Multiverses have been real hot topic lately; especially gaining traction in the last decade. We got the Emmy Award-winning Rick and Morty offering a nihilistic interpretation of reality. We got the Oscar-winning Best Animated Picture Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse give us a slew of Spider-people jumping between dimensions. Plus, in the not-too-distant-future we’ve got Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness to look forward to.
Yes, it seems that this is something that is widely explored across franchises; appearing in everything from Ultraman to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Ghostbusters.
But today I’m going to tackle the momentous DC: Crisis on Infinite Earths – an ambitious crossover giving us a ton of cameos, call backs, and references to DC’s elusive live-action and animated history.
By the end of this post, I hope that you’ll appreciate the multiverse not only as a narrative device, but as a means of solidifying a franchise’s lore.
THE ORIGINS OF THE MULTIVERSE
I’m going to just make it clear I am not going to go deep into the metaphysical “Many Worlds Interpretation,” or anything related to string theory, parallel dimensions, or philosophy for this post – I’m looking at it squarely from a franchise perspective.
This first commercially fictional multiverse debuted in the fictional multiverse dates back back to 1961’s Flash of Two Worlds storyline. Looking back at comic book history, DC had the Golden Age and Silver Age. The Golden Age was built up of wartime heroes from the 30s and 40s, such as the original Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Wonder Woman, and Justice Society of America.
However, following WWII there was a shift in American culture. With a greater emphasis on family values, nationalism, and wholesome media the Comic Code Authority was established; paving the way for the Silver Age of Comics.
Now America had a fixation on the cold-war, space travel, and Science Fiction. With this, the Superheroe was now more about far out adventures than beating up (and often killing) Nazis, bank robbers, and bad guys. Many got reboots to their history to make them more palatable for this modern age.
For example, instead of Alan Scott becoming The Green Lantern from an ancient Chinese artefact, it was American pilot Hal Jordan who took the mantel from a stranded alien cop.
But it was only in 1961’s Flash of Two Worlds that these universes were established parallel to each other; with immense crossover potential – the multiverse had been established.
DC would often use this for major crossover events between the Justice League and Justice Society, the “Evil Doppelganger world of Earth 3,” and so on. As DC acquired other publications like Charlton Comics and Fawcett Comics, their characters would just exist on their own earths.
Eventually it all got very convoluted, and the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths mega-crossover featured all of their universes coming together to form Earth-Prime. Then Elseworlds stories continued, and writers had following events that re-established the multiverse outright … but believe me it was complicated stuff.
DC wasn’t the only one that did this. Marvel, although having a more streamlined continuity to begin with, had What If stories take place in separate universe, as well as other non-canonical works that took place in other timelines like Marvel 1602, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Marvel Zombies; to name a few.
The Multiverse proved immensely popular, and other franchises would follow suit. It was a great way to explore the longevity of a storyworld, poke fun at decade-specific jargon, and explore ideas without consequence. As a marketing tool, it helped cement DC’s dominance in the 80s, and better streamlined their continuity. Readers could look back at the decades-long history whilst looking forward to a new series of stories.
CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS – THE CW
I sort of found myself dipping in and out of the CW series. I’m not sure why, but it never appealed to me the way that, say, Marvel movies did – I think it has to do with age demographics. There was a real young teen soap-opera drama element which was good … just not me.
Regardless, I did tune in for Crisis on Infinite Earths, and based on the online responses and twitter hashtags, many others did as well. For the first time DC wasn’t ashamed to go back to their history.
With this storyline it was possible to establish anything and everything as DC canon. In no particular order, we got Batman 1966, Batman 1989, Smallville, Birds of Prey, a Kingdom Come-inspired Superman Returns, a Batman Beyond-inspired Kevin Conroy cameo, Doom Patrol, Swamp Thing, Lucifer, Titans, Black Lightning, the 1990s Flash, an upcoming Green Lantern series, the upcoming Stargirl series, and a DCEU appearance by Ezra Miller’s Flash – something Warner Bros was eager to get involved with.
