R.I.P. to the Arrowverse, the most ambitious experiment in the history of superhero TV

The Flash (Screenshot: Netflix)

With the series finale of The Flash on May 24, The CW’s ambitious and groundbreaking superhero saga known as The Arrowverse (first unofficially, then semi-officially) comes to an end. If not for the fact that it was focused on television, the Arrowverse would be regarded as one of the only cinematic universes beyond the MCU to actually work—and if you’re basing it on pure hours of content, the Arrowverse is completely unmatched.

For 11 years, the Arrowverse tied together one show, then two shows, then three shows, then four, five, sometimes six, then—once the multiverse was introduced in the Crisis On Infinite Earths crossover event—the entirety of all live-action DC superhero shows and movies that have ever been made. Michael Keaton’s Batman movie happened in the Arrowverse. The ’60s Batman show happened in the Arrowverse. Titans, Superman Returns, the 2002 Birds Of Prey show, NBC’s short-lived Constantine, Fox’s Lucifer, and Smallville all happened in the Arrowverse (at least on some level of its vast multiverse).

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But it all began with its namesake, Arrow, in 2012. Somewhat incongruously, given where things ended up, Arrow started as an obvious nod to the standalone Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movies: gritty and “realistic” in quotes, with no magic, no superpowers, and no aliens. Just a vigilante in a costume with a growly voice. Early in Arrow, Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen didn’t even have a superhero name—but he did have a surprising penchant for straight-up murdering villains.

Not that the show was ever really as serious as it pretended to be. This was peak CW soapy genre show era, with The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural going strong, and early Arrow was about one-third violent superhero action, one-third survivalist mystery with Oliver learning superhero skills while stranded on a not-so-deserted island, and one-third relationship drama with a bunch of characters who just refused tell each other how they really feel.

The balance was readjusted in the show’s second season, which stands today as one of the best examples of superhero storytelling on television. With a phenomenal villain in Manu Bennett’s Slade Wilson, the gradual introduction of more comic book-y concepts (namely a superpower-granting/insanity-causing drug called Mirakuru), and a prominent role for future Arrowverse queen Caity Lotz (debuting as Sara Lance, the assassin eventually dubbed White Canary), the show grew into being more of its own thing rather than a pastiche of CW-friendly tropes and Nolan Batman aesthetics.

Arrow opens the door for The Flash

More importantly, though, season two featured a few appearances from Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen, a crime scene investigator from a nearby city with his own friends, his own tragic backstory, and—once he got splashed by chemicals in the middle of a lightning storm and developed super-speed—the potential for years and years of his own superhero stories. The Flash premiered in 2014 and amiably carried the torch from Arrow’s second season with a standout freshman year that offered a fun, brighter counterpart to Arrow’s typical gloominess.

The Flash - Teaser - Arrow Meets The Flash

Buoyed by the Flash’s speed (as in, how quickly it found its footing and knew what kind of series it wanted to be), the two shows began to rapidly expand the fledgling Arrowverse with a bunch of character introductions that would later become noteworthy: Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer, Wentworth Miller’s Captain Cold, Victor Garber’s Martin Stein, Dominic Purcell’s Mick Rory, and Ciara Renée’s Kendra Saunders (along with Arrow’s Caity Lotz) would all become founding cast members of DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, which would premiere the following year.

That same season, The Flash broke down the barriers between not only superhero universes but television channels for a crossover with Supergirl, which was airing on CBS at the time. The bubbly chemistry between star Melissa Benoist and Grant Gustin (both veterans of Glee) guaranteed that we’d be seeing more of them together in the future, so it wasn’t especially surprising—beyond the fact that it was a kind of weird shake-up that worked out better than it had any right to—when CBS and Warner Bros. agreed to take the show off CBS and fully move it over to The CW (losing only some budget and Calista Flockhart’s character in the process).

But until Crisis On Infinite Earths, Supergirl remained in its own separate universe away from Arrow and The Flash, if only as an easy comic book-y explanation for why the other heroes couldn’t just call on Supergirl or her Famous Cousin (as Superman was often called) when they needed help. Besides, the other Arrowverse shows had their own issues to handle as they tried to launch another spin-off, and it didn’t go as smoothly as it did the first time.

