The CW viewers received the message quite clear following the supersoldiers of Arrow Season 2: for the time being, the show’s inclusion of ‘superpowers’ was going to be put aside in favor of a more… grounded story. The shift made sense, since the Batman Begins-esque treatment of Arrow always seemed to rule out the more outlandish of DC Comics’ characters – while The Flash TV series was designed to give those same figures a home in the shared universe.
Understandably, questions were raised when the producers announced that for Arrow Season 3, they would be adding Ray Palmer – DC Comics’ shrinking hero, The Atom – to be played by Superman Returns star Brandon Routh. Initially introduced as merely a brilliant businessman, Arrow‘s shocking mid-season finale revealed his plans certainly do involve a ‘super-suit,’ and a mission of his very own.
Given our assumption that Ray Palmer will play a larger role in the show in the coming weeks, and that The Atom isn’t known for much more than his superpower by casual comic fans, it’s worthwhile to offer some details about the comic hero both in and out of his superhero identity.
The Arrow writers have already shown how their version will differ from DC’s classic Atom, but as is already becoming clear with The Flash‘s twist on Firestorm, it pays to know the source material these writers are drawing from.
The Origin Story
The origin story crafted for Ray Palmer a.k.a. The Atom by writers Gardner Fox and Julius Schwartz and artist Gil Kane is what comic fans would expect from the average Silver Age hero (and basically any other). The brilliant physicist and then-graduate student Palmer was investigating the notion of matter compression, when (fortuitously) he stumbled across “a fragment of a white dwarf star,” a highly condensed piece of cosmic matter.
In a classic bit of Silver Age science, Palmer ground the matter into a lens in hopes of unlocking a white dwarf’s ability to condense matter without corrupting it. When ultraviolet light was shone through the lens, inanimate objects could be shrunk down – only to explode moments later. But when forced to use the lens in an emergency, Palmer discovered that he could shrink into a miniature version of himself, and back, without serious injury.
The following decades sent Palmer up against a variety of small-scale aliens or troublemakers, even uncovering the unknown societies that exist at a subatomic level right here on our own planet. His exploits may now seem more ‘silly’ than ‘spectacular,’ but it was his intellect and dedication to bettering mankind through scientific discovery that earned him a place on the Justice League – and has been a key player in several universe-altering crises.
Defined more by his altruistic tendencies and knowledge of theoretical physics than a desire to play hero, Ray Palmer’s comic book history has been marked as much by emotional trauma as iconic villains. Besides bringing updates to the cause and use of his shrinking abilities, the passage of time has seen Ray hand the mantle of The Atom to multiple people, and come to the rescue of DC’s greatest icons on numerous occasions.
As a moral compass, a genius academic – and yes, a ‘Mighty Mite’ – Ray Palmer has shown, time and again, that when it comes to fighting supervillains, “size isn’t matter.”
The Show’s Version
From that cursory introduction to The Atom, it’s clear to see how much of Ray Palmer’s spirit was adopted for Arrow‘s version. Though the character was introduced as a rival (both professional and romantic) to Oliver Queen, the writers acted fast to convince viewers that despite his humor and fast-talking speeches – and frequent “B-T-W’s” – Ray Palmer was a good man. A massive ego, certainly; but well-meaning.
Yet it also didn’t take long for the writers to show that there was more to Palmer than initially assumed. After taking control of Queen Consolidated (now Palmer Technologies) and unveiling his plan to revitalize and rebrand ‘Star City,’ Palmer devoted time and resources into uncovering files that the company’s former management wanted erased. Specifically, what appeared to be heavy weapons manufactured under the title of ‘O.M.A.C.’.
The viewership erupted in theories and speculation as to Palmer’s real intentions for the company, but a divide was soon established between those suspecting that Arrow Season 3 had found its secret antagonist, and those too fond of The Atom character to believe that the writers would turn one of the more endearing of DC’s heroes into a villain (especially since the role of ‘secretly sinister CEO’ had been played in the series so recently).
Routh’s own comments seemed to imply that his character would be donning yet another iconic uniform in the show’s future, but warned that shrinking – the character’s single most iconic feature from the comics – might not be a the direction taken for this incarnation:
Arrow is very grounded in reality, so nobody really has any powers. That is a challenging thing, to have you bring a character like the Atom in, with his trademark thing being that he shrinks… But just because he’s not shrinking doesn’t mean that he might not be doing something else, or be involved in some other kind of superhero-y way.
The reveal that Palmer was assembling plans for a mechanized suit of armor didn’t clarify just how he intended to put it to use, but his growing relationship with Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) soon helped clarify. After losing the love of his life to Starling City’s… unique brand of criminals, he was determined to fight back (with more than just his imposing physique).
