Nerd Processor

The DC Superhero TV Shows Are About to Trump Marvel’s Movies

How ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths,’ one of the most important comic crossover events ever, will work on TV

AAvengers: Endgame and the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Infinity Saga” may have gotten all the attention this year (and definitely earned all the money), but there’s another live-action superhero mega-event happening this December. It’s the annual crossover of The CW network’s stable of DC Comics series. The heroes of Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, and more will join forces this December to put one of comics’ most important and revered stories on-screen, creating an event that even Marvel, for all its billions, hasn’t pulled off.

To understand this achievement, you need to understand the original Crisis on Infinite Earths comics. Back in 1985, the DC universe — home to Batman, Superman, and more — was a mess. You know how the Marvel movies, despite the recent time travel shenanigans in Avengers: Endgame, have essentially told a single story with a unified continuity? DC Comics was doing the exact opposite. There were different continuities of characters existing simultaneously, some heroes had multiple origins that had never been addressed, and there were 50 years of different histories and different Earths that accumulated into one giant mess.

The original Crisis was created to reset the DC universe, leaving one world with a unified history and a comprehensible version of each character. DC Comics risked a lot by cleaning its muddy slate and wiping out decades of beloved continuity, regardless of how contradictory the revised stories were. It allowed new fans to start reading DC’s comics without being completely lost. While both Marvel and DC have “reset” their continuities many times since, also in hopes of attracting new readers, back in 1985 there was absolutely no comic event like it.

It’s going to accomplish something that the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t.

The “Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event happening on The CW isn’t even the first crossover event for what’s generally known as the “Arrowverse.” Various combinations of Green Arrow, the Flash, Supergirl, and the Legends were thrown together for “Invasion!” in the 2016–17 TV season, followed by “Crisis on Earth-X” and its fight against a universe of Nazi doppelgangers of the heroes the following year. Last season, there was Elseworlds, which served as a sort of prologue to the TV version of Crisis on Infinite Earths, as the cosmic entity the Monitor tested the various stars of the shows to see if they would be ready for this year’s upcoming threat.

But that doesn’t mean this Crisis won’t be special in its own right. In fact, I’m astounded by what the Arrowverse is about to accomplish, whether by design or by happy accident… or both. Because in a certain way, it’s going to accomplish something that the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t.

If that sounds bananas to you, I fully understand, but bear with me. First, there are more similarities between the MCU and the Arrowverse than you might realize. Iron Man debuted in 2008, and Arrow, the franchise’s inaugural series, premiered in 2012, meaning both universes have some longevity. Like the original glimpse of Thanos in the first Avengers movie, the titular Crisis has been teased for years, when The Flash’s first season showcased a news headline from the future prophesying “Flash Missing: Vanishes in Crisis.” (The event was originally due in 2024 instead of 2019, but the Flash and his pals get up to a great deal of timeline-altering shenanigans.)

The reason Crisis was first mentioned on the Flash is because he was the most famous DC hero to die in the Crisis on Infinite Earths comic series, meaning fan investment in the TV version was set from the get-go. However in last year’s Elseworlds TV miniseries, the Green Arrow made a deal with the Monitor to die in the Flash’s place during the Crisis to come — and this also happens to be Arrow’s final season. With the franchise’s first star (and anchor of the entire fictional universe) slated to die, and its second star still scheduled to mysteriously go missing, there are some significant emotional stakes here, just as the original comics had.

The Arrowverse certainly doesn’t have a half-century of stories it needs to untangle and streamline, but it is currently in a bit of a mess, which is where things get interesting. Arrow brought the Flash into being with a classic backdoor pilot, and Legends of Tomorrow grew out of both. The upcoming Batwoman series, starring Ruby Rose, is also set in the same main universe, (a.k.a. Earth-1). However, because it originally premiered on CBS, Supergirl is set on an entirely different world (Earth-38) than those four shows, requiring some very comic-book silliness for her, Green Arrow, and the Flash to hang out, though they’ve still managed to do a lot of it. Finally, there’s the Black Lightning series, which pointedly wasn’t made part of the Arrowverse, and declared to be as wholly separate from the other shows as, say, the Marvel movie universe is.

