The Arrowverse is the nickname given to the half-dozen soap-opera-y, surprisingly absorbing, charming and connected-together DC superhero TV series that have been staples of The CW network since 2012. It’s a deep bench. First arrived “Arrow,” a show so confident and dark it didn’t even acknowledge its hero’s more-famous moniker, the Green Arrow, until the fourth season; then came “The Flash,” which was even smarter, with the right mix of slightness and heart (plus a first-rate Flash in actor Grant Gustin); that was followed by, among others, “Supergirl” (initially on CBS, now CW), which somehow recreated the effortless sunshine of the Christopher Reeve years; then the time-travel spin-off “Legends of Tomorrow,” which, despite a rocky first season, developed into a underrated gem.
Arguably even better than any of those shows is “Black Lightning,” which (despite, curiously enough, only now being linked to the broader Arrowverse ecosystem) lends a necessary layer of melancholy and maturity to the Arrowverse; it tells the story of a superhero (whom some have dubbed “Black Jesus”) returning to his super-duties after years of doubts and day jobs.
And now, debuting Oct. 6, “Batwoman,” which could raise the profile of the Arrowverse beyond nerdy circles. It shoots its interiors in Vancouver and most exteriors in Chicago.
So, on a recent August morning, I arrived on the Chicago Riverwalk to find the the show filming a very Arrowverse scene. Production overlooked the Merchandise Mart and the actors were set against a hectic backdrop of tour boats, school groups and onlookers. Actor Dougray Scott (as Batwoman’s morally-iffy father) and actress Elizabeth Anweis (as Batwoman’s stepmother) stood inches apart, arguing in harsh bursts, their voices carrying:
No clue what they were talking about, but it was vintage Arrowverse exposition — a little overdetermined and extremely on the nose, kind of crazy and straight from a comic book.
It also looked like the Arrowverse: Without knowing what was going on, if you happened to be strolling by, you would be hard pressed to pick out the extras from the lead actors, or the tourists from the extras. In the Arrowverse, everything veers towards a degree of anonymity. Only Scott’s suit, baggier and more haggard than the fitted outfits of the extras, identified him as important. As in comics and L.L. Bean catalogs, everything feels like it’s from every time and no time. On the Riverwalk, one food vendor (an extra) wore an old newsboy’s cap.
Scott and Anweis started arguing again — just as a tour boat glided into the background, the tour guide saying loudly through a PA, “Here is one of the many TV series shot in Chicago ...”
They reset the cameras. A jogger bounded through the set. School children in matching T-shirts rumbled in, only to be corralled by the long arm of a smiling production assistant.
And Scott and Anweis resumed arguing — just as a tourist with a large piece of rolling luggage began pushing along the Riverwalk. Clack, clack, clack. “Cut!” The man with the luggage looked about cluelessly, picked up his suitcase and carried it past; at Wells, he dropped it to the concrete and rattled on. Scott and Anweis waited then started arguing. At this point another boat glided by, its gunwales lined with tourists staring into the cameras.
Caroline Dries, the showrunner, told me later that, most likely, they would have to rerecord a lot of the dialogue they had shot in Chicago. Scott told me plainly he had never been on a noisier set in his life — and this is a guy who’s been in “Mission: Impossible 2” and “Taken 3.”
The fun thing about the Arrowverse is that you’re watching a real world, but it’s just less specific. Like a strip mall. Its budgets don’t appear big enough for movie-quality sparkle, so the Arrowverse carries an unmistakable resemblance to B-movies, the kind that star John Travolta, never appear in theaters, sit idle in your Netflix queues and dip into the messy, sweaty reality of their locations — but only to a point. There’s a good reason actor Stephen Amell, who plays Arrow, has jokingly called himself “Walmart Batman.” Besides similarities between Arrow and Batman — both are rich bachelors by day, avenging angels in dark cloaks by night — everything on “Arrow” looks flimsier than in a Batman film. This is not a bad thing.
