ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Arrow: Pilot’ (2012)
Your votes for my and Chris Sims' next movie review series have been tallied and the '90s Independents have scored a runaway victory. So in just a few weeks, after a brief, spooky Halloween interlude, we'll be taking off with The Rocketeer.
This week, however, Chris was being a fancy city boy at New York Comic Con, which left me to unfeelingly pick away at some unsuspecting piece of comics-based filmed entertainment myself. And what a week it was, with the premiere of the CW's new, color-unspecific Arrow Wednesday night. Seeing as this column got its start as a Smallville review hub, I thought it was only appropriate to try out the new DC superhero show and see how it stacks up.You'll, of course, recall that I (quite happily) didn't participate in the Smallville recaps Chris did with David Uzumeri, but I did watch a handful of episodes of that show, largely agreeing with their assessment that at times, it could be really ridiculous fun, but mostly it was just ridiculous.
It's hard not to come into Arrow with some Smallville-based preconceptions, given that it's a show based on DC Comics characters airing on the same network in the same time slot Smallville had for two of its 10 seasons. Arrow even seems to have its predecessor's propensity to play down the "capes" aspect of its lead character -- I guess it helps that Green Arrow doesn't wear a cape anyway -- though they're definitely playing up the vigilante hero part.
Just before the premiere, executive producer Marc Guggenheim told The Hollywood Reporter that Ollie Queen is "a lot more like Batman" than superheroes with superpowers. If Smallville's main goal, which, I should note, it pretty violently steered away from in later seasons, was to place Superman in a teen drama, Arrow almost definitely seemed to be slapping a coat of green paint and a quiver on Batman (though heaven forbid you put the word "green" in the guy's name for some reason). A trailer for the show released last month gave the it a particular Christopher Nolan-y feel. The creators have all but confirmed it.
But enough preamble. Let's start this thing!
We open on a Sam Raimiesque, Evil Dead-style first-person shot of someone rushing through what looks like a Christmas tree farm. The perspective quickly changes and a behooded, heavily bearded figure (Stephen Amell) does some uneven bars work on a tree before scaling a sheer rock wall like a chimp. It is really something.
Turns out he's stranded on an island, one that doesn't have razors but has its own Béla Károlyi, I suppose, and he's heard the siren song of a boat not too far out in the distance. Hoping for rescue, he dives for his bow and arrows, which he keeps under a tarp, and provides us all with the first sign that this show might not be as grounded as the producers would have had us believe: He strikes an arrow on his very fancy knife and shoots it at a beacon to set it on fire, Gondor-style. The pile of sticks he shoots with a flaming arrow explodes like he threw a grenade at it.
Speaking of mysterious, why is our protagonist (who we all know is Ollie Queen, but he's about to announce that to us in a second) so heavily bearded and ratty if he has sharp arrows and a razor-sharp combat knife at his disposal? Look, I know it's a shorthand for him being on the island for a long time, but dude looks like he's trying out to be the new drummer for Fleet Foxes.
Anyway, the fishermen on the boat can't help but notice the giant explosion and rescue our scraggly hero. As they do so, Queen helpfully informs us via voiceover that the island where he's been stranded for five years translates from Mandarin to "Purgatory." Then things get really Batmanish: "To live, I had to make myself more than what I was, to forge myself into a weapon. I am returning, not the boy who was shipwrecked, but the man who will bring justice to the people who have poisoned my city."
If you told me that monologue was written by a newcomer named Nistopher Crolan, I would believe you. The score sounds a lot like it could have been written by Zans Himmer, too. The inclusion of the island is a Green Arrow: Year One touch, though. That's pretty cool.
I should also mention that Queen says the island he was on held many dangers. What he doesn't specify is that he apparently killed Deathstroke there.
After some Zimmer-lite music over the title card, things skip ahead five days to a news report which informs us that Queen is a socialite billionaire who was a tabloid fixture and loved scarves, the island he was on was in the North China sea, and his dad, Robert, died in the yacht wreck that stranded him. We also hear that Star City is now Starling City, for no reason I can deduce other than maybe this pilot's script was a handful of syllables short and they decided to pad it out by adding one to the city's name. That's as good a reason as any.