Legends Of Tomorrow (eventually) finds its footing

DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow made perfect sense on paper: As the superhero universes of Arrow and The Flash had begun to bloat and more characters were being introduced without necessarily having anywhere to go, this series could do exactly that. It was an Avengers-style team-up of supporting players from other shows (Captain Cold! The Atom! A barista with wings!) traveling through time and just generally staying out of the way of the main canon of the other shows. They even had a Doctor Who veteran in the lead, with Arthur Darvill playing Rip Hunter.

The problem with Legends in its first season, as we’ve discussed, is that it wasn’t … especially good. With so many superheroes in its cast, it was hugely dependent on special effects, which meant either limited fight scenes or similar repeated fight scenes or jumping through hoops to explain why certain characters weren’t using their powers (a problem that persisted for the entirety of the show, to be honest). But worse than all of that was the fact that none of the characters got room to do anything. There was a ton of plot that had to be addressed, specifically involving an immortal villain doing evil things throughout history and a pair of star-crossed hawk-lovers from ancient Egypt, and none of that stuff was very interesting.

Legends went through a gradual retooling over the next few years, thanks to the fact that, for a time, The CW seemingly existed just as a creative outlet for people making the kinds of TV shows that attract diehard followings. There were years when the network just renewed everything en masse, which gave Legends time to grow and find its footing, eventually allowing it to become more of a quirky workplace comedy that just happened to also be a superhero action show.

This breathing room also allowed the shows to find things that worked rather than simply force the plot along, like how the largely positive fan response to Emily Bett Rickards’ Felicity Smoak and her chemistry with Amell upended one of the DC Comics’ most well-established romantic pairings (some of us will be Team Olicity until we’re dead and buried), or how Caity Lotz was able to perfectly adapt to the shifting tones of Legends so well that she eventually took over the whole series.

Arrow and The Flash - Superhero/Supervillain Fight Club

But the long, long leash that The CW kept on the Arrowverse also gave the shows room to stumble. After several seasons, both Arrow and The Flash often felt like they were just going through the motions. They struggled to find compelling season-long villains, characters began to do inexplicable things just to create drama. (Oliver Queen unknowingly fathered a son at one point on Arrow, and the boy’s mother insisted—for no reason at all—that he keep the child’s existence a secret.) As a sign that perhaps the Arrowverse’s power had begun to wane, The CW even ordered a new DC comics superhero show, Black Lightning, that was entirely disconnected from the other four.

Making the most of crossover events

By the time another crossover event sent Oliver, Barry, and Supergirl to Gotham City in 2018’s Elseworlds crossover, it felt like the franchise had hit a real “break glass in case of emergency” moment. Finally, seven seasons in, Arrow was doing actual Batman stuff. Of course, the Dark Knight himself never showed up, but his cousin Kate Kane (played by Ruby Rose) did. Kate, as the vigilante Batwoman, got her own spin-off a year later in which she tried to defend Gotham after the mysterious disappearance of Batman (not to mention the unrelated mysterious disappearance of billionaire Bruce Wayne).

The first season of Batwoman was classic Arrowverse: superpower-less superhero vigilantism with a ton of family drama thrown in (Kate Kane’s sister, Beth Kane, had become the villain Alice, and there were a lot of battles over her soul going on). Rose decided to leave Batwoman after one season, accusing Warner Bros. TV executive Peter Roth of running an unsafe set that left her and other cast and crew members injured, in addition to accusing showrunner Caroline Dries of refusing to shut down the set during the pandemic and claiming that co-star Dougray Scott had verbally abused a female stunt actor.

But Rose was at least around long enough to have a memorable role in Crisis On Infinite Earths, the ultimate culmination of everything the Arrowverse had been doing since it began—and, while it had some slow spots, it did exactly what it set out to do. The miniseries managed to adapt one of the totemic texts of superhero fiction, the comic book event that all comic book events are modeled after, with Rose’s Batwoman meeting an alternate universe version of Batman (played by iconic voice actor Kevin Conroy), Supergirl meeting a version of Brandon Routh’s Man Of Steel from Superman Returns, the Flash meeting Cress Williams’ eponymous hero from Black Lightning, and Arrow’s Oliver Queen dying and being reborn as The Spectre—a classic DC character who was about as far removed from Arrow’s grounded beginnings as you could possibly get.

