2012 was an interesting time for superhero franchises outside of their normal monthly publishing schedule at either Marvel or DC. Now that both companies and their characters are wholly owned by gigantic, publicly traded corporations (film licenses to 20th Century Fox and Sony Pictures notwithstanding) the arms race to see which organization could build the bigger film universe was on, with the first salvo being resoundingly fired by Marvel/Disney when its multi-franchise-spanning shared universe culminated with the box office juggernaut that was Joss Whedon's 'The Avengers.'
Of course, DC was running a little behind in that regard, partially due to the fact that Christopher Nolan's insular Batman trilogy was just wrapping up with 'The Dark Knight Rises' and the Ryan Reynolds-starring sci-fi mishap 'Green Lantern' had failed to light up the box office (or the faces of many critics) in its unsuccessful attempt at launching a new franchise. So, with the Dark and Emerald Knights essentially requiring reboots (though there's still a chance Reynolds' GL could factor in to the larger scheme of things), in order to fit into whatever future universe DC/Warner Bros. has planned (read: has scrambled to get on tap after the enormous success of 'The Avengers') that left the company with its newest potential franchise-starter 'Man of Steel' as the cornerstone for a possible shared universe that could compete with Marvel for the almighty dollar for years to come.
And yet, unexpectedly it seemed, DC found it had another player lurking somewhere in the oft-overlooked wilderness known as The CW, with the grounded-in-reality (provided that reality consisted solely of ridiculously attractive people who each average less than 2 percent body fat) superhero series 'Arrow' – which, coincidentally, hailed from Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, the writers and producers of the aforementioned 'Green Lantern' film.
Now, moving from Green Lantern to DC's resident expert archer, Green Arrow, it may seem that Guggenheim and Berlanti just have a thing for heroes with a verdant wardrobe and naming preference, but for whatever reason – that probably has nothing to do with distancing themselves from the green-tinged failure of their previous effort – they chose to simplify this new series and just call it 'Arrow,' which proved to be the first of many questions about the program that would spring up in the months prior to its October 2012 premiere.
For one thing, the arrival of 'Arrow' came a year after 'Smallville,' ended its 10-year run in 2011; and, initially, many a fan was left wondering why this new Green Arrow-led series wasn’t a spin-off featuring the 'Smallville' version of the Emerald Archer played by Justin Hartley. Naturally, fans of Hartley's more lighthearted rendering of Oliver Queen and his heroic alter ego were mystified that the network would shun such a devoted and built-in fanbase, in favor of pursuing something new and, reportedly, ultra-gritty. Then the casting of Stephen Amell came along and though he easily fulfilled the more superficial CW casting requirements (Nice face? Check. Abs? Check. A willingness to parade around shirtless and/or perform rigorous exercise routines as part of his characters, uh…development? Check and check) he was primarily known for his roles on the '90201' reboot and for being Tom Janes' equally well-endowed competition in the third and final season of HBO's 'Hung.'
So, The CW had on its hands an untested talent, headlining a new show about a relatively unproven character in the midst of the biggest escalation of comic book characters translating to interconnected multi-billion-dollar franchises the industry had ever seen. When 'Arrow' premiered, however, fans were treated to a series that remained true to the aforementioned gritty and more grounded tone the producers promised, while still being relatable to The CW's core demographic – i.e., there were plenty of soapy elements, family squabbles and romantic entanglements simmering just below the surface of what was essentially an action-adventure show.
From the get-go, it was clear that Berlanti, Guggenheim and fellow writer-producer Andrew Kreisberg had been heavily influenced by Nolan's Batman trilogy, which was evident in the way 'Arrow' tackled the transformation of a spoiled son-of-a-billionaire into the hard-nosed, ass-kicking vigilante known as…uh, the vigilante, or, sometimes the Hood. Like his DC counterpart, Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen returns from an extended period of time away (stranded on an island in the South China Sea) with a newfound purpose: To save his city from the criminal element that had ruined the once prosperous metropolis known as Starling City (why it was changed from the comic book version of Star City – the DC Universe analogue of Seattle – to Starling is another mystery). But unlike Wayne's transformation into Batman, this version of Oliver didn't have the same strict moral code or no-kill clause in his superhero contract. As seen in the rather violent pilot episode, Oliver perforates several villains with arrows, stabs one in the neck, uses another as a human shield against an automatic weapon and then, most disturbingly, snaps a bad guy's neck to protect his secret identity.
Balancing out all the neck-snapping excitement is a two-pronged mystery that involves flashbacks to the five years Oliver spent on the not-so-deserted island, learning the skills he needed to become
Green Arrow the vigilante, and the clandestine organization run by Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman) that has destructive plans for Starling City, which also involves Oliver's mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson). It's an interesting, sometimes convoluted, plot that runs on the twin engines of Oliver's slow transformation five years prior, and his pursuit for social justice in the present day that focuses on a series of corrupt one-percenters who happen to be on a list his father Robert (Jamey Sheridan) bequeathed to him just before his death in the incident that marooned Oliver for half a decade.