Next, we're wooshed away to Queen at a nighttime doctor's visit (the rich really do get whatever they want, don't they?), where his mother's informed, much as Bruce Wayne was in Dark Knight Rises, that his body is covered in scar tissue and he's had a ton of broken bones. But at least his pretty face is fine.
Maybe that's what the huge beard was for. Handsomeness insurance. Can't damage the merchandise and all that.
The doctor warns Ollie's mom, Moira (Susanna Thompson), who seems awfully interested in what Ollie remembers from the shipwreck, that he may not be the Oliver she remembers. She walks into his room to find that his face is fine, though, observing, "My beautiful boy." Seems like that's everyone's number one concern here.
Next, we're off to the Queen house, which is, no joke, Xavier's School for Gifted Children (in two of the movies, anyway). And Lex Luthor's mansion!
The comic book world must have a time share on Hatley Castle or something.
We speed through introductions of a somewhat Alfred-like family maid and Ollie's sister, Thea (Willa Holland), whom he tells, "You were with me the whole time," a boldfaced lie if I've ever heard one, or perhaps evidence that Ollie found some incredible hallucinogenics on Purgatory.
The introductions continue as Rachel Daw--I mean, Dinah Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) cockily talks with a work pal, who never gets a name as far as I can tell, about her legal aid office's efforts to take down yet another evil bald man (what do DC TV shows got against alopecia anyway?), Adam Hunt (Brian Markinson), who swindled a bunch of people out of their homes and savings. She's got a big board of clippings and stuff to prove she's serious, or perhaps has a secret crush.
So, just how much is not-Black-Canary really Rachel Dawes in this show? Well, she works in law, something Dinah Lance never did before. She's brunette now. She's got a relationship history with the protagonist dating back to childhood. She wants him to be better than he seems to be. You get the idea. She'd better avoid drums full of gas, is all I'm saying. One major difference would be that Ollie Queen watched her sister die, though. More on that in a bit.
Back at X-Luthor-Queen Mansion, Ollie's doing some self-reflection while doing some literal reflection in a mirror, presumably to let us all know his abs and biceps are largely scar tissue-free, too.
It's called Arrow, but this is a gun show, am I right? Anyway, some lightning strikes, he sees himself in the mirror with a hood for a sec, and there's a flashback to five years ago. A typhoon is bearing down on the Queens' yacht and Daddy Queen decides to turn back, because that will definitely help. Meanwhile, Ollie and Dinah's sister, Sarah, have been so busy doing some sort of activity where he's fully clothed but she's in her underwear that they haven't noticed that they're on a boat in the middle of a huge, catastrophic storm.
Dad Queen advises Ollie that sleeping with his girlfriend's sister is somehow not going to work out for him, and we flash forward to a now-besweatered Ollie hearing old pal Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell) tell him, "Yachts suck," a line he's almost certainly been keeping in his hip pocket for a good 70 months.
Merlyn's in the house for a friendly dinner where he gives away the ending to Lost (Why would you do that to someone? At least lie.) and Ollie lets on he knows Steele is getting busy with his mom. Ollie may have lost some social graces on Purgatory, but it's good to know he still knows the right way to handle a family dinner.
After what was obviously a tough meal, Ollie decides to let off some steam by opening a window during a rainstorm and falling asleep on the soaking wet floor so he could have dreams about a horrible shipwreck. That's therapeutic, right?
Back on the boat, Sarah Lance is telling him the storm is really close and that her sister is going to be furious, but he insists they'll be fine. So of course that's when the boat turns sideways and she gets instantly sucked out into the watery abyss.
This is a really well-done scene. The second Sarah is blasted out into the sea, Ollie pops up out of the water to climb into a raft with his dad and watch the boat sink. It gives a real sense of just how fast stuff happens during a catastrophic accident at sea. And, like a lot of this show so far, it packs a lot of exposition into a pretty short burst. Breaking the flashbacks up was a good move on the part of screenwriters Guggenheim, Marc Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg.
