In anticipation of the season premieres, I’ve been going through a series rewatch of all four of the DCTV shows. In retrospect, it would have been wise to start it earlier in the summer. However, in revisiting these shows so intensely (and with so, so much popcorn), it really brought home one simple truth: when it comes to tragedy, Disney has nothing on DCTV. Several things might drive a person to be a hero. The Arrowverse seems to overwhelmingly prefer the untimely loss of a loved one.
Oliver Queen’s origins have hardly been the most heartwarming, but the losses he has suffered since almost put them to shame. Death has come for his father, his mother, and his friends alike. If Oliver Queen had a pet dog, I would be gravely concerned about its future wellbeing.
Any discussion of tragedy driving heroes in the Arrowverse must start with the one that launched the current universe: the death of Robert Queen. Robert wasn’t entirely blameless in the circumstances that led to his untimely demise, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic – or impactful on the titular hero. Adrift in the ocean after their sabotaged yacht, the Queen’s Gambit, went down, Robert and Oliver found themselves short on supplies. After begging his son to right his wrongs, Robert shot the last surviving crew member and himself to allow Oliver the chance to live. His death drove Oliver to become the Green Arrow so that he could continue his father’s mission to clean up Star City.
In the first season, Tommy Merlyn was Oliver’s best friend and tie to the person he’d been before his time on the island. He was also (in my opinion) an important tether to Oliver Queen. His friendship reminded Oliver that he is far more than just a vigilante. He is loved and worthy in his own right. Their relationship became a bit tumultuous when he discovered Oliver’s secret and realized that Laurel still had feelings for her former flame. However, the two had time to reconcile before Tommy’s death, and his death helped push Oliver to be a better hero.
Then there was the death of his mother, Moira. Moira had ambiguous motivations at best for many of her actions through the series. However, her love for her children was never in doubt. Her constant lies and manipulations alienated Oliver and Thea at times, but her death at the hands of Slade Wilson helped to push Oliver forward as a hero and to make Thea grow up.
Another significant tragic death in the series was the killing of Sara Lance – and they killed her not once but twice! Her presumed death on the Queen’s Gambit had a profound effect on her family. Then in season two, everyone discovered that she had survived, only for her to die once again in the third season – this time at Thea Queen’s hand. While she has subsequently returned to life (again), her death pushed Laurel to take on her iconic destiny as the Black Canary. Her resurrection had negative consequences for Sara herself, causing her to join sister show Legends of Tomorrow, this time going by the moniker of White Canary.
Last but certainly not least, Laurel Lance was killed during the show’s fourth season. While she has since returned to Arrow, it is not with the identity we knew before. Before her death, she confessed to Oliver that she still loved him and asked him to ensure she would not be the last Black Canary. She returned as a Laurel Lance from another Earth, giving Oliver hope that in saving her, he could find redemption for his Laurel’s death. It also motivated him to keep the promise he had made to Laurel before she died. When her sister Sara learned of her death, she resolved to continue her journey with the Legends, to live up to the person her sister had known she could be.
Barry Allen is supposed to be a shining, happy light in the Arrowverse, but one wouldn’t know it from all the tragedy he’s had to endure in three short seasons. The murder of his mother is unquestionably the most significant. Killed by time traveler Eobard Thawne when Barry was just eleven, it was this murder that propelled him to become a forensic scientist. It was also the driving motivation behind his actions and desire to be a hero throughout the first season (as well as being an event he had to witness several times due to his time travel exploits).
He had just begun to come to terms with this loss when Zoom murdered his father in the same place his mother had died. Once again, he watched his father die and could do nothing to stop it. Broken by this experience, Barry decided to run back in time to rescue his mother, wanting to return the timeline to what it would have been if Thawne had never interfered. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t long before he had to undo the world he had created. He traveled back in time once more, this time staying to watch his mother die in his arms. His actions, while sympathetic, inadvertently created Flashpoint, impacting the lives of everyone around him.
One consequence of Flashpoint was the creation of Savitar. On an accidental trip to the future, Barry witnessed Iris’s death at Savitar’s hand. For almost the entire season, he searched for a way to keep her alive, only to watch her die again and again and again and agaaaaaaain. In the future, he would be devastated and broken by her death. In the present, he would become increasingly desperate to save her, pushing himself harder than ever. In the end, H.R. would save himself to save Iris, and Iris would stop Barry’s evil doppelgänger from killing him. They even had five relatively carefree minutes to eagerly anticipate their wedding. Until, of course, another threat arose in the form of the speed force. Unwilling to let anyone else pay the price for his actions, Barry sacrificed himself to stabilize the speed force and save the world.
