Updated: Sep 10, 2021
Still going strong, the Arrowverse like everything else nowadays is a shared universe, but one that is centred on various interconnected TV series based on DC’s superheroes. It’s namesake honouring the first character, Oliver Queen aka (Green) Arrow who emerged on screen in 2012. He started his journey as a young millionaire playboy but after he mastered his archery skills, gained purpose and donned his green hooded vigilante persona, audiences were dying to see more.
With an established audience, the TV network responsible for its success, CW commissioned more series including The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow to name some. And with each growing in popularity there became an idea, one where a remarkable group of people… you get the point.
Nathan and I are back to discuss another topic, the state of the Arrowverse and our opinions of it. If you take a look at our other articles you will know that he is a stan of said subject passionately reviewing shows like Black Lightning and Superman & Lois. Whilst even though I also share a love of comics, I fell off the proverbial couch a long time ago trying to keep up with the universe. We both have our reasons so let’s get into them with the first question being:
What’s so good about the Arrowverse? With this type of content everywhere we look, what’s the appeal of these shows specifically?
I think what is most appealing about the Arrowverse is the way they managed to develop these characters in such a unique way on the small screen. By the time that the first season of Arrow came out, our society was getting used to the idea of a connected, live-action fictional universe thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). However, the Arrowverse managed to accomplish this through the use of season long stories, stretched over multiple TV shows as opposed to big blockbuster movies that, while detailed, are unable to achieve the depth that TV can provide. Arrow started out with a simple premise: Oliver Queen is a man trying to right the wrongs of his father and save his city from a list of people who seek to do it harm. Over the years however, he evolves from a dark vigilante to a revered hero who inspires others to follow in his path. This of course led to shows like Flash, Supergirl, etc. We get to see a whole range of characters on a weekly basis, going through trials and tribulations in order to become the heroes that we know them to be from the comic books. Crossover events were highly anticipated and would encourage viewers to watch other shows within the Arrowverse that they had not seen yet. Even with the common criticism that these shows have too many main characters, the noticeable excitement and passion that the cast brought to the experience proved to be very engaging, making the audience feel like they were watching a story that everyone was proud to be a part of.
Well as you said, thanks to the MCU we knew what a connected universe could look like and
though Flash evidently wasn’t the first hero to rush onto the TV scene he was my gateway into what would become the Arrowverse. This is not only because he is one of my favourite superheroes period, but because the actual possibility of DC’s own live action multiverse became more and more apparent through the show. When I watched the catalytic explosion at Star Labs and ‘meta-humans’ start to emerge it seemed like a dream come true. As a comic book fan I would get to see another comic book franchise I love get the spotlight I knew it deserved. It wouldn’t be through the proven lens of movies, but TV would eventually become a viable proving ground to develop characters, grant an interesting take on long spanning story arcs from the source material, and all the other pros you mentioned. DC have clearly triumphed where Marvel are only now trying to gain a foothold in the world of TV, but that leads us to the next question which you’ve already partially answered.
What do you think about television as a medium for a connected universe?
On paper I should love TV for all the aforementioned benefits it brings to a story, but personally movies seem more manageable to watch for me. They’re stories condensed into around two hours, whilst the same allotted time would be the equivalent of two episodes in a much longer running season. It’s the reason why I’m definitely more in to Star Wars than I am Star Trek for example. Where one originated as a succinct blockbuster epic in a galaxy far far away, the latter is a thorough exploration of the infinitely vast final frontier. Even though I have enjoyed shows that have benefited from and made the most of the medium, in the case of a connected universe I think it’s a lot to keep up with.
I remember at the time when I was watching there being an overpacked weekly CW superhero schedule with four shows going on, each one having a separate day to itself. Where usually I would be ecstatic at the prospect of future crossover events for their pure spectacle, I still felt forced to watch shows like Black Lightning which I wasn’t really in to. And yes to address the elephant in the room I’m still very much invested in and keep up with the long-standing MCU, but I guess that’s because I got into it when it consisted of just one movie, Iron Man (two if you count The Incredible Hulk), so it didn’t feel like this massive undertaking. It’s interesting that from this viewpoint the Arrowverse seems demanding and almost intimidating in comparison to the juggernaut of the MCU. And even now as waiting to binge through on demand services like Netflix and Prime Video becomes more of a norm, watching another episode of The Flash still feels like a lot. I can only imagine what it’s like for someone who isn’t part of a fandom such as DC or anything of the likes.
