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Arrow: The Complete First Season

Warner Bros. // Unrated // September 17, 2013
List Price: $69.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted September 22, 2013 | E-mail the Author
The Season:

While discussing how others might figure out his integrity as an individual, Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) -- the rescued son of a billionaire family, now a masked vigilante after surviving on a hostile island for five years -- claims that it "shouldn't take too long. I'm shallow." He's not lying at that point, really, but not in the way he intends: Oliver seeks justice and retribution by working through a list of individuals scribbled in a cryptic notebook, driven by his father's dying wish to rid Starling City of the corruption he and his executive cronies brought to it -- and he's not afraid of committing murder to do so. That's a darker path than one might expect of The CW's latest show, Arrow, a cleverly-realized take on one of DC's powerless crime-fighters, Green Arrow, that's closer to a hybrid of Smallville and Batman Begins than mere coincidence. Surprisingly, the show's riveting action, moral complexity, and use of comic-book lore masks that it retreads familiar territory and caters to a week-by-week audience, bringing this lesser-known hero into the spotlight for a bracing premiere season that evolves the character's depth the more he "hoods up".

Oliver didn't strand himself on a remote island by choice, of course. While on a sailing trip with his father (and his girlfriend's sister), an accident snapped their boat in half, killing everyone on-board except our burgeoning hero. At least, that's the front he puts up: in truth, his father also survived the wreck, where he died on a raft with Oliver shortly after. Before he passed on, the patriarch of the Queen family informed his son that his network of corporate allies brought corruption to Starling City, and that it's his responsibility to right the wrongs he created. This came before the raft washed up on a remote, detached island, the place where Oliver would spend the next five years learning how to stay alive, fight, and expertly fire a bow and arrow. Transformed from a selfish, carefree billionaire brat to a scarred and stoic survivor, he takes the knowledge his father gave him and reintegrates with his network of family and friends -- his business-minded mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson); his troubled younger sister, Thea (Willa Holland); his new step-father, Queen Consolidated's CFO Walter (Colin Salmon); and his equally-wealthy best friend, Tommy (Colin Donnell) -- with the underlying purpose of purifying the city.

The first shots in the pilot, directed by Smallville and Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles alum David Nutter, feature Oliver frantically scrambling on an island shortly before his rescue, which then quickly transitions into a conventional, systematic reveal of the creation of his alternate persona in Starling City: where he establishes his hideout, why he chooses to dress in a green hood, and how he plans on using his billionaire persona to keep his identity a secret. There shouldn't be any dispute as to whether Arrow pulls influence from another higher-profile DC property at this point, since blatant shadows of Christopher Nolan's rebooted Batman origin story appear all over the place. They become even more apparent once Oliver's brooding duality interacts with his girlfriend from long ago, fledgling lawyer Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy); thankfully, they dodged a bullet by dropping Oliver's close-knit relationship with his butler maid. Mostly, the show uses this template to get the plot's wheels moving instead of using it as a crutch, and it does quickly develop beyond being a mere analog of the Caped Crusader with a quiver on his back. The similarities might frustrate those watching at first, though.

Arrow develops some much-needed individuality once Oliver breaks through his reserved shell, opening up to being more than the mere machine of justice colloquially known as "The Hood". Early episodes point to the show possibly taking on a week-by-week formula where the brooding hero crosses out corporate bigwigs, drug dealers, and back-alley mobsters in each installment, similar to a hybrid of Dexter and Revenge in how the vigilante focuses on the wrongdoer's transgressions. Eventually, the writers make it clear that there's room for improvisation to that blueprint, placing faith in the hero's stamina for long nights with multiple hits and accepting the potential for a crisis of ability; some episodes feature Oliver taking down multiple targets through polished, engaging action sequences full of martial arts and arrow-loosing, while in others he flat-out makes no progress at all. This opens the door for unrestricted character development and introspection on what he's doing, especially once his "bodyguard", ex-soldier John Diggle (David Ramsey), enters the operation as a voice of reason, as well as when he seeks out Queen Consolidated's utterly-charming IT expert and research assistant, Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), for help beyond his expertise. They bring humanity to "The Hood", and their charm also cuts into the show's gloominess.