Upon hearing a commotion, Ollie's mom attempts to wake him up, which you ought to know you should never do to a guy who learned incredible fight training over five years on an island. He does a little takedown on her, Steele yells, and he apologizes. What he should really apologize for is leaving the window open. That rug is ruined!
Of course, this wouldn't be The CW if we didn't follow up a pretty good scene with one that hurts to watch. It looks like little Thea Queen is on the drugs. She and a school pal are making lines with a credit card out of crushed-up prescription pain pills.
And guess what else. Just guess! All right, I'll tell you. Her childhood nickname was Speedy. That's right. She's the CW/DC Universe's Roy Harper. Let's all just pray to any gods we may have that she'll be swinging around any number of dead cats by season seven or eight.
After some perfunctory brother/sister reconnecting, Merlyn and Ollie "hit the town," which seems to be code for driving around and planning a welcome-home party, along with observing how badly the city has gone to pot without Thomas Way--uh, Robert Queen around to help it.
It also means visiting Laurel at her office, where she happily agrees to go out and take a walk with Ollie so she could tell him she blames him for leaving her sister's body at the bottom of the ocean and that she wishes he was the one who died. Look, Dinah, Laurel, whichever you prefer, I'm not one to tell you how to handle personal business, but couldn't you have saved yourself some time by telling Ollie, "Wish you were dead!" in the office rather than wasting all this time on a walk? I thought legal types were supposed to be masters of time management!
Also: It makes total sense that you'd be mad about him nailing your sister on a yacht and escorting her to a watery death, but being mad about leaving her body at the bottom of the sea seems a little unreasonable. Was he supposed to swim down there?
As Ollie and Merlyn flee Laurel's tongue-lashing, they're attacked by some masked guys who look a little bit like they work for Mr. Negative. The assailants shoot Rich and Handsome with tranquilizers so they'll pass out by their cars with "Beautiful Evergreen State" license plates. (I think that's Oregoshington.)
Ollie flashes back again, this time to a scene on the raft of his dad insisting that if anyone survives the crash it'll be Ollie and admitting in a non-specific way that he's a failure. Before Ollie can ask, "Can you go a little deeper into that so we don't have to give it to the audience piecemeal over the next 21 episodes or so?" the Mask Bros. wake Ollie up and threaten him with a stun gun, asking, "Did your father survive that accident?" and "What did he tell you?"
Ollie says his dad did survive, and offers that his dad told him, "I'm going to kill you." And then he does. He kills three guys.
This is sort of a point of no return for this show. I don't have enough of an attachment to Green Arrow as a character to care if he's portrayed as a killer--I know he has done so in the comics, too--but I do feel pretty strongly about Batman, and this show has done so much to be Batman without Batman that I couldn't help but feel a little sick about it the first time I watched. I can accept it a little bit better now, but Ollie killing the three kidnappers makes him more Jack Bauer than Batman, and makes this more of a TV action show than a superhero story, to my eyes.
I will say, it's a pretty clean break from the woefully inactive hero of Smallville.
In the following scene, Ollie and Merlyn are answering some questions from the cops -- one of whom, we'll soon discover, is Laurel and Sarah's dad -- about how those three dudes ended up dead. Ollie makes up a story about a green-hooded wonder who saved them from the masked kidnappers. He even went to a con and got someone -- Dan Jurgens, maybe -- to sketch him up for the cops' benefit!
Lucky for the plot, the three kidnappers all had untraceable weapons and wiped identities so the cops couldn't identify them. Detective Lance (Paul Blackthorne) makes a terrible "Queen's ransom" pun and jabs at Ollie about you know, being responsible for his daughter's death, and the cops peace out so Ollie can study up on Laurel's legal target of the moment, Adam Hunt. Turns out Hunt's name is written in a mysterious book Ollie brought back from Purgatory with him in his bamboo suitcase. Intrigue!
The big-hearted maid from earlier, Reisa, interrupts to give Ollie the chance to say, "I want to be the person you always told me I could be," and is promptly swept away so that Mama Queen can assign him a security guy and driver, John Diggle (David Ramsey), who seems to be just another side of the same Alfred.
