From its premiere episode, The CW’s DC Comics-inspired drama “Arrow” has been building up the heroes and villains of Starling City. And behind the scenes helping along the whole while has been DC CCO Geoff Johns.
After pitching in on the early development stages of the show that follows the early years of Oliver Queen before he embraces his Green Arrow persona in full, Johns contributed the script for one episode earlier this year. And tonight, the writer returns to pen “Dead To Rights” — a lynchpin episode that brings back many faces from the DC Universe while advancing one of “Arrow’s” biggest plotlines. While Oliver’s mother Moira plots to kill her rival Malcolm Merlyn with the help of Triad agent China White and the assassin Deadshot, Oliver and Malcolm’s son Tommy Merlyn continue to have conflicts of their own.
CBR News spoke with Johns about the episode and his role on the series as a whole. Below, the writer tells why the collaboration afforded by “Dead To Rights” made it a must for his writing schedule, what the Merlyn family drama means for the show’s villains moving forward, how he views his role as CCO in regards to DC’s TV adaptations and more.
CBR News: Last time I spoke to Marc Guggenheim about this show, he told a familar story regarding DC Entertainment projects right now where you were there at the start giving tips on how to add some DC drama to the proceedings early on. As the show has continued, how have you worked the opportunities to keep writing for “Arrow”? Is this just a matter of doing an episode when your comics schedule opens up?
Geoff Johns: It’s kind of all of that, but it’s also that with this particular episode, [executive producer] Greg Berlanti gave me a call and said, “There’s an episode coming up that Glen Winter is going to direct.” Glen is the guy I worked with on the Legion of Super-Heroes and Justice Society episodes of “Smallville.” I love working with him, and I always wanted to work with Glen again. So as soon as I knew Glen was on board when my schedule had a tiny opening, I took the time to say, “Yeah, that’d be fantastic to work with him again.” It’s like collaborating with my favorite artists like Gary Frank or Ivan Reis. This opportunity does not come around often, and for where the series was at, the episode seemed like an exciting one to tackle because of all the story stuff to accomplish. So the opportunity to work with Glen sealed it.
And also working with Andrew [Kreisberg] and Marc is great. The writer’s room they put together is amazing. They’re creatively open to everything, and they have a vision and direction for this show. It’s a pleasure to be in an ego-free environment like that because it’s very rare.
It was surprising to see what was on tap for the episode because Deadshot reappears here, and at the end of the first episode he was in, I thought, “Did they just kill Deadshot already?” You get to flesh out his character beyond a one-off assassin and also give China White a meatier role for the first time. Was part of your focus to bring those characters from the comics to life on TV?
Having Deadshot return from day one was the plan. When that script came in, the thought was that Deadshot can be injured, he can be hurt, but he’s still alive. He’s too important a character. Then when the final cut came in, he looked very dead. [Laughs] But we said, “We’ll figure out a way to make this work, because he is coming back.” So you will see a little bit more of Deadshot here, and China White is still a bit more in the background, though she does have a bigger role.
But this episode if it’s about anybody, it’s about Oliver and Tommy. And it’s about Tommy’s relationship with his father Malcolm. It’s a focus on those two characters and getting deeper into those characters’ history and their future. For me, that’s the best part of the episode. It’s super fun to write Deadshot and China White, but it’s really all about Oliver and Tommy.
With your “Smallville” episodes, you were very much writing the characters you introduced close to their comic book counterparts. But the dynamic between Tommy and Malcolm has been a very different take on Merlyn. What’s it been like writing these versions of the characters, and how does it change what you think of the Green Arrow/Merlyn relationship?
With Merlyn, I love the Merlyn in the comic books, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of history behind him beyond the fact that he’s a member of the League of Assassins. But there are some revelations in this episode that will shed some more light on the Merlyn family and their connection to all of that. I don’t think it’ll play out like everybody thinks just yet. There are a lot of surprises in the episodes ahead as far as Tommy and his father go. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it might be closer to the comics than you think.
People always compare this show’s tone to the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, and the producers really seem to embrace that right down to casting “The Dark Knight’s” Chin Han for a few episodes including tonight’s. How have you been working to keep that grounded tone in an episode full of explosions and action and supervillains?
Clearly, what Andrew, Greg and Marc are going for is a much more grounded take on “Arrow.” It’s a different universe. It’s a deadly universe. It’s dramatic, but there’s still a lot of fun in there. I think Felicity Smoak is a lot of fun. But those influences from the Nolan-verse are obviously there, and with this Green Arrow, the reason I really respond to him as a character is because he’s different than he is in the comic books. He starts in a much darker place. I think his mission is a very selfish one right now. I think with Oliver, he sees himself has having gone from the self-involved, rich, silver spoon brat into this vigilante. But I think he’s still very much self-involved. As you see him break out of that, we’ll find him growing into the Green Arrow we know and love.
I also get the feeling that there’s more of the dashing Green Arrow DNA in the character whenever Stephen Amell’s Oliver gives some kind of snarky reply to the other characters.
Sure. And he needs some place to grow. Oliver Queen just can’t come back and be the perfect Green Arrow. That’s part of the reason why the show is called “Arrow.” He still has to earn that title much like Clark did in “Smallville.”
Like I said at the start, whenever I talk about DC adaptations with some of the writers whether it be Marc on “Arrow” or Greg Weisman on “Young Justice,” they always get to a point where they say, “Geoff Johns was in the room and he suggested this.” What’s your overall goal as CCO when it comes to bringing the whole DCU to these projects?
Well, with Greg Weisman we were talking about “Young Justice” Season 2 and there were these stories in there about aliens that they had. For me, I wanted to tie that all back into Blue Beetle. I said, “Let’s put this character into the forefront. You guys have all these great ideas.” For me, that goal is to always get character-centric and use as many toys from the box as we can in the proper way. Greg Weisman had this huge universe and all these ideas, and I said, “All this stuff can tie right back into Blue Beetle. It can make him the lightning rod for this storyline.” Those are the kinds of conversations we have.
On “Arrow,” it was a questions of “We want something the island to trigger people’s imaginations when we first see the show.” Talking to [pilot director] David Nutter and those guys, I said, “What if we put Deathstroke’s mask on a pike. Right away, it’s this bizarre warning sign. There’s an arrow through the eye he doesn’t have, and suddenly there’s a whole story that you wonder about for everyone to explore.”
So my job is just to go in there and have fun, but the credit goes to everyone. I’m just there as a sounding board. I throw my two-cents in, and if they can run with it that’s cool. My goal is to just be a resource and a partner.
“Arrow’s” “Dead To Rights” episode airs tonight at 8:00 Eastern and Pacific on The CW.