Over the course of 10 seasons, "Smallville" told the story of how teenage Clark Kent grew up to be Superman.
Well, not the story, exactly. What with all the reboots, reimaginings and what have you, there have been about as many versions of this saga as pieces of kryptonite reaching the surface of the Earth. And as fans know, a lot of those glowing meteors made it here, inexplicably traveling faster than light to arrive in time to make Big Blue’s life more difficult and his adventures more suspenseful.
But anyway, The CW has now returned to the DC Comics well with Arrow, the adventures of Oliver Queen fighting crime as the vigilante archer Green Arrow (although nobody in the show has called him that yet), and I thought it might be instructive to compare the old series with the new one. Specifically, let’s compare them with reference to the Six A’s, the universal fundamentals of good drama. (I’m pretty sure Aristotle set these forth in his Poetics, but I might be mistaken.)
1. Ace the Bat-Hound
Tragically, Ace the Bat-Hound never appeared on "Smallville." Neither did Adam Strange, Airwave, Ambush Bug, the Atom or Azrael. But as the seasons passed, the show did deliver plenty of DC Universe characters including Bizarro, Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Brainiac and Brainiac-5, just to name a few.
The depictions of some of those characters were lame. Mr. Mxyzptlk was demoted from omnipotent prankster from the 5th Dimension to Eurotrash packing the Scarlet Witch’s hex power (original version, before she got all cosmic and crazy.) Jor-El (whose mind survived as a Xerox of the original in the Fortress of Solitude’s crystal computer) was a dick. But by and large, it was cool that the series served up such a smorgasbord of DC mythology.
So far, "Arrow" hasn’t got that. Admittedly, only two episodes have aired, and it’s already clear that Black Canary, Speedy, Deathstroke and Merlyn are waiting in the wings. But it seems unlikely that a show that apparently intends to steer clear of guys with actual superpowers (possibly a smart decision since such characters could easily overshadow our hero) can ever showcase as much of the DCU as "Smallville" did. So with regard to the Ace the Bat-Hound factor (AKA DCU inclusiveness):
Hey, "Smallville" viewers, do you remember when a whole season built up to the throw-down between Clark and Doomsday, and there was hardly anything to it? Remember when the climactic episode of the whole darn series gave us what should have been the epic rumble between our hero and Darkseid himself and it mostly happened off screen? Remember when we looked forward to seeing Clark and all his super friends team up to take down the Kandorians, and all we got was the gang Skyping?
Sadly, "Smallville" consistently wussed out on depicting metahumans smashing and blasting the crap out of each other with superstrength, heat vision, etc. It seems likely the problem was budgetary. The show couldn’t afford to do such scenes justice, so it skimped and cheated. That’s understandable, but it made for some serious letdowns.
"Arrow" doesn’t have the same problem. Oliver Queen is a master of kung fu, parkour, and most of all, the bow, but since neither he nor his foes have powers, the show doesn’t need a zillion dollars, a prohibitive amount of time, and ILM to serve up exciting action sequences. It just needs good fight choreography and stunt people, and it’s got them. Episodes 1 and 2 have already presented a couple very nice action scenes, so where this variable is concerned, the verdict is clear:
"Smallville" featured some talented actors giving memorable performances. Standouts included Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor), John Glover (Lionel Luthor), Allison Mack (Chloe Sullivan), Erica Durance (Lois Lane) and Justin Hartley (as, interestingly enough, Green Arrow.)
There was also some atrocious acting on occasion, including some from performers in major roles. With regard to its cast, though, "Smallville’s" real problem was that many of its actors started out too old for their roles, and the passing seasons only exacerbated the problem. I’m perfectly capable of believing a man can fly, but you want me to think Tom Welling and Kristin Kreuk are teenagers? My willing suspension of disbelief isn’t up to clearing that hurdle.
So far, on "Arrow," nobody’s exceptionally good including Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen. He’s appropriately driven and steely, but it’s not enough to make his take on Green Arrow stand out from the many grim avengers we’ve seen before. (Of course, we can hope the character takes on more depth and individuality as the season progresses.)
On the plus side, nobody’s notably bad, either, although Paul Blackthorne (who was solid as wizard-for-hire Harry Dresden in the Syfy series) occasionally chews the scenery pretty hard as dedicated cop/overprotective dad Quentin Lance. And no one looks so much older than his character that it hits you like a poke in the eye. Thea Queen, Oliver’s 17-year-old kid sister, is the only teenager in the story, and 21-year-old Willa Holland can play someone four years younger.
