“You have failed this city.”
-Green Arrow/Oliver Queen
For the past ten years, both the big and small screens have been dominated by superheroes. Of the endless gallery of comic book characters, my favorite is DC’s Green Arrow. Starting in 2012, the CW aired the first episode of the series entitled “Arrow” which tells the story of this classic character.
The story behind why DC chose to a Green Arrow-centric television show is an interesting one. Coming off the heels of the successful Dark Knight trilogy, DC wanted to produce a real-life gritty show of one of its characters. Batman is apparently too big for live action TV. The Green Arrow, on the other hand, is a poor man’s Batman that interacts with some of the same characters and evils and shares some of the same parallels as the more iconic DC hero.*
The show tells the story of billionaire playboy Oliver Queen who finds himself stranded on an island for five years. Before landing on Lian Yu, he witnesses his father’s suicide after commanding his lost son to survive and right all of his wrongs. He struggles to survive on this island but, as the flashbacks unfold, the maroon experience transforms Ollie into a man and hero ready to defend Starling (later “Star”) City.
The unifying theme of Arrow is failure. This is made most evident throughout the series when the Hood proclaims “You have failed this city” before taking down his enemies. As a vigilante, Oliver Queen seeks to save his beloved city from drug lords, corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and the rest. Yet what makes the story more than the classic good vs. evil, hero vs. villain (though there is plenty of that) is that the theme of failure goes beyond the challenges of the city, but embodies every character in the story including its hero.
Take the Queen family for example. Oliver returns armed with a book given to him by his father with a list of names of corrupt city leaders to fight. Yet as the story unfolds, Ollie discovers that members of his own family are just as embedded in the city’s corruption. The main villain of season one is a close family friend who we discover is his (half) sister’s real father. Even his own mother is behind the sinking of the boat he and his father were on. As the Hood, Oliver is forced to threaten Moira Queen if she doesn’t change her ways. Likewise, his teenage sister, Thea Queen is a failure. She responds to the “death” of both her father and brother by taking drugs, running around with depraved men, living a dangerous lifestyle, and growing distant from her mother – the only family she has left.
Consider also the other characters. Both Laurel Lance and her father Quinten are alcoholics. Roy Harper is a street-level thief who acts before he thinks. Felicity is an emotionally unstable hacker with daddy issues. Rene Ramirez has largely abandoned his daughter. Ray Palmer is a broken CEO mourning the loss of his fiance.
Given this narrative theme, we would expect a large redemptive arc for each character and some are given that. Ray Palmer, for example, finds meaning and redemption as The Atom and is now featured on The Legends of Tomorrow show. Yet most of the characters, especially the main ones, find themselves in a cycle of hope and failure.
A few examples will illustrate this. Thea Queen rejoices at her brother’s return but soon returns to her cycle of destruction. She eventually finds redemption as Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, yet in this roll, she suffers from a blood lust that was the result of the Lazarus Pit. Eventually she leaves vigilantism behind and becomes a background character in the fifth season. Quinton Lance is constantly moving from the police force to the bar to counseling back to work. And then repeat. Felicity cries more than a weeping willow and her relationship with Oliver is frustrating for men like myself (my wife loves it). Yet by season 5, her character takes a dark turn as she joins a dangerous hacking group and manages to turn against Team Arrow after the Green Arrow kills her boyfriend. John Diggle struggles to forgive himself for how he handled the situation with his brother. While serving as the show’s moral compass he becomes depressed and willingly abandons his own family and team.
Then there is the biggest failure of them all: Oliver Queen. The hero arrives in Star City to redeem her of her failures, but he is a flawed failure himself. Though living in Star(ling) City, it becomes obvious that Mr. Queen never really left the island. This is what makes Arrow so rich and yet so frustrating. Oliver Queen’s biggest enemy is himself.
This is illustrated in the opening episode of season 3 where the Arrow faces off with the second version of the classic Green Arrow villain Count Vertigo. In the show, Count Vertigo is a drug dealer and in the second incarnation of the villain, the user sees their greatest fear. In Oliver’s case, he see’s his bifurcated self and is forced to fight against himself; the Green Arrow on one side and Oliver Queen on the other. Likewise, in the season finale of season five, Oliver drives through Star City and asks Felicity, “what have we really accomplished?” Clearly a question of failure.
Furthermore each of the five villains exploit this weakness in the Arrow. In season 1, the Dark Archer is revealed to be a family friend and business partner of the Queen’s, Malcolm Merlin. Merlin’s motivation to destroy “the Glades” in Starling City is the murder of his wife. The parallels between the Dark Archer and the Arrow are purposeful. Both are rich businessmen, both are trained archers and fighters, both are fighting for their respective causes, and both share family connections. Merlin is the mirror reflection of Oliver and, if he is not careful, the Green Arrow will become the Dark Archer. The death of Tommy (Merlin’s son and Ollie’s best friend) in the season finale is the ultimate failure for him.
Likewise, the season 2 villain, Deathstroke, is born out of Oliver’s failures. Our hero had to choose between saving Sarah Lance and Shado. He chose the former leading Slade Wilson down a violent path of despair and revenge. In season 3, Ras al Gul chose Ollie to be his replacement in the League of Assassins. He ultimately concludes that the only way to win is to join the cause. Early in the season, Sarah is murdered by his sister who is under the influence of Merlin. By the end of season 3, the Arrow is dead and Oliver leaves Starling City seemingly for good. The season 4 villain is Damian Dark. Most consider the fourth season to be the weakest of the five seasons. One dominant reason is the Green Arrow is weak and cannot defeat anyone. In the fifth season Promethius turns his sight against the Green Arrow because his father was killed by Oliver in the first season. He ultimately proves to Oliver that his motivation behind the Hood is violence, not justice and in each episode, the failures of Oliver past return to haunt him in the present.
All five villains are the creation of Oliver Queen’s failures. His past is constantly returning to torture him which is why the flashbacks are a central part of the story. The primary villain of every season is Oliver Queen.
This is what makes Arrow so compelling as a superhero show. In other shows, heroes are given powers (like the Flash) or are alien (like Supergirl), but Arrow is one of us – flawed. Yet this compelling story is also its greatest weakness. Arrow is too Arminian. Every character, especially our hero, continues to lose their salvation. In Oliver’s case, he tries his hardest to arrest (as opposed to killing) criminals, but constantly struggles with appropriate violence. His romantic life is a roller coaster of emotions. Nevertheless, the message becomes that (as he shares with the Flash) that heroes like them don’t get the girl. And then there is the persistent fear Oliver has that his team will become like him.
There is no real redemption in the story because the Green Arrow makes for a poor Savior. For the Christian, this is not surprising. Salvation does not come by piercing villains, but by turning to the One who was pierced for them; not by conquering failure, but by forgiving your enemies; not by shedding man’s blood, but divine blood.
We are all failures whether as fathers, mothers, entrepreneurs, pastors, or vigilantes. The good news, in the end, is found exclusively in Jesus. He who knew no sin became sin for us. Our Hero will never fail us no matter what troubles may arise in the next season.
We, like Oliver Queen have failed. That, in the end, is where the good news begins. Christ is our victor. Let us find rest in him.
* The influence of Smallville should not be overlooked here either. The Green Arrow was an important character for the last half of the series which ended in 2011. For more on Smallville, click here.
Since season seven of Arrow premiers this evening, I am reposting this article this morning.
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