By drift partner, as I myself am only aware of these by osmosis.
I’m not entirely proud of the fact that I’ve seen at least parts of every show in the current DC television canon (except Gotham, because I have to draw the line somewhere), but here we are. I’ve seen two full seasons of Arrow and up to the current episodes of The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow. I’d like to talk a bit about why, in my opinion, Flash and Supergirl succeed as compelling narratives while Arrow is – to be frank – complete garbage as a story. Legends of Tomorrow is…honestly, also garbage, but at least it’s entertaining garbage so far, while I would argue Arrow is really not. For now, I’m going to put Legends to the side, and discuss how Arrow, Flash, and Supergirl parallel each other while taking different approaches to similar stories.
A disclaimer: I am inherently biased against Arrow, because I find Oliver Queen despicable as a character. I didn’t see much in the first two seasons to argue that he is anything but a spoiled brat who plays hero because it makes him feel better about himself and who will make everyone else’s troubles all about him, but I will do my best to look at the series objectively.
On the surface, the three shows have similar plots. Our Hero/ine has special power(s) or skills, due to unique circumstances, that they feel are necessary to use in order to protect the people of their city. They have a team of friends and allies surrounding them, who are willing to do anything to help Our Hero/ine, but who are often put in danger because of that loyalty. And there is at least one Love Interest, who Our Hero/ine has significant feelings for, but who cannot date Our Hero/ine for reasons (usually because they are dating other people). The latter is because these are all CW shows – Supergirl is technically CBS, but it’s a CW show at its core – and CW thrives on romantic drama and conflict.
But here is where the shows differ. Oliver Queen became the Arrow, a precise marksman/assassin, out of a sense of personal responsibility for problems in his city that he and his family have caused, both directly and indirectly. This, admittedly, is noble. What is less noble is that multiple times Oliver’s Team Arrow has had to pull him back because, as the Arrow, he has no conscience, no personal guilt for his actions. He puts the mask on in order to exact the vengeance that he as Oliver Queen cannot. Arrow is a dark show, thematically, and it’s more than that; it’s unpleasant. Oliver doesn’t just do what he does because he wants to keep his city safe: he does it because he’s angry, deep down, and he needs a way to release that anger. On the people he decides deserve it? Why not!
(But wait, you say. Daredevil is similar! Matt Murdock is also deeply angry at the world and takes out his anger as the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen! Yes, I say, but we are also given legitimate reasons for his anger and shown the pain and anguish he feels about his inner demons. In a lot of cases the narrative doesn’t necessarily condone what he’s doing either. Arrow has a terrible habit of asking us to sympathize with Oliver and condone when he does shitty things, because he’s Our Hero. Also, honestly, Oliver is just a less interesting character than Matt. He doesn’t have the Catholic guilt or the rough childhood, he has a rich playboy upbringing.)
On the other hand, Barry and Kara become The Flash and Supergirl because, at their core, they want to keep people safe with no real ulterior motives. Later on, they do end up specifically going after villains that they have been the cause of (in Barry’s case, after he opens the parallel dimension in the end of season 1, and in Kara’s, after she opens the Negative Zone and brings forth a legion of metahumans). Do they make bad choices and lose control sometimes? Of course, because they’re not perfect. In fact, a lot of the time they’re idiots. But they’re likeable and they try to be good people and they’re able to stop themselves even when they want to completely give in to their rage.
Granted, all three do have some things in common. They all have a tendency to take responsibility when terrible things happen in relation to their foes. I would argue that the way the shows handle that makes the difference, at least for me. In the most recent episodes of Arrow, Felicity Smoak (resident hacker of Team Arrow and also Oliver’s girlfriend, which is a point we’ll come back to) is shot in the back and ultimately ends up in a wheelchair. Oliver proceeds to make Felicity’s current state all about him and how bad he feels because someone went after his girlfriend and I almost threw up in my mouth when I heard about it. The narrative, I hear, hasn’t given Felicity anywhere hear the screentime to process and accept her disability, and instead Oliver is entirely focused on finding a way for her to walk again. The problem with this is that it is all about Oliver’s pain, and the narrative reinforces this.
By contrast, Flash, while having somewhat uneven writing, has given both Cisco and Iris emotional arcs regarding things that happen to them as a direct result of being close to Barry. Cisco develops visions of the future (the show calls them “vibes” which will stop being funny to me approximately never) and, at first, keeps them a secret from his friends. Eventually it turns out that these “vibes” are actually visions from a parallel universe, and Team Flash finds out and is supportive and gentle with him. He has a vision of himself being killed by Harrison Wells (which happened in the season finale, and Barry erased by opening the parallel dimension portal), and is shaken to his core. The show is careful to treat his trauma with respect and give him time to process it. Similarly, Supergirl’s Hank Henshaw/J’onn J’onzz recently had a showcase episode which explained his backstory and pitted him against the monster of the week. Honestly, his backstory should have pissed me off: it involves manpain and survivor’s guilt from being the last surviving Green Martian and being unable to save his wife and daughters. I think, however, that because his manpain was the center of the episode but was not tolerated by the story as an excuse for acting rashly, it was fine. Kara tells him again and again that if he lets his rage win, he will have lost everything. But he is allowed to be angry, and he is allowed to be hurt.
