There’s a CW drama formula. Most of the network’s shows are built around a main character who is kind of normal, until something unusual happens. Maybe a South L.A. high school football player is suddenly recruited to play for a posh Beverly Hills school (All-American), or a college student learns that she and her sisters are actually witches (Charmed) or a young woman that returns to her hometown discovers that her former crush is actually an alien (Roswell, New Mexico). On The CW, characters constantly win a lottery they didn’t know they played, and learn that winning mostly yields more problems than they had before — which means more drama for the viewer to enjoy, and hopefully follow for about seven seasons.
This is also the internal combustion engine that fuels superhero comics, where a normal lad might be bitten by a radioactive spider, or a teen discovers puberty comes with eye lasers and blue fur. The realization that these two forms of storytelling aren’t just similar, but exactly the same, has yielded one of the most successful genre TV enterprises since Star Trek: The CW’s Arrowverse. The small-screen take on DC superheroes kicked off with 2011’s Arrow and, hundreds of episodes later, is still going strong with four currently airing series all set in the same sprawling TV universe.
But since the end of its ambitious 2019 crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Arrowverse has been in a rough period of transition, bucking against the weight of its own history and continuity. Whether or not it comes out the other side intact, the multi-pronged franchise will go down as perhaps the most accurate adaptation of the comic book experience in another medium. Phenomenal success and catastrophic failure are both part of that experience, and both options seem plausible for the Arrowverse.
Currently, The CW’s DC universe comprises five shows: The Flash is the elder statesman of the bunch, airing its seventh season; Legends of Tomorrow, which follows a shifting cast of time-traveling heroes led by Sarah Lance/The White Canary is in its sixth season; Supergirl, now on mid-season hiatus for its sixth and final season; Batwoman, which is in the middle of its second season; and Superman & Lois, well into its first. Adding to the count are the three shows that have come to an end: Arrow, which concluded in early 2020 with eight seasons under its hood, Black Lightning, which wrapped up in early 2021 with four, and Constantine, an NBC series that retroactively became a part of the Arrowverse when its star, magician John Constantine, joined Legends of Tomorrow in its third season .
This is a tremendous level of sprawl that would be exhausting if every viewer felt obligated to watch every series, and to the credit of the various writers and producers of the Arrowverse, they’re mostly not. However, regular multi-part crossovers have been a nigh-annual occurrence in the Arrowverse, which makes keeping up feel at least a little encouraged, even while the events are self-contained. Sprawl and the repetitive nature of how each series is built are probably the biggest problems facing The CW’s stable of superhero shows — when someone does watch them all, the seams start to show. And for a long time, they all kind of felt the same thanks to a symptom of The CW formula.
Teen soaps, but weirder
On a teen-soap budget, superheroes have to stay relatively grounded. As suggested by Legend of Tomorrow star Nick Zano in a recent interview, the powerset of a character who can turn his skin to steel is too “expensive” to use on the regular in network TV. By necessity, the heart of an Arrowverse show must be drama, not action. Comic books do not share this limitation, but as a serialized story, superhero comics also have to lean into this, and build out rich supporting casts around heroes like Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, chronicling their friendships, romances, and divorces. A wedding, it turns out, is a great way to get lots of attention from a lot of people in just about any context.
In order to make the drama feel distinct, the showrunners behind the Arrowverse tried to assemble dramatically different casts of characters — but it proved to be a struggle. Arrow set a template: Over time, the hero of a given series builds out their own team — there’s someone to do tech support (Felicity on Arrow, Cisco on The Flash, Luke Fox on Batwoman, etc), along with another costumed hero or two to support or serve as mentee — and the assembled crew serves as extra-judicial crimefighters covering their city. The differences, then, became tonal. Arrow was grim and didn’t really feature superpowers, while The Flash was bright and infused with the fantastic. Supergirl continued the trend, having its hero work with the government’s Department of Extranormal Operations, but suffusing the series with a strong focus on LGBTQ characters and plots that often featured aliens as an immigration metaphor, striving for real-world relevance in a way its predecessors did not. Then Legends of Tomorrow skipped a few steps and had a time traveler gather a random assortment of supporting players together from the other Arrowverse shows to have them go on adventures together.
The premiere of Legends of Tomorrow is the moment where the Arrowverse felt a little ridiculous and, perhaps, stretched too thin. Ironically, it’s also the show that would show the way forward for the universe. Between fans and the cast of Legends themselves, everyone seems to agree that the show didn’t find itself until the third season, where everyone involved realized that the show they actually wanted to make wasn’t a drama, but a comedy. From that point on, Legends became the most consistently fun and inventive show in the Arrowverse stable, an irreverent take on Doctor Who where just about anything can happen. Usually, anything does: a Furby-esque toy becomes a giant kaiju, a psychic gorilla tries to kill a college-age Barack Obama, and George Lucas, in danger of never making the movies that made him famous, has to be persuaded to become a filmmaker.
Legends doesn’t have a stable cast — outside of a handful of stalwarts, characters come and go regularly — but it ironically has the strongest identity, precisely because it’s not leaning on a central superhero. This is the trick that makes Superman & Lois a surprise success; the focus isn’t really on Superman, but on building a warm Everwood-style family drama. While Black Lightning’s place in the Arrowverse is complicated given that it took place in a separate universe until late in its final seasons — an all-around awkward look for The CW and DC’s first live-action series starring a Black superhero — the showrunners also tucked its superheroics inside a family drama, and using the superhero metaphor to explore the fictional community of Freeland, Georgia.
