How Arrow saved the TV superhero — and why it had to end
"I'm very emotional and melancholy, but it's time," Amell — who is featured on the new cover of Entertainment Weekly — says as he takes a sip from a pint of Guinness. "I'm 38 years old, and I got this job when I was 30. I'd never had a job for more than a year. The fact that I've done this for the better part of a decade, and I'm not going to do it anymore, is a little frightening."
Developed by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg, Arrow debuted in the fall of 2012. The DC Comics series follows billionaire playboy Oliver Queen (Amell), who, after years away, returned to now–Star City with one goal: to save his home-town as the hooded bow-and-arrow vigilante who would become known as Green Arrow (it would take him four seasons to assume the moniker). What began as a solo crusade eventually grew to include former soldier John Diggle (David Ramsey), quirky computer genius Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), lawyer-turned-hero Laurel Lance/Black Canary (Katie Cassidy Rodgers), and the rest of Team Arrow. Together they've defended their city from a host of threats — dark archers, megalomaniacal magicians, and the occasional metahuman — while Lost-like flashbacks revealed what Oliver endured in the five years he was away, first shipwrecked and then honing his skills around the world to become someone else, something else.
The premiere gave The CW its most-watched series debut since 2009's The Vampire Diaries. But before they launched Arrow, Berlanti and Guggenheim had to suffer through a failure: 2011's Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds. The duo co-wrote the script but lost creative control of the film, which flopped. So when Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth approached them in late 2011 about developing a Green Arrow show, they were wary. After much deliberation, Berlanti and Guggenheim agreed, on the condition that they maintain control. Says Guggenheim, "As long as we succeed or fail on our own work, and not someone else's work then maybe this is worth a shot."
Their take on the Emerald Archer — who made his DC Comics debut in 1941 — was noteworthy from the beginning. Taking cues from films like The Dark Knight and The Bourne Identity and series like Homeland, the writers imagined a dark, gritty, and grounded show centered on a traumatized protagonist. "As we were breaking the story, we made very specific commitments to certain tonal things, such as 'At the end of act 1, he has his hands around his mother's throat.' And, 'At the end of act 2, he kills a man in cold blood to protect his secret,' " says Guggenheim.
A hero committing murder? That was practically unheard of then. Having Oliver suit up in a veritable superhero costume by the pilot's climax was radical too. Sure, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was deep into Phase One when the producers were developing Arrow, but TV was traditionally more apprehensive about comic books. Smallville famously had a "no tights, no flights" rule and only introduced superhero costumes in the last years of its 10-season run, and there weren't any masked avengers running around NBC's Heroes or ABC's No Ordinary Family, the latter produced by Berlanti (Let's not even mention NBC's The Cape, which was essentially dead on arrival and never did get its six seasons and a movie). But Arrow not only fully committed to the idea of someone dressing up like Robin Hood to fight crime with a bow and arrow, it introduced a second costumed rogue, the Huntress (Jessica De Gouw), in episode 7.
"It's just comic book to the extreme and the fans seem to really love it," says Batwoman showrunner Caroline Dries, a former writer on Smallville. "They still maintain it very grounded, but it's very different with everyone in costumes. The appetite for superheroes has changed in my mind in terms of like they just want the literal superhero [now]."
Not that the team wasn't meticulous about creating Green Arrow's cowl. "We had to have so many conversations to get it approved, but that's why we got [Oscar winner] Colleen Atwood [Memoirs of a Geisha] at the time to [design] the suit," says Berlanti. "We were determined to show we could do on TV what they were doing in the movies every six months."
"It's really easy to make a guy with a bow and arrow look silly. We sweated every detail," says Guggenheim, who also recalls how much effort it took to perfect Oliver's signature growl. "I actually flew up to Vancouver. On a rooftop during reshoots on [episode 4], Stephen and I went through a variety of different versions of, basically, 'You have failed this city,' with different amounts of how much growl he's putting into his performance. [We] recorded all that, [I went] back to Los Angeles, and then sat with the post guys playing around with all the different amounts of modulation."
That process took eons compared to the unbelievably easy time the team had casting Arrow's title role. In fact, Amell was the first person to audition for the role. "It was Stephen's intensity. He just made you believe he was that character," says Guggenheim, recalling Amell's audition. "We had crafted Oliver to be this mystery box character, and Stephen somehow managed to find this balance between being totally accessible in a way you would need a TV star to be, but he's still an enigma." After his first reading, Amell remembers being sent outside for a short time before being brought back into the room to read for a larger group: "I called [my manager], and I go, 'I know this is not how it's supposed to work, but I just got that job.'"
In the first season, the show's chief concerns were maintaining both the "grounded and real" tone and the high quality of the stunts, and investing the audience in Oliver's crusade. Beyond that, though, there wasn't much of an over-arching plan, which allowed the show to naturally evolve — from introducing more DC characters, such as Deathstroke (Manu Bennett) and Roy Harper (Colton Haynes), sooner than they initially intended (the shot of Deathstroke's mask in the pilot was meant as a harmless Easter egg), to promoting Emily Bett Rickards' Felicity from a one-off character in the show's third episode to a series regular in season 2 and eventually Oliver's wife. Even the whole idea of a Team Arrow — which, over time, added Oliver's sister Thea (Willa Holland), Rene Ramirez/Wild Dog (Rick Gonzalez) and Dinah Drake/Black Canary (Juliana Harkavy) — was the result of the writers allowing the best ideas to guide the story. "Greg used to say all the time, 'You have a hit TV show until you don't, so don't save s—,' " says Amell.
