Black Panther: The Game Changer We All Needed

Warning: spoilers ahead!

Even though most of the comic book characters who have lit up the big screen were first created in the 1960s (or earlier), there’s no doubt that their cinematic recreations are reflective of our time. While dozens upon dozens of superhero movies have paraded across the screen, the ones that stick out the most have been the ones that have something to say—about society, about the world we live in, about the challenges facing us now.

For example, the first Spider-Man film came less than a year after 9/11, and felt like a direct response: no other film so captured the zeitgeist of that moment, the rallying together, the desire for union, most notably depicted when the New Yorkers join together to save Spider-Man from the Green Goblin, chanting, “You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!” Spider-Man 2, on the other hand, perfectly captured the sense of a “fall from grace” that happened within the U.S. almost directly afterward, as the “war on terror” began: the rise of patriotism was followed by a devastating fall, with a frail economy, polarization, and constant struggle. While 2002’s Spider-Man was bright and colorful, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 was murky, grey, bittersweet, and showed a Peter Parker nearly collapsing beneath the weight of bills, responsibilities, and unfulfilled dreams. Following this, the year 2008 brought us both The Dark Knight and Iron Man, two films that critically tackled the evolving views on the “war on terror.” The Avengers followed suit, re-approaching 9/11 about as directly as a superhero film possibly can (New York is devastated by an attack from the sky, people rally together against it). The Avengers put down the groundwork for the anti-corruption themes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War.  Last year brought us Wonder Woman, the feminist superhero movie that the world was waiting for, and also brought us Thor: Ragnarok, which mixed slapstick humor with a  biting satirical critique of colonialism. Then there’s the obvious political allegories of the X-Men films: these concepts were at their most potent in Logan, which portrays a Trumpian dystopia where mutant immigrants from Mexico flee to Canada for freedom, while the U.S. is mired in recession, automation, and corporate bureaucracy.

While most superhero movies are popular, the films listed above resonate because of how they tap into cultural fears, hopes, and dreams. As of February 16, 2018, a new film needs to be added to that list: Black Panther.

Black Panther mask Marvel

Black Panther is the sort of film that, for decades, Hollywood producers claimed would never work. It stars a black protagonist, shown as wise, commanding and noble, but also possessing human flaws like impatience, anger, and self-doubt. The director, Ryan Coogler, is black, and almost all of the supporting cast are also black. It’s set in Africa. Rather than showing the characters an an oppressed minority, it instead shows them as powerful figures, coming from a technologically advanced society that stands head and shoulders above “western” society in every way. There are no damsels in distress: most of the supporting characters are powerful women, such as Okoye and Shuri. As if that wasn’t enough, the movie is even titled “Black Panther.”

The film that Hollywood thought would “never work” is now on track to be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, proving wrong everyone who ever doubted it. Contrary to all of its doubters, it seems like Black Panther is the movie people were waiting for.

Black Panther hasn’t even been out a month, but it’s already been the topic of numerous fascinating think pieces, analyzing T’Challa’s place in history. Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige believes it’s the best movie they’ve ever made. Issac Bailey, writing for CNN, proclaimed that “Black Panther is for film what Barack Obama was for the presidency.” It’s been said by many that Black Panther is becoming a movement, not just a movie.


Here’s another thing: Black Panther might turn out to be the superhero movie of this era.

In recent years, the efforts of groups like Black Lives Matter have helped bring the topic of racial inequality roaring back into the headlines, forcing everyone to stand up and take notice of the widespread structural racism that still exists in the United States today. The U.S. has a particularly strange duality at play, when it comes to this matter: we’re living in an era where a black man become president of the United States, but we’re also living in an era where he was immediately followed by a white person with a sordid history of racist actions and proclamations. “Jim Crow” is a thing of the past, but systemic racism and mass incarceration are so deeply embedded into the country’s institutions (with even former slave plantations converted into prisons) that the situation has been called “the new Jim Crow.”

Obviously, as a country, and as a world, we have a lot of work to do to further the cause of true equality. But that’s the easier part to accept and realize. What’s equally critical—and what Black Panther taps into—is that society also needs to also reexamine our history, to challenge all rose-tinted views of the past, if we hope to rise into a better future.

T'Challa Black Panther Marvel Killmonger villain B Jordan

In the film, this aspect is symbolized by the villain, Killmonger—a character whose relatable background evokes empathy from the audience, even if his means and end goal are destructive.  In his introductory scene, Killmonger speaks toward the history of black oppression… which is, in turn, the history of the contemporary world. As written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the journalist for the Atlantic who has also written Marvel’s Black Panther comic book:

“The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office. The laments about “black pathology,” the criticism of black family structures by pundits and intellectuals, ring hollow in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America’s relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer.”

The great lie of colonial history, whether it’s British colonialism or the birth of the United States, is the default presumption of virtue, the idea that everything was built fairly. Are there certain things to admire about the United States? Yes, absolutely: democracy, republicanism, the push for greater freedom, the dream of giving every person the opportunity for life and liberty. That’s what the U.S. got right (ideologically, if not in practice), and those dreams are what American citizens should feel patriotic about — but as a culture, we also have to recognize that even while the founders were pushing for these virtuous goals, the U.S. left behind women, minorities, anyone who wasn’t a European-descended male, with policies that particularly harmed both Africans and the native North American tribes, whom the very land was stolen from.

(For the record, I do think patriotism is valuable. However, jingoistic chants of “America is great,” or “get out of the country if you don’t like it” aren’t true patriotism. Just like honestly loving a person requires that you understand their flaws, I believe that true patriotism requires acknowledging the evil actions that U.S. culture and the U.S. government have perpetrated upon countless other cultures in the past, and accepting that if we truly believe in the ideals of the United States, we need to address, repair, and make reparations for the harsh reality of these past actions.)

