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The First Season of Arrow Is a Near-Perfect Season of Superhero Television: Retro Review

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BY March 1, 2020
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After rewatching the Arrow pilot for my last Retro Review, I couldn’t help myself but to keep going and ended up rewatching the full first season. It’s the fourth time I’ve seen it all the way through. When the series premiered in 2012, I watched it as it aired and immediately rewatched after the season ended. I rewatched the first few seasons some years ago, also during the summer. As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d never seen good comic book stories on television. So, naturally, I’ve delighted in every season and new show in the ever-growing Arrowverse. Still, in as objective a view as I can muster for this review, the first season of Arrow is as near-perfect as a comic book show could be.

It’s not perfect, of course, nor is it immune to criticism. The plan of the “big bad” is a little ridiculous, and the series didn’t do a great job of selling how the rich-folk cabal signed on. In the final battle, there was a less self-injuring move Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen could have used on John Barrowman’s Malcolm Merlyn. At the time of release, I remember feeling like the storytellers could have done more to bring in other DC characters. They squandered Constantine Drakon, Count Vertigo, Ted Gaynor, and (arguably) the Huntress. We didn’t know then what the Arrowverse would eventually become, though in hindsight this name-dropping was a sign that’s where they wanted to go.

Yet, part of what makes the first season of Arrow so pure is that it really isn’t concerned with larger universes. It’s a simple, crime-solving procedural with excellent fight choreography and an interesting story.

The Beauty of the First Season of Arrow Is In Its Simplicity

Arrow Season 1 Retro Review Oliver in the Original Arrow Cave Image via CW

The premise of the series is simple in this first season. Billionaire playboy marooned on a hellish island fighting a tiny war. Comes back to his home city with a list of names, dons a hood, and starts crossing them off. At first the justice is simple. The villains give back what they stole or turn themselves in to police. Sometimes, when all else fails, Oliver puts an arrow into them. (Not counting the island, Arrow (and Diggle) kill 30 people in the first season, 31 if you count Merlyn.) Oliver’s methods are extreme, and David Ramsey’s John Diggle and, later, Emily Bett Rickards’ Felicity Smoak try to temper them. Oliver is, without question, a murderer. Yet, he has a strict code about killing. Still, the first season challenges the Arrow by introducing a number of dark versions of him.

A few of the villains in the first season of Arrow are dark vigilantes. Jessica De Gouw’s Helena Bertinelli is the most important of these. Not only is she the Huntress, but she’s also a less disillusioned Oliver. She knows her father is a villain. We’ll talk more about the Huntress later. The one dark vigilante that’s most important is Christopher Falk’s “the Savior.” He kidnapped people and executed them on live television. When Oliver finally confronts him, and ultimately kills him, he pleads with the Arrow saying they are the same. We know they aren’t, because we know Oliver’s heart as the audience. To the rest of the world? Yeah, they’re kind of the same at least in that they think they are the ones best suited to deliver justice.

So, while the first season of Arrow was about Oliver’s war against the Undertaking, it was also about the conflict in having a hero who kills.

Arrow Failed In the First Season Only a Few Times, but They Were BIG Losses

Arrow Season 1 Retro Review Deathstroke Bill Wintergreen Image via CW

The Arrow’s catchphrase became that whoever was on the business end of his bow “failed this city.” Yet, arguably no one failed the city in a larger way than Oliver himself. He didn’t fail much that year. Only the Magician, Merlyn’s alter-ego, bested him in combat. Yet, that’s not the real reason he failed the city. The Undertaking, which was to destroy the poor part of town, succeeded. This happened, in part, because Oliver turned a blind eye to his mother’s and their closest family friend’s involvement. This was a genius move on the part of the storytellers. Oliver’s “kryptonite” was his overconfidence and willful ignorance.

Over on The Flash, the first few seasons relied on the reality that the titular hero wasn’t, specifically, the fastest man alive. Oliver was nigh unstoppable when he fought alone. He wasn’t prepared for an opponent as skilled as he was. Yet, he definitely wasn’t prepared for the rest of the “adults” in his life to not be who he thought they were. (Save for Detective Quentin Lance, played by Paul Blackthorne.) When he returned home, he should have been suspicious of everyone. Yet, instead, he never questioned the true purpose of the list he’d been working from.

In the first season, upon review, the Arrow was a hero many times over. Yet, he wasn’t the fully-formed hero he came to be in later seasons of the show. This Oliver could not have mentored the Flash or the other heroes who came to rely on him. It’s akin to Batman: Year One. It was a story about an ass-kicking vigilante, but also a story about how such a person becomes a hero.

The First Season of Arrow Is Special Because It Had to Change to Keep Going

Arrow Season 1 Retro Review Deadshot Image via CW

From the very next season of Arrow, the producers were clearly setting up the more comic-book elements of the source material. There was the mysterious drug that granted super-powers. There was the introduction of Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen and the sci-fi accident that turned him (and what seems like half of Central City) into metahumans. Oliver expanded his circle, training sidekicks and partnering with Black Canaries. Thus, the first season of the show remains special and unique, because it had a much narrower focus.

It is the only season of the show in which Arrow is the only costumed hero, and the stories are mostly one-offs with the villain-of-the-week. Oliver isn’t yet aware of the full cost of being a vigilante. It’s the purest season. It’s just a guy and his arrows, reluctantly picking up partners to make up for his shortcomings. There are no superpowers, aliens, or multiverses, yet. Without them, the show would likely have gotten stale very quickly.

So, it’s also the only season the show could be this simple. Everything about the show is incredible. The characters are richer than expected (perhaps even more so than in later seasons). The fight choreography is incredible, specifically the fight between an unmasked Oliver Queen and the assassin played by J. August Richards. Even though it’s supposed to be grounded in realism, everything about the first season of Arrow is magic.

What is your review of the first season of Arrow? Did you enjoy it when it was a simpler show or are the later seasons your favorite? Share your own Retro Review in the comments below.

Featured image via CW

DC ComicsTV ShowsArrowArrowverse

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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