The Arrowverse has the low-impact charm often missing from superhero movies. The Arrowverse is as codependent on serial viewing as the Marvel Universe — wade in and you’re soon struggling to keep up with five shows cross-referencing each other — but its synergy never bludgeons you into submission. Stakes are about as high as stakes get on network TV drama. Space out, watch passively or intently, obsess or leave the room. It’s not a Disney-enforced cultural obligation. There’s air to breathe, space to move. It creates a loose energy — other than Calista Flockhart on “Supergirl,” there are very few recognizable faces in the Arrowverse to suck up the oxygen.
Which leaves room for surprises and oddities: like a gorilla super villain on “Flash,” or Jon Cryer playing a great Lex Luthor. Rose Troche, the once indie-film darling from Chicago (“Go Fish”), even directed an episode of “Black Lightning.” And because we’re talking run-and-gun TV series here, not slow-to-act movie franchises, there’s genuine innovation: Batwoman, in keeping with the DC canon, will be the first lesbian superhero to lead a TV show or movie.
How playful is the Arrowverse? While Sony and Marvel seem unable to agree on how to share Spider-Man and disappoint millions of fans, the Arrowverse (which is part of Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics, which is home to Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman) somehow finds room annually for a kind of post-Thanksgiving table of its TV Super Friends. As with the history of superhero comic books, “crossover events” are routine: Indeed, Batwoman (played by Australian actress Ruby Rose) was introduced to the Arrowverse last winter, during a crossover where Flash and Arrow visited Gotham. Bruce Wayne was missing but his alliterative cousin Kate Kane was holding the fort as Batwoman.
How playful is the Arrowverse? This winter, the latest crossover — an ambitious adaptation of the classic 1980s DC comic series “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” cutting across the Arrowverse for eight weeks — will feature the usual Superman on “Supergirl” (Tyler Hoechlin), but also Brandon Routh, who was Superman in the 2006 movie “Superman Returns," playing both the Atom, his “Legends of Tomorrow” character and a parallel-universe Clark Kent. Not confusing enough? Tom Welling and Erica Durance, who played Clark Kent and Lois Lane on “Smallville,” will also play Clark Kent and Lois Lane from another universe.
Producer Greg Berlanti, a 1994 Northwestern University graduate who has (no joke) 18 shows on TV right now. He does NBC’s “Blindspot” and Fox’s “Prodigal Son” and Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” and many others. But the Arrowverse is his signature.
The history of comic books on TV is a long, cynical one, marked by disinterest and low budgets; even Marvel, which owns the 21st century multiplex, wavers on the small screen from good (“Jessica Jones”) to half-hearted (“Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”) to hilariously stupid (“Iron Fist”). Berlanti’s approach is more radical: He’s not trying to just reimagine superheroes for contemporary America, he’s mining their gravitas and camp in equal measure, while embracing an old-school stiffness and predictability that always marked the assembly-line storytelling found in comics. He’s not trying to improve upon a genre so much as honor its melodrama of twists, coincidences, and shallowness, without avoiding any irony.
His secret weapon then is not the Blue Chip super folks but the afterthoughts, the deep cuts whose roles often reveal a more interesting history still waiting to be told. Take Batwoman. She debuted in 1956, initially as Batman’s love interest. She was a thin vehicle for DC to prove that Batman and Robin were not a gay couple (as had been widely rumored by ‘50s morality police). A dozen years ago she was reintroduced by DC — now as Jewish and gay.
Dries said, “I think what differentiates (the Arrowverse) from superhero movies is that you are looking at these people every week and they become people you know, so you think you are signing up to watch some badass hero take out another badass but you’re really just watching these people move their lives. Batwoman may have a Batbike and Batarangs, but at the end of the day, will Kate Kane find love? Will she keep her family together? Will she, an openly gay woman, be able to hold on to her real secret identity? It’s all about humanity.”
I first detected trouble near Ida B. Wells Drive and Michigan Avenue. “Batwoman” production had moved to the plaza in front of Grant Park. It was hot and cloudless and Dries, with a backpack and sneakers and looking young, sat on a stone wall in the shade and waited to begin. The director, Holly Dale, an industry veteran of everything from “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” to “Chicago Fire” to “Heroes,” wore large green sunglasses and a scarf. She sat inside a tent before a row of monitors. Outside, on the plaza, two actors sat on a bench feet from Michigan, waiting to shoot a clandestine meet-up.
