Arrow: Ra’s al Ghul and the Shadow of Batman

Ra's al Ghul returns on Arrow "The Fallen" which makes us wonder even more about the Batman connections.

On my most optimistic day, I never would have thought I’d ever be writing about something that relates to a third season of a Green Arrow TV series, but here I am. Such is the unlikely success of Arrow, the CW show that threw off the shackles of an awkward first season and it’s inherent CW-ness to become a fan favorite. Not just any fan favorite, though. It’s really the first superhero show of its kind that offers a weekly dose of fan-service to the DC Comics faithful. 

That first season of Arrow felt awfully familiar to Batman Begins fans, borrowing that film’s non-linear structure for its season long origin story, and importing (or at least trying to) some of Christopher Nolan’s grounded, no-nonsense tone to its small-screen superheroics. It wasn’t until season two that Arrow got decidedly less bashful about embracing its superhero roots. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also in season two that the show felt comfortable enough in its own skin to toy with the mythology of DC’s most successful multi-media superstar, Batman.

It was in season two episode three (an episode that also, coincidentally, introduced minor Batman villain the Dollmaker) that we learned of the existence of Ra’s al Ghul in the Arrow universe. While we wouldn’t end up actually seeing him until the beginning of season three (played by Matt Nable in the fiftieth overall episode of the show), Ra’s and his army of the League of Assassins (that’s the League of Shadows to you Batman Begins fans) are now a major component of Arrow stories going forward. And it’s clear that there’s a reckoning coming before season three concludes.

This is great news for Bat-fans, of course. Ra’s al Ghul is one of Batman’s most notable villains, the true Moriarty to Batman’s Holmes. There have been other subtle and not-so-subtle Bat-references such as the aforementioned Dollmaker episode, the brief, unnamed appearance of Harley Quinn (voiced by Batman: The Animated Series’ Tara Strong!), and Arrow costume designer Maya Mani talking about how she’d love to do a version of Batman for this show.

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So while Batman is still nowhere to be seen, the villain (or his army) that drove two of the last three Batman movies is on prominent display for the duration of Arrow season three. It can be argued that Ra’s al Ghul is much more than a mere Batman villain, with a criminal empire that stretches around the globe and thus he has far bigger concerns than Gotham City, but no matter how you spin it, Ra’s is a Batman villain, and a Batman villain is the major villain of a Green Arrow TV show. This isn’t a problem, mind you, except for the fact that even mentioning the name of Gotham City is apparently forbidden on Arrow.

“You won’t be hearing Gotham or Metropolis on the show anytime soon,” Arrow executive producer Andrew Kreisberg recently said. This isn’t the first conflict like this we’ve seen. Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer was originally intended to be the more Arrow-verse friendly character of Blue Beetle before they were told that Warner Bros. had other plans for Ted Kord, so they needed another “tech-driven superhero” for the slot.

The Gotham and Metropolis bans sound a little archaic when you consider the state of superhero adaptations. Warner Bros. are imposing limits on themselves. While Agents of SHIELD may have the benefit of a larger audience and as many tie-ins to one of the highest grossing films of all time to its credit, the court of public opinion seems to favor DC’s television world-building these days. On the other hand, maybe Gotham City and Metropolis aren’t as off-limits as we’re being led to believe. At SDCC, I asked Andrew Kreisberg point blank if Ra’s was the big baddie of season three, and he laughed us all off…before announcing exactly that later that night.

But Arrow still had to break out of the confines of what came before it, namely its own lackluster first season. Even now, Arrow is suddenly standing in the shadow of its more colorful younger brother, The Flash, which has consistently pulled in roughly one million more viewers than Arrow every week since its debut. So, why not let Batman lend Green Arrow a helping hand?

Well, for starters, Arrow has done a fine job of establishing that it’s not a poor man’s Batman anymore. For all the DC Comics cameos and references that are packed into each episode, none are likely to overshadow the show itself. Not so once Batman gets involved. Batman is simply too high-profile a character with too much baggage and money riding on him. A Batman appearance does what no other guest villain or hero yet seen on Arrow would do: take the spotlight off of Oliver Queen’s journey.

