The DC Universe shown in the CW shows is a tragedy. I’m not saying that as an insult; I actually quite enjoy the shows and they’ve had some very strong stories and crafted some excellent adaptations of beloved DC characters. But in the theatrical sense, based on the definition of ‘stories where the protagonist fails to achieve their goal’, the A-plot to every season of these shows has been, to a lesser or greater degree, a tragedy, and it’s kind of hurting the shows.
Spoilers ahead for the last four years of Arrow, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl.
Fiction tells stories that are based on conflict. It would not be particularly interesting to watch a person decide to build a fence, set about building a fence, and finish building the fence without complication. Superheroes are no different. The basic core of any given superhero story is for the superhero to have a goal and meet and overcome resistance while attempting to achieve this goal. Because superheroes are protectors of society, their goals frequently are merely to stop the villain’s evil plan, thereby saving the city/world/day. So, how do the superheroes of the CW DC Universe fare in their goals?
Well, each season of these shows has roughly been one complete story arc, with one particular goal for the protagonist(s). Every single one of these goals has been met with some amount of failure or Pyrrhic victory.
Arrow ended its first season with an action packed finale that saw Oliver Queen and friends attempting to stop an earthquake machine from destroying a section of the city. Just as they succeeded in doing so, it turned out there was a second machine, and a huge amount of death and destruction occurred, despite their best efforts. Legends’ goal of a time travel rescue mission to prevent Vandal Savage from murdering Rip Hunter’s wife and child, reiterated every episode by Hunter’s opening narration of “I have assembled an elite team to hunt him throughout time and stop his rise to power” results in them neither stopping his rise to power nor preventing the murder of Rip’s family (they defeat Savage after both of those things). Many of Arrow’s seasonal plots have come down to stopping the villain’s evil plan, be it to hurt Oliver in revenge or to destroy the city as a whole; while these villains have always been defeated, their falls have only come after the deaths of loved ones or catastrophic damage to the city and loss of life.
Flash’s first year has perhaps the most tragic ending of all, when broken down: during the season finale, Flash has four separate specific goals: prevent his mother’s murder, get his dad out of prison, defeat and capture Reverse Flash, and prevent the city from being destroyed by a wormhole. He fails at all four. His mother’s murder remains intact; his father remains in prison until situations outside Flash’s control lead to his release in season two; Flash himself is powerless against Reverse Flash, and it takes the suicide of another character to defeat him; and Flash fails to stop the wormhole, and it (again) takes the sacrificial death of another character to close it. In all the major stories told in each season of these shows, while the villain themselves are stopped from fully accomplishing their master plan, and are themselves killed or apprehended, it comes at great personal cost to the protagonist, and the destruction the villains wish to wreak are often not fully prevented. At the end of The Flash season two, Barry even comments, “We just won. We just beat Zoom. Why does it feel like I just lost?”
The Need for a Greater Win
There’s many reasons why these shows need to let their heroes win more definitively and more often. For starters, these are superheroes. When the odds are stacked against the protagonist, and saving the day seems to be an impossibility, superheroes are meant to do the impossible. This goes back to the birth of the genre. Superman’s debut appearance is all about a new class of character; a guy in a cape and bright colored costume who can do what other people can’t. It’s more than just the general sense of closure and catharsis that comes from seeing the day saved, it’s a built in promise in the world of superheroes that the good guys can achieve what we believe can’t be done.
More than just the genre trappings, the serial nature of these shows demand some amount of victory to balance the story and maintain the stakes. Within the first two seasons of both Flash and Arrow, both protagonists saw both their parents die, three out of four times via murder. Arrow has begun in on former love interests and major team members (Sara in season three and Laurel in season four). Legends of Tomorrow killed off pretty much all of Rip Hunter’s known family. At the rate they’re going, these shows will eventually run out of loved ones to kill. If these deaths are meant to raise the stakes on a seasonal basis, it’s short sighted, and more than that it’s failing, because death has become a regular occurrence and therefore lost its surprise and impact, and they’re whittling through the number of expendables that can die without breaking the show (an argument could be made that Arrow is already past that). We can’t just watch a series of tragedies, because eventually that is also going to become stale and predictable.
Beyond even this, the heroes need to be able to win or else they lose the greatness that makes them special. Take the person building the fence; if they went up against fierce opposition to their fence building and caved, ultimately failing in building the fence, why would we want to tell or hear their story? Fiction tells stories that are inherently remarkable; if a story is being told, there must be something that makes it stand out enough to be worth hearing. Esther Inglis-Arkell wrote previously about how stories “pull people in on a personal level. The main, and sometimes only, reason to tell these stories is the idea that they’re remarkable, they have an unexpected result.” The choice of protagonist is similar; it’s worth it to follow these specific characters because their stories and their adventures are in some way remarkable. But if their point is that they keep going up against larger than life threats, but they don’t really succeed against them, how are they remarkable?
