Given the monumental success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is sometimes difficult to imagine that DC (or any other superhero universe, really) could do something that simply eludes Marvel’s grasp. The House of Ideas seems to have done everything, from aping the styles of spy thrillers and space operas to incorporating horror elements and time travel into the shared universe that has become their trademark in the last decade and change. In the last few weeks, though, The CW’s “Arrowverse” – the interconnected universe that links the network’s family of superhero shows – is doing something that only DC could manage: "Crisis on Infinite Earths."
Of course, we don’t mean literally Crisis itself. It goes without saying that only DC could adapt a DC story. Rather, the content of “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” and the way it interacts with DC’s history and with the fandom are something that are unique.
For anybody who doesn’t yet know, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” is this year’s Arrowverse crossover. In the five-part storyline, which will run through episodes of Batwoman, Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, LaMonica Garrett’s character of The Monitor will return. Introduced during last year’s “Elseworlds” crossover, The Monitor is a nearly omniscient cosmic being, and he came around last year with bad news: a crisis is coming that he himself cannot stop. He has recruited Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell, Arrow), Barry Allen (Grant Gustin, The Flash), and who knows who else at this point to help him take on the Anti-Monitor (also played by Garrett), essentially The Monitor’s evil twin on a cosmic, genocidal scale.
The story in the comics was used to get rid of DC’s multiverse, which writer Marv Wolfman (side note: he is co-writing the Arrow episode of the crossover this year) believed was being misused at the time and dragging down stories. The infinite universes of DC’s multiverse were combined into a single timeline with a shared history, including the first incorporation of characters like Captain Marvel (Shazam) and the Charlton Comics characters (Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, etc.) – properties DC had bought form other publishers and had previously kept in their own universes. Along the way, there were a number of notable deaths from DC’s stable of character – but far and away the most notable were The Flash and Supergirl.
The Flash’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths has been a long-dangling plot thread in the Arrowverse. The Flash’s pilot introduced the idea five years ago via a newspaper headline that suggested The Flash would vanish in 2024. Last year, The Flash’s daughter Nora (Jessica Parker Kennedy) traveled back in time to try to stop it, telling Barry that she grew up without a father because once he vanished he never reappeared. During the “Elseworlds” crossover, Oliver peeked inside of the Book of Destiny and learned that Barry and Kara were going to die in the Crisis, and confronted The Monitor, offering himself and his services up to save his friends. And something – it is not clear whether it is something Oliver did, something Nora did, or something either the Monitor or Anti-Monitor put into action – accelerated the events of Crisis so that now, Barry is supposed to vanish this winter.
Now, on The Flash we hear that Barry is doomed to die in "Crisis," while in Arrow we have been told it’s Oliver who will go. But even with the fates of two title leads hanging in the balance, the big thing that “Crisis” has been generating buzz about – and the thing that Marvel is currently not able to reproduce – is its cast.
In addition to dozens of actors from the Arrowverse shows, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” will bring Cress Williams’s Black Lightning to the Arrowverse. The only DC show that doesn’t film in Vancouver, Black Lightning has thus far been kept out of the annual crossover events. This season, that will end, and Jefferson Pierce will (if set photos are to be believed) meet with Barry Allen and two Supermen (Tyler Hoechlin from Supergirl and Brandon Routh from Superman Returns) on the bridge of the Waverider.
Routh’s Superman was never a part of the Arrowverse – in fact, it didn’t exist at the time. Superman Returns hit theaters in 2006, when Smallville was still on the air and Arrow wasn’t even a concept yet. While the movie is divisive, most fans now will accept that it was underrated at the time and that Routh’s performance is strong, hampered as he is by a mediocre script and a filmmaker who was determined to set his film in the world of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie rather than creating a new thing.
The arrival of Routh’s Superman – wearing the costume Superman debuted in the comic book Kingdom Come – marks the first time an actor who portrayed a big-screen, A-list superhero, reprised the role for the small screen. His Man of Steel will have to share the screen – and the title of Superman – with not just Hoechlin’s Superman but also Clark Kent as portrayed by Smallville’s Tom Welling.
Welling, of course, is the great white whale of the Arrowverse. Fans have begged for him to return as Superman since Arrow began, with some fans being upset that the show itself wasn’t a spinoff from Smallville starring Justin Hartley as Oliver. And while Hartley won’t be making an appearance, Erica Durance – the Lois to Welling’s Clark – will have what sounds like a pretty meaty role.