Now, Black Panther isn’t introducing these concepts for the first time, but what’s significant is that the film is a multi-billion dollar studio tentpole, a major film that people all over the world will see, think about, and recommend. It’s tapping into a deep vein that many people out there might have never considered. Black Panther is huge, and it’s getting bigger. That’s what makes it a game changer.


Dora Milaje Black Panther Wakanda Warriors Marvel

Black Panther poses the notion of an African nation, Wakanda, which was never colonized. And then, contrary to every prejudiced assumption on the books, Marvel depicts this uncolonized nation as NOT being a “primitive,” culturally backward, starving country: instead, Wakanda’s separation from the colonial world has made it BETTER than every other place on the planet. It’s a nation that was able to hold onto its old traditions, while also embracing the most advanced technology on the planet, and even developing more equal social norms (particularly when it comes to women) than most “first world” nations today.

This cuts right to the heart of the “manifest destiny” myth, repudiating it. But Black Panther doesn’t stop there and rest on its laurels. Once the movie has shown how amazing Wakanda is, it then uses the character of Killmonger to challenge the nation’s isolationism, further widening the film’s scope. Killmonger believes that Wakanda is responsible for the suffering of people around the world, because of its closed borders.

And here’s the rub: the villain is right, on some level. Sure, Killmonger’s end goal is wrong, as proliferating high-tech weapons around the world is never good for anyone, but the essence of his beliefs—that the great nation’s isolationism makes it guilty for the wrongs that happen across the world—is accurate, and over the course of the film, T’challa comes around to this point of view.



The final battle between T’Challa and Killmonger depicts both characters calling out one another’s hypocrisies. Killmonger tells T’Challa that by hiding in the shadows for centuries, Wakanda is complicit in the wrongdoings perpetrated over the course of history. T’Challa finally agrees with this, but argues—also correctly—that Killmonger’s desire for violent supremacy has made him into everything he hates.

As a film, and as a story, the depth of this conclusion is fantastic. T’Challa “wins” against Killmonger’s violence, but Killmonger also “wins” the battle of ideologies, convincing the hero of what he (or rather, his nation) has been doing wrong.

By the end, T’Challa learns from the mistakes of his father, and knows that Wakanda can no longer remain distant from the concerns of the world. Now, he must get involved. This is most explicitly stated by T’Challa himself in the film’s mid-credit sequence, set in the United Nations, which is easily one of the most political scenes in any Marvel movie to date:


“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”

Black Panther Marvel throne tribute

And so, T’Challa opens his nation to the world, brings Wakanda’s knowledge to those who need it, and offers help and guidance to everyone else who is struggling. He doesn’t do this naively. After Killmonger’s attack, he knows the risks. Opening Wakanda up to the world means the possibility of invasions, theft… you know, all the stuff that a Black Panther sequel will probably deal with.

But in an increasingly globalized world, isolationism is not only wrong, but also dated and ineffective. Just as our real world is now menaced by threats beyond our easy comprehension—I.E., climate change, nuclear weapons, overpopulation, et cetera—the Earth of the Marvel Universe is now menaced by alien invasions, Infinity Stones, and lots of cosmic craziness that could wipe it off the map. If the Earth wants to survive, all of its nations must come together.

To summarize, I have to acknowledge that as a white male, I can’t speak on behalf of other cultures, or what this movie might mean to other people from different backgrounds: I can only offer a series of assumptions, from my own privileged position. However, I don’t want to close this essay on my thoughts, because when it comes to Black Panther, there are other voices that are more important than mine. The film definitely moved me, but I’m not the audience whom it will have the biggest impact on.

That audience, the one that matters the most here, are the black youth of today, and they deserve to be heard.  Writing for the New York Times, Kevin Nobel Maillard invited a group of seventh graders to a Black Panther showing, and recorded their responses. Here are a few:

“The film makes me want to start my own tribe and make my own inventions to help the world. It also makes me want to make my own Panther outfit.” – Gabriela Myles

“To see a black person control a whole country and creating all this technology made me feel I can do more with my brain.” – Jaheim Hedge

Black Panther will show people of the world how much more people of color can do.” – Scottia Coy


In Comics, Reboots Aren’t Always a Bad Thing

Here’s a controversial idea to throw out there, which many may totally disagree with: what if the two major comic book universes rebooted every five to ten years? Planned reboots. Total reboots.

Let me explain.

Walter White Breaking Bad

Remember  Breaking Bad? Great show, right? And what made it great was that when it started, you knew it was going somewhere—and then, when it got there, the finale was everything we ever could have hoped for. All of the seeds that were planted in the first season paid off in a huge way, so that fans felt rewarded for having embarked on Walter White’s journey.  Throughout Breaking Bad, we saw one man become something entirely different than what he was at the start, and it was believable. Unlike so many popular TV shows, which run too long and thus lose the very things that made them great in the first place—I’m looking at you, House MD—Breaking Bad had a five season plan, stuck to it, and was thus the perfect picture of how to tell a great serialized story.

You know why Breaking Bad was such a great story?  Because it was planned. Because it had an ending.

What if American comic books could tell stories the same way?


What I’m proposing is simple. First, let’s clean the slate. Start all of the various superheroes fresh, right from the beginning—totally fresh, with no carryovers, no “some parts of continuity are still valid but not others,” none of that.

And then, once the clean slate is established, we start with a brand new comic book universe — let’s call it “World One” — and we set an END DATE.  For the sake of argument, let’s say five years, six years, whatever. So this means that World One has five years to play out.

And then, once writers are assigned to their various characters, let’s allow those storylines to play out with total freedom. This allows characters to grow, change, die, be reinvented, or what have you. Also, when the universe does reset, we don’t need to do some cataclysmic end of the universe crossover: we just need to say that we’re moving onto the next universe.

Consider the advantages of this.


