Spinning out of fallout from last year’s finale, Arrow is tackling a huge issue: should Oliver just start murdering criminals to keep them off the street? Do the ends justify the means? After taking a life to save the city and nuking a small town to save a bigger one, this season opened with Oliver shooting thugs point blank without a second thought or even a hint of remorse. Since then he’s been wavering between whether or not he has the right to take a life to save many. It’s a deep, rich narrative that has potential to build incredibly complex chraracters, and it would definitely hold my interest if they hadn’t already told this story.
This is a fault of Arrow’s comic book roots. Superheroes grappling with the should I/could I of murder isn’t an unusual storyline. It’s been a topic of discussion since the beginning of superhero stories, when Superman chased corrupt politicians and Batman literally shot people. No, I mean literally. Batman carried a gun and had no qualms about just dropping someone.
There’s other examples, obviously. Fititngly, Green Arrow is probably one of the more famous ones, when he killed a man to save Black Canary in 1987’s The Longbow Hunters. This was a pretty big deal for a guy who had always ran around with boxing glove arrows, and Oliver was affected for years. One of my most memorable Green Lantern panels was Kyle telling the JLA they may have to kill Nero, a delusional wielder of a Yellow Ring. Wolverine tends to be either completely against or completely for killing depending on the writer, but he’s usually a middle of the road “ends justify the means” type. Captain America is surprisingly the same: he doesn’t like killing but historically has killed when he had no other choice, like when he decapitated Baron Blood.
Fans have noticed this conundrum, and it’s always a hot button topic. The Punisher has a long, storied career thanks to his willingness to kill. One of Batman’s most popular crossovers, “Knightfall” came about after fans kept asking why Batman wouldn’t just kill someone like Joker. Writers occasionally go back to the well to try and write a story explaining why a hero refuses to take a life, but the execution tends to fall flat. Either the story is lacking and brings no real resolution or enlightenment as to a reason, or the hero comes off as a corny, holier than thou type. The reasoning typically comes back around to the same reason: a hero does not kill because it’s an easy non-solution, and makes them no different than the criminals they put away.
Arrow’s problem is ultimately this inconsistency, and last night’s episode is a prime example. Vigilante has turned up on Arrow, and he’s dropping criminals left and right. This is after Oliver’s new team found out about his more murderous days from season 1. In the course of discussing the Vigilante, Oliver lectures his team about not being the ones to be executioner. Then 10 minutes later does a 180 on his stance, declaring maybe killing people is the right way to go. Then another 10 minutes later, without being prompted or another scene really taking place, does another 180 and is again steadfastly against killing.
The problem is, we already got this story. Arrow’s first season was notable for it’s dark, gritty tone and escalated levels of violence. After a decade of Smallville and a gluttony of relatively family friendly affair superhero movies, Oliver’s decision to murder those who had “failed this city” set him apart. But it was more than that. After surviving his time on the island, the story was about Oliver reclaiming his humanity. It was the arc of him coming around to the realization that he didn’t have to kill that made the original Arrow stories so compelling and rich, and it all paid off in the season 2 premiere. Oliver, beaten down by the failure of having Starling City partially destroyed and watching his best friend die, swore to never take another life. And he held onto that oath until season 4, when he slew Damian Dahrk to prevent him from using his mystically fueled power set to level the city.
Arrow now wants to pretend it never dealt with this issue, as Oliver toes the line between returning to his old ways and continuing to be a good person. What it comes off as is hokey, preachy and holier than thou. A lot of Arrow’s issues aren’t as resolved as they want you to believe it is. It’s gritty, man of the people, hero of the streets feel is long gone. Ollie now has a massive bunker full of high tech equipment and a full team of allies. The cops are on his side, and he’s the mayor, an adaptation of the astonishingly well done “One Year Later” arc. One has to ask: is Arrow too far gone to be the show it once was?
I do still love Arrow, even as it falls apart. It really isn’t any fault of it’s own, it’s just a victim of its own popularity. With the introduction of The Flash, the debut of the Legends of Tomorrow concept and the pending Supergirl crossover, they felt they had to step up their game to make it more appealing. In a world now populated with metahumans, time travel and mysticism, Arrow’s attempts to keep up cost it the tone that endeared it to so many fans. Is it too late? Not at all. The heart is still there, and the characters still resonate. There’s nothing wrong that couldn’t be fixed with a back to basics, simple storytelling approach. But the best thing for Arrow to do now is get off the high horse and stop pretending like we didn’t establish four years ago that Oliver Queen doesn’t murder people anymore.