I definitely understand your point about how daunting it can be to follow all these shows in comparison to watching movies, but on the other hand, I think that the experience is a lot more rewarding that way. I think back to the DC Animated Universe (DCAU) that I grew up watching as a child (Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.) So many characters, both famous and unknown, were given space to develop and become fan favourites. Marvel also achieved this through cartoons such as Spiderman: The Animated Series, Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. In my opinion, TV shows/cartoons are a superior medium than live action movies when it comes to portraying comic book heroes and their stories. Voice actors are more suited to making cameos on other shows in their universe compared to a five minute cameo from Robert Downey Jr in an MCU movie no doubt costs the studio thousands of dollars. This allows script writers far more freedom in their choice of storylines. In terms of the Arrowverse, there is still a freedom for the audience to enjoy the shows that they choose, without missing too much from what they choose not to watch. However, like I mentioned earlier, the crossovers may encourage viewers to watch the other shows if they are intrigued by a new character that they’ve seen. I think the CW network could do a better job by providing a definitive list of necessary episodes to view in order to understand a crossover.
I think you’ve rightly highlighted the success the superhero genre has had on TV, specifically and more relevantly DC shows including Justice League Unlimited. Be that as it may, it could be because they share a closer resemblance to the look of comic book art panels, but I think it’s something to note that all those success stories are from the world of animation. The MCU has gone above and beyond to prove otherwise with live-action adaptations through movies as well as now TV, however (with some exceptions) DC is another story in my opinion.
I don’t at all disagree with you about how TV can be used to give an overall richer experience, but for me I’m not sure the Arrowverse delivers on said quality. Yes there is clearly an audience for the stories being told within the CW multiverse as they continue to be made almost a decade later. Yet even so, every show is different and thus each has either endured or suffered a different fate, which leads me on to my next point. Where I’m an aspiring screenwriter who has learned about the craft but has little to show for it, you’re actually a writer, a self-published author even. So before I give my two cents on the subject, I wanted to ask…
What do you think of the Arrowverse’s individual shows from a writing perspective?
Ah, this is an interesting question and one that can’t be avoided. On the whole, I am a massive fan of the Arrowverse’s writing and will continue to watch the shows within it as long as they are being produced.
Shows like Arrow and The Flash, especially in the earlier seasons, really nailed down emotional moments, whether they come through revelations, scenes of immense tension or those trademark instances that define a hero. Legends of Tomorrow started off with a somewhat decent first season but really broke into its stride once it entered its second. I feel like this was because it embraced the goofy, fun side and wasn’t ashamed to have a different tone to the rest of the Arrowverse shows. Supergirl does a good job of being genuinely inspiring and maintaining an air of positivity. Black Lightning does a good job of portraying the superhero family dynamic, while providing us with very well written villains such as Tobias Whale and Lala. Stargirl paces itself very well, and at times it feels like you are watching a short movie. The same could be said for Superman & Lois, but the main highlight of that show is the down to earth, yet still inspiring portrayal of Superman himself, which works well with his equal partnership with Lois and their struggles while raising their twin sons.
However, with all that being said, there are a few flaws that need to be addressed. Batwoman is a show that I can continue to watch and definitely has areas of potential (for example, the villain Alice, even if she is overused) but it just doesn’t get me as excited as the other shows in the Arrowverse. Some of the plot points seem a bit contrived or pointless. For example, The Crows, a private security firm in Gotham City, constantly have criminals breaking into their car park and hiding in main character’s cars with relative ease. You would think that after the first time, the private security firm would actually use a little security. The fight scenes are okay, but
they are not on the level that we see in Arrow. The creators of the show pride themselves on LGBTQ representation, and yet ironically, none of the LGBTQ characters are actually shown to be in long term healthy relationships. The men on the show are often put down or unnecessarily placed in a bad light to make the women look better, which in my opinion is quite lazy. If the goal is to show strong, female characters, then the emphasis should be on highlighting their strengths in their own rights, not in comparison to men.