There's a quick scene in a car where Diggle ("Dig if you want") says he's ex-military so you know he's tough and disciplined, but Ollie gives him the slip to go set up his Arrowcave in his dad's old factory. Of course! That's the last place anyone would ever suspect to discover your secret life as a vigilante, the one you're willing to kill to protect! A huge building with your name on it!
There's a quick montage of Ollie setting up some flashy lights and infoscreens and working out on some exercise equipment. How he carried all that stuff in there in two little duffle bags he didn't even have when he popped out of Dig's car, I'll never know. Then Ollie sharpens some arrows in a moment casually reminiscent of Bruce Wayne sharpening Batarangs, and takes out his aggression on some tennis balls.
Watch out, Roger Federer. Or maybe Adam Hunt. For his first excursion in a green hood, Ollie gets the drop on Hunt in a parking garage, knocking out the lights and intimidating his bodyguards. It's another scene that can't help but elicit comparisons to Batman Begins, at least, up until Arrow just starts shooting thugs in the chest.
In fact, the only person Arrow doesn't kill is the evil guy, Hunt, whom he instead threatens with great fiduciary harm if he doesn't transfer $40 million into "Starling City Bank account 1141" by 10 p.m. the next day. Is Starling City small enough that bank account numbers there have only four digits? That seems weird, given all the establishing shots of big skyscrapers we've seen so far.
The show returns from commercial yet again to someone explaining Arrow's hoodedness to the cops. This time, it's Hunt, who Detective Lance regards with the same withering sarcasm ("We'll put out an APB for...Robin Hood?") he did Ollie earlier. A man after my own heart.
Hunt introduces the cops to his new head of security, none other than Judd Winick creation Drakon, as if he's introducing Rey Mysterio Jr. Lance and his partner leave indicating that they really are kind of concerned about this guy with the arrows, and that if he provides them with trouble, they plan to return it in equal measure.
Dig babysits Ollie on the way to his welcome home party, a low-key and refined small-town affair in a big glass building with go-go dancers on platforms.
Ollie enters looking at his non-specifically-branded smartphone to see that Hunt's deadline is a little less than an hour away. He hams it up for the crowd, playing the playboy socialite to the hilt as though he's Bruce Wayne at a party or something.
Hunt bunkers down in his office. Guns are cocked with abandon as he and Drakon observe that Ollie's party is just next door, you know, in that all-glass party club that looks like an airport terminal they have right next to his office building. Some coinkidink that Ollie asked to have his party there!
Back at the party, Merlyn suggests Ollie try to put the moves on a young lady who "looks like the chick from Twilight," to which Ollie responds, "What's Twilight?" That prompts Merlyn, the guy who gave away the real ending to Lost, I remind you, to retort, "You're so better off not knowing." I mean, I'm not great fan of the movies either, but where's the consistency?
Before Ollie can have an awkward conversation with someone who looks like Kristen Stewart about not knowing who she looks like, he catches young Speedy really conspicuously copping some powder from a guy right there in the middle of the dance floor. She may have been wearing a shirt that said, "Sell Me Drugs, Please," but it cut away too quickly.
Ollie confronts her, but Speedy, with pretty good reason, says he shouldn't be mad that she's just acting like he did at her age. Oh, and also she spent five years thinking her brother and father were dead. That probably has an effect. Even so, Ollie sneakily snags the drugs from her and throws them in the trash, presumably so those homeless people who hang around outside his dad's factory can find them in a Dumpster and use them later.
Seconds later, Ollie bumps into Laurel, who apologizes about saying she wished he died as they walk past some big hologlobe thing.
They essentially bury the hatchet, which is a little disappointing. I understand the need to keep the love interest train rolling, but this conversation takes what was open antagonism and makes it a "stay away, you'll get hurt" scenario. I liked the open antagonism. Cassidy played it really well in the scenes where she was viciously mad at Ollie, and I think I would have liked to see that play out a little further. What it becomes here is more of a cliche.
As they're talking, Ollie notices that 10 p.m. has arrived with no funds in that account with the really short number. He tries to get out of there, but Dig won't have it, so Ollie has to knock him out. I wonder what new ways the writers will come up with to make an former serviceman look foolish.
