By George Bate
Since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken over multiplexes as fans around the world have followed a myriad of interconnected stories and characters over the years. But while the MCU was explored interconnectivity on the big screen, The CW ventured into similar territory on the small screen. With recent cancellations of Legends of Tomorrow and Batwoman and the impending conclusion of The Flash, The CW’s DC Universe is likely drawing to a close. Let’s take a look back at what The CW was able to do with their DC shows.
2012 was the year of The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. The former concluded what arguably remains the greatest superhero trilogy of all time, while the latter set the stage for the next decade of films and cemented Marvel’s global draw. 2012, however, was also the year Arrow debuted on The CW, a project that obviously didn’t get the attention of its theatrical counterparts upon its initial release, but similarly changed the landscape for superhero and comic book adaptations.
Arrow was The CW’s adaptation of Green Arrow, the billionaire playboy turned baby in and arrow wielding vigilante. If that sounds like Batman a little (minus the bow and arrow), it’s because, at least on the surface, their similarities are quite stark. Creator Greg Berlanti and company realized this connection and, capitalizing off of the popularity of the Christopher Nolan trilogy, leaned heavily into Batman Begins in making Arrow. Stephen Amell starred as Oliver Queen, a man who is stranded on a seemingly deserted island only to return years later hardened and determined to take down crime. Amell’s growling voice as he proclaims, “You have failed this city” is powerful and evokes Christian Bale’s notorious performance in the suit as Batman. Arrow was by no means the first attempt at bringing a superhero to the small screen (see Smallville, Birds of Prey, etc.), but it was unique for a number of reasons.
Part of this uniqueness came in season 2 when Barry Allen, perhaps better known by his superhero counterpart The Flash, made his debut on Arrow. His appearance served as a soft launch for The Flash series, which ran concurrently with Arrow and frequently involved the sort of superhero crossovers from the comics fans adore. Grant Gustin portrayed The Flash in a show featuring an ensemble that eventually became known as Team Flash. Similar to Arrow, The Flash built up a fairly sizable amount of side characters, many (or most) of whom become superheroes in their own right.
While Arrow and The Flash were airing, CBS was also going forward with a Supergirl show. After a great first season, however, the show was canceled due to poor ratings. The CW took this opportunity to integrate Supergirl into their shared DC Universe, especially as both series were helmed by Greg Berlanti.
Arrow and The Flash, meanwhile, gave rise to Legends of Tomorrow. A variety of characters, including White Canary and Heat Wave, from the different shows teamed up in a time-traveling adventure that was Suicide Squad meets Doctor Who. Legends of Tomorrow remained the most consistent in terms of quality out of The CW shows, always willing to be more adventurous and less formulaic than its siblings, which made its premature cancellation all the more painful.
The CW DC universe expanded with Superman & Lois, Black Lightning, and Batwoman, setting the stage for an array of epic crossovers. Seeing The Flash team up with Green Arrow and The Atom and Black Canary and Superman and so many other superpowers beings was a joy to watch. The scale was obviously never at the level of cinematic team-ups of the MCU, but that was never the point. While divisive reaction to DC’s theatrical films stunted the development of a cinematic universe, The CW took the reigns and explored such interconnectivity on television. In many ways, each episode of each series felt like a comic book issue. Some were more important and entertaining than others, but it was so joyful to tune in every week to see these DC heroes play out in, essentially, live-action comic books.
Although The CW is moving forward with Gotham Knights and Superman & Lois is still airing and receiving terrific reviews, it’s hard to escape the feeling that The CW’s DC Universe we once knew has wound down. If it’s not concluded, it’s most certainly shifted into another phase with fewer heroes and fewer shows. The CW shows have certainly faced their criticism over the years, some of which is well founded. But comic book fans should be grateful for the way in which a televised, live-action universe of DC heroes came to life.