Becoming a Superhero is a process. A process that is fun to watch in fictional characters but one that is also evident in our real lives. The most facinating part for myself in the show “Arrow” is how the writers are able to explore and reveal this process. What does it take to become a superhero? We must go through the stages, just as Oliver does (and many other characters in Arrow do as well), moving from playboy, to broken, to surviving, to vigilante, to hero, to superhero.
Playboy to Broken – What does it take to transform from Playboy to Broken…it takes an impactful event. This step usually involves something that challenges your identity. It could be something simple, like getting turned down for a loan or losing your freedom to drive, or, it could be a huge trauma. I also think the strength of how much the impactful event shakes your world is directly proportional to how broken you become… which, in turn, is directly proportional to how hard it is to survive, how strong of a vigilante, and how impactful a hero you can become. If you go through brokenness in being turned down for a house loan you can recover and become a hero to someone else who has been turned down for a house loan…but you are not equipped to become a hero for a person who has returned from war (or something like that).
Oliver fell hard and far (so did Sarah) and he was broken on multiple different levels (physically, mentally, emotionally, financially). I think most of the first year on the island is him being broken (the shipwreck, him getting shot with an arrow by the Chinese man, discovering how nothing would be provided for him any longer, being captured, watching the Chinese man be killed, learning that most people did not have his interests in mind, and failing…a lot.) All of the events during his first year on the island (and even a few afterward) force him to reexamine who he is. The old Oliver has been broken, shattered into pieces.
People do not have to be broken however, they can choose to avoid this stage. They can ignore how events really affect them and just shut down…present themselves as “fine,”…insist they are ok…pretend they are not broken. Laurel is a good example of this. She doesn’t allow herself to BE broken and because of this she can’t move on. If she doesn’t allow herself to be broken she will never learn to survive, gain the skills and purpose of a vigilante, or become a hero. This happens in real life too. People ignore events that break them and because they never allow themselves to fall they can never rise up to become a hero. In real life I think this often shows itself through bitterness, entitlement, and resentment. Those, like Laurel, who ignore their brokenness just want to hear that they are fine and everything is ok…this is a dangerous place to be and an easy place for a villain to step in and feed on, or channel, the hostility and animosity. I think this is what happened to Moira (Oliver’s mom). I think she decided not to be broken. To pretend everything was fine, and as a result she was the perfect person for a villain like Malcom Merlin (more on this later) to step in and focus her resentment, entitlement, and desire to keep pretending everything was fine.
Broken to Surviving – This step requires a desire to recover (fight and flight), a willingness to do things you never thought of doing before, and the strength to reexamine everything…especially your understanding of good/bad, right/wrong, and your perception of others and yourself. This stage is a lot of work and not everyone wants to put forth that work/effort. If you allow yourself to be broken but cannot move into survival you will wither and fall completely apart.
For Oliver I think his first step here is the chicken/pheasant he has to kill in season one, episode 3…but I don’t think he really starts the “surviving phase” until the end of season 1 when he decides to go back to try to rescue the Chinese man…and into season 2 when he starts fighting himself. One could see this as a downfall for him (the first time he starts fighting/killing I mean) but I see it as a metaphor for the first time he starts trying, standing for something, fighting to survive rather than just tailing after Slade like a puppy dog.
People (myself included) learn a lot of things during the survival phase and not necessarily all of them are good. This phase is about surviving after all…surviving physically, mentally/intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, financially…it takes a lot of time, strength, and isreaction based. Those in the survival phase do not always think through their choices carefully…they tend to react. In this phase people are very unpredictable because they are just “reacting”…but this step is essential. We must learn to survive the traumas we face, develop (coping) skills, understand flight and fight, and learn to just be in our own skin.
Surviving to Vigilante – This is where Oliver is at in the flashbacks/memories in the middle/end of season 2. What does it take to become a vigilante? Training and Purpose. Purpose is what it really comes down to. To get out of the surviving phase people have a purpose, passion, dedication. They have to have find a “reason for it all,” something to live for, something to fight for. This could be anything. For Oliver it is “the list” and to “save the city.” It motivates and drives him to use his skills. It pushes him to do more than just survive. For Diggle it was helping his sister-in-law, and later reminding Oliver who he was. For Malcom Merlin it was “saving the city.” and for Slade I think it is (or will be) finding a cause/purpose for Shadow’s death.
Something interesting about the Vigilante stage is many people have the tendency to ignore it (not realize it exists) or criticize those in this stage. Everyone I have talked to so far about this “transition theory” has asked me right away why I include a “vigilante stage.”
I think this stage is essential! We want others to jump right into being heroes but in reality takes longer than that. The passion/purpose comes before being a hero, and a person in the vigilante stage does not always fight for their purpose in the right way…for example Oliver is very, very violent in the first season. He is fighting to “save the city” by killing off those on the list. He needs this tangible way to fight for his purpose, something he can check off. He needs to see that he is doing something “good” and making progress. The vigilante takes the law into his own hands to strive toward their purpose. They are purpose driven…but they are doing more than just surviving…they are fighting for a cause.
