Once upon a time, Christopher Reeve put on a cape and made us believe a man can fly.
On this blustery October afternoon, Melissa Benoist, star of Supergirl, is about to prove that a woman in a suit can soar too.
We’re on the set of the most comic-booky thing you’ll see on TV this year, an epic team-up of superheroes culled from The CW’s spinner rack of graphic-novel pop: Arrow, The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and yes, the one about the strange visitor from another planet who’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to shatter glass ceilings in a single bound. The story that weaves through the four-night crossover event (beginning Nov. 28 on Supergirl) involves a meaner type of alien: the Dominators, mind-controlling space invaders alarmed by Earth’s surging population of metahumans. Concerned about our culture’s superhero glut? Apparently you’re not alone.
Exactly 15 characters from four shows — all produced by small-screen powerhouse Greg Berlanti — have assembled in an airplane hangar outside Vancouver. It’s doubling for an aeronautics facility that’s part of S.T.A.R. Labs, but special effects will later remodel this big bland box to slyly evoke an iconic piece of cartoon architecture: the Hall of Justice from the 1970s Super Friends series. Almost none of the avengers assembled are wearing their costumes (laundry day, I guess), but their civilian attire allows the one with the big red S on her chest to make an impression.
In the scene, the Flash’s alter ego, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), is introducing Supergirl to his fellow freedom fighters after fetching the Maiden of Might from her alternate-reality Earth. There’s another, implied layer of significance to this ceremonious meet-and-greet: Supergirl, which aired on CBS last season, is new to The CW this year, and so the moment represents a welcoming party, albeit one that plays like a confirmation hearing. Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), a.k.a. Green Arrow, and his right-hand man, John “Spartan” Diggle (David Ramsey), stand with arms folded, wanting to know what makes Supergirl so super. She launches into the air, hovers, and descends. “I’m convinced,” says Diggle.
In actuality, the stunt is more complicated than that, and less graceful, too. It requires hoisting Benoist into the air as she jumps using a harness and pulley hanging from the rafters. Off timing results in some awkward effects, and it takes a few tries to get a shot in which she isn’t listing and wobbling. The hardest part for Benoist? The all-star squadron of spectators. “I’m usually in the comfort zone of my own set, where we have a system down. So to do it in front of all these people in a different place, I was nervous,” she says. “It took a little dialing-in to get it down.” Judging from the admiring gazes of her fellow actors, Benoist sold the illusion.
“I was geeking out,” says Candice Patton (The Flash‘s Iris West), who was on set for this moment and idolized Catwoman and Supergirl as a kid. “It’s so cool, especially as a girl, and a young girl who grew up looking up to those characters.”
The elevating success of Supergirl is equally appreciated among the less-colorful suits who run The CW. This season, the shows that constitute the so-called Arrowverse anchor four nights of programming, potently expressing the brand identity cultivated by network president Mark Pedowitz: high-concept, serialized genre soaps engineered for intense emotional investment. “We’re not just a home for superheroes, but we’re very proud to have them,” he says.
The Arrowverse has an alternate moniker, the Berlantiverse, named after the producer who presides over it, and he has some feelings about the term. “I object to it, to be honest. There are just so many people that are also part of this,” says Berlanti, 44, whose prodigious output began with Everwood in 2002 and currently includes Blindspot on NBC. “Plus, you never want anything named after you that people could be upset or angry about.”
Produced in collaboration with Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, Berlanti’s small-screen treatments of Warner Bros.’ DC Comics properties offer an alternative — some might argue a correction — to the studio’s big-screen superhero pop, including the apocalyptic heavy metal of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel flicks and the bubblegum nihilism of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. All heightened-reality serials wrestle with tone and indulge darkness to stay interesting, and Berlanti’s shows are no exception. Still, the Arrowverse actually likes superheroes, believes in superheroes, and knows how to have fun with them — and critique them — without deconstructing them to smithereens. They possess the levity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (still the genre’s gold standard), and the progressiveness of its best TV offerings (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage), but they have a more carefree embrace of melodrama and whimsy.
And more so than ever, the Arrowverse has been hitting the creative bull’s-eye this fall. The Flash, Arrow, and Legends are bouncing back after rocky seasons, and Supergirl has been soaring after launching a genuinely credible, compelling, and charismatic Superman (Tyler Hoechlin) and giving the Arrowverse its first lesbian series regular when Kara’s stepsister, Alex (Chyler Leigh), came out last week. Each show has a singular identity, but they all share winning values that are shaping the tenor of new-century superheroes. Those qualities, Berlanti says, begin here:
1. THEY HAVE A SILVER-AGE SOUL
The rise of the Arrowverse lies in the ruin of another superhero dream. In 2007, Berlanti, Guggenheim, and Michael Green (Heroes) wrote a film script that would become Green Lantern starring Ryan Reynolds. Their reference point was the Silver Age of comics, the midcentury renaissance that rebooted Golden Age characters, launched a Marvel revolution, and injected modernist themes — irreverence, psychological angst, social concerns, space-age wonder, and atomic-age anxiety — into the fantasy. But their vision was muddied when Berlanti lost the director’s job to Martin Campbell and the script was rewritten. After collecting more learning experiences on TV projects including the short-lived ABC show No Ordinary Family, Berlanti and Guggenheim pitched Arrow to Warner Bros. Their previous flameout taught them to insist on three things: “Control, control, and control,” says Guggenheim.
