Three Ways Batman and Superman are secretly in the DC TV Universe.
While the shows’ creators have only officially confirmed that Gotham and Metropolis would never be seen (or even referred to) in either Arrow or The Flash, it seems safe to assume there is more or less a ban on using or referring to Batman and Superman in any capacity in the DC TV Universe. Of course, just because these top tier characters are absent doesn’t mean the essence of their characterization is. In fact, Arrow and The Flash work as almost perfect proxies for both Batman and Superman, respectively.
On the Matter of Super Powers
Oliver Queen is a spoiled rich kid who lost a parent in a deeply traumatizing way. Sound familiar? Yep. Green Arrow and Batman have rather similar origin stories. In fact, Arrow depicts only Oliver’s father dying before he dons his hood, seemingly in an effort to separate him from Batman – in his comic book origins, both of Ollie’s parents die.
Much like Bruce Wayne (spoiler alert on Batman’s secret identity?), Oliver is driven to clean up the streets of his city – Starling City for Oliver, Gotham for Bruce – by exercising elaborate hand to hand and weapons training rather than super powers of any kind. Green Arrow’s drive to cleanse his city of evil and crime feels very similar to Batman’s own crusade. The two heroes share the experience of using advanced technology, whether it is uniquely effective arrows or bat-shaped projectiles, combined with the training of an assassin (literally, in both cases).
On the metahuman side of things, Barry Allen’s origin is certainly different than Superman’s, but the result is the same – both heroes have abilities well beyond the normal man and must deal with what that means to them on a personal level. While super powers are mostly standard in the superhero genre (Green Arrow and Batman are somewhat the exception the rule) the way The Flash portrays Barry’s journey mirrors Superman lore in a lot of ways.
A constant motif of Superman’s characterization is the focus he has to give to studying and learning about his powers as a Kryptonian, and The Flash goes through the same thing as a speedster. The Flash goes through great effort to emphasize this part of Barry’s journey – much of the first season takes place in S.T.A.R. labs where Dr. Wells, Cisco, and Caitlin literally study The Flash in a scientific way. His arc in season one is to learn about and train his powers enough to achieve the ultimate goal of time travel.
In a similar way The Flash takes a lead from Smallville’s account of Superman’s character. In both shows the hero is constantly discovering new powers – Superman, of course, has an entire arsenal of unique abilities thanks to his alien heritage, while The Flash simply realizes new ways to apply his powers to greater effect. For both characters learning the extent of their abilities is not only their central journey as a superhero, but also their personal journey as a human. (Yes, I’m calling Superman a human. He’s close enough in character. Deal with it.)
A Signature Disposition
Green Arrow as a character and Arrow as a show have a distinctively dark, gritty worldview, a temperament traditionally associated with modern Batman stories. Both Arrow’s Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne seem to have a grasp of brooding beyond the realm of any other hero in fiction – especially when perched upon rooftops and skyscrapers. While Batman has been a sulking creature of the night ever since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight series, Oliver Queen was always much cheerier and willing to crack a joke or several – or at least he was in the comics. It is his incarnation in Arrow that really solidifies the parallels between the two characters’ identities.
Beyond just their brooding mannerisms the two characters share an obsession with their strict moral compasses. For Batman killing has always been a no-no, and he often becomes the den mother of not killing for a myriad of other DC heroes. But Oliver Queen is shown to come to this code later in his career. Even when, at the beginning of the series, Green Arrow is killing, it is because his moral code is such that killing is right. Once he decides killing is wrong (aligning himself more with Batman) it is still with the same unwavering passion that he first killed. This passion is what drives both Bruce and Oliver and shapes their characters in every aspect.
Superman has always been the most optimistic of DC’s heroes. He serves as a beacon of hope and possibility for the people of Metropolis (and the world), so it’s no surprise he is, as a hero and a man, usually the dispositional foil for Batman. In The Flash (especially compared to it’s sister show, Arrow) Barry holds this same role. Throughout the show he rattles off jokes and engages in chipper banter (especially with Cisco at his side).