This is a very important stage because after a purpose if found, once a person is in the vigilante stage, what happens from here is what will determine whether they will become a villain or a hero. Heroes and villains both go through the same steps to this point. Both villains and heroes have usually be broken, learned to survive, and taken the law into their own hands to serve a “bigger purpose” (become a vigilante)…this is true for Oliver, Diggle, Malcom Merlin, Slade, Sarah…it’s what happens next that is key to whether they become hero or villain.
Vigilante to Hero (or Villain) – This is what Oliver is working on in the “present day parts” of the second half of season 2. To make the transition from Vigilante to Hero it takes time, sidekicks, processing, purpose, knowing you matter, and a group you can make a difference for/with. I also think it takes a willingness to use BOTH your vigilante side and your broken side. (this is what Oliver is doing in episode 12 with Roy…he’s using both parts of himself…Arrow and Oliver…his fighting skills and his compassion/love for others).
Those who become heroes do so because they are able to put their purpose (from the vigilante stage) into an “other minded focus.” In other words, while they are vigilantes they are “purpose driven” but the hero is “other driven.” The hero has a purpose with an other minded focus.
Oliver makes this transition with Roy…he starts seeing how love is one of his powers, how he can control and use his memories from the island, and how killing is not the answer…helping others is. Those who become villains instead stay purpose driven and are self-focused…this leads to their purpose becoming one of revenge, disconnectedness, and violence that is self-centered in contrast to the hero who’s purpose is molded to become other minded and carried out both with a balance of fighting and compassion.
If a person doesn’t reach the hero stage I think it is usually due to lack of sidekicks and an inability to use the broken part of their past. If a vigilante remains isolated (without sidekicks, equals who are there to help them) it is easy for them to begin thinking their way is the only way…and this leads to a self-focus. Diggle knew this and he joined up with Oliver for this vary reason. A vigilante can also get stuck in thinking that their past/trauma has ruined everything. This leads to an attitude of vengeance instead of a mindset that learns to use past events as a tool to reach others and “save the city.”
We see this with Oliver, Diggle, Sarah, Malcom, and Slade. Malcom and Slade (as far as we know) become “villains” because they have become self focused. Both of them went through the broken, surviving, and vigilante stages just like Oliver (in fact Slade’s experience was pretty similar) but they were unable to turn their vigilante focus into an “other mindset.” In contrast, Diggle has clearly been able to do this. He is probably the only character who starts the show in the hero stage. He has already taken his purpose from his vigilante stage (to avenge his brother’s death, rid the world of this type of evil) and turned it outward to others…he starts helping his sister-in-law, and then Oliver and Felicity…and so on.
Oliver on the other hand is still working on this stage…and Diggle knows it. It is clear from Diggle’s comments that he can see right from the beginning that Oliver will have to be pushed to see the “other,” pushed to have an “other focused mindset” to truly become a hero…and this is what Diggle does with Oliver all the time (except when he is working on his own superhero issues that is).
Hero to Superhero – Well we haven’t seen this stage yet in the show but I’d say what it takes comes from a comment I made a while back… “The process of becoming a hero is very complex and requires more than just one person. To become a superhero takes something beyond heroism. To be a superhero everything has to come together with just the right balance of right and wrong, self-reliance and dependence, fight and flight, reality and dreams.”
Practically, meaning in real life, I think this means being a hero in multiple areas of your life…i.e. we can be at the playboy, broken, surviving, or vigilante stage in many different aspects of life like family, friends, individual relationships, our health, our house, job, financial status, spiritually…ect. When we are broken in a certain area we then have the potential to become heroes in that area…when we are broken in multiple areas we have the potential to become heroes in all of those areas… if we do become heroes in multiple different areas of life, we are superheroes.
Diggle is working on this. He has been a hero right from the beginning of the show…purpose driven (to avenge his brother’s death, rid the world of this type of evil) but other focused (do this purpose through helping others)…however when he is face to face with Deadshot (the guy who killed his brother) he is back in survival/vigilante stage.
As for Oliver, it is clear that he is becoming a hero in his physical aspects…i.e. saving the city through helping others. However, he is not a hero at all with his realtionships, family, or job. This is what I hope for for Oliver (and myself…and the show) that he can become a hero not only in fighting for his city, but with his family, with his friends, with his relationships, in his job, with his money…ect. That would make him a superhero.
The genius of this show and this theory is that it shows how we can be at different levels all the time. Oliver is becoming a hero in one area of his life but is still just surviving in other areas (i.e. family issues) and is a vigilante in some areas (financially…he uses money for his purpose but not for heroic reasons) and he is not even broken in other areas (I would say that Oliver has not yet been broken in relationships…he still treats his romantic relationships very much like a playboy…in an out, always changing, no risk of being hurt). It would be really neat to see them develop his character to be a hero in all of these areas…but I’m not in charge of the show so we’ll just have to wait and see. 🙂