Let’s say that when World One starts, the writer assigned to Wolverine begins by depicting the Weapon X storyline. That writer then has the freedom to, during their five year reign over the character, bring Wolverine from that point all the way to being an old man, ala Logan. Alternatively, they might decide that they want to have this version of Wolverine take the place of Xavier, leading a new team of X-Men. Or, they may want to have this Wolverine sacrifice himself to save the world from Apocalypse. In a planned universe with an end date, all of these things are possible.

The stakes would be heightened. Individual events would matter. Characters would be free to change, grow, evolve.

If comic universes operated on a five-six-or-however-many-years year plan, all of these options would be open, and comic book deaths would have meaning again. If the World One version of Wolverine died, he would stay dead. The World Two version of Wolverine, whenever he appeared, would be an entirely new writer’s vision of the character.

Batman Begins

Because the end of World One was planned from the beginning, there’d be no feeling of betrayal when it ended. This is the problem with most reboots. When The Amazing Spider-Man rebooted Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, it caused an uproar of negativity that the new series never quite recovered from, and this was because the old trilogy still had a lot of fans who were expecting a Spider-Man 4, never thinking that Spider-Man 3 was the ending. In contrast, a planned reboot wouldn’t stab the old fans in the back, because everyone would already know it was coming. The third part of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was, from the outset, promoted as the end of the series. This left the door open for a new film interpretation of Batman to enter the door in a few years, without trampling on Nolan’s legacy.

Look, I love comic books, especially Marvel. As I’ve written before, I credit superheroes—especially Spider-Man—with helping me come out of my shy shell as a kid, and I’ve retained my love of them into adulthood.  The characters that Marvel and DC comics have brought to the world are iconic, and that’s why they’re now lighting up the silver screen and bringing in billions of dollars.

But let’s face it, comic continuity is a mess. Storylines can’t be shocking or exciting when they always, always revert to the status quo. Planned reboots would be different, because each reboot would herald the beginning of a new story. If a fan loves one version, they get to have that version. If they hate it, well, they can just wait for the next time around.


Planned reboots would allow characters to have endings. Consider the impact of this year’s Logan: the reason that movie was so heartbreaking was because we knew it was the end of Hugh Jackman’s character. There might be a new Wolverine someday, sure, but at least we got a chance to say goodbye to the old one. Endings matter.

Endings are important, because endings are what gives a story deeper meaning. Without an ending, a story is forever unresolved.

We all know that the biggest American comic books out there aren’t ever going to end permanently: there’s too much money to be lost if Superman is suddenly gone forever, no more issues, done. But with planned reboots, an individual version of Superman could end, could be a complete, satisfying story. In a few years, the comic would still get to continue, without trampling on the work of the previous writer.

Would it work? Who knows. I’d imagine this might not be the most popular solution for the comic book continuity quagmire. But personally, I think it’d be worth trying out.





The Shadow Hero: Rebirth of the Green Turtle


When comic books first birthed the concept of a “superhero” in the late 1930s, the floodgates opened, and dozens upon dozens of masked avengers entered the scene.  Many of these, such as Captain America, Batman and the Flash, are still around today and making splashes in pop culture.  Others faded into obscurity, and one of these lost heroes was a character named the Green Turtle, who was never very popular and disappeared after only five issues. Until 2014, the Green Turtle seemed lost to the sands of time, a relic forgotten even by comic buffs.

Not anymore.  Thanks to Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s intriguing graphic novel The Shadow Hero, the Green Turtle is back, and his reintroduction to the scene is an important landmark in comics history.

The back story is this: in the 1940s, Chinese American comic creator Chu Hing created the Green Turtle.  According to urban legend, Hing wanted his character to be the first Chinese American superhero, but his publisher vetoed the idea, and demanded that the Green Turtle be Caucasian.  In response, Hing purposely illustrated his comics in such a way that the Green Turtle’s face was always obscured; the character’s back was often to the camera, and if he was facing forward, then something was always blocking his face.  This way, Hing could maintain the Turtle’s real ethnicity without ever revealing it.


It’s a crazy story, but a believable one: when reading the original Green Turtle comics, one of which is included with The Shadow Hero, the constant props and angles that obscure the character’s face seem far too intentional to be a coincidence.

In The Shadow Hero, what Yang and Liew have done is reintroduce the character by telling his heretofore unrevealed origin story.  In the process, the Shadow Hero also does in the contemporary era what the character’s creator was not allowed to do in the 1940s, and permanently establishes the Green Turtle as North America’s first Asian American superhero.


Why is this important?

Easy: because even though American superhero comic books have often taken on social issues—see the classic “drug issues” of Amazing Spider-Man, or the recent Superman comic on police brutality—one thing that American comics are lacking in is diversity.  Sure, there’s a your Black Panthers, your War Machines and your Jubilees, as well as your occasional Northstars (and now Icemans).  But most of these characters tend to be sidekicks or members of teams, and rarely receive the solo spotlight.  The majority of superheroes—and heroines, and villains—are all white, and that’s something that doesn’t reflect properly society.

Part of what makes this important is that superheroes are, at their core, childhood role models—Spider-Man was such a huge part of my childhood—and it isn’t fair to children who aren’t white that all of the major superheroes are Caucasian. There should be superheroes, not just sidekicks, of every race, sexual orientation, and background of origin.

It’s important for comic books to have more racial diversity; the movies have dealt with this by recasting traditionally white characters with actors of other races, such as Michael B. Jordan playing the Human Torch and Samuel Jackson’s now-iconic performance as Nick Fury.   Marvel Comics has recently taken the initiative by having new characters take on the roles of its most classic superheroes, with Falcon becoming Captain America and Jane Foster becoming Thor, but the inherent difficulty in this solution is that the minority characters are functioning as secondary versions of the primary ones.

For true diversity, we can’t just create fill-ins for the original characters.  We need new ones.


