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Building a better superhero

In its quest to bring ”Arrow” to the small screen, The CW researched everything viewers wanted from the series — including the shape of the star’s jawline. Now seven months in, the breakout hit has only gotten better, as the creators strive to craft the perfect superhero for our times.

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It’s the morning after election day , and pop culture’s newly anointed superhero is in the gym battling an evil more daunting than any supervillain: Man boobs..

Wearing a Toronto Blue Jays cap and black Nikes, Stephen Amell, who plays the titular archer on The CW’s Arrow, explains to a trainer at the gym not far from his Vancouver apartment exactly what he needs to accomplish during today’s workout: ”I have to be shirtless every week for my TV show,” says the actor, 31. ”I don’t want to get bigger in the chest. On screen, that can look like boobs.”

Over the next hour, the Toronto native pushes himself through a workout so grueling it would discourage anyone from becoming a superhero or an actor. Hanging leg lifts. Overhead squats. Dead lifts. Side-plank push-ups. Medicine-ball push-ups. Front rollout with barbell. Rowing machine. Running. More. And again. By the end, he looks shelled and pale. Asked if he feels ready to go to the set and beat up some bad guys, Amell says, ”Actually, I feel like I have to barf.”

At least Amell can say it’s worth the pain in his abs: Arrow has hit the bull’s-eye for The CW, averaging 3.8 million viewers weekly (including DVR playback) and making him into a certifiable TV star after a slow-burn rise with guest stints on Private Practice and Hung. He plays Oliver Queen, once the prick playboy of Starling City, now a haunted, hooded paladin bent on liberating his hometown from a conspiracy of leechy richies responsible for the death of his father. Perhaps most impressive about Arrow is how it has evolved and improved through trial and error, and by responding to audience feedback. A show that initially grabbed us — and then, frankly, began to bore us — by being a comic-book gloss on Revenge has blossomed into an emotionally resonant, Lost-style epic about the nature of heroism. ”The arc writ large over the first two seasons of the show for Oliver is moving him from vendetta to vigilante to hero,” says executive producer Marc Guggenheim. ”Plotting that trajectory requires us to expand Oliver’s scope and field of vision.”

No one is more thrilled by Arrow‘s transformation than its star. ”I like where we’re headed,” says Amell, who describes himself as a ”competitive, very competitive” guy, always agitating for bigger and better from his franchise. ”I went back recently and watched our fifth episode, and I liked it. But it’s nothing compared to what we’re doing now. It feels like a completely different show.”

Superhero sagas don’t always score big in prime time. For every Smallville — which lasted 10 seasons on The WB/CW — there’s The Cape, No Ordinary Family, or Wonder Woman (which no one saw at all, following an infamous non-start last spring). Arrow — based on the DC Comics character created in 1941 called Green Arrow, a playboy whose Robinson Crusoe-castaway ordeal transforms him into a Robin Hood figure — had the benefits of built-in fanboy appeal and a premise that could resonate in a culture where Dark Knight tales were popular, the Occupy movement was capturing headlines, and the issue of economic inequality was fueling a contentious presidential race. In late 2011, Warner Bros. Television asked Greg Berlanti, who had created Everwood and co-written the Green Lantern film starring Ryan Reynolds, if he would consider adapting another DC character for The CW. As it happened, Berlanti and his Green Lantern co-writer and frequent collaborator Marc Guggenheim had discussed this very idea while working on Lantern. ”It seemed to us that Green Arrow would really work as a TV show,” says Berlanti, ”because he was all about social justice, and we live at a time when the country is really aware of that.”

Working with another frequent collaborator, TV writer Andrew Kreisberg (who’s also penned Green Arrow comics), the exec producers brainstormed a pilot with a vast canvas of story. Hardened into a bitter warrior after being marooned for five years on an island populated by mercenaries and criminals, Arrow‘s Oliver returned to high-society life in Starling City in the pilot to begin rubbing out bad fat cats named in a cryptic notebook given to him by his late father. Meanwhile, he had to hide his secret identity from a myriad of characters with stories of their own: his shady mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson); drug-addicted little sister, Thea (Willa Holland); crusading-lawyer ex-girlfriend, Laurel (Katie Cassidy); and best friend, Tommy (Colin Donnell). It all made for one very busy show, but at least it was anchored by the appealing Amell, whose casting was informed by market research The CW conducted about what audiences wanted from a new leading man: a muscular, strong-jawed hunk. ”We were beginning to understand that American women had started moving [away] from metrosexual men and looking for more heroic men,” says The CW’s president, Mark Pedowitz. ”There is no question when you look at Stephen and [the network’s] male actors now, they are more of the heroic type.”

