NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for Arrow Season 5
You don't need to travel to a fan event or convention to know that comic book enthusiasts are a devoted bunch, since the attraction to a favorite hero, villain, team, or publisher has carried over entirely to the world of TV superheroes. It was The CW's Arrow that kicked off the current onslaught of comic-based programming, taking a grounded approach closer to the ultra-successful Batman films of Christopher Nolan than Smallville had years earlier. And it wasn't just Oliver Queen that stole the hearts of fans, but his right hand woman, Dinah Laurel Lance - otherwise known as the famous Black Canary.
Since it was an origin story for Oliver, audiences knew they would need to wait to see Laurel take her own path to heroism, hopefully showing the kind of power and authority that made Canary a one-time leader of the Justice League, not to mention the one person counted on to put Green Arrow in his place. Unfortunately, fans got a different tale: a version of the Black Canary played by Laurel's sister, followed by a seriously troubled attempt by Laurel to take up her mantle, and eventually having any chance at romance erased by the showrunners' preference for a fan-favorite 'ship'.
The final chapter in Laurel's story came when Arrow's writers saw fit to kill Black Canary, and unlike her sister (and Oliver's sister, and Oliver himself) she actually stayed dead... aside from a recent fake-out involving her Earth 2 doppelganger. Things are looking up for Canary fans, as a brand new Black Canary has joined the cast - this time based on 'Dinah Drake,' the version of the heroine currently cracking skulls and shattering eardrums in DC's New 52 Universe. Yet fans are rightfully uneasy, since it seems Arrow's writers are expecting them to accept a replacement so soon, and simply move on.
As much as we hate to point out problems when it's too late to fix them, the similarities are too obvious to ignore. As such, w have no choice but to point out that if the Arrow storytellers really wanted to bring the rougher, tougher, New 52 Black Canary into the Arrowverse, they didn't need to kill Laurel to do it. In fact, with so many of parts of Dinah Drake's New 52 origin shared with those of Laurel Lance, it's hard to believe they didn't just give this story to her in the first place.
The Happy Ending - and The Tragedy
In The Comics
Black Canary has undergone a few origin stories in DC's history, but the Arrow version most closely resembles that of Dinah Laurel Lance, the second one. The original, Dinah's mother, Dinah (the confusion is DC's fault, not ours) brings with her a legacy element too big for one show, and her New 52 origin begins with Dinah Drake growing up as an orphan in Gotham City. But as a sign of how much the many versions of Canary influenced Arrow's, it was Dinah Drake, the original introduced in 1947, who was the daughter of a police officer determined to follow him onto the GCPD - until she's rejected.
What happens next is varied, but one common note among the Canary origins is the loss of the man in their life. For the original Dinah Drake, it's her father's death that leads her to follow his mission of a war on crime as a vigilante. In fact, Dinah would also lose her husband, Larry Lance, leaving her to raise her daughter, Dinah Laurel Lance, by herself. The New 52 version of Black Canary combines Dinah, the first, and Dinah Laurel, her daughter, into one story. She too loses her husband Kurt, meaning happiness once again followed by loss that calcifies Canary's resolve. It's a hallmark moment in the heroine's formation - and in the show, it almost was.
In The Show
The pieces for a similar arc were obviously what shaped Laurel's early story, but her love affair with Tommy Merlyn was undercut by the on-again, off-again romantic drama with Oliver Queen (a clear case of angst-ridden CW romance taking a toll on the strength of Laurel's own story). In the end, she did find happiness with Tommy before his untimely death, but instead of focusing squarely on that loss as a defining moment for Laurel, the move to blame 'The Hood', drop Laurel into addiction, and rage at basically everyone around her stalled any larger momentum (intentionally, in the best case).
If the goal was to forge Laurel's loss into a new mission, or bring the desire to make a difference like her father into the forefront, it may have fit with her comics counterpart. But again, Oliver's insistence on getting Laurel back to who she had been became a hurdle to growth. We're not interested in blaming the show's writers for what story they told, but trying to point out the story that could have, and likely should have begun following Tommy's death. Especially if the end result was hoped to be a Black Canary with the edge of the New 52 (now being added to the cast to fill Laurel's absence).
