This past Summer Hollywood tried to sell us on a new-generation Superman. Enough tickets were bought to trigger a sequel, although fanboy purists howled over some of Man of Steel's innovations. Among them: Superman's willingness to snap necks to save the planet. You see, superheroes never kill. They should always be idealistic folks who always do right, not ruthlessly pragmatic black-ops agents. Or so we debate. What we really need from our hero fiction is relatable, inspiring role models who can demonstrate how this heroism thing works. For your consideration, I submit...the Batkid of San Francisco. Second choice? The CW's Arrow, which has taken as its central theme the evolution and relevant nature of heroic character in an age of catastrophe and antiheroes.
In season 1, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) was a vengeance-driven killer questing to eliminate Starling City's corrupt one-percenters. He was the Hood, and he played the part. But no more. Season 2 has seen a shamed Ollie remove murder from his tactical quiver and rechristen himself the Arrow. His battleground: the Glades, a slum decimated by a conspiracy facilitated by Oliver's mother. Oliver aspires to redeem the Queen name and restore the Glades in both his public and undercover lives. The playboy-by-day/dark-knight-at-night thing? For activist-oriented, fully integrated Oliver, that's just batty.
Arrow's current foils are more provocative than last year's baddies, as many are vigilantes not far removed from him. There's Brother Blood, a cynical crusader plotting revolution against the Powers That Be. The Canary (Caity Lotz) is a former assassin who now only slays misogynists. She's also the presumed-dead sister of Ollie's true love, Laurel (Katie Cassidy). Arrow digs whiplash turns as much as any speed-plotty melodrama, and does them well.
The thematic ambition is matched by narrative complexity. An equally engrossing parallel story line, set five years earlier on a mysterious island, traces how Oliver became the Hood. Both sides of Arrow are beginning to push into sci-fi: The flashbacks feature a scientist trying to make supersoldiers; the Dec. 4 episode introduces Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a.k.a. the superspeedster known as the Flash. Will the fantastic subvert Arrow's brand of gritty pulp? Not if the writers keep grounding the hoo-ha in character, emotion, and clear metaphor.
Arrow possesses an intelligence that shines through its TV-budget production values, which aren't too shabby. The writing is adult and witty, the action is exciting, and Amell holds the center with well-cultivated ease; you get the sense he works as hard on his presence as his abs. I groan at the soapy romance but I'm also a crusty grump. Keep aiming high, Arrow, and you'll keep hitting the mark. B+