There was a time when the Arrowverse was, for me, the most exciting thing on TV. It was weird and ambitious. It was silly and comic-booky. Fresh off of Deathstroke on Arrow, the Flash started boldly with Reverse-Flash. Crossovers grew in size and scope with Invasion! and then Crisis on Earth-X. Then, Crisis on Infinite Earths happened. It was huge, exciting, and worked incredibly considering what it was attempting–but like Avengers Endgame, it was so big that it kind of let all the air out of the room. We’re now deep into the first post-Crisis season and it’s worth taking a look at where the Arrowverse–call it the CWverse if you like–is at.
The COVID problem
Of course, all criticism of the CW’s library of superhero shows right now has to be tempered with the knowledge that this season of shows was filmed, at least partially, in the midst of a global pandemic that required lots of mask-wearing, COVID testing, and other precautions. That the shows exist at all is a credit to the showrunners, cast, and crew alike for taking risks and taking steps to mitigate those risks. We can see the effects of COVID all over, from the weird first-few episodes of the Flash to the empty courtroom of Lex Luthor’s trial on Supergirl.
It’s hard to tell just how deep the effects of the pandemic go for television shows. Are the writers writing in the same room? Probably not. Is that affecting the quality of the shows–that’s harder to say. How many awkward action sequences were that way due to COVID precautions?
And yet, some of these problems have been brewing for years, and we can put only so much responsibility on COVID before the shows themselves have to start taking it on.
The Flash was one of the first Halloween costumes I ever wore. I love the characters, I love his rogues, I love his powers. When the show debuted, it almost immediately dove into pitting Flash against Reverse-Flash. Reverse-Flash is simultaneously one of the scariest and silliest villains of the DC universe. His whole schtick is patently ridiculous, but he’s a patient, clever, and terrifying villain. I love it, and Tom Cavanaugh gave gravitas to the character. Even little things, like the sound effect fans refer to as the “angry helicopter sound” that they would play to signify the character’s entrance, added to his mystique.
And arguably, that’s where the show peaked. Since then, I’ve been waiting for a story to get even close to that tale. Barry has been stuck on a cosmic treadmill, though, that has him losing his powers, messing up the time stream, making bad decisions, and so forth for six seasons now. The excitement began to fade with Zoom, and Savitar made for a truly bad season. Things started to look good again with Clifford Devoe, the Thinker, but fell off hard with Cicada. The show’s first post-Crisis villain, Mirror Monarch, started out strong, but the story dragged on even before COVID disrupted it. The character’s ending–holding hands with Flash and defeating her clones with the power of Love–was laughable.
The storyline that followed, in which the Flash accidentally spawned the Still, Strength, and Sage forces, is basically a case study in everything wrong with The Flash. It took an ambitious storyline and turned it into a complicated mess meant to foster drama, and it quickly went off the rails and never came back. With an eighth season on the way, it’s hard to imagine what the writers could do to redeem the show at this point.
The Flash tried to mix things up by breaking seasons into two arcs. We’d hoped for shorter, more concise storylines, but instead, we’ve gotten broken, meandering seasons. It doesn’t help at all that we had one season broken up by the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover and two seasons noticeably affected the pandemic, but again, it still comes down to the writing and pacing. The show needs to get away from Star Labs, get weirder and funnier, and stop solving problems with “love.”
For a long time, Supergirl was a steady middle-ground show for the Arrowverse. It was steadily enjoyable but survived almost entirely on the charisma of Melissa Benoist. The show hit the big time in the fourth season when they stumbled into the compelling Agent Liberty storyline and brought on Jon Cryer as, in my opinion, the best Lex Luthor. Sam Witwer’s Ben Lockwood/Agent Liberty gave us a plausible throughline taking someone from an everyday guy to a radicalized hate group leader. It was a problem that needed Supergirl, and yet was one that Supergirl couldn’t solve with a punch, and it worked swimmingly.
The show’s fifth season took a sharp dip as the show switched from depicting real-world political issues to exploring a literal fantasy world in Obsidian’s magical VR technology, along with a mysterious villain called Leviathan. Neither Leviathan nor Obsidian lived up to their potential, nor did the mostly-forgotten fifth-season love interest, William, who never quite fit with Kara or the show.
Now, the show is halfway into its sixth and final season. Actor Melissa Benoist is now married to Chris Wood, who played Mon-El on the show, and the two had a child together during the shutdown. Benoist is looking to focus on her child, so Supergirl is ending. The quality so far of the show’s sixth season suggests that this is for the best. The show started with a storyline that separated Supergirl from her team for the last five episodes–something the Arrowverse loves to do but that never quite seems to feel right.
Supergirl is on hiatus at the time of this writing with Superman and Lois taking its place until August. With Kara Zor-El off in a literal different dimension, the show depended on its supporting cast to make things work. They did an admirable job–actors like Jesse Rath, Katie McGrath, and Nicole Maines did a lot of hard work to elevate the show while the story wasted Benoist, but my interest in the show has waned so much that I’m finding myself unable to care about its return.