Only criticism would be a lack of the 70s Wonder Woman, and Lois and Clark cameos – which is admittedly odd as the actors have been in other CW series within the same universe. My guess is WB didn’t want them overshadowing the upcoming Wonder Woman 84 or Superman spinoffs – just a theory mind you.
Either way, this was cool. It contextualised the decades-long history of DC’s franchises and even offered continuity and resolution for already established characters – like the Christopher Reeve/Brandon Routh Superman of Earth-96 and attack on the Daily Planet. It acknowledged a vast swathe of genres and history in a way that felt organic to the story.
In some ways, DC was more liberal with their media than Marvel’s been. Think about it, a CW series brought together all past DC media, including the current DC Extended Universe movies, into a single “continuity.”
One of the more impressive aspects was how it actually developed the stories of past series and movies. We got a satisfying conclusion to Smallville‘s Clark Kent giving up the Superman mantel. We saw what happened in the tragic aftermath following Superman Returns. But perhaps most poignant, as an homage to the original Crisis on Infinite Earths story, we saw the Flash of the 1990s TV series sacrifice himself three decades later – even reminiscing about Tina. In hindsight, it re-contextualises that entire series.
Yet I don’t believe Marvel movies have ever even acknowledged Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or The Defenders before; which exist within the same universe … really weird.
One of the issues I’ve always had with reboots is that it always feels like they refuse to acknowledge and celebrate what’s come before. This is most apparent with the movie industry in general. For a while, it looked like sequels were slowly being faded out in favour of reboots.
We got reboots of everything in the 2010s like Nightmare on Elm Street, Ghostbusters, Childs Play, Total Recall, Psycho, and The Mummy. From a business perspective it made sense; being able to capitalise off of a recognisable IP to attract audiences. But it soon turned into an eye-roll and the response was more-often-than-not about how the original was better anyway.
In comics, it was one of the major criticisms of DC’s New 52 as it made it feel like the decades-long history of the comics just didn’t matter. Character development no longer existed, and it became apparent that if you grew up liking something in the 90s or 2000s, it was irrelevant. Worse still, it alienated the older fans.
I think this is changing. Now there’s an active attempt to not only recreate a nostalgia but build on it. Crisis on Infinite Earths did this very well, even using the original or remixed themes for introducing their cameos. Sharp ears are likely to have picked out the John Williams’ 1978 Superman score, Danny Elfman’s Batman 1989 theme, Shirley Walker’s Batman: The Animated Series and Flash 1990 themes, and even a dramatic remix of the 1966 Batman theme.
It’s amazing to me how only a decade ago directors and studios did everything to separate the originals from the remakes – perhaps made most evident by the jarring tonal shifts between Man of Steel (2013) and the 70s Superman movies.
That said, it’s a bit weird how we have a tangential connection between the campy Batman of the 1960s and the “Do you bleed?” Batman of the 2010s.
There’s a lot to be said for adopting a “multiversal” story model. Both in comics, film, and TV it’s fun and interesting to explore different realities in ways that you couldn’t before. It allows storytellers to take bolder risks, maybe even killing off certain characters or doing something dramatic to the world. After all, you can’t easily have a zombie invasion in a main storyworld.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse proved that it was something audiences were ready for, and now we have a sequel in the works hinting at the surreal Japanese “Supaidaman.”
DC and Marvel are both continuing their Elseworld’s animated canon with Superman: Red Son and Marvel: What If …? Coming to DC Universe and Disney+ respectively.
But perhaps the most interesting is the current Black Label movies and comics being produced by DC. We’ve recently had Joker of all things nominated for 11 Oscars, featuring a more mature, gritty reinterpretation of the once campy clown prince of crime that probably wouldn’t fly in the main DC Universe.
Marvel may have a real challenge here. The MCU is currently on shaky grounds, introducing new characters, and slowly migrating to streaming services. But they have to maintain a Disney-family brand. They may find a struggle to compete with the arthouse experimentalism that DC’s grounded their reality in. Perhaps we’ll have to wait for Multiverse of Madness to really see how much they’re willing to risk the Marvel brand.
For now, this has been one Hell of a way to start the decade; and DC has a ton of opportunities to explore.