For comics to truly embrace diversity, we need new, unique characters that can form their own legacy, instead of simply complementing the legacy of another character.  The Green Turtle, while not technically “new,”  fulfills this role.  With the new back story that has been created for him, the Green Turtle is a strong, interesting new character that broadens the scope of comic books, playing into themes that have been inherent in the medium since the beginning, while also bringing something new to the field, creating a character that has a remarkably different background, power and goals from any other superhero out there.

Even more significantly, while the Green Turtle’s racial/immigrant background is a part of the character, it doesn’t define him.  What defines Hank Chu, the Green Turtle’s alter ego, is his choices, his strong morals, his love for his family.  He’s a character that’s easy for anyone to identify with.

Personally, I’d love to see The Shadow Hero get brought to a wider audience in the form of a movie, though I suppose that’s some time off.  Still…

As far as the storyline itself, The Shadow Hero is excellent.  It tells the story of 19-year-old Hank Chu, the hardworking son of Chinese immigrants, who lives a simple life and idolizes his father.  When his mother is rescued by a superhero and pushes Hank to become one as well, but it isn’t until tragedy strikes — and his father’s shady backroom dealings are revealed — that Hank embraces his destiny and becomes the Green Turtle.

The Shadow Hero is simultaneously touching and lighthearted, capturing the tone of 1940s comic books while adding in the depth of contemporary stories.  It’s an incredibly heartfelt comic, sometimes tongue-in-cheek but always sincere, with likeable characters and a flawed-but-worthy hero.  One can truly sense the passion that fueled this comic’s creation, and just how much love was poured into it.


It’s a book with a lot of heart, and it’s wonderfully unafraid of wearing it on its sleeve.  Superheroes have always been closely tied to immigration; ever since Kal-El rocketed down to Kansas, superheroes have always told stories about people who are outside the norm, immigrants from strange places and other worlds, many of them created by first generation Jewish Americans.  The Shadow Hero connects the genre to its past while steering forward in new directions, creating a beautiful, unique gem that is a must-read for all comic fans.

I highly recommend The Shadow Hero. Now that the Green Turtle has been brought back from the abyss, I hope to see much more of him.

Why Superheroes Matter


In the 21st century, superheroes – those silly little spandex-clad characters that used to be a subject of ridicule and the content of moldy cardboard boxes – have moved beyond the ink stained pages that birthed them, and they have ascended to the pinnacle of popular media. Three of the ten highest grossing movies of all time are superhero movies. Any trip to a department store, mall or internet shop is filled with billions of products advertising brightly-colored characters with capes and masks. While Superman, Batman and Spider-Man have been a part of American culture for decades, the contemporary era has seen formerly B-list characters like Iron Man, Hellboy and Daredevil become household names.

Through film, TV, comics and video games, the superhero genre has transformed into more than just a form of escapism. Films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy have used WWII-era characters to tell stories that deal directly with contemporary political fears, while superheroes like the X-Men are a rallying symbol against racial, sexual and geographic prejudice.

Popular culture has finally accepted comic books as a legitimate form of storytelling.  The superhero genre has become monumentally huge.


But why, exactly? What is it about the idea of a “superhero” that appeals so much to people? What is it about this genre that’s taken the cinematic world by storm?

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can describe my own experience.

Let’s flashback to the early nineties – and let me tell you, I was a quiet kid. I’m still introverted today, but the child version of Nicholas Conley was not only introverted, but deathly shy. Anxious around people, uncomfortable about himself, his identity, his body and his voice.

To put it bluntly, when I was young, I didn’t speak. I had a wonderful family, amazing parents and a comfortable lifestyle, but my social anxiety was utterly crippling. Communication, interaction with others, even family members, caused me to snap shut like a clam; I’d retreat into the back of my mind and hide. I was closed off from everyone, because I didn’t feel comfortable being myself.  I felt as if I was an alien that had come from a different species.  Whereas other kids were able to talk to each other, laugh and joke around, I felt completely closed off and unable to participate. Anytime I was forced into a big social situation, I went deadpan, flat, and I became the social equivalent of a brick.  People would look at me, smiling, talking, trying to hug me, and I just didn’t do anything. I couldn’t figure out how to do anything.


Though I had a lot of love from my family and others, it all felt strange and foreign to me.  I felt terribly unable to present myself to others. I was scared to talk, but I also felt unable to talk.  Everything I said came out wrong and bland, an unfitting representation of myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked myself – the me on the inside – but I didn’t like the flat, shy, awkward me on the outside, and I couldn’t find a way to make these two totally different beings come together.


So, I was silent.  I was reserved.  But I watched everything, with a deadly sort of intensity. I paid attention to every single clue, every expression, everything that entered into my sphere. I had a far easier time relating to adults than I did with children. I had a very analytic, encyclopedic type of brain that absorbed information like a computer, loved analyzing things (which might explains why my blog posts are so long…) and especially loved learning every single piece of information about anything I found interesting. It wasn’t enough to just know a few things—I had to know everything.

Every day was stressful and anxiety-inducing. I felt like more of an exposed wound than I did a person.  Having always been fairly empathic, other people’s emotions struck me as being startlingly intense and hard to handle; due to my intense social awkwardness I didn’t know how to respond to them.  I generally wanted to spend most of my time alone.

So, in any case, there was this one VHS tape, featuring a bizarre red and blue character named Spider-Man.

Art by Kaare Andrews.

Art by Kaare Andrews.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was. Three, four, somewhere in that range. But I remember this one videotape more vividly than I remember almost anything else.  It was an episode of the lesser-known—but underrated!—Spider-Man cartoon from 1981, titled Doctor Doom: Master of the World.

The episode has a rather simple plot, really. The villain, Doctor Doom, places a mind control device onto the President of the United States, and uses similar devices on every other world leader.  With every nation on Earth under his control, he has himself elected as the so-called “Master of the World.” However, before his vicious plans can truly get underway, he’s foiled by Spider-Man; that strange, wiry, red-and-blue suited character with the webs and the big white eyes. Spidey outsmarts Doom, turns his robot army against him and saves the day, cracking jokes the whole time.


It’s strange how something as small as a VHS tape from an eighties cartoon can have such a huge impact on a child, an impact that effects the entirety of a person’s life. But it did. It absolutely did, in a way that still amazes me when I look back.

We had a few more VHS tapes from the same series. These episodes featured other villains; the Lizard, the Green Goblin, the Kingpin. All of them were deadly, but in the end, Spider-Man always won through a combination of intelligence, skill and a bit of luck. Watching these cartoons at that young, impressionable age, I found them completely mesmerizing.  I began gobbling up tapes from other cartoons of that era, such as The Incredible Hulk and Pryde of the X-Men. 

And that’s when it all exploded.  Soon, the slew of now-classic 90s cartoons took off—Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, Spider-Man, The Tick, et cetera—and pretty soon, I became an expert on just about every Marvel and DC superhero that existed. From that point on, I was absolutely obsessed with superheroes, to the point where they occupied my every waking thought. I’d spend long hours reading the comic books, watching the cartoons and playing make-believe games with my younger brother.


But as much as I fell in love with every superhero I learned about, none of them quite eclipsed my adoration for the character who introduced me to all of them in the first place.

Looking back, I fully understand. As much as I loved (and still love) every superhero, there was just something about Spider-Man that spoke to me on a level that other superheroes didn’t. Something that, even today, I still connect to in exactly the same way. There’s something both perfect and perfectly flawed about the character.  On one hand, he’s edgy and tormented; his motif, powers and costume—and particularity those big white bug-eyes—have a certain bizarre creepiness to them that can’t be denied, and Peter Parker’s back story is terribly tragic.

But at the same time, there’s a fascinating duality to the character. Instead of simply being dark and gritty, there’s also something loveable—and almost cuddly, in a way—about Spider-Man. The playful sense of humor, his messed up personal life, the inherent optimism that the character maintains despite his painful lot in life…

It wasn’t just that he was likeable to me as a kid, he was inspirational.


Of course, as a young boy, I loved superheroes because they were inspirational. Here I was, this scrawny and self-conscious little kid, and these guys were what I wanted to be.  Strong, powerful, confident, able to do great things.

But what separated Spider-Man, I suppose, is that he was actually like me. Peter Parker was a weirdo, like I was. When trapped in his “real” identity as Peter Parker, he was a nerdy, shy, socially awkward, self-conscious misfit—but then, in one fell swoop, he could put on that wonderful, face-covering, Steve Ditko-designed mask and become the person he truly was on the inside: Spider-Man, the cocky, brave, wisecracking hero who always saved the day. Unlike most other heroes, Spidey could mess up sometimes. He got sick, didn’t always get the girl, wasn’t always celebrated by the general public, but he was free.

Art by John Romita Jr.

Art by John Romita Jr.

In the same way that I felt trapped within my own shy and fragile identity, Peter Parker was also trapped. But unlike me, Peter had an outlet. By becoming Spider-Man, he could cast aside his skin – the flawed and inaccurate perception that others had of him – and then, with the aid of that red mask, he could publicly reveal himself to the world.

Understanding the character better as an adult, I now see that as one of the fundamental keys to Peter Parker’s character development. Unlike most other superheroes, who assume a fictitious costumed identity in order to fight crime, Peter Parker did the reverse. By assuming that identity, by becoming another person, Peter actually sheds his worries, doubt and self-consciousness.  By becoming Spider-Man, Peter Parker becomes himself.  And by seeing Spider-Man’s example, the younger me was inspired to realize that hey, maybe I can be myself, too.


Instead of hiding behind my “mask” of indifference, I could bring myself out into the open and be who I was. I could be comfortable in myself, and be proud of myself.

On top of that, the example that superheroes gave me as a child – these selfless, heroic figures who sacrificed their lives for the good of others – has never ceased to inspire me. In my life, I’ve always been passionate about helping others in any way that I can. Giving blood, working at jobs that support the less fortunate, showing understanding to people when they need it the most, these are the things I care about the most deeply.

And today, as an adult, I’m no longer shy. I’m certainly introverted, which isn’t a bad thing, but there’s barely a trace of shyness or self-consciousness left in me. I’m extremely comfortable in my own skin.

Now, it’d be silly to give all the credit for my life to a fictional character. As I said before, I was lucky enough to be born into an amazingly strong, close-knit family. But superheroes were certainly one of my biggest influences when I grew up, and it’d be a lie not to credit them with helping establish the idealism and moral code that is so fundamental to my life today.

And I suspect that, in this regard, I’m not unique.  I was born into a generation that grew up with superheroes, and the kids that read comic books, fantasy, horror and science fiction novels are now at the forefront of the entertainment industry.

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

See, this is the reason that superheroes are so huge these days. This is why they matter.

On one hand, they are the contemporary equivalents of ancient mythological gods.  Superheroes are larger than life figures, more powerful than we are, able to achieve the great things that we can’t. But on the other hand, since Stan Lee and his league of Marvel artists revolutionized the genre in the 1960s, superheroes are also flawed human beings, real people who must overcome their problems so that the world can remain safe from alien invasions, criminal masterminds and extradimensional demons.


Every major superhero holds a unique appeal. Sure, Spider-Man is the quiet, self-conscious outsider who opens up and dedicates himself to helping others. But Batman is the intense, focused intellectual with near-superhuman devotion toward a single goal. Iron Man is the inventor, the clever scientist, the mechanic who loves creating new things, taking them apart and seeing how they fit back together. Bruce Banner is the pent-up, repressed victim of a painful childhood who finally releases himself in a torrential green wave of emotion. The X-Men are the repressed minorities of the world, the victims of prejudice and unfair judgment, people who instead of lashing out, fight for peaceful coexistence with the same ones who judge them so harshly. Daredevil is the victim of a disability, who instead of allowing that disability to rule his life, instead learns to accept it and uses it to make himself a better person. Idealistic heroes like Superman and Captain America are the good, pure,  salt-of-the-earth people, the backbone of society, the people who instead of allowing the immoralities of the world to knock them out and pervert them, strive to make it better.

Batman Begins

Superheroes have taken ahold of society because they hold a truly universal appeal. They appeal to the children they inspire, or the child inside us that thrills at their colorful adventures and hijinks.  They appeal to adults, as their stories become a vehicle for the discussion of important social issues, problems and moral debates. Like the best escapism, the best superhero stories don’t just take us away from our problems. They also bring us back, make us think, and inspire us to lead better lives.

Modern myths? Living legends? Inspirations of both children and adults? Great, edgy stories? Yes, all that and more.

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Truth, Journalism and an Alien Symbiote with Sharp Teeth

“The great part of my job is that I get to be an ‘administrator of truth.’ Crime occurs every thirteen seconds in this city. You know how we have these statistics? Because guys like me are out on the streets, collecting these stories. We put the caution in cautionary tale, y’know? And being aware the crime out there, the people of this city can live their lives accordingly. In fact, I’m the one doing this city a public service. We’re the heroes out there….”

-Eddie Brock


Though Spider-Man has always had one of the most imaginative rogues galleries in comics, there’s no Spidey villain with quite the same fan following as Venom.  Though Venom’s character has, over the years, been abused, written incorrectly and reworked countless times, there’s something perfect about the original conception.  Venom, more than Doc Ock, the goblins, Vulture or even the Scorpion, is truly the ultimate anti-Spidey.  Doc Ock might be the one who parallels an older Peter Parker and sure, Green Goblin is the one who twists Spider-Man’s head around, but Venom is the alien menace that really makes Peter Parker shiver at night – the perfect portrait of an egotistical, greedy, immoral man accidentally given great power.  A man who, in direct opposition to Peter’s obsessive doctrines about responsibility, uses that power only to hurt others and achieve his own ends.

Truth in Journalism – a short fan film produced by Adi Shankar, directed by Joe Lynch and available HERE – is an intriguing look at the character, a tribute that brings Venom back to his roots.

The film introduces us to Eddie Brock, scandalous news reporter, as he guides a Belgian film crew through New York City.  As Eddie’s layers are slowly peeled back – as he starts progressively acting weirder and weirder, from talking to himself in the bathroom to stringing muggers up on balconies – the crew comes to find that the person they’re dealing with might be a far more disturbed individual than he initially appears.


The first thing that makes Truth in Journalism stand out is its commendably unique style.  It’s a professionally made film with a clear aim in mind; instead of simply imitating the comic, it creates its own dark, horrifyingly realistic sandbox and then plays around in it.   The grainy, black and white footage is gritty, uncomfortable, flawed.  The characters seem like real people instead of actors, and thus their actions—played in a brilliantly subtle manner, instead of being over the top—are utterly disturbing, instead of being thrilling.  While the clear inspiration is the 1992 French film Man Bites Dog, there’s also a touch of Pi in here, a bit of Eraserhead.

The other thing that makes this little adventure really click, though, is Ryan Kwanten’s performance as Eddie Brock.  I don’t know Ryan from anything else (I’m not a True Blood viewer), but based on this short film, I’d be inclined to sign him up for any big budget version of Venom in a heartbeat.  Kwanton totally encapsulates the twisted yet weirdly sympathetic character that David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane created.  The character that later stories and writers all too often forget about,  as they attempt to twist Eddie into being something he’s not.


This is the real Eddie Brock.  He’s not a noble antihero, not a slobbering brain-eating beast, and certainly not a raving lunatic.  Eddie Brock is a liar, a hypocrite who portrays himself as an idealist – I.E., “administrator of truth” – but in reality, is all too willing to sell out and betray those ideals the second that they get in the way of his goals.  He constantly justifies his immoral actions with poor excuses, desperately tries to prove his importance, and refuses to accept responsibility.  Eddie Brock is, at his core, a power hungry loser who really, really, really wants to be winner.  His psyche is too fragile to accept his own failures – so instead, he blames Spider-Man.  It’s Spider-Man’s fault for turning in the real Sin-Eater, Spider-Man’s fault that his reputation is in shambles, Spider-Man’s fault that his career and life are ruined.

No, this line of reasoning isn’t remotely logical, but Eddie Brock is not a logical man.  He’s an emotional wreck, an impulsive opportunist with severe self-consciousness problems.  That’s why Venom, when used correctly, is such a creepy enemy for Spider-Man.  Whereas Peter Parker is all about responsibility, temperance and guilt, Eddie Brock is a small man who constantly justifies his actions as being for the “greater good,” but refuses to take responsibility when people get hurt.

The Eddie Brock in this short is totally believable.  He’s a real, tragically flawed human being, a person who’s brought down not by terrible catastrophes but instead by his own ego, ambition and arrogance.   The way that Kwanten plays Eddie is simply perfect; you can sense that Eddie is a likable guy, a talented guy with a lot of ambition, the kind of guy who is probably really fun to share a beer with…but at the same time, Kwanten deftly portrays the simmering rage and desperation beneath Eddie’s act; the more we find out about Eddie, the more we see how he’s simply a skilled performer with an obsessive need to prove himself.

He desperately needs to be somebody.  He needs friendship, he needs respect, he needs affirmation.  Notice how, throughout the short, Eddie slowly corrupts the entire film crew, even as he’s trying to prove his innocence to them.  He’s the kind of guy who, if you met him on the street, you’d probably like him – and you’d even sympathize with him – but who would, if it suited his ends, double cross you in a heartbeat and say it was your fault.


In the the film’s dark denouncement, when Eddie finally gives up, gives in and releases his other side, we know that he’s not going to feel any guilt over his murderous actions.  He’s going to tell himself that he “had to do it.”  He’s going to justify that he had to kill those men “for the greater good.”  And then, most likely, he’s going to continue to repeat the same pattern he’s previously demonstrated to us.

I’ll admit, I actually really liked Spider-Man 3 – though it certainly doesn’t hold even a candle to the absolute masterpiece that is Spider-Man 2 – and I actually thought Topher Grace did a good job as Eddie Brock.  The problem wasn’t Eddie’s characterization; Eddie was suitable hypocritical, smarmy and egotistical, and the symbiote was as menacing as ever.  The problem was simply that a complicated character like Venom simply can’t be crammed into an already overstuffed movie like that.

What could’ve been the biggest bad guy of the franchise was stuffed into the last half hour of an overcrowded movie, and the result felt predictably rushed.  If Venom had been given time to breathe – say, in the potential Spider-Man 4 that never was – he could’ve been a cinematic villain on par with Doc Ock and the Goblins.  As it was, we only got a intriguing glimpse at the most popular Spider-Man villain of all time…and then poof, he was gone.

Truth in Journalism, though it has a short running time of only seventeen inutes, truly excels in all the areas where Spider-Man 3 missed the mark.  This is largely due to the fact that the people involved in this short film have a highly intuitive understanding of the character, and a fervent desire to flesh him out.  Instead of rushing Eddie along his path, the film takes time to develop him, make him likable – and at the same time, make him scary.  The Eddie Brock presented here is truly the comic book character brought to life.

But more importantly than that, Truth in Journalism is just a very cool little movie.  Unlike other fan films – which often function more as extended fake trailers for nonexistent movies than anything else – Truth in Journalism is a terrific piece in its own right.  It’s creepy, intriguing and wonderfully atmospheric.  Truly, an excellent achievement.

-Nicholas Conley


The Man, the Animal, THE WOLVERINE (2013)


What kind of man calls himself the Wolverine?  Is he a hero?  A mercenary?  A psychopath?  Is he a diamond in the rough—or do his sins run deep enough that, once his external trappings are removed, the world’s favorite X-man is revealed to be nothing more than an animalistic killer in a hero’s clothes?

These are the questions asked by the surprisingly existential 2013 comic book film, The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma).  Putting aside much of the futuristic, superpower-heavy, highflying theatrics of previous X-Men films—aside from a new noteworthy action scenes and a sci-fi heavy finale—The Wolverine is, at its core, a character study of its title character.  It’s a film that sets out with the ambitious task of showing us who Logan is, explaining who Logan was, and redefining what Logan can become.

Unlike X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this film isn’t really an X-Men movie; hell, it’s almost a stretch to even call it a superhero movie, and that’s exactly what makes it so intriguing.


Art by Frank Miller.

Taking inspiration from the classic 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller limited series—often described by fans as “the Japan storyline”—The Wolverine largely moves away from the mutants vs. humans, segregation and anti-prejudice themes that have dominated the X-Men up until this point.  Instead of trying to win the audience with cool mutant cameos, The Wolverine instead puts its focus squarely on Logan.  The film places us in the role of an Anubis, weighing an ostrich feather against Logan’s heavy, heavy heart; it forces us to judge the soul of the man we’ve spent so many movies rooting for, to decide whether this animalistic killer with adamantium claws is really the damaged hero we hope he is—or whether he is a lost cause.

The comic books have often tackled the issue of Wolverine’s morality, most recently in Jason Aaron and Renato Guedes’s Wolverine Goes to Hell.  In fact, it was the aforementioned Claremont/Miller series that first revealed a deeper side to the character.  Before then, the depth of Wolverine’s inner torment—the idea of him being a failed samurai, instead of just a scrappy antihero—had never been fully examined.  However, The Wolverine marks the first time that this issue has been explored on film, other than occasional hints of it in X2: X-Men United.

Who is Logan?  Does he have any honor?  What drives him?  What defines him?

Art by John Cassaday.

Art by John Cassaday.

Over the course of the last decade, Wolverine has become one of the most popular comic book characters of all time—and this has resulted in a certain level of overexposure, which in turn has led to him often being written incorrectly.  To understand the complexity of Wolverine’s character—to grasp what turned this feral wild man into the breakout star of the X-Men franchise—it’s important to get away from any misinterpretations and go back to the beginning.   The first thing to understand about Wolverine is that he’s not in any way the archetypical action hero that his critics might try to pin him as.  He’s also not the stereotypical gruff, angry badass with a heart of gold, who always has a plan, and always gets the job done.

No, at his core, what makes Logan so interesting is that he’s a failure.

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).

Yes, a failure.  This is a man who, in a lifetime that spans over a hundred years, has failed at essentially everything he’s ever set out to do.  Almost every woman he’s ever loved, from Rose to Silver Fox to Jean, has died a violent death.  He’s a man who desperately needs to have a purpose, a man who has a clear idea of the noble figure he wants to become, but who is continually overwhelmed by his base urges.  He’s a man who wants to escape from the senseless violence that has always defined his life, but whose bestial instincts are so powerful that he’s never been able to overcome them, no matter how hard he tries.  Wolverine can never quite expel his violent tendencies, he can only direct them at the right people.  The Weapon X project—the terrible science experiment that turned him into a living weapon—was merely the tip of the iceberg.

This is the ultimate tragedy of the character, his terrible Achilles Heel, and the very essence of what makes us root for him.  Wolverine, when written correctly, is not the unemotional, brutish, arrogant powerhouse that critics often try to portray him as—if anything, he’s exactly the opposite.  Logan is a deeply vulnerable, highly passionate creature, a traumatized loner who struggles to balance the terrifying rage inside him with his deep desire to do good in the world, and to help others.  He knows that he’s a failure, and his efforts to find purpose (and momentary happiness) in a harsh world form the backbone of Wolverine’s best stories.


The cage fight scene in the first X-Men movie—the sequence that introduced Hugh Jackman’s Logan to the world—is a beautiful illustration of the character’s flawed nature.  In that scene, we’re shown a powerful, fiercely strong-willed man, wasting his life away in meaningless bar fights against truckers he could trounce in a heartbeat—and yet, he doesn’t pop his claws.

In The Wolverine, James Mangold displays a clear desire to go back to that Logan—to take us back to the man we saw in that cage.  It’s no coincidence that one of Logan’s first scenes is, once again, a bar fight.  Comparing the meaningless cage battle in X-Men with the driven, angry bar fight in The Wolverine—a fight that Logan initiates out of loyalty to a senselessly slaughtered grizzly bear—the audience is shown just how much Logan has changed since that time…but also how, even after his time in the X-Men, the same demons continue to haunt him.


The Wolverine wants us to reexamine everything we think we know about Logan.  To achieve this ambitious look into Wolverine’s core, Mangold’s film essentially puts Logan on the operating table, cuts him open, and then removes every trait we normally associate with the character.  The idea here is to get at the truth of who Wolverine is, beyond the more materialistic aspects we generally identify him with.

So, what does this mean?  Put it this way—in The Wolverine, Logan’s status as an X-Man is gone, past history; evidently, the end of X-Men: The Last Stand left Logan a little bit of a wreck, and he’s suffered from nightmare after nightmare of Jean Grey—the woman he loved, the woman he killed in order to save the world—ever since.

What else?  Well, how about his distinctive hairstyle? That’s gone, too, replaced by long hair and a beard—though the classic hairstyle does return once he gets to Japan.  His costume?  Gone, and so is the familiar leather jacket that he’s worn ever since his first film appearance in 2000. But these things are minor points, overall.  Where The Wolverine really finds its voice—where it really cuts into Logan’s flesh like a carving knife—is when it takes away the one thing that has, until this point, defined Wolverine more than almost anything else.  The one thing that has always made Wolverine such a force to be reckoned with:

His immortality.


The fact that the film tackles this issue is truly commendable; in the comics of the last decade or so, Wolverine’s “advanced healing” ability has often been over-exaggerated, used as a sort of deus ex machina to get him out of any tight situation.  But this film wisely steers away from that familiar course.  Instead, it’s brave enough to show us the downside.

See, here’s the thing that’s easy to forget; while healing from any injury might be a neat little trick to pull out in a fight, the whole “never aging” aspect tends to make for a fairly lonely life.

Remember, Wolverine has lived for over a century.  He’s watched every woman he’s ever loved die.  He’s never had a steady family.  He’s made a lot of enemies, fought for a lot of causes—but even when he does find a cause worth fighting for, as he did with Xavier’s X-Men, it’s only a matter of time before the battle is finished, and he has to move on once again.  As the world ages around him, he stays the same.

How could this not drive a man insane?


So, in The Wolverine, Logan is given the chance to end his immortality, once and for all.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite explore this issue as much as one might hope; the dramatic situation is such that Wolverine never really has the chance to consider whether he really wants to die or not.  The movie’s other big flaw lies in its conclusion—after such a compelling and down to earth first and second acts, the sudden futuristic sci-fi blowout feels a bit forced.

Still, exploring the inherent problems that Logan’s immortality causes for him is an intriguing route to take, and there’s a handful of brilliant moments.  One of the best scenes in the film is a slow, tranquil sequence about halfway through, where Logan—now powerless—quietly reflects back on a time that he was offered a man’s sword at the bottom of a well.  What this scene accomplishes is that, instead of telling the audience that Logan is immortal, it shows us; it captures, for the first time in this franchise, what it would really feel like to be this immortal being, filled with memories he can’t always access. It’s a character-focused moment that one would never expect in a movie like this, and scenes like this are what make The Wolverine stand high above many of its contemporaries.

Of course, a lot of the credit for this also goes to Hugh Jackman.  Having played Wolverine in six movies now, it’s amazing how he continues to bring the same energy and enthusiasm to a part that, by now, he must know like the back of his hand.  Really, what’s most surprising about his performance here is that it’s his best one yet; the Logan in this movie truly is the Wolverine from the comics, ripped from the page to the screen.  It’s the same tortured, angry, vicious—yet surprisingly noble—character that has fascinated readers since the 1970s.

Jackman has truly embodied this character on the big screen, to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else ever wearing the claws; now that he’s set to make a seventh appearance as Wolverine in next years Days of Future Past extravaganza, it looks like Jackman isn’t going anywhere, and thank God for that.


So, then, we return to the same question; what kind of man calls himself “Wolverine,” and is that man a hero?

The film’s answer to this question, then, is a resounding yes—yes, Wolverine is a hero, but he’s a deeply flawed one.  However, as this movie’s total deconstruction of him proves, the reason that he’s a hero has nothing to do with his external traits.  Wolverine’s heroism doesn’t come from his costume, nor his adamantium skeleton, his healing factor, nor even his famous claws; no, what defines Wolverine is the fact that he’s a flawed man, a damaged man—with emotional wounds that don’t heal like his physical ones—but a man with good intentions, who fights for what he believes in.  Wolverine is the sort of hero who leaves a mess in his wake, a hero who often messes up, but in the end, he’s driven by a powerful sense of nobility, a strong sense of morals, a compelling urge to fight for a good cause.  That is what defines him.

Wolverine truly is a ronin—a samurai without a master.  That’s who he is, and that’s why The Wolverine, even with its flaws, is finally the Wolverine movie that we’ve always wanted.

-Nicholas Conley

Art by John Romita, Jr.

Arrow: The Morality of Vigilantism


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.


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.


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.


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?


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!