Arrow’s New Problem: How DC’s Mandatory Moral Code Ruins Powerful Stories

arrow finale

It had all the makings of a great Arrow finale. The stage had been set for an epic Arrow vs. Deathstroke showdown after the villain had done his best to destroy Oliver Queen’s life.

The Arrow found himself with an army of Ras’ al Ghul’s assassins at his back, along with old allies like Black Canary and Red Arrow on his side. Slade’s army of murderous super-strength criminals were rampaging around the city, killing citizens left and right, and literally everyone Queen loved or cared about was in immediate danger.

So naturally, Queen’s pep talk to his team goes something like this.


Including Slade and his homicidal army, notably.

(full spoilers follow)

In the end, that’s exactly what happens. Oliver juices up a bunch of his arrows with a cure for the super-strength serum, and he and his team jam the enemy army full of them. And even after Slade confronts Oliver with blades at the throats of his two ladyfriends, Oliver devises an elaborate plan to inject him with the cure, and lock him in a cell.

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The painstaking lengths that DC characters go NOT to kill their enemies who most definitely deserve it is something that keeps bothering me, and the Arrow finale was one of the worst examples. In the episodes, there’s a flashback where Oliver has the choice to kill Slade on the island, or inject him with the cure. The man has promised to murder everyone he loves, even if cured, so Oliver rightly jams an arrow through his eye.

Now, Oliver thinks that current events are penance for choosing to try and kill Slade over helping him. No! You just didn’t kill him good enough! If he was DEAD none of this would have happened, sigh…

It wasn’t always like this. Even though the structure of season two of Arrow has been much better than season one, I really liked when Oliver had just returned to Starling City and was essentially a bow-wielding Boondock Saint, putting down anyone who deserved it permanently. But then after the death of his friend (who went to his grave calling Oliver as “serial killer”) season two became all about the Arrow doing things “another way.” Enter explosive stun arrows, tie-em-up cable arrows and now, super-strength cure arrows. No boxing glove arrows yet, but those have to be on the horizon at this rate.

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Stories framed this way lose weight when they create these “moral dichotomies” that don’t seem like tough decisions at all. After killing at least 30 people in season one, is Oliver Queen really going to be torn up inside after murdering a man WHOM HE WATCHED STAB HIS MOTHER IN THE HEART WITH A KATANA LAST WEEK? Like, Jesus Christ. Unless the DC universe is some giant Christian allegory about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, this pervasive need not to kill those who have murdered dozens or thousands and will do it again once they escape is distracting.

And I’m not against villains surviving. That’s not the point. Batman can’t simply go around executing his rogues gallery as there would be nothing left to fight. But it’s the notion of GOING INTO battle with the clear intention of playing with kid gloves. Like, if you can take a villain alive or they manage to escape, that’s one thing, but if the fight always takes place with one hand tied behind the hero’s back (which Oliver actually says at one point in the finale), the stakes are far lower. I am all for Slade surviving the finale somehow, but it changed the tone of the episode when Oliver made it clear he wasn’t even going to try to kill him.

This way, there’s not even a moral quandary. When it’s just assumed that all DC heroes can’t kill, the outcome becomes predictable. Oliver Queen WAS unpredictable in Arrow, but when he boldly announces that he’s going to pacify a mutant army and their murderously insane leader with non-lethal force ahead of time, everything that follows loses some of its impact.

shield finale

In my eyes, Marvel’s philosophy is much more nuanced and interesting, as evidenced by another comic-book-show finale this week, Agents of SHIELD. (spoilers follow) In it, the central SHIELD team tries to hunt down an agent who betrayed them by secretly working for HYDRA. And when they find him? Not once, but twice, does Phil Coulson, most lovable man in the Marvel universe, say he should be killed. First, he gives the go-ahead for Deathlok to blast his former master with rockets, then, when the traitor survives, Coulson atomizes him with an alien raygun in what actually turns out to be a comedic moment, playing off the fact that villains often get to cheat death and live another day. But not this time.

But SHIELD isn’t kill-happy. It does things on a case by case basis. A few episodes ago, Skye had the opportunity to let Agent Grand Ward die, another HYDRA plant who had been embedded with the team for the whole season. She makes the decision to actually SAVE his life by giving up valuable information, despite all the horrible things he’s done. Her decision was emotional, and made with the secret hope that perhaps he could be redeemed. To me, the juxtaposition of these two villain’s fates is what makes Marvel’s design more interesting, and DC’s boring if everyone, no matter what their history and misdeeds, is given the exact same shot at a live capture, where the heroes will risk their lives ten times over to ensure the villain is taken alive.

I’ve always taken issue with this, but I’d never seen it more clearly put on display than seeing how disparate these two finales were in the different universes this week. Perhaps I’m heartless, but I think one philosophy produces better stories, while the other ties writers’ hands behind their backs, which in turn translates to their heroes.

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  1. Since I haven’t seen Arrow but have recently thought I might watch it, I’ll be responding to your premise rather than your specific arguments — which I lightly skimmed to avoid spoilers. Hope that’s cool.

    I can see both sides. Certainly violence and killing is an integral part of the human tradition; it’d be hard to argue that the use of lethal force can’t ever be a valid solution. If one expects superheroes to do whatever is necessary to save folks, there would realistically be times where employing their specific powers to end the life of the threat would be the most effective, or indeed the only, way to go about it.

    On the other hand, and this is the way I usually lean, none of these stories are real, and so I’m not sure how much “realism” should actually have a voice in what happens. In stories, things don’t ultimately happen because they’re realistic, they happen because they mean something.

    Having heroes take a “no killing” stance means a lot. It’s the furthest extensions of the “great power means great responsibility” ethos. By making the preservation of life — any life, no matter how wayward the person living it — the ultimate mission, you really put these characters on a higher plane not just physically or mentally, but ethically as well. The belief that no one has the right to take someone’s life away is real hero stuff.

    It’s also a complicated moral quandary, and should (usually) be treated as that instead of just as a “given.” The Dark Knight is probably the gold standard in this regard.

  2. Wasn’t the decision to save Slate and Ward equally emotionally motivated? I thought he felt responsible for what happened to Slate and that is why he referred to him as an old friend even after he killed his mother. Also, why on earth do you assume he would have tried to harm Oliver if he was cured on the ship? Just look at what happened to his sidekick when he was cured.

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