Now that's a lot of story for the series to tackle, and for the most part the show handles it well, even if it stacks the end of the season with most of the plot's forward momentum. For the rest of the 23 episodes, 'Arrow' operates more or less like a standard procedural, albeit with a definite superhero slant. This allows the series to try its level best at introducing and maintaining what may have been a stable of characters that was simply too big to begin with. This was primarily evident when Berlanti, Guggenheim and Kriesberg saw the ratings benefit in utilizing DC's deep roster of characters – especially villains – as guest stars on the show. By episode three, super sniper Deadshot (Michael Rowe) had already made an appearance, and the series continued on from there by introducing the Huntress (Jessica De Gouw) – in a Geoff Johns-scripted episode – as well as fan-favorite mercenary, Deathstroke – who, for reasons the series has yet to divulge was not embodied by his comic book alter ego Slade Wilson ('Spartacus'' Manu Bennett).
But the rotating roster of villains didn't account for the audiences' reaction to characters like Emily Bett Rickards' Felicity Smoak, or Manu's terrific depiction of a fierce, but dependable and mentoring Slade, and as a result, those characters were granted more and more screen time – as was seen in the superlative island-set episode, 'The Odyssey' – but, consequently, characters like Colin Salmon's Walter Steele, Colin Donnell's Tommy Merlyn and Katie Cassidy's Laurel Lance became somewhat marginalized, until the larger plot required their presence. As a result, a great deal of the emotion and depth the story seemed to want out of these individuals and their interactions with Oliver wound up feeling somewhat forced and occasionally only surface-level deep.
Despite it's overabundance of semi-marginalized characters (did I mention Oliver also has a little sister named Thea (Willa Holland) who spends part of the season dabbling in drugs before romancing Green Arrow's future sidekick Roy Harper (Colton Haynes)?) and some questionable performances (Jessica De Gouw's Helena Bertinelli is not exactly a highlight of the season), 'Arrow' manages to be a solid bit of entertainment that might just appeal to an audience of more than just comic book fans. In fact, by the season's end, the series manages to boil its key characters down to their core essence and sets up a thrilling climax between the Hood and his nemesis the Dark Archer that not only ends on a surprisingly dour note, but also hints at an even larger and emotionally wrought storyline to come.
If the writers can maintain that level of excitement, then 'Arrow' may very well be a series worth sticking with.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Arrow: The Complete First Season' comes as a Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet combo pack that weighs in at a whopping nine discs (four 50GB Blu-rays and five DVDs) – which is great for those looking to have and utilize both, but winds up approaching overkill for those just looking to own one or the other. As you might expect, the discs are houses in an oversized keepcase, which comes inside a cardboard outer sleeve with the same artwork as the case. Inside is a small booklet with episode synopses and a list of special features.
The 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 image on 'Arrow' is certainly nice looking in terms of fine detail, contrast and depth, but it can also be something of a mixed-bag when it comes to color – especially skin tones and saturation levels.
Now, as was mentioned above, the image typically displays a terrific level of fine detail. There are some softer-looking images depending on how the shots are composed – i.e., close-ups definitely hold far more detail than the wider shots – but for the most part, they range from good to great. Surprisingly, the image doesn't seem to lose much detail or depth of field during the action sequences, suggesting Amell did quite a bit of his own stunt work, which makes a great difference in how the series is perceived, I'm sure. Additionally, as much of the series' action sequences take place at night (the best time to engage in some vigilantism when you're a local celebrity and the only thing obscuring your identity is a green hood and what looks like some eye-shadow gone wild) the contrast levels do a great job of placing the characters against a dark, inky background while maintaining a consistent amount of detail without any hint of crush or banding.
The only real problem with the image is that skin tones tend to run orange in some cases – particularly in the pilot episode – and some of the colors can appear a little oversaturated. Now, there's a chance that the latter was done deliberately, to play up the series' comic book roots, but that wouldn't necessarily explain the orange skin tones, and, chances are, the two negatives are related. Still, as the series moves on, the issue with the color seems to get better. In fact, by the time 'The Odyssey' rolls around, the saturation levels have evened out to the degree that the heavy filter used to denote flashbacks actually looks great.
Although it is uneven in some places, when the image is firing on all cylinders, it looks great. And thankfully for this image, the good heavily outweighs the bad.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is surprisingly rich and full of interesting atmospheric elements, as well as frequent use of a nicely balanced LFE effect that makes the various super heroics of Arrow seem all the more exciting and powerful. The dialogue is clean and distinct at a variety of different volume levels, and it is never overshadowed by other elements such as sound effects or the show's seemingly omnipresent and percussive score.
In that regard as good as everything sounds – i.e., dialogue, sound effects and music – they all sound even better when they're sharing the same space. Dialogue tends to come through the center channel exclusively, while sound effects are spread around the front and rear speakers with superb directionality and atmospheric awareness that creates a terrifically immersive listening experience during the frenetic actions sequences in many of the episodes. Similarly, the original music by Blake Neely sound great, and manages to utilize the same sound field but in a decidedly different way, so that the score feels like a constant presence running underneath all the other sound elements, rather than oppressively running over them and competing for exposure. It's a delicate balance that this audio mix seems to have well in hand.
Comic book fans are likely going to be drawn to 'Arrow' regardless its level of quality. Thankfully, it manages to be an interesting series that utilizes a great deal of the DC Comics universe, in fun and exciting ways that help to highlight the rise of Oliver Queen from simple vigilante to the hero he was destined to become. It's not a perfect series, however. It can often times be a little trite, or even downright dumb and some of the actor's performances don't necessarily stack up against the others. But for those looking for a decent, entertaining escape that's filled with all sorts of comic book Easter eggs, then this could be the series for you. With good picture, great sound and some interesting special features this one is definitely recommended for fans.