affected Legends‘ Sara Lance’s (Caity Lotz).

A recent episode of The Flash is also a prime example: A.R.G.U.S. director Lyla Michaels (Audrey Marie Anderson), a recurring character on Arrow, was featured throughout the Flash episode since the storyline involved A.R.G.U.S. asset King Shark. The Flash made no attempt to introduce Lyla as a new element because longtime viewers know the relationship between A.R.G.U.S. and The Flash’s S.T.A.R. Labs. It is the sort of complexity TV networks would have balked at just eight years ago, but Arrow proved characters can move between shows without confusing the viewer.


4. It Codified the Support Team

Arrow -- "Divided" -- Image Number: AR610b_0056.jpg -- Pictured (L-R): Echo Kellum as Curtis Holt/Mr. Terrific, Juliana Harkavy as Dinah Drake/Black Canary and Rick Gonzalez as Rene Ramirez/Wild Dog -- Photo: Daniel Power/The CW
(Photo by Daniel Power/The CW)

While there are precursors to Felicity’s role as Overwatch — Oracle on Birds of Prey, for example — the notion of “the man in the chair” and the support team really evolved on Arrow. In its earliest episodes, Oliver operated alone before finally letting Dig — who was his bodyguard at the time — in on his secret. A few episodes later, Felicity joined the team and forever changed the dynamic of superheroes on television by giving them support teams.

Sure, Clark had his parents and a few friends to advise him or help with investigations on Smallville, but Team Arrow was something different. And as a consequence, every subsequent Berlanti-produced superhero show — and some not produced by his company — developed the support team from the start. Look at S.T.A.R. Labs and the way the communication between the Flash and the Cortex evolved from the earpieces Oliver and Diggle used to keep in contact with Felicity. The constant, immediate communication between the hero and “the man in the chair” is now an integral part of the TV superhero grammar.

It is such an ingrained aspect of the superhero genre at this point that series like Jessica Jones and films like Spider-Man: Homecoming poke fun at it. But the support team makes perfect sense, as television is very much a communal medium. Lone heroes always end up cultivating a community, so why not acknowledge it early and make it a key feature of the show? It took Arrow finding its way to “the man in the chair” organically to prove superheroes on television need a family as quickly as possible.


5. It Gave Us John Diggle

Arrow -- "Due Process" -- Image Number: AR706B_0115b -- Pictured: David Ramsey as John Diggle/Spartan -- Photo: Diyah Pera/The CW
(Photo by Diyah Pera/The CW)

For all the ways it imported elements from the comics and made those things work, Arrow also contributed one incredible new idea to the lore: John Diggle. First Oliver’s bodyguard (although that didn’t last too long), the man is more his brother at this point than anything else. He was even the first person to put on the hood after Oliver. Named, in part, after Green Arrow: Year One writer Andy Diggle, John lived a full life well before the series began, and many of his storylines revolve around confronting his past. Sometimes it works out, like his second marriage to Lyla. Other times, like with his brother Andy (Eugene Byrd), it leads to new wounds and a lot of soul searching. Diggle has been Oliver’s conscience, a clear moral center for all the members of Team Arrow, and the one person who will never get used to superpowers in the larger realm of the Arrowverse. (His inability to keep from vomiting whenever Barry speeds him to a new location is a great running joke.)

And because he became such a key part of Arrow’s dynamic, DC Comics introduced its own version of John Diggle in 2013’s Green Arrow #24. While some aspects of the character are different, the comic book Diggle was also the first to learn of Oliver’s nighttime occupation. The two worked together for a time, but their relationship is more fractious than their television counterparts — which is incredible considering Diggle’s departures from Team Arrow and that drag-down fight he and Ollie had a season ago.

But Diggle’s continued presence on the show proves a television series based on a comic book can offer the source material something worthwhile. It happened before with Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya from Batman: The Animated Series, but Dig is the live-action test case for the same phenomenon. Also, he’s just a really great character.


While there’s still plenty of new Arrow ahead thanks to the remainder of the seventh season and the entirety of the final 10-episode eighth season, reflecting on these groundbreaking aspects of the show is a reminder of the series’ lasting impact — and can provide insight into how the series will reflect on its own legacy as the show heads toward a definitive conclusion.


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