The granddaddy of the current comic book television show renaissance is Arrow, which is in its third season of chronicling Oliver Queen’s (Stephen Amell) exploits on the mean streets of Starling City. After the recent events of the heart-pounding midseason finale though, it’s going to be hell of a trick to see how the series finishes up the rest of the season let alone makes it to a fourth. The show opened this season with our hero and his team of assistants holding down crime like a well-oiled, police-sanctioned machine. The city is recovering from the mayhem Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) brought to its streets and Oliver’s life last season but scars remain just below the surface. Starling is losing residents because unlike Gotham City, people have enough sense to leave a place subject to attacks from villains using machines that cause earthquakes and armies of juiced-up zombies (they’re everywhere I tell ya!) that snap the necks of innocent civilians. Oliver and company’s vigilante work on the streets helps but his home needs more support from his corporate alter ego. Thanks to Slade’s machinations, however, he no longer has that option. Queen Consolidated was snatched out from under Oliver through corporate chicanery and a new business rival, Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh), has swooped in to take control of the conglomerate. He has also been wooing Oliver’s tech wizard, the adorable Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), for private and public reasons of his own as well.
Though as heavy on action as the previous years, this new season is unorthodox for a superhero show, or even a comic book for that matter, In that everyone and everything in Oliver’s world is moving forward and evolving except him. His right-hand man, Diggle (David Ramsey), is about to become a family man. His sidekick, Roy (Colton Haynes), now has his own costumed identity, in deep red no less, under the code name Arsenal. Thea (Willa Holland), his sister, has come under the tutelage of her biological father, the always scheming Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman), which is especially agonizing for Oliver because she’s his only family left after the murder of their mother, Moira (Susanna Thomson), at Slade Wilson’s hands. Even the Lance family is moving forward with their lives as Quentin (Paul Blackthorne) and Laurel (Katie Cassidy) have been promoted in their roles in the criminal justice arm while Sara (Caity Lotz) is doing wetwork for the shadowy League of Assassins with her love, Nyssa (Katrina Law), until she makes a fateful and final return to Starling City.
Compared to the people in his life, Oliver’s world is actually contracting, even when he’s not in his costume. This cold fact hits him like a brick when he realizes after Sara is mercilessly killed that he may very well die alone down in his cave because of the life he leads. He recognizes that his costumed identity has taken control of his whole existence and it will eventually cost him his remaining friends and family unless he finds a new path. But first, has to find Sara’s killer or killers and bring them down. Nyssa’s father, Ra’s Al Ghul (Matt Nable), the Demon’s Head and the unquestioned leader of the League, has given Oliver a strict time limit to find the murderer. If he doesn’t, people in Starling will start dying each day until he does.
After finding and eliminating several likely suspects, including his sidekick, Oliver finds who he thinks is the real killer and discovers Merlyn has been playing him and Thea since his return. Merlyn’s tactics maneuver Oliver into making the only choice he can to protect his small, fragile world by challenging the Demon’s Head to a duel on a snow swept mountaintop. It doesn’t go good for our hero as he brutally learns why Ra’s Al Ghul is the most dangerous man on Earth. Alas, it may be the last lesson he learns; if the sword thrust through his chest didn’t kill him then the fall off the mountaintop did. Whatever his future, the sacrifice Oliver made facing Ra’s and the League on their terms completed his journey from simple vigilante to true hero.
Unlike last season’s fireworks when Oliver and his crew faced down Slade’s mad plan for revenge, the first half of Arrow’s third season has been a subdued character study of a man who doesn’t know who he is anymore after suffering such profound losses in all facets of his life. Taking such an introspective tone in a genre built on loud noise, explosion, and spectacle is a calculated risk. Showrunners Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kriesberg, and Marc Guggenheim have had some hiccups getting such a subtle theme across but appear to have ultimately succeeded in conveying that theme. Success predicated upon Stephen Amell capably bringing all the pieces together as the stoic but intense center of the Arrow universe.
The emphasis on character building has caused the action to take on an obligatory feel at times with the list of villains being run of the mill. The only standouts this season have been Matt Nable and his stunning interpretation of Ra’s, Boomerang (Nick Tarabay), Barrowman as Merlyn, and an Arrow stalker who goes by Cupid (Amy Gumenick). It’s a telling shift in an action series when the derring do serves the quieter beats rather than the other way around. One needs look no further than the first four episodes, when the action took a backseat to grief after Sara’s death.