Something else separates Oliver from other billionaire vigilantes: his willingness to kill those on the almighty list (and those blocking his way), instead of insisting on a no-death policy. That's the crux of how Arrow plays with layered themes of morality, as well as how Oliver makes decisions on what to do based on his personal, evolving coda: the difference between treating the city's symptoms and eradicating its disease. Moments in the first season force him to choose between decency and his agenda, between vengeance and justice, and the show isn't afraid of answering them with not-so-hot repercussions; certain decisions come back to bite "The Hood" later on. These conflicts of integrity occur on more than a few occasions and they invite the audience to scrutinize Oliver's decision-making processes, creating a dynamic perception on cleaning up Starling City that blossoms the more we get to know the city's denizens. Instead of working around the hero's endless desire to avoid murder, the content makes the audience think about true vigilantism -- y'know, after Oliver puts a dozen or so arrows in henchmen just to get to his objective.

Playing this revamped version of Green Arrow is Stephen Amell, whose physicality comes dangerously close to outshining his acting capabilities. Carrying himself with a lean, cut, intimidating physique that's the result of extensive training (those salmon ladder pull-up sequences are insane), he brings convincing aptitude and youth to the Robin Hood-like vigilante, proving that he'd be capable of the leaps, brawls, and brawn required of the powerless hero. There's an effortless honesty about Amell's personality and eye contact that makes Oliver Queen feel authentic when he's either reserving his emotions or dialing up his ferocity while under the hood; his dramatic vigor might not be the most complex, but he conveys the reserved and hardened "survivor with a secret" vibe quite well. Gritty flashbacks extensively flesh out the origin story of how Oliver becomes this pinpoint archer and killing machine on the secluded Chinese island, and Amell's talent suitably expresses this transformation from a defenseless rich boy to a weathered, bow-wielding killer.

Being a show that the CW would naturally like to fill the void left by Smallville (and it's looking like it very well might do so), it shouldn't come as a surprise that drama and romance share equal time with Oliver's bow-and-arrow crusades across Starling City. Arrow aims at being an broad, versatile production with several different audiences in mind, and that desire occasionally forces the content into a corner with lackluster storytelling mechanics: forced exposition that informs the uninitiated of what's going on; a predictable, drawn-out love triangle masquerading as character development; and hackneyed romance blow-ups later down the line. The need for some of these things is understood, but there's got to be more organic ways than Oliver and Diggle repeating their current objective in his lair, a central character crashing a car while intentionally under the influence, or walking in on a pop-song-accompanied kiss that's bound to wreck lives and drive 'em to drink. Quite frankly, the show has the potential to be better than that, and it mostly already is.

Interwoven story threads across these twenty-three episodes mostly center on Oliver's list of wrongdoers and how it factors into a drastic plan brewing amongst Starling City's upper-crust execs, pointing to a manufactured "event" that could impact a lower-income, crime-riddled area known as The Glades. Throughout his campaign to take down the city's corrupt players and figure out why they're mentioned in his father's notebook, Arrow brings in several larger names from the DC universe, namely the retooled presence of Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman) and a fierce, almost Catwoman-like take on The Huntress. They're not just shoehorned into the story for shock-value, though: from rivals and physical matches to vengeance-seeking mirrors of Oliver's personality, they're confidently brought to the screen in ways that enhance the narrative, instead of mere cameos. What's more, the seeds have been planted for further addition from the Green Arrow universe, such as Thea repeatedly being called "Speedy" across the season and Roy Harper emerging as a significant secondary character in the episodes' back end. If the show plays its cards right, they could deliver bleak, weighty comic-book television with what they've got in place.

Bleakness is almost assuredly in the cards anyway following the conclusion of Arrow's first season, a fierce culmination of Oliver's breadcrumb-following and diligent escapades. While the show does, again, borrow liberally from other popular superhero arcs with the zero hour it leads to, the pacing and the way Starling City reframes the scenario are what become important. Oliver has a lot to learn about the business of vigilantism, purging the disease at the city's core, and balancing his newly-forming personal life with his nightly activities, but he's going to have plenty of opportunities to do so following the earth-shattering events that punctuate the end of this season. By that point, Oliver has transformed into a person that's much less shallow than the green, shaken survivor that returned to the island with little more than a hit list, a bow, and a body of scars; now, he's an outlaw who knows the stakes that come with cloaking his identity and giving the benefit of the doubt to those that might not deserve it, and his agenda has plenty of room to grow across a few more seasons of seeking out those that failed the city.

The Blu-ray:

Arrow: The Complete First Season zips onto Blu-ray in a hefty nine-disc set that mirrors the likes of Person of Interest in design: four Blu-rays (six episodes on three, five episodes on the fourth) and five DVDs appear in overlapping trays within a standard thick blue case. Each disc sports minimal, shiny green-tinted artwork, while an outer cardboard slipcase replicates most of the front and back cover designs. An Episode Guide has been included with the packages that covers both the hi-def and standard-def discs, featuring promotional artwork of Stephen Amell and the rest of the cast in a small row at the bottom of the inner guide.

