The CW’s ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’ Puts a Gen X Headlock on Superhero TV

Never again let Gen Xers tell you they are underserved, culture-wise. Sunday night’s TV slate proves they ain’t. That evening features not just one hour of a series derived from a transformational superhero comic book of the 1980s—Watchmen, on HBO—but two. Because Sunday is also the beginning of the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths.

On TV, Crisis will be a five-hour crossover from what’s generally called the Arrowverse. Arrow was the font, a show about the DC Comics hero Green Arrow, from which spewed The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. Also in the ‘verse are Supergirl, which started on CBS and switched to Arrow’s home on the CW, as well as Batwoman and Black Lightning. As in the comics, superheroes live in multiple separate universes but can visit each other in times of great need, like when ratings are down or during a holiday hiatus.

It’s a lot to process, right? So was the original comic. Stan Lee and his fellow creators at Marvel Comics rightly get a lot of credit for squeezing all their books into a shared narrative space. But the pioneer was the 1961 book “The Flash of Two Worlds,” when the speedster hero Flash met his Golden-Age antecedent, who had not been “cancelled” so much as “was living in another universe.” Team-ups are cool—that’s what books like Justice League or Avengers are for, getting more kraka-thoom for your buck. But the storytelling implication of “Two Worlds” and the subsequent annual crossovers between 1940s heroes on Earth-2 and present day heroes on Earth-1 is both awesome and terrifying: Those entire canons take place in a giant multiverse—one giant story with a nominally plausible continuity.

By the 1980s DC Comics’ bosses feared that their internal continuity had grown multifariously opaque to new readers. Multiple versions of heroes were having adventures in multiple timelines on multiple Earths. (We are on Earth Prime, by the way—a world with, if you can believe it, no costumed vigilante superheroes except in so-called “comic books.”) Heroes from other companies that DC had acquired, like Captain Marvel from Fawcett, lived in their own universes. The accumulated story cruft of four decades slowed the whole endeavor down, like barnacles on a hull.

So popular DC writer Marv Wolfman pitched a way to clean it all up. Over years, a bad guy would destroy most of these alternate comic universes, and after lots of big fights, the rest would merge into one single universe, one storyline, with one new past and present. Some characters—notably Flash and Supergirl—would die. Others would have their origins and backstories retroactively changed in continuity, or retconned. “The idea was, this gigantic story was going to be considered as one gigantic story, not as 40 different stories with an overlapping setting, and the big story was going to change drastically,” says the comics historian and critic Douglas Wolk. “And it kind of did. Crisis became an inflection point in this enormous story that had been going on for decades and decades that was supposed to simplify everything. Of course it actually complicated everything.”

Subsequent writers played their usual game of Exquisite Corpse, adding to or revising the new rules. Multiple universes came back, dropped away, came back again. Other, later crises—Final Crisis, Infinite Crisis—got even weirder and more cris-tastic.

But narrative aside, along with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns (and to a somewhat lesser extent the Marvel crossover Secret Wars), Crisis was one of the late-1980s books that changed comic book storytelling. Crisis was the first “maxiseries,” a year-long series that pulled in nearly every ongoing title from DC Comics. That’s good for sales, and its popularity made complicated crossover events into regular occurrences—with greater or lesser consequences for the Big Story, and for the business around it.

Crisis even affected Watchmen. One of the universes that got integrated into the new mainline DC continuity included characters and stories from a company called Charlton, including the nuclear-powered Captain Atom and the blank-faced Randian vigilante The Question (created by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko). But at roughly the same time Crisis was publishing, Moore was pitching DC on using those characters in a sort of superhero apotheosis called “Who Killed the Peacemaker?” It was darker than the Batcave during a power outage, and would’ve left lots of those characters dead or damaged. But DC wanted to keep using them, so the company nixed it. Moore retrenched: Captain Atom became Doctor Manhattan, the Question became Rorschach, and the book became Watchmen.

Clearly superproducer Greg Berlanti and writer Marc Guggenheim, teenagers at the time Crisis came out, cared about all this. Their Arrowverse now occupies a significant number of hours on the CW’s program grid, pulling stories from all across DC spacetime. And like our own universe, the wider Berlantiverse is expanding. Titans and Doom Patrol are on the streaming service DC Universe—based on DC books but, confusingly, outside Arrowverse continuity. Next year, TV will add Berlanti shows with Superman, Stargirl, and Green Lantern. (Berlanti also produced the Green Lantern movie with Ryan Reynolds and like a zillion other TV shows.)

The Arrowverse is a cheerier place, by and large, than DC’s cinematic universe—even if its Green Arrow did a couple of seasons telling bad guys “you have failed this city” and then shooting them in the face with a green arrow. But the story space is also, seven years after Arrow premiered, a little long in the tooth and a little overcomplicated—much like the DC Universe of 1981. The TV Crisis may serve to clean some of that up just as the comics Crisis did, but not before it muddies things even further.

In addition to crossing over existing Arrowverse shows, the TV crisis will absorb a bunch of other universes by featuring actors playing their characters from long-gone DC-based shows like Smallville and Birds of Prey. Brandon Routh, who plays the Atom on Legends of Tomorrow, will also reprise the role of Superman (he played Supes in the movie Superman Returns). Tyler Hoechlin already plays a Supes on Supergirl—they’re cousins—but Routh will be playing a Superman who might be the Superman Returns Superman but is also based on one from a whole different beloved event comic book, a dark futuristic version of DC called Kingdom Come. That comic’s version of old-man Batman will be played by Kevin Conroy, a voice actor who has played Batman in multiple cartoons. The Flash TV show, which has also crossed into multiple universes on its own, will offer up a recurring older-Flash character played by John Wesley Shipp, who played the Flash in the 1990 TV series, and will also be in Crisis.

The story probably won’t adhere exactly to the yearlong comic series. “Is Supergirl going to die in this one? Probably not, but there’s one guy who’s contract is up and who’s show is going to be cancelled, so you know how to get rid of that guy,” says Marc Bernardin, a comics and TV writer who’ll be part of a CW aftershow for the thing. (Cancelled guy is the aforementioned Green Arrow.) “Knowing the people behind it and knowing the reverence they have for the source material, if they don’t make you cry, they will have failed this city,” Bernardin says.

Berlantiverse ratings suggest that these shows have viewers who love them for what they evoke, or love them passionately for themselves—fun heroics with diverse casts, what’s not to like? But this many years in, it’s hard to imagine they’re attracting casual, new audiences. Crisis can simplify the stories and expose them to new viewers, much like the original comic. It’s funny, and a little crazy, that Crisis will do that at roughly the same moment that Watchmen is redefining the meaning of superheroes—just like that comics did in the 1980s. “The mainline comics would break your heart, but Watchmen blew your mind,” Bernardin says. Four decades later, it looks like that’s still the plan.

Updated to clarify that not all the upcoming DC comics-based shows will necessarily be Arrowverse shows.

More Great WIRED Stories

Read More