Bottom line, a series deserves credit if some of the stars create truly charismatic, distinctive characters, even if it also serves up some performances that are lackluster or problematic. Therefore, as far as the Actors go:
On "Smallville," how many times did Lex get whacked on the melon or run afoul of some other mishap that induced amnesia and conveniently made him forget Clark’s secret? Ten? Fifteen? A hundred? About the only thing that happened more often was some Smallville resident crashing his truck. Poor Lex even ended the series with his mind wiped. (Don’t feel bad for him, though. He goes on to be President just a few years later, which is a heck of a comeback from drooling vegetable when you think about it.)
This abiding fascination with brain damage was only one manifestation of a more general tendency to resort to cheap fixes for plot problems. Over and over again, some cliffhanger had the audience biting its nails while wondering, How is Clark ever going to get out of this? Unfortunately, the answer, as often as not, was, without breaking a sweat. Some dumb, disappointing plot contrivance provided an easy out.
It’s early yet, but at least so far, there’s no sign of a comparable tendency in Arrow. So with regard to Amnesia (AKA the lazy plotting factor):
"Smallville" served up a uniquely emo take on Clark Kent. He moped endlessly and dug in his heels when Jor-El tried to train him (although admittedly, as mentioned above, Jor-El could be hard to take.) For a long while, he hated getting involved when Green Arrow needed his help, and even later, he was prissily judgmental about his peers. Hey, Clark, GA doesn’t have superpowers with all the options those afford, and when he blew up Lex, it was to save your ass!
All this was annoying to watch partly because there was so little justification for it. It’s not like Clark remembered all the people who died when Krypton exploded. It’s not like he didn’t have a loving family, friends and hot girls who wanted to get busy with him here on Earth. A little dose of identity crisis is one thing, but was possessing "powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men" really such a raw deal?
As depicted on "Arrow," Oliver Queen has abundant emotional baggage, too, but it makes more sense. He watched his father die, then found out Dad was actually a criminal and it was up to him to, in effect, atone for the old man’s misdeeds. He cheated on the woman he really loves with her sister, and then the sister died in the same "accident" that resulted in his father’s death.
He endured five years of torment while marooned on the mysterious island (although we don’t know the details yet), and while he was missing and presumed dead, his mom got remarried to a guy he doesn’t like.
And while Oliver’s got issues, he doesn’t sit around sulking about them. At the start of the series, he’s already made the decision to suit up and fight crime, which is what we turned on the television to see. Therefore, where Angst is concerned, definitely:
6. Attention Deficit Disorder
Here, we’re considering ADD on the part of the writers, a tendency to create story elements that are inconsistent with what was established previously, don’t make logical sense or just never go anywhere. This is different than the Amnesia factor discussed above, although writers who indulge in lazy plotting may be prone to outright incoherence as well.
This was certainly true of the writers on "Smallville." Once we got a couple seasons in, there was rarely an episode that didn’t leave us scratching our heads. Was Lionel a villain or a good man? How did our heroes know what black kryptonite would do when they’d never encountered it before? How come Jor-El never actually explained the great cosmic threat Clark was destined to face? How come Clark never asked for the details?
There have been a few troubling signs that "Arrow" may be heading down the same path. From scene to scene, Oliver can’t decide whether to reach out to estranged girlfriend Laurel Lance or push her away. He choked his bodyguard John Diggle unconscious so he could go into action as Green Arrow, and then Diggle never even mentioned it afterward. (One can only assume he’s very well paid.)
Our hero shot arrows into bad guys’ chests, they fell down and lay silent and motionless, and later we were told he only wounded them. That seems unlikely, and really, what’s even the point of establishing it when previously, Oliver snapped a different miscreant’s neck to safeguard his secret identity?
Still in all, though, "Arrow" has yet to exhibit the horrendous illogic that was Smallville’s hallmark. So when it comes to writerly ADD (or as Shakespearean scholars are wont to call it, the Gibberish Quotient):
Thus, the final score stands at "Smallville" 2, "Arrow" 4, mathematical proof that the latter is the better show. I like it so far, and if you’re into superheroes, you may want to check it out.
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