Arrow: The Morality of Vigilantism

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The DC Comics superhero known as Green Arrow has, since his reinvention in 1969, always been a politically charged character.  From the anti-establishment, liberal crusader of the 1970s to the cutthroat vigilante of writer/artist Mike Grell’s 1987 The Longbow Hunters limited series, the best Green Arrow stories have always kept the emerald archer down to earth.  Though he’s often been depicted as a member of the Justice League, Green Arrow is most effective when he’s kept in a more realistic, gritty environment.  Unlike the high-flying superheroics of most comic book stories – or even the freakish theatrics of Batman’s “realistic” Gotham City – the best Green Arrow comics have instead focused on such controversial issues as drug addiction, racism, poverty, rape and human slavery.

As a modern take on the Robin Hood legend, this makes sense; while Green Arrow doesn’t “rob from the rich,” he certainly is a character who is constantly at war with the more corrupt sides of corporate America.  He’s the people’s superhero, an outspoken vigilante who stands up for the little guys.

When written correctly, this can result in a very interesting character study,  because Green Arrow’s alter ego, Oliver Queen, is a man of many, many contradictions.

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Although the arrow-firing vigilante is indeed “the people’s superhero,” the real Oliver Queen is quite the opposite.  In fact, before becoming Green Arrow, Oliver was actually a hard-partying billionaire playboy, a drunken tabloid hog who only found a conscience after being shipwrecked on a remote island for several years – a terrifying experience that ripped him away from all the materialistic trappings of contemporary society.  Understandably, Oliver’s experiences redefined his entire identity.  But even though the post-island Oliver possesses an undeniable streak of heroism , he’s now haunted by many moral dilemmas; he’s a man with remarkably idealistic goals, who often uses questionable techniques to achieve these goals.  Green Arrow – especially when he was written by Mike Grell – is an antihero who doesn’t always conform to the rather straightforward “no guns, no killing” philosophy of characters like Batman.  On the contrary, Oliver has often been depicted as a ruthless vigilante who – if the situation calls for it – will shoot an arrow right into an enemy’s heart.

Now, every writer has their own take on a character; admittedly, many comic book writers have steered away from Grell’s darker depiction of Oliver Queen.  But still, it’s important to recognize that the Longbow Hunters-era Green Arrow was never a bloodthirsty psychopath like Marvel’s the Punisher.  No, Grell’s version of Oliver is a highly conflicted character, a dreamer who is constantly torn between his idealistic, liberal-minded views and the more unforgiving, conservative methods of execution he uses to achieve his goals.  Oliver is a character who you sometimes can’t decide whether to root for or not—and in a television landscape where morally-complicated character dramas like Breaking Bad and Dexter are all the rage, Green Arrow is a character who is so perfectly suited for a serialized TV drama that it’s a wonder it’s taken this long for it to happen.

So, it’s no surprise that Arrow—the CW’s hit TV adaptation of the character, now in its first season–is so effective.

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Arrow is a gritty, down-to-earth, Christopher Nolan-inspired take on Green Arrow’s origins.  Through the use of serialized flashbacks–which run parallel to the main plot line of each episode, ala Highlander and Lost–the series completely recreates the Green Arrow mythos from the ground up.  In Arrow,  we are introduced to Oliver Queen, asshole billionaire playboy from Starling City (“Star City” in the comics, renamed here for seemingly no reason whatsoever), who on one fateful yacht trip with his father, finds himself horrifyingly shipwrecked on a mysterious island for five years.  As the flashbacks slowly reveal, before Oliver’s father  was killed, he left his son with a book—a book full of names, names of all of the corrupt officials, bureaucrats and businessmen in Starling City who are secretly destroying the city from the inside.

When Oliver returns to Starling City at the beginning of the show, he’s a changed man.  The playboy is gone.  Now, Oliver is a trained warrior, a master archer whose only focus in life is to fix his old man’s mistakes by taking out every name in the book his father left him.

Oops...wrong island?

Oops…wrong island?

Arrow has been a big hit for the CW. Really, though, as surprising as Arrow’s popularity might initially seem, it actually makes a lot of sense.  Certainly much of it has to do with the general audience’s hunger for more Nolan-style superheroics now that the Dark Knight trilogy is done – but there’s more to it than that.   The recurring flashbacks to the island – which are coyly reminiscent of Lost, though just different enough to avoid being a rip-off—are certainly a large part of the series’ success, as the two parallel plots running throughout each episode allow the writers to craft a series that is essentially a combination of both The Dark Knight and Lost.   So yes, this aspect alone would seem like a guarantee for success, but Arrow’s appeal is deeper than that; Oliver, as he takes on the more corrupt members of the 1%, is a character who perfectly embodies the frustration, angst and anger of the Occupy Wall Street generation.

But Oliver’s vigilante pursuits aren’t uncomplicated or easy; Arrow refuses to simply be an angry statement against the 1%, as it so easily could be.  Instead, it’s honest enough to ask questions about the wide variety of ethical complexities that Oliver’s costumed identity can’t help but bring to mind.  Let’s not forget, Oliver and his family – who he adores – are themselves part of the upper class.  This aspect points toward the essential quandary that makes Arrow more and more interesting with every episode; as the series progresses, it increasingly shows a willingness to confront an issue that most other superhero movies and TV shows either glaze over or leave behind entirely:

The morality of vigilantism.