Moving onto The Flash, I feel like the show has had quite a fall from grace since its opening seasons. The main cast is far too overcrowded, which is actually a criticism across a few of the Arrowverse shows. Sometimes it almost feels like Flash isn’t capable of doing anything by himself as opposed to being a fully capable hero who sometimes needs assistance when faced with something outside of his expertise. I also don’t like the way he seems to take a back seat in his own show. In the most recent season, there were three episodes in a row where he wasn’t the main character. I understand the need to develop other characters, but that should never come at the expense of the protagonist.
Supergirl can be enjoyable and like I said earlier, quite inspiring but once again, character overload makes her capabilities seem questionable. Understandably, they adapted some storylines and characters that were normally associated with Superman but at times it feels like the show makes her life a bit too similar to his.
Arrow, in my opinion, showed the most consistency in its 8 season run out of all the shows in the Arrowverse but even that wasn’t infallible. Once again, the story felt a bit bogged down with its increasing number of main characters. It was also affected by another common flaw in the Arrowverse shows: melodrama! As these shows highlight all aspects of the main characters lives, the topic of romance will naturally occur from time to time. I have no problem with this but I do take issue with the melodrama that follows. It seems like characters such as Flash, Arrow and Black Lightning are always the ‘wrong one’ in the relationship, made to feel guilty by their partners about the choices they need to make as superheroes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to show that main characters have flaws. After all, that’s what makes them relatable, and their heroic struggle so engaging. That being said, with the lives that they lead, you would think that their partners would be slightly more understanding. Throughout the run of Black Lightning, his partner Lynn kept changing her opinion on his superhero activities, making it nearly impossible for him to do anything right by her. Iris West often expresses a profound disappointment if The Flash doesn’t take all of her feelings into account every time he makes a superhero based decision. There’s nothing wrong with drama in these types of shows, but the extent to which it is present just seems to detract from the superhero storylines.
I would say that given from what I can tell CW shows follow a similar format and tone in writing, however to my pleasant surprise you’ve brought up good qualities such as well written villains in Black Lightning and good pacing in Stargirl which are all things I thought the Arrowverse lacked in parts. To reiterate, I’m not fully versed in everything going on presently in these shows, but I’ll try to give it the benefit of the doubt where possible and only address my known issues with the writing. The Flash will be my main case study for criticism, and for context I’ve watched everything up to and including season 4 of said show, including also what was being aired at the time for Arrow, Legends, Supergirl and a couple episodes of Black Lightning S1.
I could be wrong and you’ve already covered some of these flaws, but from my time watching I’ll highlight that:
The writing can often times be inconsistent and contrived.
They don’t know what to do with side characters.
I couldn’t agree with you more that portraying the protagonists as the ‘wrong one’ in the relationship is annoying.
Characters refuse to learn from their mistakes.
Storylines and character arcs sometimes feel repetitive and recycled.
For me the Arrowverse started off great and I was all aboard the great content they were initially producing, but after a while I sensed nothing every truly moved forward. The best seasons of these shows were their earliest because it consistently felt like a never ending origin story where nobody really evolved. Barry is still trying to figure out the superhero thing in season 4 and he is unbearably naïve. I love the comic book character but CW’s portrayal doesn’t believe in himself, needs to be walked through issues all the time and doesn’t feel like an accomplished hero who has grown from anything that has occurred to him throughout the course of the show. Thus, the only way forwards for Barry Allen ironically is backwards.
To add to this, the only way to seemingly invigorate things is to add new characters constantly and narratively progress to a threat for the purpose of a crossover event. The Arrowverse in my opinion is consequently only as great as the sum of its parts. As a comic book fan I know a crossover event can be an incredibly rewarding benefit, but if there is little substance to the hero’s, or in this case multiple heroes’ journeys, then I almost feel empty after a major crossover event, only waiting until the next.
I’m genuinely glad you’ve found enjoyment in the Arrowverse Nathan, but its cons have forced myself and viewer figures to drop off. Every show is different but the writing is also I imagine (at least in part) the reason why specific shows like Black Lightning and Supergirl, though managing respectable season lengths, ended before their original counterpart shows.