Arrow‘s original construction was sharp enough to connect with audiences — its October debut pulled in 4.1 million viewers, The CW’s largest audience since 2009. Yet, Guggenheim says, ”we were still figuring out the show” — and it was evident. ”We were making the storytelling overly complicated,” says Kreisberg. ”By episode 10, we figured out a traditional type of storytelling: A crime is committed at the beginning, Arrow gets on the case, solves it.” The new, simpler model added more action, amped up the pace, and made room for more mythology. The producers also brought in more interesting antagonists (slyly appropriated from DC Comics lore), like the Huntress (Jessica De Gouw), a darker iteration of Oliver, and the Count (Seth Gabel), a drug lord. ”Our hero is only as good as our villains — and we made our villains better,” says Guggenheim.

Kreisberg and Guggenheim felt daunted by the obligation to service a plethora of supporting characters and their separate subplots. The solution: weave them into Oliver’s mission — or cut back on them significantly. ”The early episodes creaked a little bit from making everything work,” says Kreisberg. ”Now every scene can be as much as it could possibly be, as opposed to just checking off, ‘Great! We got them in the episode this week!”’ Team Arrow has also improved the series by listening to its audience. Case in point: ”I.T. Girl” Felicity Smoak, played by Emily Bett Rickards, who was upgraded from one-off guest star to key member of Oliver’s crime-fighting operation after fans clamored for more. ”She wasn’t in anyone’s conception of the show at the beginning,” says Kreisberg. ”Now we can’t imagine it without her.”

Felicity’s promotion in the Feb. 13 episode was part of an unusual outing set almost entirely on the island, and the producers believe it was their first great hour of the season. The episode re-energized Oliver’s origin story — which had become increasingly tedious from so much murk and brutality — by giving him a new ally: secret agent Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett), the Han Solo to Oliver’s Luke Skywalker. (”It’s made the island more fun and a little less all-torture,” laughs Kreisberg.) Look for more island-only installments next season — and before the May 15 finale, fans will see an episode that experiments with a different kind of flashback story and reveals secrets about the show’s mythology. Oliver will also learn the true authorship and significance of the List, which he currently believes is a catalog, compiled by his father, of corrupt businessmen. Amell hints, ”I don’t think the List is going to survive the season.”

What’s most intriguing about Arrow‘s creative evolution is that it has the potential to tell a story that’s bigger and more relevant than the sum of its parts. While the show’s flashbacks trace Oliver’s transformation into a morally ambiguous avenger — the defining ”heroic” archetype of the 9/11 decade — the present-day saga explores a major rethink of that approach to justice and a search for a better way. To that point: Watch for Oliver to redirect his mission away from a selfish pursuit of vengeance and toward more altruistic efforts to rebuild his fallen city. ”There is so much room in this show to explore the future of the superhero,” says DC Entertainment chief creative officer Geoff Johns, a superstar comics scribe who wrote the standout Feb. 27 episode, ”Dead to Rights.” ”He may represent the cynical view now, but by season’s end you’re going to see a big move toward a more heroic Oliver Queen.”

Amell sums up the secret to the new model of superhero in a word: ”vulnerability.” His favorite moment this season came in episode 9, when the Dark Archer ”beat the s—out of me. Everyone can connect with someone who gets knocked down and has to get back up.” The same might be said for resilient — and increasingly super — TV shows.

Introducing the I.T. Girl

Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards) was slated for only one episode, as a staffer in Queen Consolidated’s tech department. But after a taste of her character’s witty one-liners and chemistry with Oliver, producers carved out a role for her on Oliver’s team alongside bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey). And fans are already shipping Oliver and the ”I.T. Girl.” Says Rickards, who was working at a pet store when she auditioned for Arrow, ”I think she has a spark for him.”

A Brief History of TV’s Caped (And Uncaped) Crusaders
Batman 1966-68

The sly Pop-art comedy brought Batman (Adam West) into prime time and left an impression that’s taken decades to change: Costumed crusaders are campy-silly. BAM!

Wonder Woman 1975-79

The action drama with Lynda Carter had a tumultuous creative life that encapsulates Hollywood’s struggle to adapt comic-book icons — and female superheroes.

The Greatest American Hero 1981-83

Stephen J. Cannell’s dramedy about a flawed and flailing super-doofus (William Katt) offered an ironic critique of Superman.

Smallville 2001-11

The WB took up the challenge of building a credible Man of Steel (Tom Welling) via a coming-of-age saga…and by stripping away the costumes and code names.

Heroes 2006-10

For one shining season, Heroes translated superhero conventions into a gritty fantasy about ordinary people made extraordinary. And then it lost all its mojo.