Video and Audio:

Arrow: The Complete First Season continues WB's recent streak of hitting the mark with TV series, presenting all twenty-three episodes in colorful, crisp, adaptable 1080p AVC treatments framed at the 1.78:1 broadcast ratio. The show's cinematography hops between standard multi-camera conversations and breakneck action sequences, both of which fluidly capture the motion present in each; hand-to-hand brawls are surprisingly fluid and clear. Nighttime sequences are frequent given Oliver's usage of the dark, so thankfully the contrast never overpowers details. Blasts of green, purple, and the oranges and yellows of fire are rock-solid and compliant with the scene's lighting, textures in Oliver's gear -- wood grain, tattered fabric, arrow flights -- are admirably detailed, and the shades of skin tones remain convincing as they interact with varying light sources. There are moments of unstable black levels and wishy-washy fine detail that come with the territory ,but they're few and far between amongst WB's otherwise solid offering.

Those streaming arrows, aggressive combat, gunshots and shattered panes of glass? They sound pretty darn terrific in this slate of 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks too, forcefully challenging both the higher-frequency and low-end realms of the soundstage. Granted, there are moments where the fidelity could be a bit better, such as a handful of punches that sound a bit like dead weight and a few streams of dialogue that struggle with the track's upper shelf. Aside from a few outlier moments, however, the tracks actively capture the ambience and vigor of a superhero series in a larger city: Oliver's movement through office buildings, the sounds that surround him while on rooftops, and little details like elevator sounds and the revving of high-class automobile engines remains exceptionally stable. The action effects, like the shriek of Arrows and the pop of firearms, are potent without being overly aggressive and occasionally test the fidelity of the rear-channel's activity, while the tone-guiding music balances with the sound effects and streams of dialogue well enough so that it only occasionally conflicts with the other aural elements. All points considered, Arrow comes rather close to hitting an audio bullseye.

Special Features:

The only extras that appear on the first three discs of Arrow are a range of Unaired Scenes (HD) for various episodes, more frequently appearing earlier in the season than in later episodes. The bulk of the supplements arrive on Disc Four, starting with a standard making-of featurette entitled Arrow Comes Alive! (29:35, HD) that covers both the conceptualization of the show and allows the actors to discuss their their interpretation of Oliver Queen, not holding back in terms of incorporating a range of villains and recognizable names from the DC universe, and making sure that Oliver's strength and abilities always seem like the practical "product" of his time on the island. A second, more interesting featurette, Arrow: Fight School / Stunt School (18:53, HD), starts off by showcasing how a specific stunt sequences moves from a raw idea/inspiration to the final product, then moves into general discussion about keeping the combat and archery both authentic and "cool".

Also included in the special features is a really solid Q&A with the Arrow: Cast and Creative Team at the 2013 Paleyfest (27:26, HD), moderated by DC's chief creative officer Geoff Johns. The topics bounce around fairly quickly, but the cast members and creators have some great things to say about their characters and the show's trajectory, from using Batman Begins and "Green Arrow: Year One" as reference points to the incorporation of Deathstroke and making Felicity Smoak a fixture in the series. Finishing things off, we've got a brief Gag Reel (2:26, HD).

Final Thoughts:

Out of the starting gate, Arrow establishes itself as a polished replica of the vigilante superhero concept, focused on the dedication that Oliver Queen -- a billionaire child turned combat archer after a five-year stretch on an island -- puts towards righting his corporate father's wrongs in Starling City. As it moves along, though, the show gradually establishes its own identity through Oliver's changing attitude towards his duty and those close to him, which impacts how he makes difficult decisions and resolves his issues with being a tortured survivor. At its heart, yes, Arrow thrives on exhilarating action through Oliver's expertise with archery and the types of criminals he eliminates, and the energy towards scratching names off his list drives it week by week. But there's a respectable degree of thought put into the darker aspects of "The Hood" and the work he's doing, and the way the writers mix Oliver's two lives makes for engaging television while the big, bad conflict at the season's core takes shape. It's guilty of a few TV-isms, namely redundant exposition and contrived romantic drama, but what Arrow gets right, it gets very right.

WB's Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent and sports a handful of quality extras, which shoot this directly towards a High Recommendation.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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