The Search For a New Identity
In The Comics
Since it's usually at this point that a superhero or vigilante comic actually begins, the model set by DC is to be expected. Dinah had once hoped to become a police officer like her father - a goal he supported, and was shaken when she failed to join the force. When her father died, she was determined to be the hero he had been in her eyes, and the rest was history. In the case of the second Black Canary, Dinah's daughter, her childhood was spent surrounded by the heroes her mother worked alongside. Swapping war stories with the original Flash and Green Lantern had the girl, understandably, eager to become a hero of her own.
But that wasn't a life Dinah wanted for her daughter, since it came with dangers (including those that had killed her husband). In the comics, Dinah's next step makes sense: being raised to defend and protect the innocent by risking her own life in one story, and growing up idolizing the men and women who did it in the other, her step into adulthood, or self-realization, came in the form of an obvious choice. In the first case, it was a trauma she chose to embrace, and from which she found a way to build something positive. In the second, it was continuing her family tradition.
In The Show
There's no two ways about it: the decision to introduce Sara Lance as the first Canary surprised fans, and offered a compelling puzzle piece in Oliver's backstory - but no one's story suffered more as a result than Laurel's. We give the writers credit for the genuinely original take on the heroine's origin, having Laurel struggle and flounder before adopting her dead sister's name and mission. And that's not, in itself, a problematic element. But it turned out to be the one corner they truly backed themselves into, since it framed Laurel's 'new' identity as mimicry, not empowerment or a chosen course of action. The attempt to still somehow make it new for Laurel was evident in the use of 'Canary/Black Canary', but it was still an irrevocable break from comic book canon.
The original Canary of the comics followed in her father's footsteps, the second was raised in the presence of heroes, and continued her family legacy. Both of those ideas could have been highlighted in Laurel's own arc, and her pursuit of justice as an attorney showed a similar idea at work. But in Arrow, it's hard to think of a loved one or mentor who didn't stand in Laurel's way, citing an active role in protecting the city as 'too dangerous' for her, and ultimately framing her decision to take up the Canary identity as a foolish, reckless, and unhealthy death wish. She wasn't moving forward, but spinning out of control (and in defense of the show, she actually was).
That premise could have still worked, if Laurel wound up proving them all wrong. But the show anchored the character shift in a troubled mental state, in clear denial of her pain and anger, and all exhibiting an actual death wish. In other words: the characters who loved Laurel saw becoming a hero as a bad idea, and told her - and the show itself was on their side. Laurel pushed on, but did so in defiance of the show's own idea of accomplished heroes, relegating Laurel to a background role that didn't allow for her own development to seem legitimate, let alone a realization of her true destiny.
To put it another way, her decision to 'become Black Canary' wasn't her way out of grief, but another expression of it.
In The Comics
Knowing that her loved ones disapproved of her career choice too much to actually train her, Dinah sought help in secret (stop us when this starts sounding familiar) from another costumed vigilante: Ted Grant, also known as Wildcat. He showed her the ropes, and combined with her famous Canary Cry, she was ready to take on evildoers, lacking only experience, not drive or motivation. In the oldest version, Dinah didn't need much training, since she had already prepared herself for the rigors of joining the police force. The New 52 version was even fiercer, having been taken in by a former Special Forces sensei who allowed her to live, and instruct, at his dojo.
The Black Canary may not have the superstrength needed to take down alien beasts, but her role and eventual leadership of the Justice Society of America didn't depend on brute strength alone. Not only that, but she was comfortable where other heroes weren't. We somehow doubt that the aloof billionaire Oliver Queen would be as effective as a bouncer - Dinah's occupation in the New 52 - tossing grown men out of nightclubs without cracking her unconcerned smirk. She doesn't even need to split their eardrums to get an advantage (but she can).