The QC weapons project previously entitled O.M.A.C. (likely a reference to DC’s ‘One Man Army Corps’ supersoldier, created by Jack Kirby) had been repurposed by Palmer. With the weapons seemingly removed – according to the schematics revealed to Felicity, his desired partner – the suit has been re-imagined by the enthusiastic do-gooder as the A.T.O.M. Exosuit (Advanced Technology Operating Mechanism).
So, where does the link between an A.T.O.M. suit of armor connect to the comic book version of The Atom? For that, viewers will have to recall the ‘business’ dinner attended by Ray and Felicity, in which the pair convinced a mine owner to hand ownership over to the company (for the no doubt charitable and humanitarian uses it would be put toward). But in a private phone call, Palmer revealed what he was really after in the mines: “dwarf star alloy.”
Considering just how strongly the show’s producers have ruled out shrinking in the near future, it’s likely that the alloy is simply required for its density (and as a wink to the fans). A super-strong suit of armor with which to tackle street crime is certainly grounds for a typical comic book hero, but if that really is all the producers have planned, fans of The Atom will need to prepare themselves for a letdown.
Since The Atom’s ‘superpower’ is tied to his technology more than his own genetics, the exact features and abilities are tied to the suit, not the man. Originally allowing the trauma of shrinking to be equalized across his entire body – thus avoiding an explosion – the many reboots, reincarnations or updates to the character have led to several suits in existence at once.
Generally, it’s Palmer’s belt and gloves that hold the key to unlocking the white dwarf’s shrinking properties, able to be triggered with a physical (and later, mental) command. But as the mainstream comic reader’s understanding of physics expanded, so did the explanation for Palmer’s powers. Unfortunately, it gets extra-dimensional in a way that Arrow almost certainly will not. However, the A.T.O.M. Exosuit may not be as large a departure as it may seem.
For those who may not know, a white dwarf star is composed of matter that has had its electrons stripped (electrons are what force atoms apart; remove them, and the density skyrockets). The result is a star with the mass of our own sun, but the size of our planet. Take that and add a drop of ‘pocket dimension’ technology, and The Atom is capable of modifying his own size, mass, and density at will.
Take a man dedicated to the martial art of Judo (which literally means “gentle way”) and give him the ability to put all his weight into a single punch or kick, and you have one lethal combatant – and a way to silence those who think ‘a guy who shrinks’ is more of a punchline than a crimefighter. Palmer is also able to lighten his own mass at any size, becoming small enough to travel through phone lines, or light enough to effectively ‘fly’ using air currents.
Those fantastic abilities may not be possible in the grounded fiction of Arrow (for now, at least), but Routh’s version being depicted as the non-violent, but supremely dedicated and physically strong A.T.O.M. are well within the realm of possibility. And his real strength when it comes to the Justice League The CW is forming on television won’t require him to shrink to the atomic level.
What The Future Holds
Even if The Flash has teased the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” comic event, it seems best to assume that The CW won’t be rushing to adapt the biggest and boldest stories just yet. Even so, the crossover success thus far proves that a shared superhero universe on TV is possible – and could be augmented by even more Arrow/Flash spinoffs. Frankly, it seems odd to cast an actor as familiar to the comic book audience as Brandon Routh if there’s no intention of keeping him around in some capacity.
For all the similarities between Oliver Queen and Bruce Wayne pointed out during Arrow‘s first season, he’s far from the tactician and problem-solver that makes Batman relevant alongside genuine metahumans. The Arrow/Flash crossover showed that experience can prove valuable, but so far it seems that the brains of the pair’s operation lies squarely at their respective bases of operation: Felicity in the ‘Arrow Cave’ and the remnants of S.T.A.R. Labs.
If there’s any plan to introduce an intelligent, calculating crimefighter to the mix, then Ray Palmer seems the most obvious solution (and recent castings have hinted that he could soon take more of the show’s spotlight). That being said, it’s also possible that Ray could offer his expertise to Barry Allen, Ronnie Raymond, Dr. Harrison Wells or Dr. Martin Stein without actually being present.
That, too, would seem something of a waste. Then again, the producers are clearly playing the long game with establishing a TV universe of DC Comics heroes. And a return for a well-received character – perhaps with some new, physics-defying abilities – is always a possibility. We just hope he gets to put that A.T.O.M. suit to work before then.
Those are the story elements, powers, and traditional role played by Ray Palmer a.k.a. The Atom in the comics, and it remains to be seen how closely the writers stick, whether in the short or long run. If you have any questions or theories, be sure to raise them in the comments and we’ll do our best to shed light wherever possible.
Arrow returns to air on Wedenesday, January 21 @8pm on The CW.
Follow me on Twitter @andrew_dyce for updates on The Flash as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.