Superheroes used to rule the small screen. From Adam West in the kitschy 1960s version of Batman to Dean Cain as a suave 1990s Clark Kent in The New Adventures of Superman, television was overflowing with men in tights fighting crime and righting wrongs. Then, just as swiftly as they rose to dominance, superheroes fell out of favour. Cinemas remain packed with audiences gazing at the exploits of every variation on the type from the sardonic Iron Man to the conflicted Batman. But on television, with the notable exception of the recently ended teen Superman show Smallville, the genre failed to flourish. A big-budget Bionic Woman remake was pulled after eight episodes in 2007, the increasingly muddled Heroes ended abruptly in 2010, and last year the reboot of Wonder Woman failed to make it past the pilot stage while the much-hyped The Cape was swiftly cancelled.
Small wonder then that most television executives saw the superhero genre as all washed up. The budgets had to be big for it to work. The characters were one-dimensional. Audiences would pay for a one-off night of escapism but had no interest in tuning in week after week to see the same tired tales.
So at least the narrative went but then Arrow, which is loosely based on DC Comic's cult archer Green Arrow, aired in America, and suddenly the genre has a new shot of life. Before it started, Arrow, which comes to Sky1 tonight, was best known for being part of an apparent trend towards archery as a weapon of choice in films and television (The Hunger Games, Brave, Revolution, Snow White and The Huntsman). That all changed once the dark-hued tale of playboy-turned-vigilante Oliver Queen (played by Stephen Amell) pulled off the rare trick of garnering strong critical reviews and good ratings: in addition to being labelled "appealing and accomplished" by The New York Times, it drew four million US viewers in a competitive time slot.
"I think the superhero shows that haven't worked on television were a little too broad and a little too, for a lack of a better word, comic looking," says co-creator Marc Guggenheim. "We don't need to treat Arrow like a superhero show, we treat it as a show about a hero and more as a crime thriller. We're taking a more grounded approach. I think that's the key."
Certainly, while Arrow has the odd cheesy moment – in particular Oliver's decision to do all of his training minus his shirt – it is more complex and more entertaining than the standard superhero fare on American television. Thus, in a slight deviation from the source material the show's hero assumes the Arrow persona after a shipwreck followed by five years on a mysterious island forces him to reassess the way he has lived (in the comic books he falls accidentally or drunkenly off his ship). As such, Arrow is aiming for a tone that's more The Dark Knight Rises than Smallville, albeit without entirely losing its appeal as family fare. "We definitely looked at Chris Nolan's take on Batman," admits co-creator Andrew Kreisberg. "We like to jokingly describe Arrow as Dark Knight meets Revenge meets Lost."
Yet while there are echoes of all three shows, Kreisberg hopes that UK audiences make more of a comparison with Doctor Who. "My two favourite shows of all time are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who," he says. "I love the way [they] mix drama and comedy, the way that they take fantastical things and strong emotions and make them feel down-to-earth. There's definitely a sense that Arrow like Buffy and Doctor Who has a character who's being asked to play all these different parts and who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders at the same time as having to deal with more down-to-earth emotions and friendship and love."