Extras huddled nearby beneath trees and waved fans. Though the scene being shot would appear in a different episode than the scene shot a few hours earlier, many extras wore the clothes they wore on the Riverwalk. Which seemed right for the Arrowverse. I mentioned this. An extra said: “We were just saying that! Viewers are going to get some deja vu.”
Inside Dries and Dale were leaning into the monitors. I hunched alongside them, mostly for shade and began taking notes. Just then the CW representative appeared at my side.
She said that I could see better from this other spot, this spot not so close to the showrunner and the director, just outside the tent, behind this large metal framework where nothing could be seen or heard. Dale called action and the actors heatedly discussed a fiendish plot, (I think) then, in Arrowverse fashion, one stalked away while another stared off into distance.
Judging from the first episode of “Batwoman” (the only episode available to preview), there will be a marked difference between the way that Chicago will be used in the Arrowverse and the way, say, director Zack Snyder used the city in “Man of Steel,” “Justice League” and “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It’s the same difference between the Arrowverse and Snyder’s vision of the DC Universe, which smothered DC at the movies for a decade (until “Wonder Woman” let in fresh air). Snyder’s Gotham is an airless skyline without grounding, a backdrop for digital flattening. The Gotham of “Batwoman” is not unlike the Gotham of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight.” Grounded, muted, concrete, steel, lot of gliding birds-eye shots of the Loop. The Chicago of “Batwoman” is familiar, but offers a new direction for the Arrowverse: It introduces the texture of the world, a hint of real life. Wayne Enterprises is a mash of City Hall and the Chicago Board of Trade, with a big ugly “WAYNE ENTERPRISES” sign digitally plastered across the top. When the Bat Signal is turned off in the pilot (Gotham’s given up waiting for Batman), the ceremony happens at the Art Institute.
And when Batwoman needs a moment, she apparently walks over to the Jackson Boulevard Bridge and watches the Chicago River flow. At least she did, as Kate Kane, in street clothes, the night I visited the set. It’s here that my Arrowverse visit collapsed. At first, the problem was that I was on the set without the CW rep. I had jumped on the wrong production shuttle. The rep called and told me to get off the production shuttle right now.
At Jackson, Ruby Rose and Dougray Scott stared off into the middle distance, then the darkness of the river. Just then a woman walked through the set with her dry-cleaning beneath a long flowing plastic bag. “How,” said a production assistant, dumbfounded, “is just anyone allowed on to this set?” Just then, another man sauntered through with his suitcase.
Our photographer, before I had arrived, has already been told that he was not allowed on the set with his camera (something we thought we had worked out with the production only days earlier). So he relocated to the Adams Street Bridge and took pictures from there. When the rep arrived, she was angry and ignored me for a bit. Cameras rolled and Scott and Rose got into a disagreement, then Rose’s character, scornful of her father, walked off while Scott staring into the abyss. I took notes. The rep asked that I not give away their dialogue, to avoid spoilers. I agreed, and so I just wrote “Plot twist! Dun Dun!” She asked to see what wrote.
After that scene was finished, crew members broke down its equipment quickly and left for the roof of the LondonHouse on Wacker Drive. Ruby would be in costume, the Bat Signal would be lit, after midnight. By this point I had been with the production around 14 hours.
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Suddenly there was no room for me. There was nothing she could do. There was a breakdown of trust, she said. She had a uneasy feeling about my story, she said. She looked urgent yet apologetic and relayed this with a hushed urgency I had seen many times in the Arrowverse. She was doing her job. I was confused, but so what? What matters is that “Arrow” (returning Oct. 15) begins its last season soon, and “The Flash” (Oct. 7), “Black Lightning” (Oct. 7) and “Supergirl (Oct. 6) carry on, joined by “Legends of Tomorrow” in January, then an “Arrow” spin-off. What matters is we stay strong, and that, like sands through the hourglass, so goes the Arrowverse. Superhero TV still needs its gatekeepers and defenders. And so, defeated, but not quite broken, I turned from the rep and walked away.
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