Drakon announces that it's past 10, and there's no way Arrow's getting in Hunt's office, as if, if Arrow had simply tried at 9:59, it would have been a breeze. Of course, it's kind of a breeze anyway. Ollie shoots a trick arrow we'll see put to use later, the first we've seen so far, at the window outside the office. He knocks out the power, pops out of the elevator and, again, kills like seven guys before threatening Hunt with an arrow death of his own. He misses. Or does he?
Drakon steps in and tussles with Arrow while Hunt calls in the cops. Arrow subdues Drakon but not before taking a slug to the torso, putting him down for a sec while the cops enter. Before the police can really get a bead on him, though, Arrow crashes through the window and zip-lines back to party central on that trick arrow he shot earlier. Not much of a trick arrow, really, but it's a start.
The cops try to shut down Ollie's party, which he emerges to protest because apparently he had a suit on under that bulletproof costume he was wearing. Detective Lance explains that the hood guy tried to take out Hunt and Ollie offers a $2 million "to anybody who can find a nutbar in a green hood." Somebody really hates Celtics, Jets and Eagles fans, jeez.
Detective Lance finally lets fly, without the veil of sarcasm, that he's pretty miffed about Sarah's death, but his partner backs him off. Merlyn observes much like we did quite some time ago that it's really interesting Hunt got attacked right next door by the same guy who saved he and Ollie from the kidnappers. Ollie says something oddly ominous about how much the island changed him, which probably isn't throwing your friend off the scent, pal.
Back at Hunt Tower or whatever it is, Hunt is furious that $40 million has inexplicably gone missing. "How did he do it?" he wonders as a very very visible arrow (second trick arrow of the show!) transmits the money that I can only surmise is in the wall by, oh, let's say magic, to that four-numbered account Ollie talked about earlier. You'd think maybe he or one of his army of thugs would see that. Or that Hunt could get that money back, since he knows the account number it was sent to and all. But the less we try to figure this part out, the better, because it is all nonsense (and, weirdly, again similar to something that happened in a Nolan Batman movie, though it was the other way around when Bane did it).
Ollie transmits the money from Hunt back to all the people old baldy swindled -- he got all their four-digit account numbers too, or maybe he just guessed them -- and he marks out Hunt's name from his secret revenge book. Is it just me, or is it a little weird that Arrow kills about a dozen people in this episode, but the one guy whose name he marks out of a book, he just robs? It's not exactly neutralizing Adam Hunt just to take $40 mil out of his coffers.
Another flashback. Ollie, his dad and another guy who was in the raft are still in the raft, dehydrated and exhausted. Dad Queen insists that Ollie live through the accident, to which Oliver responds, "Just rest, Dad." Then dad pulls out a revolver and caps other guy, then himself, telling Oliver, "Survive." A few things about this scene. One, Papa Queen shoots the gun at his own temple at this sort of downward angle, such that the bullet would almost certainly exit and hit the raft. That's hilarious.
Two, I get the practical reason for eliminating two of the living bodies that need water and food from the raft, but I don't necessarily think you're doing too much to encourage your son to live on by making him watch his own dad commit suicide in front of him. I'm no Tony Robbins, but I feel like that's maybe the least motivational thing you could do for someone. Not to mention that if, say, Ollie is asleep and a plane flies over, there's no chance anyone else will be around to spot it. I'm not sure King Queen really thought this through.
From that unsettling tableau, we move on to Laurel and her no-name pal getting nice phone calls from their clients against Hunt telling them that money has magically appeared in their accounts. This leads Nameless Work Friend to conclude that "Starling City has a guardian angel" instead of thinking there was maybe a bank error, like any reasonable person would do.
Merlyn shows up to flash a sign at the audience saying he and Laurel hooked up a few times, a sign Ollie just happened to spot as he was creepily hanging out on a fire escape next to her office so he can sniff the lipstick stains on her thrown-out Starbucks cups.
