After twenty-three episodes that ranged from very high highs to some very low lows, the third season of The CW’s Arrow came to a very definitive close with “My Name Is Oliver Queen” on May 13. Now, with months of hiatus until the premiere of Season 4, fans are left trying to make sense of nearly two dozen episodes that changed the foundation of the show forever. For better or worse, there’s plenty of material to consider; therefore, in the name of ongoing examination, rumination, and extrapolation, Wednesdays over hiatus will feature an in-depth look back at certain elements of Season 3 of Arrow. This week’s installment will examine what worked, what didn’t, and what needs to happen next for Arrow crossovers with The Flash.
Note: this is an analysis of how the crossovers worked with relation to Arrow, not of their place in Flash mythology.
What Worked: Premiering in October 2014, The Flash is The CW’s second superhero series. Following the stories of speedster extraordinaire Barry Allen and his exploits in Central City, The Flash was originally born of star Grant Gustin’s guest appearance as Barry on Arrow for two episodes of the second season. Despite his character lying to Team Arrow, irritating the hero, and flirting adorably with one half of the most shipped couple of the entire show, Gustin managed to charm audiences and executives alike so much so that his spinoff was ordered. Arrow was to have a younger, brighter, happier sister show set in the same universe.
With Barry already serving as bridge and Oliver appearing for a few minutes in the pilot of The Flash, it was inevitable that the two shows would be crossing over from time to time. The idea was met with a combination of excitement and trepidation among fans. After all, Arrow and The Flash are very different series, and the discrepancies in tone alone could have been quite problematic.
Fortunately, the two-night crossover extravaganza of December 2014 was a huge hit. The ratings for both shows received a healthy boost, and the episodes introduced viewers who were previously only fans of one show to the pros and cons of the other. With “Flash vs. Arrow” on the Flash half giving a touch of whimsy to Team Arrow for 42 minutes and “The Brave and the Bold” on the Arrow half forcing Team Flash to grow up a bit, this first major crossover was great for The CW’s DC universe.
The plots weren’t exactly without holes, but the development and expansion on the characters involved were more than enough to compensate. The particularly vital members of both Team Arrow and Team Flash were honored as the writing tweaked rather than transformed them.
Felicity and Diggle were lightened up to fit in with the dynamic of STAR Labs to a certain extent, but Felicity’s genuine fear for Oliver when he faced off with Barry coupled with Digg’s casual mention of Oliver’s body count reminded that fighting crime has never been a game for Team Arrow. With a third season focusing more on plot twists than on characterization, checking back in with the basic humanity of Oliver’s closest companions was a breath of fresh air.
Cisco and Caitlin received a rude awakening about the realities of what they were doing with Barry when they discovered firsthand that villains are more than capable of striking close to home, and the victims are not always going to be metahumans with super healing powers. With a first season in which fighting crime was more academic than physical, introducing Barry’s contemporaries to what happens to regular folks in the vigilantism biz was a jolt of necessary realism.
Of course, the contrast in the Flarrow crossover extravaganza was not limited to the side characters. The differences between Oliver Queen and Barry Allen opposite one another in the flesh were compelling in a way that neither show had managed theoretically on its own. By writing each man as true to his established persona, the other was forced to reconsider his attitude toward crimefighting.
Barry Allen was in need of a harsh reality check that putting on a mask to save lives is about more than having fun and winning accolades, and Oliver required an outside presence to point out that sacrificing Oliver Queen to the Arrow was a terribly unhealthy way to live. Barry was able to mature somewhat by listening to the words of a man who had been living a life of violence and survival for the better part of a decade, and Oliver was allowed to be funny as a slightly psychotic straight man firing arrows into perfectly good jackets to impart lessons.
The epic battle between the Flash and the Arrow in the climax of “Flash vs. Arrow” was one of the most remarkable sequences of both shows, and the combination of CGI with practical stunts brought the best of both worlds. The fight was as much a showdown of superpowers vs. experience as it was the Flash vs. the Arrow, and the episode played it just right by having neither thoroughly trounce the other. Aside from the sheer entertainment factor, the culmination was respectful to both heroes and both shows.
Oliver did win, though. Cisco can preach to the high heavens that it was a tie, but Oliver totally won.
While the two-night Flarrow extravaganza was the major event linking the shows in their shared universe, there were several smaller crossovers that worked in lesser ways.
One highlight is undoubtedly Felicity’s first visit to Central City, in which she bestows a sort of meta blessing upon Barry and Team Flash to carry on in their mission, puts an end to Barricity, and does a terrible job of pretending that Oliver is no more than her former boss. She fit in with Team Flash, and the early connection between the series helped pave the way for the extravaganza.
Also enjoyable was Oliver’s detour from his mission to take down the League of Assassins from the inside to show up in Central City and do his part in the battle between Team Fireflarrow – that is, Firestorm, Flash, and Arrow – vs. the Reverse Flash. It once again shone a spotlight on the man without superpowers using his experience to hold his own against a superpowered enemy. In fact, the only way that Oliver’s contribution could have been more entertaining is if Reverse Flash had reacted to Oliver neutralizing his speed by looking him up and down, noting the size and musculature of his opponent, and then trying to run away at normal speed.
A final fun note of comparatively minor crossover shenanigans came when Detective West and Cisco took a field trip to Starling that afforded Laurel the chance to gleam in the brightness of the Flash, and seeing her smile at Cisco’s appreciation of her efforts as Black Canary rendered her more charming than she’d been for quite some time.
What Didn’t Work: A note that was not at all fun and not nearly as minor as it should have been was the episode in which Felicity Smoak and Ray Palmer skipped over to Central City for some help with the ATOM suit in “All Star Team Up.”