Arrow was a savvy cornerstone upon which to build a shared universe. The saga of a vengeful vigilante fitfully transforming into a more virtuous superhero, Arrow belonged to the Dark Knight moment but represented a slow pivot away from it, too. In 2014, Berlanti used Arrow to launch The Flash and broaden the possibilities of his storytelling. His interest in the character reveals a lot about his geek sensibilities. He fell for the Scarlet Speedster via Crisis on Infinite Earths, a comic crossover extravaganza first published in 1985 involving hundreds of characters, a mysterious big bad, and a cosmic plot with world-shattering stakes. Most fanboys remember Crisis as the mother of all reboots. Berlanti loved it as a thing unto itself, a crazy, sprawling, life-or-death melodrama. When it comes to managing the Arrowverse, “that’s my touchstone,” he says.
2. THEY AREN’T AFRAID OF SOAP OPERA
The Arrowverse is steeped in genuine relationship drama, something that has distinguished all of Berlanti’s work since his days as a writer on Dawson’s Creek. But this, too, is very comic-compatible. While other Hollywood geeks take the antihero masterpieces of Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Frank Miller (Sin City) as influences, Guggenheim and Kreisberg pull from sources before the medium’s adult-skewing age: the team comics of the early ’80s — Fantastic Four, The Uncanny X-Men, and The New Teen Titans — tales of makeshift families fraught with dysfunction and romance. “Those were my soaps,” says Kreisberg, adding he still tears up recalling The New Teen Titans #50, when Dick Grayson confronts Bruce Wayne at Donna Troy’s wedding about why he never adopted him back in the Batman and Robin days.
The emphasis on team dynamics — an idea inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, says Berlanti — does more than generate sudsy feels. It leads to a nuanced, humane kind of superhero fantasy that subverts its queasiest aspect, the all-about-me wish fulfillment. The current season of The Flash began with Barry abusing his speed to change his tragic history, only to create a timeline that leads to loss for his friends and disenfranchised countless others. How does he respond? How does his community respond? This kind of story — a timely, woke allegory about power, privilege, guilt, atonement, and reconciliation — illuminates the third rail that charges Berlanti’s shows…
3. THEY’RE ABOUT SOMETHING
Ask Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, why Berlanti was ideal for Arrow, and he recalls the origin story of their relationship. “I read the script for Everwood on a Saturday in November of 2001, right after 9/11, and I thought it was such a brilliant metaphor and antidote for what was going on in our country,” says Roth. “My belief in him, along with one of the most compelling pitches I’ve ever heard, led to Arrow.”
Berlanti — openly gay, politically liberal, a father — continues to express his worldview and attitudes about diversity, equal rights, and justice through the Arrowverse. Legends of Tomorrow, an adventure about a motley band of time travelers, opened the season with its heroes averting a history-warping catastrophe by producing a smaller change: convincing Albert Einstein to publicly acknowledge the contributions of his wife to his work. This season Arrow is building toward a story in which Oliver Queen — who’s not only back to being a killer but is now also the mayor of Star City — will have to confront the consequences of his morally murky war on crime and terror. In a timely move, Supergirl recently introduced a female president, played by original Wonder Woman Lynda Carter. “These shows have to work on multiple levels,” says Berlanti. “You want them to be enjoyable. But if they’re not about something, why are you showing up to work every day and asking everybody to pour their heart and soul into a story if it’s only about the Flash fighting a villain of the week?”
As resonant as the Arrowverse has been, the immense imagination and spectacular ambitions of Berlanti’s shows will always be frustrated by limited time and resources. The clock could be ticking on the series that started it all: Stephen Amell thinks Arrow is at a crossroads following a tonally turbulent season 4. “We’re either going to do what we do and do it well, or it’s the last year,” he says. “If we find that magic formula — which is not magic, it’s just hard work and playing to your strengths — then the show could go on for a really long time.” Meanwhile, Berlanti continues to plot bold moves. Coming later this season: a Supergirl–Flash musical crossover. “We’ve always gone with our gut, and if we’ve liked it, we’ve been a little fearless about it,” he says. “We certainly made errors along the way. But that’s been part of the fun, too.”
—Additional reporting by Natalie Abrams
This story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1440.