Arrow has been increasingly morose and dark this season, but splashes of humor and fun have lightened the misery from time to time. Most notably, the episode that crossed over with a hot new show brought levity when a certain scarlet speedster showed up in Starling. The team also brings its own light touch with the always quirky Felicity, the enthusiasm from Roy’s youthfulness and the sage Diggle giving our hero the help and encouragement he needs even if they all butt heads from time to time. The subplots with the Lances has petered out somewhat with Captain Lance in a strange kind of plot limbo as Laurel agonizes over telling him about Sara’s death as she undergoes her own training to take up her sister’s mantle under the instruction of boxing trainer Ted Grant or Wildcat (JR Ramirez) for the eagle-eyed comic readers. It sounds more interesting than it has been presented as so far even if we finally did get to see the ubiquitous boxing glove arrow when the Arrow and Grant got into a scrap. I don’t know if it’s the fault of the script or Katie Cassidy’s acting that the subplot has been flat this season. I do know what’s in store for Laurel though from reading the books growing up so I’m willing to be patient with her arc until I see how it plays out.
The flashbacks this season have centered on Amanda Waller’s (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) forceful coercion of Oliver into serving as a tool of her spy agency ARGUS in Honk Kong, where he’s learning the spy game under the instruction of Maseo (Karl Yune) and Tatsu Yamashiro (Rila Fukushima). The grimy oppressiveness of the flashbacks have filled in more of Oliver’s backstory about what he was doing the five years he was considered dead and what made him the stone killer he was when he came back home. Yune and Fukushima have done much with their limited screen time and I’m on board for finding out what happened to Tatsu and their young son that forced Maseo to renounce his name and start running with the League.
Just like Gotham, Arrow has several plot lines to juggle but all those strands lead back to Stephen Amell’s title protagonist and, as I said, he’s a sturdy enough actor to carry that weight. It’s going to be intriguing to see how the dynamic of the show shifts without him when the new episodes start next month. Will the story and characters be strong enough to carry the show in Oliver’s absence or is this truly the end of the Arrow and his mission for justice? However it plays out, Oliver Queen has shown that he will die before he fails his city.
A comic book about a miserable, little rotter in a mangy trench coat with a snarky insult hidden behind an ever-present cigarette is not normally the stuff of shiny, heroic television shows. It’s a good thing then that John Constantine (Matt Ryan), dabbler in the mystic arts, is far from shiny even if he is heroic in spite of himself. If The Flash is the only pure superhero show on television this fall then Constantine is more its reverse than the Man in the Yellow Suit. Everything the former is the latter isn’t except in one crucial resemblance: both protagonists are going to save the world. Barry Allen does it with a smile on his face while Constantine wears a sneer because he knows the world is in a bad place if he’s the last hope of mankind.
Out of the five shows based off DC/Marvel comic books currently in production for broadcast television, Constantine was always going to be the toughest sell. The show walks on the occult side of the DC/Vertigo universe and JC’s only mainstream exposure prior to this series was a criminally underrated Keanu Reeves vehicle from almost ten years ago. Many hardcore fans could not get behind the movie because Reeves looks as much like the character from the comics as I look like Will Smith. The NBC show at least gets JC’s classic look down even his trench coat, though the chain smoking has been muted for network TV.
I guess it makes sense that Constantine’s smoking habit has been muffled since NBC buried the show in the timeslot of death on Fridays at 10 p.m. (since moved up two hours earlier on the same day when it resumes in January) when most of its potential fans in the all-important 18-49 demographic are out drinking and smoking in a pub somewhere just like Constantine would after sending a minor demon back to the Netherworld. The series was done no favors either by having its premiere delayed until late October for some reason I’m too lazy to look up right now. Because of such depraved negligence, the show is on life support with the network because of its yo-yoing ratings, yet the DVR numbers are still impressive in spite of such obstacles especially now that the series seems to be hitting its stride.
The show starts with John Constantine hiding out in an insane asylum in England after a botched exorcism in Newcastle damns not just his soul but that of an innocent child named Astra to Hell because he cockily believed he could use a greater demon to drive the lesser one out of the little girl. It didn’t work out that way and she was dragged screaming down to the underworld. Brutal stuff to open a new show with but there aren’t any caped do-gooders in this version of JC’s world.
A chance for salvation if he aids the forces of Good in a battle against the vaguely defined Rising Darkness is enough to get John out of the asylum and across the pond to the ATL to battle the forces of Evil. He’s got the support of a hangdog cabbie named Chas (Charles Halford), who for some reason can’t die, and a lady with a past named Zed (Angelica Celaya), who has the gift or curse of touch to see what others don’t want known. There’s also an angel named Manny (Harold Perrineau) who only John can see when he drops in occasionally to remind him none too subtly to get a move on with his ghostbusting because if the Rising Darkness prevails that salvation offer will be null and void.
Over nine episodes, Constantine has vanquished dissatisfied Roma housewives, cursed Blues records, and fallen angels looking to get in some cheap shots while Heaven is preoccupied with the coming battle with the Darkness. And he makes temporary alliances with adversaries like Papa Midnite (Michael James Shaw), a well-dressed voudoun from New Orleans who lets Constantine know every chance he gets that he doesn’t respect his lackadaisical attitude toward magic. There’s a cursed cop down in the Big Easy too named Jim Corrigan (Emmett J. Scanlan) who will never get any rest after his death because he has a duty to perform as the embodiment of God’s vengeance, the Spectre. Old friends from Astra’s exorcism have shown up too with the first being eaten from the inside by a ravenous demon after John sets him up to take the fall and another who went to a Mexican convent to get away from the misfortune Constantine brings to those who get too close to him. That nun’s habit didn’t stop her from gatting him down in the midseason finale, though.
