“Romance is killing the show!” If you’re a fan of any of the DCTV shows (but notably Arrow, The Flash, or Supergirl), you’ve probably come across that sentiment a hundred times online. It isn’t unique to the fandom of the various DCTV shows, but it certainly is prevalent. But does romance fundamentally “ruin” superhero shows? Is there something about superhero narratives that precludes romance? And is Olicity ruining Arrow in particular, as often alleged?
Looking at the history of superhero stories in comics and on the silver screen, it is obvious that romance is not an anathema to the genre. Romance has been a theme – subtle or overt – since the very beginning of the medium. Lois Lane was introduced in the same issue as Superman. Iris West made her first appearance alongside Barry Allen’s Flash. Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor both made their debut in the same issue.
So superhero love interests aren’t a modern invention. And while superhero shows on television have heavily featured romance (from Smallville to Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman to the current DCTV), romance isn’t relegated to the small screen. Almost all the big-studio comic book property blockbusters that have been released in the past decade have included aromantic subplot – from Tony Stark and Pepper Potts to Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter to Diana of Themescriya and Steve Carter. Even before the modern era of movies, there was the romantic pairing of Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes (and, before that, both Selina Kyle and Vicki Vale). Peter Parker and, alternatively, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson. Clark Kent and Lois Lane in the Christopher Reeve Superman films.
And yet. Every time I go online, I see the same argument time and time again. “This series is supposed to be about action, not romance!” So is the action genre unique in precluding romance to function properly?
Just look at some of the best action movies of all time. The Indiana Jones series? Had Indy/Marion, Indy/Willie, and Indy/Elsa. Die Hard? A huge plot point in the first movie revolved around John McClane’s marital troubles and love for his family. The Terminator series doesn’t exist without the romance between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese. Aliens built romance between Ripley and Hicks, though the emotional center of the movie focused on her relationship with Newt. Even James Bond had genuine love interests (as opposed to mere conquests) in Tracy Bond and Vesper Lind.
If superhero stories have always had embraced romance, television shows about superheroes have always had romance subplots, and both movies about superheroes and general action movies have often featured romance…where does this sentiment that romance “kills” comic book shows come from? It isn’t necessarily a straightforward answer.
Does romance inherently ruin an otherwise good show? No. Can bad romance ruin an otherwise good show? Of course. Just like bad anything can ruin an otherwise good show. But what makes a romance bad? Specifically, does Olicity bring such a departure from what the show was or “should be” that it somehow ruins the series?
If there is one objection I’ve had to the handling of the Olicity romance, it’s that the series didn’t put them together and leave them alone to be happy. Certainly on a show like Arrow there is sufficient drama without needing to include romantic angst. But Arrow has followed in the footsteps of hundreds of shows before it and drawn out the moment when the two characters get together for good. Below, I will delve into the use of this trope in general and for Olicity specifically.
They Will or They Won’t, They Do or They Don’t
Everybody loves a little Unresolved Sexual Tension, but UST is like Halloween candy. It’s all well and good when you first get it, but if you’re still eating from the same bag three years later, it’s a problem.
And yet shows often run the risk of dragging out the UST for far too long – rehashing the same ground season after season. Too many shows have fallen into this trap, wanting to avoid the so-called “Moonlighting effect.” Moonlighting was a series from 1985 that was notorious for diminishing in quality once the OTP got together, and it has apparently struck terror into the hearts of show runners ever since. Still, as often as shows struggle with how long is too long, the (over)use of this trope isn’t necessarily ruinous. Dragging out the story for too long may diminish a story, but if corrected before the Point of No Return, the damage isn’t necessarily permanent.
But should shows really be concerned about the Moonlighting effect? Should they be more concerned about it then the damage that is done to a show by not letting it (or the characters) grow? I don’t think the problem is that couples together are boring. After all, there’s only so much “will they/won’t they” that a person can take.
A little UST is great. The sizzling chemistry and make the audience want the characters get together. That first touch, that first kiss, that first moment they acknowledge their feelings and decide to act on them. But at a point, the writers must trust their writing and move the story forward. Unfortunately, it frequently takes writers too long to get to the point of realizing that a story about two idiots in love being idiots in love is way more interesting than a story about two idiots being idiots for no reason.
One example of a show that dragged out the will they/won’t they longer than necessary was Bones. For years, the show runners promised they would put the main couple together “for real.” And time and time again, they chickened out, copping to dream sequences and the like.
While I was a huge fan of the ship in the beginning of the series, episode 100 was my breaking point. Booth confessed his feelings to Brennan and said he wanted to give their relationship a shot. Afraid of “ruining” the show by putting them together, the writers still could not commit to moving forward with the relationship. She shot him down, and the two wouldn’t get together for real for another year. (I still can’t help but wonder if they would have prolonged it further still if they could. However, the actress became pregnant and they needed to work that into the show.)
I continued to watch Bones – and I rooted for Booth and Brennan to get together. And yet, a measure of my excitement in the ship had worn off. What might have elicited an exultant cry a year or two before only elicited a sigh of relief that the wait was finally over. Other fans were just as invested in the ship as they had ever been, of course, But for me, six years was at least one or two years too many.