A Time and A Place
All of this is not to say that tragedy and failure have no place in these, or any kind of story. Arrow’s first season finale was compelling exactly because it was unexpected. We’re used to seeing the protagonist succeed because of the nature of serialized fiction, so in seeing them fail, our expectations were subverted and the stakes felt legitimately higher for all the stories that followed. But by that same token, the failures and tragedies that have followed have all felt a lot more predictable and less interesting. They are well past the point of diminishing returns.
The tone for each character also has a place in this. The showrunners for Arrow have defended season four’s death by pointing out that the show kind of runs on death; the show began with the death of Robert Queen, and someone major has died every season. Arrow, of the set of shows on CW, is considered the grounded, realistic, gritty one compared to Flash and Legends’ outlandish brands of comic book sci-fi. The variety of tones across the shows means there is a place for one where the stories may not always have neat and clean victories all the time. But for this argument to work, that variety needs to exist. Flash is considered the bright and happy superhero show, and yet it’s ended both seasons thus far with a strong sense of defeat. The twist within the last five minutes of Flash season 2's finale was of Barry actually time traveling and successfully saving his mother. But if we’re being honest, the likelihood that this will stick is very, very slim. We’re essentially going into season 3 expecting to see Barry have to watch his mother die a third time in as many years. This isn’t variety, this is literally repetition, and it’s getting dull.
The People Have Spoken
Beyond arguments of how things ought to work within the constructs of the story, armchair suggestions of how a piece of media could be better, there is the simple element of what is popular to take into consideration. And while an audience can be found for just about any aesthetic and tone, the kind of superhero storytelling that is evidently popular right now is of a brighter, more victorious tone than what the CW is delivering. On the broad scale, look at the success of the Marvel movies; while attributable to a number of elements, one can’t deny that those movies are generally marked by, and indeed advertise themselves with, a cheery, fun, optimistic tone. Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps Marvel’s riskiest venture, managed to make a blockbuster success out of an adaptation of a lesser known property starring a raccoon and a tree in space; this success rested heavily on the upbeat tone of “look at how much fun we’re having” that pervaded not just the movie itself, but the ad campaign that brought it to audiences’ attention. This is the superhero movie that people wanted to see.
On a level more close to home, Flash in its first year quickly surpassed Arrow in the ratings (by over a million more viewers) and maintained that position this last year; this result is frequently attributed in part to the brighter, happier tone that Flash has compared to Arrow. That tone, however, has been somewhat in doubt this last year, with the recurring sense of defeat being a standout complaint among critics and audiences alike. The Flash, when it’s bright and optimistic, is the superhero show that people want to see, but the show feels like it’s not quite willing to deliver on that promise.
And this leads me to the elephant in the room: Supergirl. I’ve left Supergirl out of the discussion so far because none of this criticism applies. Where Flash and Arrow have been killing parents left and right, Supergirl is actually finding out hers are still alive; while Flash and Arrow can’t seem to end a love triangle without someone dying, Supergirl solved hers happily about halfway through the season with nary a fatality; while Barry and Oliver meet over gravestones, Flash visits Supergirl and everyone gets ice cream. Flash and Arrow have ended their seasons thus far with half victories and tragedy aplenty, but Supergirl completely saves the day (twice) in her first season finale. While there’s definitely fair criticisms to be made of Supergirl, the fact that the good guys finally win is not one of them.
And the result of all this? Supergirl’s ratings by the end of the year came down to about 7 and a half million, compared to Flash’s 3 and a half; even acknowledging the general difference in viewers for network TV vs. the CW, the bottom line is that Supergirl is moving networks to the CW and if it maintains even half of its viewership, it will still be above The Flash. Supergirl is the superhero show that people want to see.
There’s a lot to be said for balance in storytelling. A victory feels hollow if it isn’t preceded by tension, but punishment of the protagonist without relief can just be exhausting. While there is definitely room for a variety of tones across the CW’s growing multiverse of shows, what all of them need on a narrative basis is a solid win for the good guys once in a while, at the very least. As different as they may be, they are all cut from the same fabric, and the fabric of superheroes is made up of good guys facing overwhelming odds and overcoming them to save the day. I already love Barry Allen and Oliver Queen and Rip Hunter and all of his Legends of Tomorrow, that’s never been in question; but I would really, really love to see them get a win.