Legends of Tomorrow
Given the size of the cast, it should perhaps not be a surprise that Legends of Tomorrow is littered by the ghosts of the dead. True, not every character is driven by loss and tragedy. Still, there is plenty of death to go around.
Rip Hunter, the man who brought the team together, lost his wife and son at Vandal Savage’s hand. When the other Time Masters would do nothing to stop Savage, he went rogue. Stealing a ship, he gathered the Legends to assist him in saving his family. Though he would ultimately fail (at least to date – on a time travel show, nothing is over until it’s over), he did manage to stop Savage before he could implement a plan that would destroy time itself.
Other heroes are similarly driven. Ray Palmer decided to become a superhero after the death of his fiancé, Anna Loring. He found it difficult to move on for some time, until finally falling in love with Kendra Saunders. Naturally, she had a tragic past of her own. A demigoddess in ancient Egypt, she was the object of Savage’s obsession. Reincarnated countless times, she found and loved Carter Hall in all her lives. Cursed, Savage also murdered the two time and again in his quest for power. His death in this life would inspire her to embrace her abilities, as well as her memories of her former lives, as she resolved to stop Savage once and for all.
Teammate Mick Rory, aka Heat Wave, lost his entire family in a house fire that he started and accidentally let get out of control. His time on the team allowed him to come to terms with his guilt over this event. This is the initial push, but the next death would be even more pivotal for his journey from villain to anti-hero.
Captain Cold’s sacrifice in the first season finale would impact the entire team, but none more than Mick. Heat Wave joined the team for the sake of his partner. Sacrifice prompted him to embrace the cause and his role as hero in his own right.
The death of one man motivated two other teammates – Martin Stein and Jefferson Jackson. Former half of Firestorm, Ronnie Raymond, sacrificed himself to save Central City at the beginning of season two. This sacrifice caused Stein considerable guilt and grief. He overcompensated by alternating between being overprotective of Jax and pushing him away. For his part, Jax never met the man he would be replacing in the Firestorm matrix. However, Ronnie’s death propelled him to embrace his potential as a superhero. Ronnie’s wife, Caitlin Snow, recruited Jax to replace Ronnie in the matrix. When he was initially reluctant, she spoke to him about Ronnie’s heroism. This last push led him to accept that he could be a hero, as well.
The Arrowverse is so eager to use death as motivation, their heroes are inspired by the deaths of people they’ve never met.
Finally (for now, at least), a murder inspired Amaya Jiwe to join the Legends. Amaya and Rex Tyler were lovers before his murder at the Eobard Thawne’s hand. Once again, the loss of a loved one is the impetus to create a hero in the Arrowverse. One would think the writers would grow tired of finding inventive new deaths, if nothing else.
Kara Danvers has all the inner darkness of your average puppy, yet she has probably faced the most tragedy of all. She hasn’t lost just one or two loved ones; she and her cousin, Kal-El, lost their entire planet of Krypton. This is not the only reason she chose to be a hero. However, it certainly has been a driving force in her life. It has also understandably caused her own fair share of angst.
Kara’s story has one key distinction from the others in this article. Hers is as much a story of hope as it is tragedy. Yes, she lost her entire planet and most of her family. The family members who survived would also largely become her adversaries. However, her parents sent her to Earth as a young girl in an act of love. They sent her away to save her life, and so her cousin, Kal-El, would have a protector. It is, at best, a thin silver lining around an incredibly depressing cloud.
By comparison, J’onn J’onzz has survived tragedy in similar scope, if not for similar reasons. As the Martian Manhunter, he didn’t lose his planet – just his entire race. He is the sole survivor of a “Martian Holocaust” that took the lives of his wife and daughters. He then came to Earth, where he hid for centuries. Eventually, the head of the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, Hank Henshaw, discovered his existence. Henshaw wanted to kill him, but Kara’s adoptive father, Jeremiah, sacrificed himself to save J’onn’s life. In return, J’onn took over Henshaw’s identity so that he could try to redeem the D.E.O. from within. He then used Jeremiah’s memory to encourage his daughter, Alex, to find her place in the organization.
Heroes are formed in many ways and embrace their role for many reasons. Some want redemption for their own dark past. Others are chosen. Or they do it simply because they believe justice is worth the fight. Some simply want to do what they can with the powers they are given.
For the DCTV, however, heroes primarily embrace their destiny after the death of their loved ones. Is it any wonder that these shows tend to skew to the dark side? Here’s hoping that they refrain from relying on tragedy to inspire their characters for at least the next few years. Frankly, our favorite characters could use the break. After watching death after death after death in my four-series marathon, I certainly could.