There’s a chance this situation might be different if we were getting ready for a Batman 4 starring a well-established Christian Bale in the role. A small screen Batman wouldn’t detract from an established and fairly definitive big-screen version. But with Warner Bros. getting set to introduce a new version of the character in 2016, and a controversial one at that with Ben Affleck in the cowl, it doesn’t benefit the Batman brand any more than it would Arrow to try and shoehorn Bruce Wayne into a show that has its own stories to tell. Warner Bros claims that their announced superhero movie plans between now and 2020 might still include a Batman solo movie. It seems difficult to believe that Ben Affleck is willing to commit to more than three appearances as Batman in a five-year span (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League Part One, and Justice League Part Two for those keeping score), so I’m not sure I believe them.

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But just because we won’t see Batman on Arrow, let alone hear the name of his native city uttered, that doesn’t mean that the entire Bat-verse is closed. In fact, there have been two notable changes to major Batman supporting characters that not only allow them to sidestep any potential conflicts with Arrow’s “no Gotham” rule, but also make these characters particularly TV-ready. For starters, there were those Nightwing rumors from last year…

Vampire Diaries star Steven McQueen caused quite a stir with a simple social media post, indicating that he was undergoing “Nightwing training.” The Nightwing shirt probably didn’t exactly mellow fans out, either. Nightwing feels like a natural fit for the Arrow universe. Even if his pointy-eared mentor is never mentioned by name, Dick Grayson is high profile enough (and absent from live-action in any form for nearly 20 years) that audiences could make the connection and get whatever they wanted to out of it.

Ultimately, this went nowhere and was really just a matter of McQueen having some fun with the Arrow producers, but it certainly was enough to raise the hopes of fandom to near unreasonable levels. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Dick Grayson is off limits, though. DC Entertainment (for that matter, Marvel, too) is increasingly conscious of “synergy.” Many changes to DC Comics continuity and costumes in recent years were made with one eye on how this could make the characters more TV and movie friendly, and that seems to include Dick Grayson.

Recently, Dick has given up his Nightwing identity to work as a super spy for an agency known as Spyral. Dick is now a mask-less, jumpsuited secret agent. The prospect of Dick Grayson, Agent of Spyral appearing on Arrow at some point suddenly seems a little less remote when he’s stripped of his overt Bat-baggage. In the same interview where Andrew Kreisberg told fans that Gotham City and Metropolis are off limits he did at least admit (perhaps apologetically) that he’s “a huge fan of Nightwing.” Perhaps some day we’ll see Dick Grayson show up as an agent of ARGUS if the showrunners aren’t ready to bring Spyral into this world. Until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with the upcoming Nightwing-centric Titans TV series.

Dick isn’t the only character to get a potentially TV-friendly makeover in recent months, though. The other is Batgirl…

Arrow has been assembling the Birds of Prey in one form or another since season one. We’ve had the Lance sisters (with Laurel finally getting ready to assume the mantle of Black Canary), Sin, and Helena Bertinelli/The Huntress all making prominent appearances. There have been allusions to Felicity Smoak as Oracle (WB backed off on the original title for the episode “The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak” which was “Oracle,” for unknown, possibly suspicious reasons), and so Barbara Gordon remains the highest profile BoP member not to make an appearance on the show so far. 

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Recently, the Batgirl comic has undergone some changes, with the new creative team of Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr shaking things up. Aside from giving Batgirl a wonderful new costume, they’ve moved her base of operations out of Gotham City and into a place called Burnside, a hip outer borough that might as well be the Brooklyn to Gotham City’s Manhattan. As a result, her prominent last name aside, Batgirl’s ties to the core Bat-mythology have been sidelined in favor of a new supporting cast and an overall Barbara-first approach to the character.

The book’s current low-fi approach to superheroics and commitment to introducing new villains seems like a natural fit for television, should Warner Bros. be looking for another way to exploit the Bat-franchise. Is it at all possible we’ll meet Batgirl on Arrow? It seems about as likely as anything else, especially since we now know that Superman’s cousin, Supergirl is getting her own show, one that might potentially cross over with Flash and Arrow. If Metropolis is a no go for these shows, but we can still see Supergirl, I see no reason the same rule can’t apply for Batgirl.

All in all, though, I have to admit. Demanding that the showrunners introduce more Bat-mythology on Arrow feels a little greedy considering how much DC Comics fan service we get each week. Paying a little lip-service to Gotham City certainly couldn’t hurt, though, especially since they’re already giving us one of the Dark Knight’s most enduring villains. I wouldn’t expect the Bat-signal to shine in Starling City any time soon, though, and that’s just fine.

Mike Cecchini will not have a shirtless swordfight with you in the snow. He hates winter. You may challenge him to a duel on Twitter.