Crisis on Infinite Earths Part 4: Exclusive First Look

And it all felt earned. The Arrowverse had put in the work to set all of this up, so when recurring character Lyla Michaels appeared as Crisis’ Harbinger, it wasn’t just a bit of comic-book fan service, it was a deep callback to things that had happened years ago on Arrow. The same goes for The Flash’s Tom Cavanagh playing a take on Crisis’ Pariah—a meta nod to the running gag that Cavanagh keeps playing different versions of the same guy on The Flash and Pariah’s multiversal role in the comics.

The series finale of Arrow was deeply weaved through Crisis, a sweet way to pay tribute to the show that started it all that gave the end of the flagship series hugely important universe-shaking stakes. And Crisis cleverly ended with a never-resolved tease for the future that acknowledged that the Arrowverse hadn’t been building toward the creation of the Justice League (something even the mega-budget DC movies were unable to get right), but that it was all building toward the creation of a different DC hero team: The Super Friends. That alone summed up the appeal of the whole experiment. Self-seriousness and gritty action had never really worked for any of these shows, but what always worked was emphasizing the joy of superheroics and the appeal of fun superhero stories with found families and hard-fought-for friendships.

Going beyond the Arrowverse

In retrospect, maybe it all should’ve stopped there—just lovely promises for a future that never really could’ve been (or needed to be) paid off. The Green Arrow is dead, but he got a nice send-off and the other heroes will follow his lead and continue to be good heroes who support their friends.

But all of the shows except for Arrow kept going after Crisis On Infinite Earths, with some of them reflecting the big multiversal changes that happened in that event. (Supergirl and Black Lightning were officially integrated into the main Arrow/Flash universe, though it ultimately didn’t matter that much.) The Flash kept doing Flash stuff, Legends Of Tomorrow fully embraced simply doing its own thing (it even spawned an in-universe holiday special about fan-favorite character Beebo that is legitimately really good), and Batwoman had to be retooled to account for losing Ruby Rose (Javicia Leslie was brought in as the new star and did develop her own fan following), but the most consequential change to the Arrowverse post-Crisis is explicitly not about the Arrowverse.

Originally set up as a spin-off of Supergirl spinning off from the end of Crisis, The CW launched Superman & Lois in 2021 with Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch reprising their roles from Supergirl as Clark Kent and Lois Lane. But it was eventually confirmed that, despite featuring those same actors who had initially been introduced in the Arrowverse, the show is actually in its own separate continuity—for no apparent reason other than that it’s easier than adhering to the established canon. And as soon as you decide to value convenience over continuity, your cinematic universe might as well be dead. (And just after surviving destruction at the hands of the Anti-Monitor in Crisis!)

The Flash 9x09 Trailer | Stephen Amell Returns

With The Flash done, the Arrowverse will have officially come to a close. Unfortunately, the end of the saga doesn’t give off a feeling of triumph, celebrating the many great things these shows accomplished. Instead, it feels like sputtering out, with The Flash and Riverdale being the last gasps of the once creatively unshackled CW succumbing to its new, tightly belted corporate masters. The Arrowverse deserved to go out on its own terms, but most of its shows didn’t get the opportunity.

The ultimate thing to take away from the Arrowverse isn’t just that it’s one of the few times this sort of shared universe has actually worked since the dawn of the MCU (and that, creatively, it was significantly more successful than the big screen DC Universe that Warner Bros. was trying to jumpstart for much of its life). The main takeaway, especially these days, is to appreciate the cool things you’ve got while you’ve still got them. After all, the Arrowverse lived as long as it did because its shows built and maintained strong fan followings. Support the characters you like, sure, but also support their creators, the people you like and respect whose work you connect with, so they can keep doing cool things. That, and the fact that Caity Lotz rules so hard that they should put her face on money.

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