Compared to these more recent efforts, The Flash and Supergirl feel pretty run-of-the mill, even a little dated, almost like watching a Stargate show of yore. Supergirl’s cancellation — which, according to reports, is due to sinking ratings and pandemic-related delays in production — means the former show is the only remaining series still operating in the relatively anodyne space Arrow did. Across its seven seasons, The Flash has embraced both the absurd and impenetrable parts of its comic book roots, and as a result, is a good example of a show that has more or less lost what was appealing about the Arrowverse to begin with: it stopped feeling like a CW show.
Feared and misunderstood
A decade ago, when Arrow premiered, the show’s creators weren’t necessarily trying to distance the series from comic books or the MCU, but Smallville. The teen soap about a pre-Superman Clark Kent wasn’t just one of the most successful small-screen takes on superheroes at the time, but also the first live-action iteration of Oliver Queen/Green Arrow, played by Justin Hartley in the latter five of the show’s ten seasons. It had also just ended the year before Arrow premiered, and the new show had to overcompensate to distinguish itself with grimness and characters that felt a bit more “adult.”
But despite its aggro aspirations, Arrow was a CW show through and through. At its creative peak in season 2, the series embraced its four-color source material and broadcast home in equal measure, dialing up both the soap operatics and vigilante action. This was, and remains, the pleasure of the Arrowverse — seeing superheroes where they arguably belong, on a network that specializes in the same kind of lowbrow pulpy fair that is equally eschewed by a critical establishment that prides itself on its more refined tastes.
Currently, anyone with this mindset would be torn between vindication and a legitimately interesting shift that might change their minds. In some ways, the Arrowverse is starting to splinter in a good way, rebuilding so that each show in the lineup feels like a CW drama with a unique approach to adding capes to the formula.
Superman & Lois naturally has an easier time of it, as the newest series with a mission to feel distinct from its predecessors. Its first season is a surprisingly heartfelt family drama show about Superman and Lois Lane leaving Metropolis to focus on raising their teen sons, one of which is developing superpowers. The comic-booky stuff is there in the form of a mysterious stranger with an axe to grind with Superman, but crucially, it all takes a backseat to the Kent family, and what they find upon their return to Smallville. This allows Superman & Lois to not just be a family drama, but a family drama about relevant things: Like the decline of local news, the rapacious expansion of private equity into local communities, and the disillusionment of blue-collar Americans who then become exploited by opportunistic billionaires.
As a six-year veteran of the Arrowverse, Legends of Tomorrow’s turnaround is easily the most impressive and improved show, an argument for not throwing out the Arrowverse baby with the overly complex bathwater. The series cycles through cast members with uncommon regularity, and at the end of this season it will lose Dominic Purcell, who has played Heat Wave as a member of the main cast since season 1.
In the meantime, though? The series is doing what it does best, introducing a bonkers season-long arc that allows for interesting standalone episodes along the way. The latest season kicked off with the misfit time travelers lying low in the 1970s, only to find out from David Bowie (Thomas Nicholson, charmingly not a spitting image of the man) that Sara Lance (Caity Lotz, one of the only other cast members still around from season 1) was abducted by aliens — just before she was about to propose to her girlfriend. The result is a blast, even if you haven’t been watching the show for a while, just a goofball good time with B-Movie aliens and globetrotting comedy on a tiny, tiny, TV budget that adds to the charm.
The continued success of Legends makes the current season of The Flash absolutely painful to get through, as its current season is bogged down in continuity-heavy drama that also has to account for main cast departures, new introductions, and a deficit of the charm it once had. Season 7’s overarching plot requires a working knowledge of deep Flash lore, introducing a new personification of the Speed Force that gives the Flash his powers, as well as three other “Forces” and their respective avatars — a development that has its earliest roots in 2019 Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover. In other words: the show is impenetrable.
Batwoman is the biggest wrinkle, a show that feels like it errs a little too far on the side of “superhero” in the CW/Superhero continuum, simply because of the high expectations of anything Batman-adjacent. With its lead role recast this season, the focus shifts from a white queer woman with a military background (Ruby Rose’s Kate Kane) to new protagonist Ryan Wilder (Javicia Leslie) who is Black, queer, and unhoused at the start — an attempt by the writers and producers to be more socially aware than other Arrowverse shows at their starts. But because of that forced refocusing, Batwoman feels like the shakiest show, trying to do right by its new protagonist but also trying to keep its continuity ducks in a row — a major subplot this season is the mystery of what happened to the first Batwoman.
None of these shows are showing a hint of crossing over, giving them the space to thrive or flounder in their own identities. Granted, there is a soft thread running through the Arrowverse in the coming weeks — former Arrow character John Diggle (David Ramsey) will be appearing in a mysterious capacity on each show — but it sounds less like a crossover than a reminder that these shows all take place in the same world. Frankly, that’s what the Arrowverse needs right now: Less ambitious crossovers, more stories about people we care about. There is nothing left for superhero media to prove — only that it can tell stories about a wider spectrum of people in all sorts of ways that feel authentic and relevant.
American superhero comics were notoriously not built to last. They were disposable things that, thanks to time and passion and exploitation, have grown in stature to where they sit now. Nearly a hundred years after Superman, they — or more accurately, the corporations that own them — drive the culture. But no matter how satisfying the next blockbuster movie will be, it will always be an odd fit for superheroes. To people like me, they’ll always be at their best in places where most folks aren’t looking, because they don’t find it worthy of their attention. Superheroes can make for great prestige fare, sure but they’re better off when they’re a little misunderstood and meeting people where they’re at — whether that’s comic books, the manga section of Barnes and Noble, or alongside CW soap operas.