Things wrap up as Flashback Ollie spots the island, and in the ultimate CW-style cliffhanger, we discover the Mom of Queens was the one who sent the bemasked kidnappers after Oliver as she tells a hired goon she'll opt for other techniques to pump him for information.
With that promise of a mother pumping her son, that's it for episode one of Arrow!
Pilots have to do a lot, and this one does a pretty good job of introducing a big stable of characters -- at least fifteen or so -- and giving a pretty good many of them something interesting to do while setting up the basics of what looks to be a meaty backstory.
That backstory is probably the thing this episode does the best job of setting up. I'm genuinely interested to see more of Ollie on the island to see how he learned all his fighting skills, the languages he's learned and how to mount Deathstroke's head on a pike. Also, how he figured out how to shoot a pile of sticks and make it explode.
As weird as this may sound in a ComicsAlliance review of a CW show, I didn't think any of the actors here were actively terrible. Some were even pretty good. Amell can be a little stiff in places, especially his voiceover, but he shifts between playboy and Serious Hero pretty easily. Cassidy is really quite compelling as Laurel. She's got a lot of personality. Donnell plays Merlyn as an occasionally likable d-bag, which is about right. Blackthorne powers through some rough dialogue as the detective and even Markinson as Hunt is a serviceable, though just OK bad guy.
The look of the show is pretty good, too. The fights are a little shaky and some of the special effects get silly, but I think it's shot nicely, especially to be a TV attempt at Nolan Batman.
And though I harped on it quite a bit, the show really does a decent job of being Nolan Batman for TV. The feel is pretty spot-on, even if the creators took maybe one too many details from their influence. It's not a bad interpretation of Green Arrow, either. He may be Not-Batman, but he's still got the social justice part of his character.
Also: There are some cool nods to comics creators. Dig's name is almost definitely an homage to Andy Diggle and there are mentions of a Judge Grell, as in Mike.
The bank transfer plot is just plain dumb. I mean, I know the show is called Arrow, but if next week's episode involves Ollie settling a family dispute with an arrow that suddenly makes people feel empathy, things will get tired quick.
Similarly, the part where Ollie's dad dies just struck me as, maybe the best word is rushed. It's intended to be powerful, but instead it's a goofy, over-the-top moment in a show that otherwise keeps a lid on the inherent ludicrousness of a man who transfers $40 million with an arrow.
Some of the characters didn't get to do much. Poor Dig was just there to be duped, Reisa came off as a bit of a stereotype, Work Friend says dialogue that seems aimed at commercials, Lance's partner does very little and Steele is, for now, an uptight guy who acts shocked. It doesn't help that these characters are all the people of color on the show. I hope they all have more screen time, and soon.
Ollie's relationships with his sister and Laurel haven't exited cliche territory yet, which is too bad, because the Ollie/Laurel relationship started out more interesting than it is by the end. Also, "Speedy." How big of a shoehorn do you think they bought for that?
And finally, the killing. Arrow kills a lot of people. Again, it's not even that the show includes this that bugs me. But it makes me wonder what kind of show this is going to end up being.
The good news is that this is not Smallville. It's considerably better. In acting, writing, having a protagonist who does things, you name it. It really does feel like Nolan for TV. But that might be the bad news, too.
The thing about Smallville is that it left itself open to superhero craziness. Sure, Clark didn't put on a cape until the last episode, but there sure was a Hawkman who was just Hawkman hanging around. And while its last seasons were vastly uneven and often very bad, having that openness led to some stuff that was at least unexpected.
My fear for Arrow is that it could easily end up in a rut, with Ollie checking off another name on his list every week as some mild soap opera takes place around it. That's fine, but it'll never reach a level where you smack your forehead and wonder what the hell's happening. Maybe the flashback stuff on the island will provide that. I have high hopes for that.
Whatever the case, I think making Arrow a hero who kills eliminates an avenue that this show could have taken. I may be proven wrong, but it feels like superhero craziness is out the window. And as bad as Smallville so often was, it was also often surprising and hilarious. Arrow could become a dour drag, and fast.
Don't become a dour drag, Arrow.
Next week, Chris returns as we take on a spooooooky movie!