I’ve always been intrigued by John Constantine ever since I read his first appearances in the DC classic, The Saga of Swamp Thing, where he was created or more likely conjured up by the immortal comics writer Alan Moore and artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben. His timing was wrong for me because by the time he was getting his long-running book under DC’s Vertigo imprint, comics were an expense a broke ass college student and working stiff like me couldn’t afford in my late teens and all of my twenties. It was the Reeves movie which eventually brought me back into the occult detective’s orbit. I still haven’t read too many of his comics but I always kept an eye out for the stray trade paperback or appearance in a book I was reading. Hell, his comic, Hellblazer, ran for three hundred issues, so sue me because I didn’t go back and read them all.
I’m on board now for the show and it only gets more deliciously twisted every new episode. The only issue I have with the series so far is that it is photographed far too brightly, too cleanly for something that deals with black magic. It needs more darkness to match the cynical heart of the main character. The gloominess used in Gotham would really do wonders for the atmosphere of this show’s subject matter because plots that deal with demonic possession require a darker palette. A more muted presentation would take better advantage of the show’s Dixie setting for a more Southern Gothic feeling. Few things are more foreboding than an abandoned white clapboard church in a grassy field with the sun setting behind it. I grew up seeing things like that in small Georgia towns and the hairs still rise on my neck when I think too hard about what may be making its home in such places now.
Show runners David S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone cast the title character wisely by choosing Matt Ryan, which is always the best way to get viewers to buy into a new show until the writing tightens up. NBC didn’t seem interested in waiting for the show to improve and only ordered thirteen episodes for the season which was concerning at first but ultimately inconsequential since the show came to television with a fervent base of fans other networks like SyFy or CW will be happy to service if NBC won’t. Constantine was always going to be a tricky concept to peddle to the mainstream compared to the natural appeal of The Flash and the dark kookiness of Gotham so a major network like the Peacock being skittish about getting behind it isn’t too surprising. Their loss if they cancel it anytime soon though because a show adapted from a comic that lasted almost thirty years is nothing to ignore.
The show Constantine isn’t the smooth manipulator yet that its main character is in the comics but it has the charm needed to get new watchers on JC’s side even if he is a total bastard willing to take any risk and sacrifice anyone to get the job done. No matter though since this magpie of magic has already been cursed to eternal damnation and is still the one soul Lucifer will come up from the depths of Hell to collect himself.
The selection of comic book-based shows has been varied and reports say more shows are in the pipeline. One or all of them may fail because of a lack of quality or failure to find a large enough audience but it’s still a heady time for fans of the original medium to see real effort being put into bringing these properties from the page to the screen. Yes, there will never be enough money put into the EFX to make them movie quality but what these current shows lack in the wow factor they more than make up for it with solid writing, in most instances. The strength of weekly series is that they have more opportunities to refine the beats that don’t work over thirteen or twenty-three episodes as compared to a $200 million movie which can live on infamy many years in geekdom after it has left theaters. Ask George Clooney, Ben Affleck, and Ryan Reynolds if you don’t believe me because in some geek circles a Hollywood big shot could win Oscars for Best Screenplay, Picture, and Acting all in the same year and still be considered a no-talent bum because he or she wet the bed as a superhero. Tough crowd.
The current or future comic book shows outside of The Walking Dead may never get any real critical acclaim from snobs who give precedence to the movies or television critics in the age of high quality programming like Game of Thrones, True Detective, and Hannibal. Those and many others are great shows, don’t get me wrong. However, there is something to be said for the skill and dedication with which the crews of these shows in front of and behind the camera have translated this material from the page to the screen and if the critics won’t give these programs the recognition they’ve earned then the fans will. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know these shows are supposedly no deeper than the medium they spring from but there is something to be said for properties that have endured for so long that they are looked at less as the intellectual possession of multinational conglomerates and more like post-industrial folklore. Legends that continue to thrill and inspire nearly a century away from their pulp beginnings and can stand alongside the tales of Hercules, Paul Bunyan, and Sherlock Holmes. Gotham, The Flash, Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, and Constantine are part of a tapestry that was started on Joe Shuster’s mother’s chopping board in a Cleveland kitchen and will likely continue when we’re uploading new chapters of the never-ending story deep into our cerebral cortex. Knock on wood the quality of those future chapters will only build on what we’re getting now because what we’re getting now is pretty damn good.
Damn good, if it’s gotten seven thousand words out of me.
–Jason O. Logan
The first part of this (massive) post can be accessed here: