Stars:  Stephen Amell, Katie Cassidy, Paul Blackthorne, Susanna Thompson, Colin Salmon, Willa Holland, David Ramsey, Emily Bett Rickards, Manu Bennett, Colton Haynes, Celina Jade, Summer Glau
Teleplay: Andrew Kreisberg & Marc Guggenheim
Story: Greg Berlanti
Director: John Behring
Network: The CW, airs Wednesday Nights
Original Telecast: October 9, 2013

Willa Holland as Thea Queen and Derek Hamilton as Aglin in ARROW "City of Heroes" | (c) 2013 Cate Cameron/The CW

Willa Holland as Thea Queen and Derek Hamilton as Aglin in ARROW "City of Heroes" | (c) 2013 Cate Cameron/The CW

In a day and age when A) our movie and TV screens are clogged with adaptations of superhero comics and B) the trend in those stories is towards gritty, gloomy, existential despair-fests, ARROW emerged last year as a series that was only halfway committed to riding that particular wave.  It’s first season had some genuinely dark moments, but they were rarely oppressive enough to make the series unpalatable to viewers who enjoyed it as a fun action/adventure romp with a soapy love triangle between some pretty people thrown in.  And with “City of Heroes,” ARROW’s entertaining season two premier, we’re seeing our first indications that maybe that wave of darkness has finally crested, and ARROW’s creators may be about to sand down some of the grit from their straight-ahead enjoyable superhero tale.

In “City of Heroes” we rejoin Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) to find him in self-imposed exile at the place where his vigilante alter ego was forged – the prison island of Lian Yu.  Apparently the guilt over being unable to stop the murder of thousands of residents in “The Glades,” Starling City’s poorest neighborhood, at the hands of his arch enemy Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman), and witnessing the death of his best friend, (and Malcolm’s son) Tommy Merlyn (Colin Donnell), have taken a toll on Oliver and he’s retreated to a place where he feels he can’t fail again.  But his friends John Diggle (David Ramsey) and Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) have other plans for him, as they arrive in a rickety plane above the island on a quest to try and locate Oliver and bring him home.  Over Felicity’s strong, fear-based objections, they parachute onto the island and search for Oliver on foot.  This search is over in about 30 seconds when Felicity then steps on a pressurized landmine that will detonate if she moves.  Somehow Oliver appears immediately above them in a tree, (shirtless, no less), and zip-lines down to sweep Felicity away and pull her off the mine and away from the resulting explosion, leaving her unharmed.

Once things have calmed down, Diggle and Felicity give Oliver the skinny on what’s been happening to Starling City, and with his family, in his absence.  In a nutshell, the city’s now an even bigger crime ridden hellhole, and is recovering from the massive devastation caused by Malcolm Merlyn’s earthquake machine.  Oliver’s mother, Moira Queen (Susanna Thompson) is now in prison awaiting trial for her role in instructing Queen Consolidated’s labs to build the deadly device, (after being extorted by Malcolm), and the family’s company itself is poised to be taken over by another firm run by take-no-prisoners corporate raider Isabel Rochev (Summer Glau), which will leave its 30,000 employees without jobs.

But it wouldn’t be ARROW if the show didn’t immediately break from this scene to give us a flashback to Oliver’s first visit to Lian Yu Island, after his shipwreck five years prior.  Having vanquished the mercenaries that were using the island as a staging area for a terrorist missile launch, Younger Oliver and his castaway friend Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) practice fighting as he hones the skills that will one day make him such an effective martial arts/archery-themed vigilante.  His love interest from the island, Shado (Celina Jade) arrives in their tent and they kiss while Slade looks away.  Their awkward domestic situation is interrupted by some kind of sensor device revealing the presence of armed gunmen heading their way.

Quickly we’re back in present day Starling City as Oliver, Diggle and Felicity drive through some of the blighted areas of the city while discussing the current state of affairs.  Apparently it was not that difficult to convince Oliver to return, even though they’ve by no means convinced him to put the Hooded Vigilante costume back on yet.  We also find out that Oliver’s sister, Thea (Willa Holland) is now the manager of Oliver’s former nightclub, and that she’s still pretty hot for her high-cheekboned boyfriend Roy Harper (Colton Haynes), although she finds Roy’s propensity to go out at night and fight crime in the ruins of The Glades by himself, which leaves him with annoying bruises and scrapes, quite the turn-off.  She’s also holding a major grudge against their mother for her role in the catastrophe that lead to thousands of deaths, and she hasn’t visited Moira in prison at all since then.

We also check in with Oliver ex-girlfriend Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) who’s attending a high-society even with her new boss, who is Starling City’s crusading District Attorney, and the rest of the city’s upper crust.  That event comes to a screeching halt after four armed gunmen who call themselves “The Hoods,” (an identity they appropriated from Oliver’s vigilante persona, or at least what they imagine it to be), storm into the gala and shoot the Mayor to death.  The Hoods then rob everyone and escape, having more than made their point that they want to steal from the rich and give back to the poor of Starling City, who have suffered horrendously under the current powers that be.

In the aftermath of the Mayor’s assassination, Oliver comes to check on Laurel.  The two of them spent the past season with Oliver’s guilt over sleeping with her sister, (who then died in the shipwreck that stranded him on Lian Yu island), and Laurel’s subsequent hatred of him, forming the major obstacles to them getting back together again.  That didn’t stop them from sleeping together again at the end of season one, of course, but Laurel now says she regards that incident as a mistake.  It looks like her guilt over betraying her other ex-boyfriend Tommy, (who died having just learned that she slept with Oliver), will be the obstacle that keeps them apart in season two.  As long as an obstacle exists, however, I’m fine with it.  The romance storyline between these two characters would get a lot duller (and it’s not exactly scintillating now) without some kind of romantic tension keeping them apart, and guilt over betrayed, dead lovers isn’t a bad way to go.

Meanwhile, the Hoods (now unmasked) watch the TV coverage of their attack and are dismayed that the media is not focusing as much on the Mayor’s killing as they are on the fact that playboy billionaire Oliver Queen has returned to Starling City and was spotted at the gala immediately after all the violence, (which, come to think of it, would actually be a pretty big failure by the media).  The Hoods are all men from the Glades who want revenge on the city’s elites for allowing their neighborhoods to be destroyed, and they blame the Queen family especially.  They decide their next assassination target will be Oliver.

We then find Oliver at the Queen Consolidated boardroom, meeting with the very severe-looking Isabel Rochev, who makes no bones about her desire to control his company.  Currently they each own 45% of Queen Consolidated stock and Isabel has the remaining 10% in her sites, and she’s closing fast.  But no additional boardroom wrangling occurs at this meeting because it’s interrupted by the Hoods, (apparently their building security leaves something to be desired at Queen Consolidated), who start shooting.  Oliver gets Isabel to safety, but despite some impressive acrobatic moves that he then uses to save Felicity, Oliver won’t revert to his vigilante persona and actually engage the Hoods in combat.  Afterwards, when the Hoods have escaped, Diggle chides Oliver for not rising up to stop these guys.  And then we get a sense of what this episode is really about.  Oliver tells Diggle and Felicity that before Tommy died he repeatedly called Oliver a murderer for the actions his vigilante alter ego took to fight crime, (which did, in fact, involve killing people), and this really shook Oliver.  He doesn’t want to be the vigilante anymore if it involves killing.

“City of Heroes” doesn’t offer Oliver a lot of time to mull over this decision, though, as the Hoods’ next stop on their quest to assassinate him is to burst into his (and now Thea’s) night club while the party is in full swing and start threatening to shoot hostages unless Oliver shows himself.  Roy, who works there as a waiter now, tries to fight them but isn’t successful, and the Hoods wind up absconding with Thea at gunpoint.  Fortunately, Roy’s attempt to stop them revealed that one of them had an artificial hand, and Felicity does what looks like a 30-second google search on Starling City residents with missing hands and then figures out who these guys are and where they met, (which somehow the Starling City PD is not also able to do, which goes along with their impressive inability to devote much in the way of resources to catching the four men who just killed the freaking Mayor).  Oliver, knowing he has to become the hooded vigilante again in order to save his sister, goes beneath the nightclub to his secret lair, (which somehow Thea has not discovered during her time as the club’s manager).  Apparently Felicity has made some modifications to all of Oliver’s vigilante gear, although they don’t really explain what they are. Nonetheless, Oliver suits up and goes to work.

Oliver, now wearing the hood, goes to where the other Hoods are keeping his sister and dispatches them in short order.  ARROW takes great pains to show that he doesn’t kill them, however, and to make it even more clear it includes a physics-defying scene where Oliver shoots the Hood leader in the shoulder with an arrow, which causes him to fly backwards over a railing, but not to fall to his death because Oliver somehow catches his arm on the way down.  I’m not sure how important it is to me to nit-pick the mechanics of this scene, but it would basically require him to be as fast as his arrow, which… no.  In any event, he stops these villains and frees his sister, and instead of using lethal force he simply chains his prisoners to a fence and waits for Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne), who’s been demoted from Detective to Beat Cop since last season, to come pick them up.

Additionally, Oliver wins round one of his battle for control of Queen Consolidated by bringing in his stepfather Walter Steele (Colin Salmon), now divorced from his mom and working as a Bank CFO, as an angel investor who buys up the remaining 10% of the company’s stock, leaving he and Isabel as uneasy business partners.

At the episode’s climax, Oliver decides that he wants to return to the hood, but not to be a vigilante anymore.  He decides his new persona will not kill, will be a hero that unites the city rather than a vigilante who divides it, and will adopt a new moniker that’s a lot less clumsy than “The Hooded Vigilante,” (for which TV recap writers everywhere are thanking him).   “City of Heroes” ends on a goofy note when Diggle asks Oliver what he now wants to be called and he pauses, stares at the arrow in his hand, does not answer, then the show cuts to a closing insert card that gives the name of the show.  It would be great if next week we learn that he actually chose a name other than “Arrow,” but I’m not holding my breath for that.

I should also point out that there are some (very) quick, scattered flashback scenes of Younger Oliver on the island trying to save Shado, and in one of them he kills a mystery gunman who’s holding her hostage.  This scene is there to bolster the conversation this episode wants to have about Oliver’s evolving attitude towards deadly violence, but it, like the whole island flashback sub-story in general no longer really needs to be there.  There’s precious little left to explain about Oliver’s back-story at this point, and I really don’t need to see him in a bad wig for five minutes out of every episode anymore.

Overall I’m pleased with the direction ARROW is going by toning down its hero’s dark side, however.  It was always an incredible distraction watching Oliver put an arrow into the chest of some henchmen, (and it was always a henchmen), and then having to wonder whether this particular killing would meet the classic definition of self-defense even in States with “stand your ground” laws.  I also wonder whether this decision to take deadly force away from Oliver came out of a vigorous debate between ARROW’s creators about whether the show had made a misstep giving Oliver the propensity to kill in the first place, and making the proceedings too much like all the other dark, gritty comic book adaptations that perhaps we’re all getting tired of.  Or maybe the journey from vigilante to hero was one that the show’s creators had planned from the beginning?  I hope it’s the latter, because ARROW actually had great command of the way it revealed its plot and developed its characters in season one, and I’d love to believe that they’ve got more of the same in store for season two.  Based on “City of Heroes,” I’d say they’re off to a good start.

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Article: TV Review: ARROW – Season 2  – “City of Heroes”

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