understanding the Arrow/Smallville casting dust up

By Alora Young

Why is this man the Green Arrow?
Here’s an aesthetic controversy that doesn’t matter. It’s not going to find its way into Artforum, The New York Times or The Village Voice, because this tiny controversy is over two shows that don’t matter: the newly premiered Arrow and the recently wrapped up Smallville. These shows are produced by television’s most marginal and aesthetically insignificant network, the CW, and so the people who care about this controversy are the kind of social misfits who lust over fictional characters and make most of their friends on the internet. Their concerns are off to the side and off the cultural map, and yet what they feel is not insignificant. They have caught something crucial about how we experience art, how it can give order and meaning to our lives and can ultimately lead us to moral and ethical choices that we might not otherwise see. We’re not used to thinking of the aesthetic and, more importantly, business decisions of minor television producers on minor networks as being subject to moral and ethical import, but that’s what happens when the true believers decide to take a stand and prove that when it comes to judging art, everything matters.

I’m sure that the producers of Arrow didn’t think twice when they decided not to cast Justin Hartley, who played the role of the Green Arrow in Smallville, and instead cast Stephen Amell. And they certainly didn’t hesitate for one moment when they decided to use one of Smallville’s sets in the new show. But apparently, they should have thought a few times more and then some, because they quickly found themselves in a firestorm of criticism. This isn’t a simple clash of visions of what Arrow should be and Smallville was, but an aesthetic violation that verges on a moral one and its central issue, which I will return to later, is continuity and its relationship to each viewer’s imagination. This is part of a larger trend where the “show runner” is a major creative force and subject to great criticism. Remember the howls of disapproval when Lost failed to maintain internal consistency and the general approval of Joss Whedon produced shows and their ability to maintain the logic of a made up world, especially the move from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Angel.
The Original Green Arrow from Smallville
Let’s get the absurdities out of the way, because I firmly believe that, whether their rage is fitting or fanatical, these fans are on to something. The first absurdity is the change of actors. Arrow is neither a spin-off nor a continuation of Smallville, and while both shows are on the same network and both characters originate from DC comics, they are not part of the same narrative arc or world. The change in actors separates the two shows conceptually and aesthetically and that makes sense, especially from the producer’s perspective. However, for the fan it’s a violation. It’s similar to when people were put off that Edward Norton would not play the Hulk in The Avengers, or how fans sighed and shook their heads when Chris Evans, who had already played an important character from the Marvel comic universe, the Human Torch, was cast as Captain America. It’s as if Kenneth Branagh can’t play Macbeth because he’s already played Hamlet. Of course, this argument is, well, wrongheaded. Still, for these fans, “universe” continuity is a value that they take seriously and which, maybe, we should too.
No Macbeth for you
This is the exact opposite of aesthetic formalism, which tells us that the work of art is contained, and that, for instance, Hamlet and Macbeth don’t come from the same world and that two television series are not related to each other and have no responsibility to make sense to one and other. These chat room critics have taken the issue of continuity and expanded it to ridiculous levels. For them, it’s about the connections between one piece of art and another, as if these series are about an elaborate world building project that must remain consistent to survive. Why do I suddenly think of “Dungeons and Dragons”?

Yet, there is a certain sense to what they say. Imagine if David Fincher filmed Fight Club 2 and cast Nick Cage in Norton’s role, a choice that would be equal parts awesome and absurd. The point is that it would totally throw off the aesthetics of the first film, by compromising the integrity of the world it had originally conceived. It would displace the film from both its original universe and the new one. Similarly, taking a character these fans know and love and giving him a new, unfamiliar face displaces Arrow from the universe fans are already immersed in. Never mind that Smallville and Arrow are two different shows, what matters are that they connect, should connect, and must connect, or something bad will happen. Break continuity and you damage an entire mode of perception. Surprisingly or not, these comic book worlds have become a deep part of their fan’s imaginations and identities. No wonder they react with such vehemence. It’s as if the producers recast their minds.

The second controversy is that Arrow borrows a set from Smallville. The answer to ‘why?’ is simple and we all understand it: ECONOMICS. Smallville had ten seasons, and Lex Luthor was a main character for the duration. It’s safe to assume that the set was built up over the seasons, that it has a lot to offer any billionaire in the DC universe or any universe. It would, in fact, be a little silly for the producers of Arrow not to exploit that resource. But if you are a fan and a believer in the world of DC comics, an economic explanation has nothing to do with aesthetics and instead threatens an entire worldview. Continuity, not quality, becomes the key to the imagination and the success of a show. It’s important to see the switch here. We normally think of imagination residing with the work of art or the author of that work. From the perspective of these crazy Smallville fans, imagination is the property of the viewer. Yes, producers create these shows, but after their creation it is the audience who own them, who, in a true sense, merge with them. It’s the difference between being a parent (the producers) and getting married (the fans).

Interestingly enough, the producers of Arrow want to divorce the show from its CW predecessor, and in doing so they’ve shifted the moral compass of the Green Arrow character. You don’t even have to watch the first couple of episodes to spot it. The extended promo alone made it pretty obvious that the show is far darker than Smallville ever was. The defining moment is when we see Green Arrow snap a man’s neck. This is important because heroes in the DC universe do not kill. This isn’t Marvel. The Green Arrow is not Hawkeye. This television iteration clearly does not take place within the recognizable DCU. It’s a cracked, distorted version of the Green Arrow and a violation of the classic, well-known idea of what a DC hero is. This clearly challenges the faith fans place in these well-wrought systems. The Green Arrow’s new ethics breaks a trust with its potential audience and a trust with how to treat a DC character. The reason fans care so much is that to break continuity is to break the viewer’s sense of the world they’re immersed in and by extension their understanding of moral and ethical action. So this aesthetic violation of the universe is also a moral one and is playing out as such with Arrow.

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