“All Star Team Up” was constructed so sloppily that there was a distinct sense that those behind the scenes had gone out of the way to take everything that the Flarrow extravaganza had done right and do the absolute opposite. Characters were redesigned around the plot as though the names had been filled into a pseudoscientific Mad Lib, and Felicity’s behavior was downright embarrassing as she was written to cheerlead Ray with as much exuberance as possible to sell his story. It was cheap and uncomfortable and frankly best forgotten for Arrow fans. The only redeeming factor was that Felicity somewhat resembled herself in her bromantic scenes with Barry.
“All Star Team Up” may be a prime example of major mistakes condensed into a single episode, but it is not the only crossover installment to be weakened by avoidable sloppiness and failure to properly collaborate.
Timing is a problem that only got worse as the seasons progressed. While Felicity’s first departure taking her away from Team Arrow to conveniently deprive Oliver of one of the people historically best at talking him out of bad decisions and the question of how exactly Barry is able to zip 600 miles from Central City to Starling in about two minutes were easy enough to overlook, “All Star Team Up” could have only occurred in a window of time in which it was completely inappropriate for Felicity to take a mini vacation with her boyfriend. Producers insist that it’s possible to follow the events of just Arrow or just The Flash, but the ideal is certainly for viewers to become engrossed in both shows. Huge discrepancies in timing are hardly encouraging for fans to want to immerse themselves entirely in the Flarrow-verse.
Similarly, the decision to allow for semi-regular crossovers between the shows means that character appearances need to be justifiable and excusable on both sides. When Felicity first decides to visit Barry in Central City, she does so after inhaling media about the red streak and informing Ray that she wanted to check in with a friend who woke from a coma. Over on The Flash, however, Felicity announces that she’s known that Barry is the man behind the streak ever since she overheard Barry and Oliver speaking. Quite aside from the fact that it’s difficult to concoct a way for Felicity to have possibly overheard the conversation, the Arrow side of the mini-crossover established that she figured it out for herself. It should not have been difficult for The Flash to carry on with a story thread that is more logical and more believable than Felicity as a master eavesdropper.
Even worse than the failure to justify the absences and appearances of characters in crossovers have been the in-story contrivances used to speed through exposition. Perhaps the most egregious example comes with “All Star Team Up” as the cautious Felicity who spent two years with the paranoid Oliver protecting his secret at all costs cavalierly informs Barry that she just decided to tells Ray about the secret identity of the Flash. She proceeds to talk about Laurel as Black Canary and spill all of the secret goings-on of Starling City to catch Flash viewers up on the action. Organic storytelling was sacrificed for convenience and inconsistency, rendering Felicity a mouthpiece for producers anxious to get the establishment over with and move on to the plot twists and punch lines.
What Needs To Happen Next: First, producers need to work with each other as well as with the network to produce as consistent a product as possible. Closer collaboration could have made many of the elements that did not work with the crossovers far more palatable.
Second, the existing characters and plots on both Arrow and The Flash need to remain separate enough that they can progress independently. Small moments such as Oliver showing up for Team Fireflarrow and Barry somehow racing to Nanda Parbat to rescue Team Arrow and Co. from the dungeons worked well enough, but giving Laurel her Canary Cry on The Flash without any explanation on her own show was a major misstep. The crossovers need to show that the series are fun when overlapping but still perfectly suitable on their own. With second spinoff Legends of Tomorrow premiering in 2016, it is even more important that each show keeps its own characters at top priority.
Third, all of the shows within The CW’s DC universe need to use restraint when it comes to borrowing castmembers. Crossovers should be used for more than novelty to insert into previews to try and suck in new viewers. If they’re not necessary to the story, they should not happen. Let crossovers remain a treat rather than a bi-weekly occurrence.
Fourth, the shows need to ease up on making the characters compete in each other’s arenas. The showdown in “Flash vs. Arrow” worked because it was an even match, and Fireflarrow vs. Reverse Flash worked because it was the good guys against a supervillain, but Barry powering his way up and down the salmon ladder and laughing about how fast he can catch Oliver’s bad guys rankled. These are different characters with different strengths, and pitting them against each other will become tiresome and embarrassing if it continues.
Fifth, Joe West needs to stop badmouthing Oliver at every opportunity. It was possible to give him a pass back before he met Oliver and only knew the Arrow for his Season 1 murder spree, but Oliver saved a lot of lives and spared Central City a great deal of potential destruction when he fought the whammied Barry. Oliver could have died, fighting his friend in a city that was not his own. Joe needs to cease smearing Oliver as the Arrow and propping Barry as the greatest superhero in the history of ever. The continued criticism makes Arrow look bad for fans of The Flash and casts Joe in a seriously unflattering light for fans of Arrow. Nobody is served well by Joe’s comments, and they need to stop.
Finally, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and The CW need to remember that Arrow is the mothership in this shared universe. The spinoffs may be flashier and fancier and brighter, but Arrow should not be shuffled into the background in all of the promotion for the Legends of Flarrow-verse like an embarrassing relative who won’t stop telling war stories at the family picnic. Each show must be able to stand on its own alongside the others, and decrying Oliver as a dark monster best kept in Starling City a la Joe West or shoving the archer behind all of the fantastical characters with superpowers a la the advertising thus far needs to end.
Oliver may not have superpowers or a time machine, but he is the only superhero of the universe thus far who has put in the work to earn the title. Olicity may not be canonical with the comics, but it is the culmination of three years of storytelling. Diggle may not be a DC sidekick with decades of backstory to draw from, but he is the greatest right-hand man on The CW. Arrow may not be filled with metahumans or monsters or British time-travelers, but it is the only actually tried and true standalone superhero success at this point.