Once upon a time, I would have been delighted to hear that there would be a steady supply of superhero movies at my multiplex all the way through 2019. Lately, though, I have been feeling a little Hulk-smashed, and not in a good, She-Hulk-y kind of way. Grim and gritty superhero movies have gotten so monotonous that even the prospect of Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies makes me feel a little weary and wary.
There are exceptions to my general lassitude, of course, such as the loose and goofy “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which is riding its dancing seedling and late-’70s soundtrack to the top of the annual box office. But for me, the real relief comes on the small screen, where two superhero series from executive producer Greg Berlanti continue to remind me that seeing a man fly (or run really, really fast) ought to feel like a miracle and that there is something worth rooting for other than Tony Stark’s perpetual quest to prove his own coolness.
In “Arrow,” airing at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on the CW, it is not particularly the superhero himself who compels me, though Stephen Amell brings a lot of credit to Oliver Queen’s grandiose and flawed but deeply felt hope to save his city, or at least make a contribution to its security. Instead, it is the ensemble Berlanti and his staff have built around Oliver, the less-than-super humans who do not have the advantage of Oliver’s combat training or his strength and speed, but who are fighting with him nonetheless.
First in my heart is Felicity Smoak, a marvelously unique creation brought beautifully to life by Emily Betts Rickards’ sensitive performance. Unlike Marvel’s Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Felicity is not out in the field, kicking villainous keister to prove she can punch out bad guys with the boys. Instead, she is an IT whiz, making most of her contributions to Team Arrow by sending her fingers flying across a keyboard or sorting data with her sharp eyes. Felicity is valuable on her own terms, not merely by the criteria used to measure whether men are strong or powerful.
And while Felicity is beautiful and feminine, she is no sex toy to be lusted after, stolen and threatened, and then rescued. Her attachment to Oliver grows out of their work together, the same work that makes Oliver an unsuitable partner. Felicity’s flirtations with other men, including forensic scientist and secret superhero Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) and business titan Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh), are also based on mental affinity and mutual respect. She is maybe the only woman in superhero storytelling who is credibly loved for her mind.
I also love John Diggle (David Ramsey), the former soldier who started as Oliver’s bodyguard and became an integral part of his crime-fighting team. Diggle is tough and physically proficient, if not a beneficiary of the torturous training Oliver received during his years away from home.
But part of what is so wonderful about him is the way Diggle’s work with Oliver helps him to recognize his limits and to develop a more tender side of his personality. After reuniting with his ex-wife and becoming a father, Diggle becomes less reckless. In his new role, proving himself Oliver’s equal is less important. So many superheroes and their teams risk everything. Diggle has something to lose, and those human-size stakes make every scene with him feel genuinely tense in the way that the swaths of destruction that are carved across most superhero movies increasingly fail to register as anything other than CGI.
And while “Arrow” shakes up the role of the superhero sidekicks, “The Flash,” which spun off from “Arrow,” does the same thing with its titular superhero. I wrote a love letter to the sweetness and good intentions of Barry Allen this fall, and while “The Flash” has had a few stumbles since, the sentiment stands. It is an absolute delight to have a superhero we can affirmatively root for again. I don’t want Barry Allen just to beat the bad guys. I want to see him become the best man and best superhero he can possibly be, because Berlanti and his colleagues have convinced me that the ceiling for him is so high: Allen is not just going to be a guy who saves a city every once in a while as a boost to his own reputation.
Other superhero auteurs are so determined to explore the shades of gray that lie between good and evil that they have plunged us into a soupy, impenetrable fog. Greg Berlanti’s shows insist that there are beacons that can guide us out of this storytelling swamp. And with “Arrow” and “The Flash,” he has reminded us that while it may be hard to figure out ethical ways to use great power, it is a great deal more admirable to try to be good than to succumb to corruption by pretending it is inevitable.