This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
The Flash has a new showrunner next season, Eric Wallace. One thing foremost in his mind as he starts planning out the show’s sixth year will no doubt be, “What can we do that’s new and interesting with the Big Bad?”
Here’s a suggestion: don’t have one.
With Arrow coming to an end next year, it’s a perfect time to shake up the remainder of the pocket universe that bears its name. And one way that the remaining Arrowverse shows – The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow – could inject some new energy into their storytelling is to let go of their dogged reliance on that staple of fantasy TV series – the season-long baddie.
After eight years and 20 seasons set in this shared universe, the Arrowverse’s dependence on the Big Bad is a trope that’s now bordering on self-parody. And no, having Wells/Sherloque make self-aware reference in a recent episode about a “someone making puppets of us all” is not a get-out clause.
To be fair, the various shows’ writers have done a creditable job eking as much out of this well-worn dramatic device as possible: we’ve had everything from time-travelling manipulators, to revenge-driven rivals, immortal megalomaniacs, ancient demons and even supervillain team-ups.
Some have worked better than others. Arrow was always on firmer ground when Oliver Queen had to lock horns with other embittered vigilantes (the Dark Archer, Deathstroke, Prometheus) as opposed to its ill-advised, tone-jarring attempt to introduce a supernatural foe in Damien Darhk. Meanwhile, The Flash felt revitalized when after three seasons of time-bending speed force villains it opted for the Thinker in season four.
But despite these valiant attempts to stretch the format, there’s an increasing whiff of familiarity about the use of Big Bads. Especially the way they dictate the pace and certain story beats throughout the season: the heroes’ realization that there’s a villain working against them; then discovering who that villain is; losing to them a few times; then a minor victory followed by a major setback, and finally the end-of-season victory. Oh, and there’ll be a major revelation about the villain’s identity at some point, and probably some personal connection between the villain and one of our heroes at another.
All this is exacerbated with the 22-(ish)-episode runs that are the norm for Arrowverse shows. Hell, some Netflix superhero shows with runs half that length have a tendency to sag around two thirds of the way into the arc. As a result, The Flash and Arrow have had more than their fair share of water-treading episodes over the years. At times you can almost hear Wells urging, “Run in place Barry, run in place!”
Even the show that originated the term Big Bad – and also popularized season-long, serialized storytelling in sci-fi and fantasy TV – used to ration its use of the übervillain’s arc. Buffy The Vampire Slayer first coined the term in the second season episode “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” in which Buffy said to Giles, “You never held out on me until the big, bad thing in the dark became my ex-honey.”
The episode was officially written by Marti Noxon, though she admits that the show’s creator, Joss Whedon, undertook some major rewrites and probably wrote the line himself. Whatever the case, the Buffy scribes were certainly bandying about the term “Big Bad” in the writers’ room at the time, and with Buffy being a show that created its own slang, it was only a matter of time before the phrase made it onto the screen.
With its second scripted use in season three’s “Gingerbread” (“It’s harmless. Not a big bad.”) the term became a bona fide “thing” as Buffy would have put it.
But early seasons of Buffy didn’t use the Big Bad story arc in the full-on fashion that the Arrowverse does. They were balanced between arc stories and standalone stories. Only the final couple of seasons – the Geek Trio and First Slayer storylines – became predominantly concerned with the arc. And even the the Geek Trio season had a final mini-arc that felt like a complete change of direction.
Following Buffy, Big Bads were suddenly de rigueur for all TV sci-fi and fantasy series. And it’s a trend that has proven to be remarkably enduring. Sure, all TV drama has become more serialised since the ’90s – especially with binge-watching giving rise to the phenomenon of the “TV series and visual novel” – but few other genres rely so heavily on the Big Bad.
Even Doctor Who had fun with the trope when it returned in 2005, with an ongoing “Bad Wolf” storyline in its first series (spot the silent “Big”?) though largely the show remained serialized and a glowy-eyed, all-powerful Rose was more of an end-of-level guardian than a true Big Bad.
And yet, the Arrowverse retains a slavish adherence to the Big Bad philosophy of plotting. You’d think, over two decades since Buffy first coined the phrase, that Arrowverse bosses would have tried to find other ways of telling ongoing stories long before now.
Why can’t an impending natural disaster be the backbone of an arc? After all, environmental issues are – ahem – hot at the moment. Or what about personal struggles? Comics have always got a lot of mileage out of heroes turning their back on their calling. Or what about a conspiracy? Or a quest through the multiverse in search of a lost something or other?
Maybe there’s an even simpler answer. Have two or three arcs per season. That gives two or three end-of-arc finales per season. That must be good for hooking viewers, surely?
All these are rather obvious suggestions – real ‘first thing that comes to mind’ stuff. Imagine what a room full of professional writers could could up with if they were given the instruction, “Create a season without a Big Bad!”
The Arrowverse desperately needs to something to shake up the formula. The Big Bad feels increasingly like a writer’s comfort zone. And venturing out of the comfort zone often leads to some genuinely exciting creativity.