The last half of this final season could still be good, but none of the setup so far really suggests as much. The show paused on a not-very-hangy cliffhanger of the imp princess Nyxly hitching a ride on the team’s spaceship back to Earth, but her contributions to the show have been middling. Season 4 was definitely the peak of the show, and at this point it’s just a matter of trying to finish it out in a way that feels like it honors the character. Hopefully that doesn’t mean killing her off.
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow
Legends of Tomorrow is arguably the gem in the Arrowverse’s crown right now, though I still think it’s underrated. It’s also the least explicitly superheroic. Like some of our favorite shows–Star Trek: The Next Generation, Parks and Recreation–the show started rough in its first season before finding its footing in the second, much better season.
Since then, the show has bucked comic book trends left and right, and shown the value in doing so at every turn. The show has re-used and redeemed villains, turned running jokes into major plot points. It made gloomy-gus John Constantine interesting as part of a team instead of just a grumpy loner. The show has built up previously one-dimensional characters into living people and reinvented other characters.
Halfway into the show’s sixth season, it’s only just now that things are showing any signs of slowing down. Legends of Tomorrow is still a wildly enjoyable show, but the cast has changed so much now that major plot points center around Sara and Mick being the oldest members of the team. It’s at once a sign of how smart the writers are that they’re turning that casting truth into a heartfelt storyline for the characters, and also a sign of how long in the tooth the show is.
Despite that, though, Legends of Tomorrow is still very much an enjoyable, heartwarming, and thoroughly silly show. The best thing Legends of Tomorrow can do is not overstay its welcome–if the show is tired, maybe it’s time for it to have its own finale. But if the writers still have good ideas, I want to see every one of them.
Batwoman cannot catch a break. The show set itself apart from other Arrowverse shows by casting a movie star and a veteran actor in the roles of Kate and Jacob Kane. The middling first season ended with a banger of a finale, but I’m not talking about the show itself. Ruby Rose, who played Kate Kane, stepped away after just one season.
The showrunners cast a new woman, Javicia Leslie, as a new character, Ryan Wilder. The second season was, as a result, incredibly weird. It was a sophomore season of a show interrupted by a pandemic, which had lost its star. That’s a lot of weight for the writers to bear, and it was impossible to miss how much that dragged down the season.
It wasn’t until the last third of the season that the show began to truly pick up and gain steam, though the finale left much to be desired. The excitement was tempered with news that Dougray Scott would be leaving the show, taking Jacob Kane out of the picture without any real kind of exit.
Season 3 is a chance for a true sophomore effort. This season felt like someone who missed the second half of the school year and had to start the whole thing over. I just hope the show doesn’t lose another principal cast member.
Superman and Lois
Superman’s entry into the Arrowverse is, along with Legends of Tomorrow, a sign that the Arrowverse has more to offer than scenes of attractive 20-somethings saying nonsense words in front of dozens of monitors–the formula developed by Arrow, codified by Flash, and worked to death by Supergirl.
Superman elevates the Arrowerse with excellent casting, writing, and visual effects. Even the cinematography and lighting are a step above anything else the Arrowverse has done before.
The true test of the show will be the last leg of its first season and its step into season 2. While Flash is limping, Superman is flying. But Flash had a killer first season, too, and Superman and Lois has to prove that it has more than one story to tell about the Man of Steel.
Arrow and Black Lightning
The Arrowverse is genuinely massive, with 32 completed seasons of television across seven different shows over a period of nine years. In that time, the network has seen two shows reach completion–though Supergirl will join them later this year.
Arrow‘s ending was special; despite some really bumpy seasons, the show finished strong with a great, shortened eighth season that gave the show a great chance to say goodbye to the characters and world. It was a celebration of a show that kicked off something special, and it felt like a complete–if slightly stretched–arc for the Green Arrow himself and his story.
Black Lightning, meanwhile, ended abruptly this year after a solid third season. I haven’t finished the fourth season yet, but partway through, actor China Anne McClain decided to step away from her role as Jennifer Pierce, forcing the show to cast a new actor and work with that weirdness. The show ended not because the story was finished but because signs were beginning to show that it was running out of time.
Despite the hate that the Arrowverse often gets, it should go without saying that it’s something truly special. If you’d told us a decade ago that we’d have 628 episodes and 471 hours of television (to date) specifically devoted to heroes like Supergirl, Superman, the Flash, and more, we’d never have believed you. It’s a miracle that the Arrowverse exists, and that as much of it is as watchable as it is–it’s hard to make this much television.
With that said, the Arrowverse is in somewhat of a transitional state. Arrow is over, Supergirl is ending, and the Flash has been struggling for years–those shows where every civilian character eventually develops superpowers and they all hang out at an inexplicably huge base that no one is paying for are dying out. Superman and Lois shows us that there are still things to be done with superhero shows on television, but the Old Ways are on their way out. Batwoman needs an overhaul, and I can only hope that Legends is able to keep things as fresh as it has.
A few years ago it seemed like the Arrowverse could go on forever. I still hope it does–I love these characters and this world. But right now, the CW, Greg Berlanti, and the rest need to be doing some major soul-searching to figure out what the future looks like.