In The Show
Here, we arrive at the most perplexing chapter of Arrow's version of Dinah Laurel Lance's journey. It seems simple, right? With so-called heroes doubting her, have Laurel undergo the same training as the comics, and prove that being a hero doesn't depend on archery skills, muscle mass, or gender - just determination. The show even introduced a version of Wildcat to train her. Yet Sara Lance had already been established as an impossibly skilled fighter, honed to the same level as Oliver Queen by the League of Assassins... and Laurel was no Sara. It didn't matter how hard Laurel trained, or what weapons she chose... the show still mad it clear that on her own, she just couldn't cut it as a vigilante.
It was a point driven home each episode, with Laurel's boxing or martial arts skills taught by Ted Grant nowhere to be seen. While it's true that every Arrow hero takes punches with regularity, Laurel was often seen in need of help, typically in service of Oliver - reminding viewers that he was above all others in skill, and so heroic he would even keep his allies from harm. Discussing the other reasons why Laurel was rarely shown even close to a non-bow-wielding hero is a conversation not worth having, so we'll state it simply: had Laurel Lance trained as hard as it seemed she did, and been able to bring that expected level of fighting skill onto the streets of Starling City, her story would have changed significantly.
Had she not been throttled in terms of threat level or combat skills, she could have risen closer to Oliver as an accomplished vigilante - as she ALWAYS is in a DC story. And in proving Oliver wrong, and showing that she was just as capable of turning her pain into power as... well, literally all of the show's other characters (seriously, it's weird), Laurel could have become something great. She could have become, to the delight of DC fans, something far more than just 'Laurel Lance'...
The New 52 Black Canary is Born
There's no need to actually give a comic book breakdown for comparison, now that Dinah Drake (played by Juliana Harkavy) has entered Arrow. In essence, the version of the character audiences saw ending bar brawls in seconds, strapping those who wronged her to chairs, and letting her Canary Cry fly at will is as close to the New 52 version of Black Canary as fans could expect. Down to the leather jacket (but excepting the blonde hair) Dinah is DC's modern Canary: strong, unapologetic, confident, nonchalant, capable of her abilities, and driven to hurt people who deserve a beating.
Pick up an issue of Batgirl and the Birds of Prey or Green Arrow today, and you might think you've selected a CW crossover story, with Black Canary packing both the punch and pluck to give Oliver Queen a piece of her mind (and little sympathy for those who do evil). She may lack a bow and arrow or half-decade of island survival skills, but Dinah's history as a police officer trained her all the same. And when in doubt, a quick, disorienting blast of her Canary Cry gives the moments needed for her to get the upper hand.
And while she may have been traumatized by the death of her lover, Oliver never once considered dismissing his abilities or mettle once he witness it for himself, and instead showed her a clearer path forward. He showed her that she may be able to channel that anger and power towards something bigger than just herself.
As the final scene between Ollie and Dinah played out, we couldn't help but ask one glaringly obvious question: "Why wasn't this the exact conclusion of Laurel Lance's story?" In many-- no, all ways, Dinah Drake exhibits the same drive, anger, skills, training, and even the same chemistry with Oliver that Laurel Lance should, by all accounts, have had by the end of her own journey. In some stories, the decision to kill off one version of a character to introduce a newer, more compelling version can make sense... but in this case, it's hard to see what was gained by killing Laurel Lance and starting over, instead of handing her this heroic partnership role, pleasing fans and the needs of the story all at once.
It's bad enough that Harkavy's Dinah is, in no uncertain terms, everything that DC fans wanted Laurel Lance to be (or that, as this breakdown shows, the pieces of story to get her there were present all along). But Oliver flat-out stating that Dinah Drake - a damaged, duty-bound, angry, fearless, and resilient woman - is his "second chance" at a Black Canary partner reads as far more than just the character's evaluation. All evidence shows that it's the writers of Arrow admitting the very same thing.
A Black Canary that is everything fans could hope for may bring about renewed optimism for the future of Arrow, and another chance at the great love affair the two heroes made so iconic (look out Felicity). It's just a shame that instead of righting the wrongs of the show's first attempt, and granting these strengths to the hero fans wanted to believe Laurel Lance was becoming all along, they... you know... killed her.