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The Arrow Series Premiere Is a Pilot Episode Good Enough to Launch a Universe: Retro Review

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BY February 21, 2020
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With the Arrow series finale behind us, there is a big future for DC and CW lying ahead. Yet, there is nothing wrong with looking back either. For our next Retro Review, we take a look back at the Arrow series premiere to see how the pilot launched the show and the Arrowverse. Well, that’s hyperbole. Maybe poetic license. Because the Arrow series premiere didn’t really hint at a larger story at all. Instead, it was a perfect pilot episode that established the characters, the premise, and the procedural element.

For the first DC series on television since Smallville, also the first to include Oliver Queen as a character, Arrow had its work cut out for it. At the time, it was surprising that they were able to pull it off. Looking back at the Arrow series premiere, it’s clear why the show from this pilot became the foundation for DC’s best shared universe.

My Review of the Arrow Series Premiere Pilot Episode Is Different Than When It First Aired

Arrow Series Premiere Pilot Episode Review Ollie caught a bullet Image via CW

Pretending we don’t know that Arrow will spawn some seven or eight series, the series premiere is just a good pilot episode. It begins with the interestingly shot sequence of a bewigged Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen firing an impossible shot, hitting a bonfire with a flaming arrow. We see images of him being rescued over some expository narration. (This is followed up, for good measure, with an expository news report and an expository doctor diagnosis.) By the five-minute mark, Oliver reunites with his family, and we know he’s lying.

If you looked for this review of the Arrow series premiere because you’ve not watched it, impressive. If you’ve made it unspoiled more than eight years after the premiere date, watch it for yourself. However, we are going to talk about what the Arrow pilot episode does in terms of establishing the characters and the premise. There are fantastic details here. For example, as any redeploying soldier can tell you, Oliver Queen didn’t want to sleep on his bed. He opted, instead, for the floor.

It also establishes the fine line of heroics that Oliver Queen (known as “the vigilante” for the first couple of episodes) will walk. He is not Batman. He has no compunction about killing. Though, another great detail, the first person whose life he takes he has to “justify” to himself. In this first episode, we don’t know if the Arrow will be a hero or an anti-hero, like the Punisher. So, comics Easter eggs aside, this first episode is simply a story about a man on a quest for revenge. I see its potential today, with the benefit of hindsight. At the time, I didn’t like his willingness to kill, but I couldn’t deny that the show just felt right.

How Arrow Set Itself Apart from Other Superhero Fare

Arrow Series Premiere Pilot Episode Review Deathstroke Mask On Island Image via CW

The most interesting thing about the Arrow series premiere, and the entire first season, are its villains. No, we’re not talking about the ones pulled from the comics. Rather, his quest finds him targeting a specific class of bad guy. He’s not out there stopping muggers or bank robbers (at least not right away). No, Oliver Queen is going after the one percent. There are still plenty of armed henchmen to take out, but this is not a billionaire going out to beat up poor people. Rather, he’s trying to right wrongs in a city where the privilege and status of his targets insulate them from a well-meaning police force.

The other way the pilot episode of Arrow set itself apart from other superhero dramas is the debate about lethal force. Every cop procedural on the planet has the “heroes” killing people in the line of duty, and no one bats an eye. Costumed heroes, on the other hand, are often held to a higher standard. With Arrow, we get to watch the hero have that debate. And he decides killing for the greater good is necessary. This debate continues throughout the successive seasons, but the Arrow falls on the side of that debate that superheroes typically don’t. Yet, it’s not so black-and-white as “killing” versus “no killing,” and that’s what made the show more than the sum of its parts.

I watched the Arrow pilot episode when it aired, and I don’t remember if all this occurred to me at the time. The storytellers planted these seeds, but we talk about them now with the benefit of knowing how well that garden blossomed. And, how what we ended up with is very different than what was promised.

The Arrow Series Premiere Promised a Show We Didn’t Actually Get

Arrow Series Premiere Pilot Episode Review Stephen Amell Making Arrows Image via CW

When Arrow first debuted, the producers declared that the show wouldn’t feature magic or superpowers. This was a promise they went back on as soon as the second season. Still, that first episode promised a more grounded comic book story, along the lines of the Dark Knight trilogy. Using a bow and arrow to fight crime is inherently silly. Still, by taking all of it seriously without asking its audience to embrace any high-fantasy concepts helped sell the idea. The audience who enjoys the Pretty People In Situations™ fare on the CW and comic fans both found something they could latch on to with this episode. This was to be a modern-day Robin Hood who had to right his family’s wrongs and find his way back to his One True Love.

Again, if you made it this far being unspoiled about Arrow, we’re not going to ruin that. Still, it’s not a spoiler that this show paved the way for the Arrowverse. By the fourth season, Arrow sat at the center of full-fledged shared universe. The grounded vigilante show gave way to speedsters, super-people, and immortal hawk gods. And, it’s been a gift to the fans, especially those of us who never dreamed it was possible to see these characters done well on television. Only, there is no hint of that in the Arrow series premiere episode. It’s just a deeply personal story about a conflicted hero taking on an impossible mission to save his city.

That’s our review, but we want to hear what you think of the Arrow series premiere. Did you just watch it? Watch it a long time ago and forgot about it? Stay a faithful Arrowverse fan? Let us know in the comments below.

Featured image via CW

DC ComicsTV ShowsArrowArrowverseRetro Review

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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