This TV multiverse might have come about organically, but it’s given the franchise a very, very cool power that Marvel lacks: the ability to link modern superhero entertainment to its past.

The most likely event in the TV version of Crisis would be for Greg Berlanti, the showrunner and one of the main architects of all these series, to consolidate these separate shows’ continuities into one, just as the comic Crisis did. That feels like a major development, regardless of how often Supergirl has now crossed into the world of Green Arrow and the Flash, and vice versa. Bringing Black Lightning into the fold to fight alongside these heroes would be an even bigger deal (although there are not a lot of characters in the current Arrowverse that would suit the Black Lightning series and its more sophisticated storytelling, especially about race and family).

This TV multiverse might have come about organically, but it’s given the franchise a very, very cool power than Marvel lacks: the ability to link modern superhero entertainment to its past. The Arrowverse has made some incredible connections to DC Comics’ robust history of movies and shows prior to 2010. You can call them Easter Eggs if you want, but that’s not giving them nearly enough credit. John Wesley Shipp, star of the original ’90s Flash TV series, was an original character in the new Flash, this time as main character Barry Allen’s father… but he’s also showed up as a Flash from another world, wearing his ’90s costume. Lynda Carter appeared as the president in Supergirl, an appropriately powerful role for the woman who iconically played Wonder Woman on TV in the ’70s. A recent favorite of mine is Jon Cryer’s casting as Superman’s ultimate foe Lex Luthor, also for Supergirl; one of Cryer’s earliest roles was as Lex’s moronic nephew Lennie in the generally atrocious movie Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. And those are just three of many examples.

Crisis on Infinite Earths will connect DC’s live-action history in even more astounding ways. Superman has guest-starred on Supergirl many times, played by Teen Wolf’s Tyler Hoechlin, but he’s going to have some company. Brandon Routh, the star of 2006’s Superman Returns, has played the Arrowverse’s version of the DC hero the Atom for years — and yet the actor will also put on his Superman outfit back on to play a different universe’s version of the Man of Steel. Additionally, the reasonably beloved 2001–11 series Smallville will effectively join the Arrowverse, as star Tom Welling will play a third Superman (which should be especially satisfying for fans of Smallville, given the few shots of Welling in the suit were, uh, lacking).

By giving up — or being forced to give up — Marvel’s wildly popular, constantly aped single universe, it created multiple universes for the shows’ fans to get invested in.

And yet the most surprising and stunning connection the TV Crisis will make is to a cartoon. Calling Batman: The Animated Series a fan-favorite is a wild understatement; for many, the show, and the title role, voiced by Kevin Conroy, is the definitive take on the Dark Knight. It was so popular it helped Superman and multiple Justice League cartoons get made, creating its own long-running and beloved continuity. It also spawned a sequel series, Batman Beyond, set in a future where an elderly Bruce Wayne takes a new ward who dons the Batsuit to protect Gotham City. In Crisis on Infinite Earths, Conroy will play another universe’s aged Bruce Wayne, making his live-action debut as the character he mastered for so long. Frankly, it’s genius.

And only the Arrowverse could have pulled this off. By giving up — or being forced to give up — Marvel’s wildly popular, constantly aped single universe, it created multiple universes for the shows’ fans to get invested in. This gave the franchise the freedom to help tie all these other beloved DC adaptations to itself, creating a mega-continuity spanning decades of content, taking fan service to hitherto unknown levels. And by connecting all these different worlds, the multiverse it has created has real meaning, giving the event enormous power and gravity — power and gravity worthy of the epic story that inspired it.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was something wholly unique when it was published in 1985. TV’s Crisis on Infinite Earths will do something equally new and audacious when it airs on The CW this December. Because even though Marvel’s movies can put its entire live-action universe of characters onscreen at the same time, only the Arrowverse has the power to bring entire universes of characters together. And on a TV budget to boot.

The former editor of io9.com, Rob Bricken has been a professional nerd since 2001. He also often cries at children's cartoons.

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