“If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for”?
My favorite superhero stories are the ones that serve as metaphor or allegory for issues in our own world, inviting the reader/watching to look at a question in a whole new light. That’s why this blog exists. Even when I disagree with the point that a particular author might be making, I’m still likely to celebrate the way they used the superhero genre to make it. So when I heard that Arrow, on the CW, was going to tackle the question of gun control in their upcoming episode Spectre of the Gun (season 5 episode 13), I was excited to see where they went with it. But I was disappointed by an episode that approached a difficult topic in the safest way possible, doing its absolute best not to offend anyone.
Things begin (mild spoilers) with an attack on city hall by a bad guy armed with an assault rifle (and yes, if that seems simplistic, that is kind of my point). It is soon revealed that the killer acted out of anger that the city had failed to pass a stronger gun regulation (hold your eyerolls to the end), starting a city wide debate over gun control. The debate spreads to the Arrow team, with the different members taking different sides. Oliver Queen, the main character of the show who is the mayor by day and vigilante hero The Green Arrow by night, tries to handle the problem from both sides. He tries to get the anti-gun bill passed while also trying to hunt down the killer, but faces pushback in both regards. By the end of the episode, we’ve learned that gun control is very complicated, but that everyone has a legitimate point of view, and we should all try harder to listen to each other. Oliver and the city council member who opposes him agree on a bill that, in Oliver’s words, protects people’s lives while also protecting their freedoms. The details of this magical bill that bridges the gun control divide are never discussed.
I don’t expect every story to have a Point with a capital P. Some of my favorites simply raise a difficult question from a new direction, without ever trying to answer it; forcing the audience to keep discussing the question long after the movie or tv show has ended. But this episode did neither. Instead, it was the equivalent of an 8th grade group presentation, with each character getting to mouth one of the key talking points from one side or the other, insuring that they all get equal time and respect. There are numerous references to the need for everyone to listen to each other more, but no one ever actually does that by responding in any real way to the points someone else has made. Instead, we just get talking points without any real substance, a condescending reminder that every point of view is valid, and a magical compromise that seems to imply that the issue is far more simple than we make it out to be.
This approach has a number of problems. First off, it just wasn’t terribly compelling. Hearing the same old talking points for the thousandth time on a Sunday morning talk show is dull; hearing a superhero repeat them is little better. This episode gave me nothing to think about, nothing to challenge me and nothing that made me want to continue the discussion with friends over a beer.
Instead of taking any particular side, or even just trying to put the question in a new perspective, the episode endorsed the worst kind of false equivalency; arguing that every side is equal, and everyone has a good point, and everything would work out if we could all just listen to each other. That mentality of, we’re really not that different, let’s all just come together, is a nice sentiment, and would have been interesting a decade ago. But today, it just seems like the words of pollyanna; a call for calm from someone who isn’t paying enough attention to realize things are far too broken and divided to be fixed by platitudes and easy compromises.
It was also a surprising direction for a character who is often portrayed as one of the more progressive heroes out there. Most other portrayals of Oliver Queen/Green Arrow show him as being decidedly liberal, frequently engaging some of the more conservative Justice League members in debates that leave the rest of the heroes rolling their eyes at both of them. The show has, until now, portrayed Queen as being fairly left leaning, particularly in how he decides who has “failed this city,” (his catch phrase to those who things are bad guys) even if he is fairly authoritarian in how he administers justice. So I was surprised to see the authors move Oliver away from his canonical roots towards the politic center. I share those progressive leanings, but I think I would have prefered Oliver as NRA member more than what we got. At least there the authors would have made a case I could respond to, even if I vehemently disagreed with it.
These stories are entertainment, and I don’t expect them to always be rife with political commentary; I can enjoy a wisecracking badass in a cape as much as anyone. Nor does a story have to be intentionally political; any story about vengeance will raise difficult questions, be it a serious exploration like V for Vendetta or a comedic shoot-em-up like Desperado. But if you’re going to intentionally wade into a serious issue, you’ve got to take on the baggage that carries. This episode of Arrow gave us the perfect example of how not to do that.