In the same way, The Flash is a beacon of hope for Central City. Throughout the first season the citizens slowly begin to realize a super powered hero is saving the day more and more in their city, and they couldn’t be more excited. By the second season, the Central Citizens have organized a Flash Day to celebrate the good Barry has done. Compared to how Green Arrow is treated (as a criminal) throughout the majority of his series, The Flash is seen as a positive addition to his city, much like how Metropolis sees Superman.
For both The Flash and Green Arrow, their separate outlooks also effect what kind of emotional tension drives their narrative. For Arrow, the series is concerned with how Oliver tries to affect the world around him, to change his city for the better. This is the same relationship Batman holds with Gotham in all of his incarnations. For The Flash, the series is more concerned about how Barry comes to understand himself and the nature of his powers, how he can personally make a positive change in the world. Barry shares these hopes and concerns with Superman almost exactly.
Assassins and Metahumans
Arrow has stayed almost exclusively rooted in realism (to a degree that still allows superhero vigilantes) in regard to the abilities of its characters. Green Arrow’s power is rooted in training and technology, and the same is true of his villains. Arrow focuses a great deal on the struggle to quench organized crime in Starling City as well as the constant interference of a multitude of assassins, a plight Green Arrow shares with Batman. Beyond even having the same kind of bad guys, Arrow features a lot of, traditionally, Batman villains. Of note is Deadshot, an assassin, and Huntress, a vigilante, that both traditionally operate in Gotham City in the comics. Most notably, though, is the show’s inclusion of Ra’s Al Ghul, a villain deeply entrenched in Batman’s life (heck he’s the grandfather of Batman’s son).
While The Flash hasn’t depicted any villains strictly linked to Superman, the general pattern is that because The Flash has super powers, he will have bad guys who also have super powers (known as metahumans in DC canon). This distinction is not simply so that Barry has a worthy opponent, but rather that both characters are constantly concerned with the idea of having power and the complicated issues every individual must go through when they have these superhuman gifts. The Flash and Superman don’t simply fight people with powers, they fight the concept of power itself, and namely its ability to corrupt.
The Important Differences
It certainly seems like the people working on Arrow and The Flash are leaning into the similarities their lead heroes have to Batman and Superman, and this is generally to their benefit (Batman and Superman are popular for a reason). But it would be unfair to only focus on the similarities. Both shows indulge in evoking other heroes, but make sure to highlight the differences that make these series unique and worthwhile.
Oliver Queen has a sister, Thea, to whom Oliver devotes a great deal of his concern. Bruce Wayne is, importantly, an only child leaving him free to devote his life to his crusade. Arrow uses this difference as both an obstacle for Oliver in becoming Green Arrow and as a piece of his motivation. Throughout the show, Oliver spends a great deal of time rationalizing his choices and lying to his family. This not only creates drama for the show, but also gives Oliver a series of distinct characteristic differences from Batman.
Of course, physiology is the first notable difference between The Flash and Superman. But The Flash series does a lot of hard work to make Barry Allen’s personal beliefs and characteristics unique to him. Superman is famously known for a black and white morality where killing is concerned, and Barry tries holds himself to that same standard. But The Flash doesn’t have Barry spend time concerning himself with this at every moment; rather, he is more concerned with helping people directly than setting an example. Compared to Superman, The Flash technically has only one power, speed. The Speed Force allows him to do more than simply run fast, yes, but Barry is confronted with many more limitations than Superman. These limitations become the majority of how The Flash deals with conflict and the interpersonal relationships Barry holds dear.
Both series make themselves unique from other superhero media by exercising an understanding of both the similarities and the differences these characters have. Arrow and The Flash may never be able to show us Bruce Wayne in a cape and cowl or Clark Kent in tights, but they are already telling us stories that will feel familiar and satisfying to any Superman or Batman fan.