Smallville also rehashed the same ground for years. The relationship between Clark and Lana always intended to be at the heart of the show, but the series lasted longer than it was originally expected to run. As a show about Clark Kent’s life before he became Superman, it was increasingly necessary to stall Clark’s growth and progress as the series continued. “No tights, no flights” was a firm directive, and they were determined to stick to it.
When a hero cannot grow – by the fundamental premise of the series – then a lot of rehashing the same ground will be the inevitable result. The on-again-off-again nature of the Clana relationship grew stale and repetitive, made worse because the two were never intended to work out or have a Happily Ever After. That tragic love story was a big part of the very conception of the show and the heart of its initial premise, and the show runners held to that premise long after it was outgrown by series longevity.
So where does Olicity fit into all this? Unlike both of the examples above, it wasn’t the intended ship from the very first moment. It wasn’t until the second season that the direction of the series shifted. And yet, romance (specifically on-again-off-again romance) very much was woven into the fabric of the show from the Pilot. Lauriver – the initially intended romance – was introduced as a ship that had once been on but was now off. Very much off, since Oliver had been sleeping with Laurel’s sister on the yacht when it went down and they were both presumed dead.
Olicity introduced a counterpoint to this strained dynamic, which undoubtedly contributed to the directional shift. While Lauriver was weighed down with years of backstory baggage, Olicity could start fresh. The relationship wasn’t dictated by who Oliver had been. It could be driven by who he had become. With Olicity, the past could remain in the past. Without years of baggage, they could come together, stay together, and be happy.
And yet. The show didn’t let them just come together, stay together, and be happy. The writers threw (frankly, unnecessary) drama at the couple. Felicity dated other men, one of whom Oliver (accidentally) killed. Oliver dated other women, such as Sara Lance and Susan Williams. Meanwhile, it was clear to everyone that Oliver and Felicity would end up together one day, so the fans begged them to just stop the nonsense and do it already! But did this on-again-off-again relationship ruin the show?
I think it’s hard to claim something ruins a show that is engrained in the very fabric of it. Lauriver’s on-again-off-again romantic drama may have been of a different nature – and been harder to overcome because of it. But it was very much an intended part of the show. Consider the storyline that caused the biggest rift between Olicity: the revelation of Oliver’s son, William. He was conceived in another act of infidelity, while Oliver and Laurel were in a relationship. Is it really that likely that they would have suffered less romantic drama than Olicity did from such a discovery?
Conflict in the hero’s love life may not have been the central focus of the show, but it was clearly always intended to have a significant presence in the series. How could the Olicity romance ruin the show when the show was always going to have romantic drama in one form or other?
It should be noted that there is are at least two more levels to the complaint against Olicity. Many believe that Olicity is the reason Laurel Lance, the Black Canary, was killed off (though she has since returned in a manner of speaking). I’m not sure I can entirely argue the point – in that I don’t think Laurel would have been killed off if she had remained the love interest. I also suppose it is easy to blame Olicity for the mistreatment of a beloved character from the comics.
However, I would argue that the problem wasn’t that the show runners decided to pursue Olicity instead of Lauriver. The problem was the way they viewed Laurel once she was removed from the romantic relationship. Black Canary is a superhero in her own right in the comics. It should not have been difficult for them to continue to include her character in the story, even if she was no longer one-half of the show’s intended endgame. Olicity wasn’t the problem. If the show had decided to move forward with Sara or Shado or Helena as primary love interest, Laurel likely would have been treated the same. The problem was that Laurel seemed to lose value to the show runners when she no longer held that position.
Another complaint I often see about Olicity is that it veers the show too sharply from the comics. As a comic fan, I understand that complaint on a certain level. However, Arrow has hardly stayed true to the comics in every other respect. It hasn’t even stayed true to the comics in most other respects. Oliver Queen’s very personality in the series is vastly different than it is in the source material. This isn’t to say that both can’t be enjoyable in their own ways. However, it’s hard to believe that Olicity’s lack of adherence to the to comic canon could ruin the show when the hero’s very personality is fundamentally different, as well.
Finally, I have often come across the complaint that Olicity ruins the show because the ship has taken on such prominence that it eclipses Oliver’s story. It is true that Felicity has taken on greater prominence on the show over time. And it is impossible to know whether another ship would have similar importance or screen time. Regardless, Arrow is in an unviable position – damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
At the start of the series, Oliver was emotionally withdrawn from the people around him. Even after Laurel had effectively forgiven him, he did not believe he could ever really be with another person. The life he had chosen had to be a solitary one, or so he believed. It was hard enough for him to even open up to someone as a friend, let alone as more.
Thus, it has been tremendous character growth for Oliver for him to finally realize that he could, in fact, “get the girl” and be a hero at the same time. It is also important character growth. No hero can truly stand alone. Even Batman has Alfred and a whole Batfamily of other heroes that he can rely upon. The audience connects to a hero through their relationships – romantic and platonic – as well as their actions.
So is it really a bad thing that Oliver’s romance with Felicity has become an important part of the series? Love it or hate it, Olicity has provided necessary character growth for Oliver. Dictating Arrow not include a love story for Oliver demands Oliver to remain emotionally stagnant. Rehashing the same ground over and over, and never really growing as a person – let alone as a hero. Whether or not Olicity is everybody’s cup of tea, it has provided important character growth for Oliver. It has not fundamentally changed what the show was intended to be.
And, thus, it has not ruined Arrow.