Art by Mike Grell.

Art by Mike Grell.

Arrow, though it borrows liberally from all kinds of DC Comics influences, clearly takes its primary inspiration from the 1980s Mike Grell run – hence my earlier focus on Grell’s depiction of the character, as opposed to the depictions of other writers.  Starting with the classic limited series, The Longbow Hunters, Grell presented Oliver Queen as a kind of urban hunter, moving the character’s stories far away from the colorful superhero world; instead of cackling supervillains, mad scientists and alien warmongers, Grell’s Green Arrow faced off against rapists, crime lords and drug dealers.  He lived in a discomfortingly realistic world, taking on real issues—and as opposed to earlier incarnations of the character, who avoided fatalities through the use of an assortment of non-lethal “trick arrows,” Mike Grell’s Oliver Queen killed.

This willingness to commit murder – even if the victims are utter scumbags—is not a small detail.  Most superheroes, even the darker ones like Batman and Daredevil, will maybe send a couple bad guys to the hospital, at worst.  Superheroes usually have a strict policy against killing.

Why?  The reason is simple.  By becoming a vigilante, one is already taking the law into one’s own hands; one is already stating that they have the right to decide who’s right and who’s wrong.  Once the vigilante takes it a step further – once that vigilante decides they have the authority to execute a person, even if that person is evil—it raises a variety of ethical dilemmas.

Green Arrow V2 #58.  Art by Mike Grell.

Green Arrow V2 #58. Art by Mike Grell.

Cleverly, these moral complications weren’t visibly present at the beginning of Arrow’s run.  In the first few episodes, the audience is introduced to Oliver as a man who snaps necks without any remorse.   At the beginning, this seems simple enough; the bad guys get killed because they’re bad guys.  We’ve all seen our fair share of action movies.  How many villains have we seen mowed down by machine guns before?

But as the series progresses, things cease to be so simple.  Because the series doesn’t seem to question Oliver’s methods at the beginning – in fact, it seems to revel in them – this makes it all the more compelling when Oliver’s body count comes back to haunt him later on.  Oliver is forced to question his motives at every turn; he’s continually thrust into situations where it seems no proper moral decision is possible.   What gives him the right to commit murder?  But on the other hand, when he doesn’t kill – when he lets psychopaths like the Huntress or Count Vertigo go free—does that make Oliver responsible for every murder that his villains then go on to commit?

Though it took the show several episodes to completely find its voice, the latter half of season one has been gripping.  In the show’s eighteenth episode – an episode titled Salvation – viewers are presented with a “villain” who calls himself the Savior, a vigilante clearly inspired by Green Arrow’s example.  Evidently, in the past, the Savior’s wife was murdered at gunpoint; since then, he’s taken the questionable path of publicly executing corrupt officials—or anyone else he thinks is ruining the city.  The Savior films these murders, sending the video footage out to every cellphone in the city.

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The Savior believes himself a hero.  So, when Oliver Queen comes in to stop him from executing another victim—a lowlife thief named Roy Harper, a name that should be familiar to fans—the “villain” makes a compelling case; he asks Oliver how the two of them are any different.  Oliver, in his quest to save the city, has murdered people.  Many people.  What right does Oliver have to stop him?  Aren’t they working on the same side?

As the Savior points his gun at Roy, Oliver tries to differentiate between the two of them.  Oliver claims he doesn’t kill in cold blood.  He doesn’t do public executions.  At this point in the series, there is some weight behind Oliver’s comments—Oliver doesn’t murder as easily as he used to. But at the same time, the Green Arrow that we saw at the beginning of the series was in fact a relentless killer, even if he was far more refined and focused than the emotionally-overwhelmed Savior.

This same dilemma pops up with the character of the Huntress, another vigilante who murders casually and openly; it also reflects in the series’ overarching villain, Merlyn—also known as the “Dark Archer”—who seeks to recreate a better, brighter version of Starling City, through a Batman Begins/Ra’s Al Ghul-esque “purification” process that will result in the deaths of millions.

Unfortunately, the so-called Savior doesn’t listen to Oliver’s pleas.  He still attempts to execute Roy—and Oliver responds by shooting an arrow into the man’s heart.  It’s a tense, highly uncomfortable ending that leaves many questions.  There’s no debating that Green Arrow has helped Starling City—but is he really a hero?  What’s the real difference between him and the Savior, other than training and a slightly more active conscience?

Are they any different?

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That’s the complicated dilemma that Arrow ponders, and it’s the dilemma that the writers will probably continue to ask as the series enters its second season.  It’s not an easy question to ask – but it’s an important one, and as long as the series continues to delve deeper and deeper into the morally questionable predicaments that Oliver Queen’s vigilante lifestyle would realistically create, I’ll definitely be along for the ride.

– Nicholas Conley

P.S. to the writers – c’mon, just call him Green Arrow already!  I like the show’s title being Arrow, but avoiding the character’s name within the series itself, especially when instead you’re just calling him “The Hood,” is very silly.  Everyone already knows the name “Green Arrow.”  Just use it!  

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