Also not planned: Arrow spawning an entire shared universe. "We went on record a lot of times during the premiere of the pilot saying, 'No superpowers, no time travel.' But midway through season 1, Greg started to harbor a notion of doing the Flash," says Guggenheim. "I'm a very big believer that it's great to have a plan, but I think when it comes to creating a universe, the pitfall is that people try to run before they can walk. The key is, you build it show by show." And so they did. First, they introduced The Flash star Grant Gustin's Barry Allen in the two-part midseason finale of Arrow's second season. From there, Supergirl took flight in 2015, then DC's Legends of Tomorrow in 2016, and Batwoman is due this fall. "It's like the hacking of the machete in the woods and then you look back and you're like, 'Oh, there's a path," says executive producer and Berlanti Productions president Sarah Schechter. But even though Arrow is the universe's namesake, Amell doesn't concern himself with the sibling series outside of the now-annual crossovers. "I never think about any of the other shows," he says. "I want all of them to do great, but they're not my responsibility. My responsibility is Arrow, and to make sure everyone from the cast to the crew are good." His sentiments are seconded by Flash's Gustin: "I don't understand how he does it — his schedule that he maintains with working out, the conventions he goes to, the passion he has for it, and the love he shows towards fans. He's always prepared. He cares more about that show being high quality than anybody else on the set."
That said, the universe's expansion precipitated what is widely considered to be Arrow's best season, the fifth one. After focusing on magic in season 4, the show returned to its street-crime roots as part of "a concerted effort to play not just to our strengths but what made the shows unique," Guggenheim says of balancing their four super-series in 2016. "Because Arrow was the longest-running Arrowverse show, we were able to do something that none of the other shows could do, which is have a villain who was basically born out of the events of season 1," he explains of introducing Adrian Chase/Prometheus (Josh Segarra), whose criminal father was killed by Oliver. "That gave the season a resonance."
It was midway through season 6 when Amell realized he was ready to hang up Oliver Queen's hood. "It was just time to move on," the actor says of pitching that Oliver leave the series at the end of season 7. "My daughter is turning six in October, and she goes to school in L.A., and my wife and I want to raise her [there]." Berlanti persuaded him to return for one final season, which the producers collectively decided would be the end. "We all felt in our gut it was the right time," says Berlanti. Adds Schechter, "It's such a privilege to be able to say when something's ending as opposed to having something just ripped away."
But there's one integral cast member who won't be around to see Arrow through its final season. This spring, fans were devastated to learn Rickards had filmed her final episode—bringing an end to Olicity. "They're such opposites. I think that's what draws everyone in a little bit," showrunner Beth Schwartz says of Oliver and Felicity's relationship. "You don't see the [love story of] super intelligent woman and the sort of hunky, athletic man very often. She's obviously a gorgeous woman but what he really loves is her brain." For his part, Amell believes the success of both Felicity and Olicity lies completely with Rickards' performance. "She's supremely talented and awesome and carved out a space that no one anticipated. I don't know that show works if we don't randomly find her," says Amell, adding that continuing the series without Team Arrow's heart is "not great. Arrow, as you know it, has effectively ended. It's a different show in season 8." And he's not exaggerating.
The final season finds Oliver working for the all-seeing extra-terrestrial the Monitor (LaMonica Garrett) and trying to save the entire multiverse from a cataclysmic event. "[We're] taking the show on the road, really getting away from Star City. Oliver is going to be traveling the world, and we're going to go to a lot of different places," says Guggenheim. "Every time I see Oliver and the Monitor, it's like, 'Okay, we are very far from where we started.' But again, that means the show has grown and evolved." Adds Schwartz, "This is sort of his final test because it's greater than Star City." Along the way, he will head down memory lane, with actor Colin Donnell, who played Oliver's best friend Tommy Merlyn in season 1, and Segarra's Adrian Chase making appearances. "Episode 1 is an ode to season 1, and episode 2 is an ode to season 3," teases Amell. "We're playing our greatest hits."
But season 8 is not just about building toward a satisfying series finale. "Everything relates to what's going to happen in our crossover episode, which we've never done before," says Schwartz. Spanning five hours and airing this winter, "Crisis on Infinite Earths" will be the biggest crossover yet and may see Oliver perish trying to save the multiverse from destruction, if the Monitor's prophecy is to be believed. "Oliver [is told] he's going to die, so each episode in the run-up to 'Crisis' has Oliver dealing with the various stages of grief that come with that discovery," says Guggenheim. "So the theme really is coming to terms, acceptance."
If there's one person who has made his peace with Oliver's fate, it's Amell. "Because he's a superhero with no superpowers, I always felt he should die — but he may also not die," says Amell, who actually found out what the show's final scene would be at EW's cover shoot. "I cried as [Marc Guggenheim] was telling me. There are a lot of hurdles to get over to make that final scene." Get this man some more Guinness!
Arrow premieres Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 9 p.m. on The CW.
For more on how the Arrowverse saved the TV superhero, pick up the August issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands July 25-26. You can buy all five covers, or purchase your individual favorites featuring Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, White Canary, and Batwoman. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.