So if it were possible, would there be anything you would add to or change about the Arrowverse?
What I think the connected universe could benefit from lies in the aforementioned animated successes. I agree they are textbook superhero TV and I would add Young Justice to the list too as it represents the golden standard in superhero television for me. I got a lot of my base DC comic knowledge from the well thought out, developed, gritty show that more often than not kept me engaged with its changing dynamics. Before you compared the Arrowverse to shows like this, but I think different categories apply here.
In the current sense, a connected universe consists of many characters like Green Arrow and Flash who exist separately in the same world but are later brought together. What I believe defines the connected universe of shows like Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice, as well as perhaps their success, is that even though all the main characters technically come from their own section of the DC universe, it all operates in a single show under a definitive umbrella. It would fundamentally change the uniqueness the CW TV platform provides i.e. more time for individual character development. However, I argue the same result has been achieved in these ensemble shows, and to make my point it could have potentially made a bigger and much longer term difference for Arrowverse’s viewership and sustainability.
Honestly, at this point in the Arrowverse saga, I think it’s too late in terms of making changes. However, if I could apply changes to it from the very beginning I would have fewer episodes per season. When I look back on previous seasons I’ve watched, I feel like I probably only remember around 10 episodes worth of content out of the 23 episodes that they normally contain. The Marvel Netflix shows managed to have around 13 episodes per season and still manage to deliver quality storylines. A reduction in episodes would help streamline the story and eliminate any redundancies (as I mentioned earlier, the latest season of The Flash had about 3 episodes in a row where he was not the main character.) I would also include more crossovers. They don’t necessarily need to be major events, but given the fact that all these shows are owned by the same network and are normally filmed in Toronto (I believe), the Arrowverse does not seem to be as coherent in its connectivity as it could be. As I mentioned earlier, the shows could definitely do with less drama.
To put a cap on things I wanted to ask you a few quick burning questions to get to the root of why I wanted to write this article in the first place if that’s alright Nathan. We talked at the beginning about what the appeal of the Arrowverse is to you, and to each their own, but I and a decent amount of people just can’t seem to see what you see.
Is there something we’re missing?
I suppose it’s not a matter of what you’re missing, as I’m sure most people have seen enough of the Arrowverse to get a clear picture of what it’s like. When it comes down to it, I’m just too invested in these shows to stop now. Even if the quality drops from time to time, I still want to see where it’s all heading.
Where do you see it heading realistically? Equally, what are your hopes for the potential direction it could head in?
This is a difficult question. The Flash has had seven seasons so far, and the eighth will premiere in a few months’ time. It seems that the showrunner is happy for it to go on as long as possible, but I’m not sure if that is the right approach. It feels like the show has run its course and should be brought to an end soon. Thematically, it may make sense to get it to 10 seasons, as this will coincide with a time in the future where the Flash is supposed to disappear. If this happens though, it may feel like a slog to get there. Stargirl, Batwoman and Superman and Lois are only on their first few seasons and I know they’ve been renewed for more. I imagine that Legends of Tomorrow will continue to run as long as the writers can continue to think of wacky enough storylines that they haven’t done before. When you take these reasons into account, along with the new show Naomi which is set to air next year, it’s safe to say that the Arrowverse has at least 2-3 years left to go. Should this be the case, my hope is that the seasons become more streamlined and the crossover/connections between the shows go a lot smoother.
Better yet, is there an idea or approach that you think would hopefully bring audiences like me back to the fold?
If the Arrowverse addressed all the issues I mentioned above, I could definitely see people returning to it. Unfortunately, there would be no way to prove that to previous viewers unless they make the choice to check out these shows again, and they may feel like it’s just been too long and it isn’t worth catching up on. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event, the Arrowverse kind of felt like it had reached a natural stopping point. Perhaps if the CW used this as an opportunity to do a soft reboot of sorts, it would be refreshing enough to attract viewers again. In the same vein though, Superman & Lois definitely feels different to the other Arrowverse shows, so I would recommend that as a jumping on point for people who have lost interest so far.