I will say, though, that a constant frustration I have with all three series is in regards to the Love Interests. Never more so than in Arrow, because naturally I am more inclined to give a pass to shows I actually like. But nevertheless the writers of each show seem to have misguided ideas about how to write romance. Arrow is the most egregious offender, having originally slated Oliver’s True Love to be Laurel Lance…until, that is, fandom decided they didn’t like the cut of her jib, so to speak, and proceeded to crucify her in favor of their darling Felicity. The writers caved because they are bad at their jobs and quickly changed the course of the story (with a detour into “Sara Lance is your new sexy ladyfriend” territory and then forcing him into a marriage with Nyssa al-Ghul, because all women find Oliver Queen’s dick irresistible for some godforsaken reason) so that Felicity was and always had been his True Love. Unfortunately, they are terrible together. Oliver is constantly undercutting her and making her feel like she’s less important than…well, everything else, and then trying to make it up to her with scraps of affection. I think he might think he loves her, but he’s an inherently selfish person and so he cannot process the idea of her as an individual apart from himself.
Flash is…well, the show is trying. Sometimes. Barry has been in love with his best friend-slash-housemate Iris since they were kids, to the point that the show has said something along the lines of “you learned what love felt like because of Iris.” From the beginning, the show has built it up as an Epic Romance for the Ages – which is why the constant refrain that they can’t! be! together! because! reasons! is so frustrating. I am ride or die Westallen, because I believe that when they’re communicating and working together, Barry and Iris’ relationship is the beating heart of this show. But the show likes to take romantic detours, not unlike Arrow, wherein Iris begins dating Eddie Thawne soon after Barry gets hit by lightning in the pilot (spoiler, Eddie dies), or Barry dates Linda Park or Patty Spivot to try to forget about Iris (spoiler, he fails). This, all while constantly dancing around each other pretending they don’t want to passionately make out about 80% of the time they’re together. Barry also has a bad habit of not telling Iris important things, like that he’s the Flash, or like that he’s in love with her. It’s not a death sentence, but he is going to have to get better at communication and quick. Westallen is going to happen, but it’s exasperating to have to deal with CW bullshit until we get there.
And finally, Supergirl. This show has some of the same problems as Flash – bad communication between two people who really want to bone – but it complicates it further by giving her not one, but two potential love interests right off the bat. Winn and James both work alongside her at CatCo, and she develops a close friendship with both of them, but the difference between the two relationships as they stand in as of now is vast. She meets James in the pilot, and she immediately gets giggly and blushy around him because, well, look at him. I would blush if he looked at me like that! She and James have an easy rapport that’s undercut with a not-insignificant amount of romantic/sexual tension, but more than that, he likes and respects her as a person. He finds her interesting in her own right, not just because she’s Supergirl. The only problem is he’s currently dating Lucy Lane, and I do not dig infidelity plots. Winn, on the other hand, is a classic Nice Guy, but he’s not entirely beyond saving. Anyone with eyes can see that he has a crush on Kara, but at first he’s kind of chill about it. Then, in a recent episode revolving around his convict father, it all goes off the rails and he kisses Kara in a moment of emotional vulnerability. Then he runs away and she proceeds to freak out about how this will change their relationship. The rest of the episode is a parade of Nice Guy bullshit mixed with some nice emotional guilt-tripping, topped off with a dollop of daddy issues. Last night he got a little better and started talking to her again, but I’m waiting for the next blowup. Honestly, I admit that I was already biased against him because he struck me as not a terribly interesting character, but lately I just cannot deal with his disgusting sense of entitlement towards Kara. There was also a scene last night where Kara instructed him to search the missing persons records for any people that looked vaguely like her, “same height, same weight,” and he interrupted with “oh, I know those.” DUDE. STOP. You are being creepy as fuck! Like I said, there’s still a way to turn him around (it probably involves some other girl, any other girl), but as of now, I’m wary at best.
Overall, are any of these shows perfect? God no, and I could honestly write a long list of problems I have with Flash and Supergirl. But the reason I feel that they succeed where Arrow fails is, simply, because they’re enjoyable shows to watch. Arrow is often maudlin and angsty, and while the other two sometimes delve into that territory, there’s almost always an inherent sense of joy and wonder that Arrow has never had. When Barry runs and Kara flies, I smile. I get the sense they actually enjoy using their powers to help people. I root for them to win, because I believe in what they’re fighting for. Oliver just shoots people and growls at them. That’s not my idea of a hero.