And the list goes on. Burt Ward will appear, likely tying the Crisis to the world of the 1966 Batman TV series. Ashley Scott will reprise her role from the short-lived Birds of Prey series, complete with bringing her own wardrobe that she actually wore on that show. Elements of Tim Burton’s Batman and the DC/Netflix collaboration Lucifer have been rumored to play a role, and John Wesley Shipp – the original version of The Flash from TV – will return as his version of Barry Allen again, repeating something he did in “Elseworlds.”
It’s this – the generations’ worth of heroes with their own distinct continuities, being brought together by a single, epic story – that could only happen here. Only DC could do this. Sure, Marvel has previous takes on Spider-Man and Captain America out there – and, hell, Sony even toyed with something similar with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – but the idea of bringing back actors with whom the audience already have a deep, emotional connection, reprising roles from years or decades ago, is something that really only works at DC. Prior to Blade, almost all of Marvel’s movie and TV projects were disappointments. Even those that weren’t, lacked the cultural cache of the Donner Superman movies or the Burton Batman.
At some point, both of those properties were considered the greatest comic book movie ever made – a title that the MCU has still yet to wrest from The Dark Knight and Logan in the wider discourse – and so the idea of having them appear in the Crisis, no matter how tangentially (the word is Robert Wuhl’s Alexander Knox will pop up, and of course Brandon Routh’s Superman is technically an extension of Reeve’s), inevitably makes the project feel epic. The idea of two generations of The Flash sharing the screen is nothing new, but having them do so alongside the multiple Supermen and at least one Bruce Wayne – Kevin Conroy from Batman: The Animated Series, no less! – feels exponentially bigger.
The episodic nature of TV also plays into this, and the fact that DC has had such a long history of success on the small screen. Yes, it’s exciting to see Routh’s Superman back and to imply a relationship to the Burtonverse – but nothing has compared to the enthusiasm fans have expressed when Smallville became part of the conversation. The amount of time audiences invest in television more closely approximates comics than anything that has happened on the big screen before the MCU – and even in the case of the MCU, it’s basically one long, ongoing story – whereas the Arrowverse has several long-running, interconnected stories weaving in and out of one another, but standing alone in a way that no single franchise of the MCU can without losing the “oomph” of Endgame.
The success of DC’s films – which stretch back forty years in the modern era and have a lot of emotional connection to the target audience – combined with the success of their small screen efforts over the last two decades and beyond make for an irresistible combination for "Crisis." It’s one that Marvel would struggle to replicate – but that’s not a slam on Marvel. There’s really nothing quite like what DC has, and the Crisis is utilizing a lot of it.
All of this plays into DC’s historical use of the multiverse in comics. While Marvel and other science-fiction properties have used it (and, again, it’s hard to knock what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did with the idea), DC has always used the multiverse differently than almost anyone. Multiple iterations of their superheroes are a big part of DC’s DNA and while in the post-Crisis era of the comics that became a discussion about legacy, in the pre-Crisis age it was almost always heroes from different Earths.5comments
That plays into the bigger reason that the Arrowverse is special: its shepherds. Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim have long been vocal fans of DC Comics, and as the Arrowverse has been developed, they have taken pains to bring in other producers and writers who have love for and understanding of the DC Universe, too. A non-stop parade of cameos would not be as special if that’s all it was; a functional understanding of what makes those cameos so special, what fans want to see, and how to make it all work as a story is something that Guggenheim and Berlanti bring to the table in a way that few others can do. Much has been made of the fact that DC’s film side has struggled from not having its own Kevin Feige – somebody who “gets” both the characters he is working with and the media in which he is working. Zack Snyder has strong technical skills as a filmmaker, but all of the heroes were viewed through his unique prism, whereas when Geoff Johns was briefly in charge, his understanding of the characters was unquestioned, but in terms of film...well…!
Could DC have done this without Berlanti and Guggenheim? Perhaps, but without those two, the Arrowverse would be a wildly different place to begin with…and maybe not one that would accommodate an idea as wild and ambitious as “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” After all, we got 40 years of DC movies and a decade-long, character-rich Smallville series before we ever got this deep into things. That makes it feel like "Crisis on Infinite Earths" is -- a bit like Avengers: Endgame -- a unique moment that is the culmination of years of storytelling. The difference is that the bits that build to "Crisis" were never meant to do so, and the idea of weaving them together after the fact and creating something exciting and enticing is a hell of a thing.