Prometheus: A Study in Villainy
Note: This piece originally appeared on SoggzBlogs.com
A show like Arrow is fundamentally designed for different audiences than any other show on television – coming before its Arrowverse counterparts, it had the luxury of picking its niche. The Flash has its roots in nerd-dom and comic book storyline that fuse with a soap opera relationship vibe. Legends of Tomorrow is a fun ensemble show where you can watch a single standalone episode and enjoy it. Supergirl is a fresh, pleasant escape.
But Arrow attempts to satisfy the most difficult demographic – the generic superhero fan. The fan that can range from a die-hard comic book consumer to a middling cinematic admirer to a casual action aficionado. These are the same group of fans that are uniquely split on the primary love story, the same ones that argued the merits of the villains while also somehow agreeing on the need for a better protagonist arc. And this season, it’s that second point of debate that turned from just that – a debate – to acclaim. after 1.5 to 2 (depending on which of those fans you ask) lackluster to mediocre seasons, the consensus is that the show has offered up a contender for its best season yet.
Prometheus – the throwing-star killer – serves as this season’s big bad, a villain that on the surface seems to hold no more or no less appeal than Ra’s Al Ghul or Damien Darhk, the respective final bosses for Seasons 3 and 4. In terms of history, he’s somewhere in the middle of Ra’s famed comic track record (including a headlining villain role in Batman Begins and an upcoming appearance in Gotham) and Damien Darhk’s relative obscurity. With respect to ability, he’s once again right in the middle, his shurikens likely more than a match for Ra’s’ fighting prowess and Darhk’s magic. But it’s not like executive producer Marc Guggenheim just struck gold with this actor or his ability – Prometheus serves as an example that when the show defines the character, it creates a far superior product than when the character defines the show.
Think of all the great villains in movie and TV history – Vader. Moriarty. The Joker. Even Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. Throw in Loki since we need a Marvel representative (we see you sitting on that damn chair, Thanos). Every one of these characters, if written slightly differently, could have been antiheroes. But the way they are, they’re a little bit more ‘anti’ than ‘hero’ and it’s because they’ve managed to follow this archetype to a t.
Through the 23-episode gauntlet, the curtain is slowly drawn back on Prometheus. Shrouded – literally, with his scary black garb – in mystery from his first extended appearance a fifth of the way in, more is gradually revealed about him all the way through ‘til the end. He isn’t dragged out for public consumption from the beginning, a la Darth Maul, nor does he end his arc by remaining an unknown quantity. From the explanation of his name (a reference to challenging the Gods), to his literal unmasking – which the show doesn’t play around with, considering Prometheus’ identity is revealed to Arrow not too long after it’s revealed to the audience – to the final control of his own destiny, Prometheus maintains a firm grip on how the protagonist and the audience see him.
Prometheus was truly formidable, but more importantly he was consistently formidable. Damien Darhk’s totem powers were flexible dependent on the plot, and his organization H.I.V.E. would conveniently ‘go to ground’ when Team Arrow needed a few episodes to recoup. Ra’s could seemingly ‘kill’ Oliver effortlessly halfway through his season, but was killed just as easily in the finale with his weapon of choice (a sword, as opposed to Arrow’s… arrows) and hundreds of years’ more experience. It was one of the defining marks of the Jason Bourne franchise – Bourne was so much better than everybody else, and they never strayed from that. It stands in stark contrast to the Flash’s powers – where the show changes the rules to fit whatever villain they’re fighting, letting the character define the show. Prometheus was never solely a physical adversary, but one strengthened by motivation, something that can’t be said of the previous two.
Many writer make a genuine effort to make villains ‘relatable’, but end up conflating that term with ‘vulnerable’. We don’t need to see that the bad guy can be defeated until he’s actually defeated, because then he stops being bad. He goes from Agent Smith from The Matrix to Agent Smith from The Matrix: Reloaded, where they just copy him a hundred times, effectively making him faceless. While Prometheus doesn’t get a win every episode, the losses he takes avoid uncovering any true weaknesses that he’s had. The true standard of relatability is when you can see the character’s point of view and think, ‘yeah, I could go for that’ – akin to Khan from Star Trek: Into Darkness. By not overplaying the dead-father cliché, coupled with his connection to Arrow’s fundamental premise (Prometheus is to ‘You have failed this city’ as Game of Thrones’ Petyr Baelish is to the death of Jon Arryn), the show is able to cultivate relatability without making him seem like ‘just one of us’.
None of these elements had anything to do with the plot, or the character’s actions, or even his dialogue, but how he was portrayed thematically throughout. His character was developed on a level akin to that of a hero’s, perhaps more so than Oliver himself. Which was necessary, because pure, unadulterated evil is at its core somewhat boring. It’s a good thing that Prometheus – and Arrow – didn’t stoop to such a level.
Welcome back, kid.