Supergirl 5×09/Batwoman 1×09/The Flash 6×09: CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS (Parts 1 – 3) review
I don’t know that there’s ever been a television event quite like Crisis on Infinite Earths.
TV crossovers are nothing new, and DC superheroes have been in on the game from the beginning, ever since George Reeves, star of The Adventures of Superman, appeared on I Love Lucy, playing Superman. Since then, TV crossovers have gotten bigger, more elaborate, more concerned with building a consistent universe, and each December the Arrowverse has been at the front of the pack, taking the TV crossover in ever more ambitious directions.
But through it all, such crossovers have usually been structured like conventional television stories. Sometimes each episode will function as a typical episode of the series it’s a part of, just with some guest stars from another show. Other times, crossovers will have two shows mesh so thoroughly together, you won’t be able to tell which one you’re watching unless you check the credits. But even in those cases, the plotting and story structure will still follow the beats you’d expect from an episode of television.
Take Crisis on Earth-X as an example. At the time, that was a crossover of unprecedented scope: a single story, told across four episodes of four different shows, their casts mingling together throughout the event. Yet, by keeping the Nazi invasion plot simple, and by only choosing two characters from each series to receive major roles (with the rest acting as supporting players), it was able to tell a relatively uncluttered story that followed the major rules of conventional storytelling: foreshadowing, three act structure, conservation of detail, etc. The scope and ambition of the event was remarkable, but its narrative was very traditional.
That ain’t the case for Crisis on Infinite Earths. By the conventional rules of storytelling, this thing is an ungainly mess.
Characters established as important early on will disappear without explanation, or be killed in an offhand manner. New characters will appear halfway through the story and instantly be of great importance . . . until they, too, die or disappear. Epic struggles to save the world get put on hold so a bunch of low stakes sidequests can happen. Random scenes will occur on random worlds and never get referenced again. Pretty much everything a screenwriting instructor would tell you not to do, these episodes do do.
There’s no better example of that than the death of Earth-90’s Barry Allen. That character hasn’t been seen since the Elseworlds crossover last year, and even that was little more than a cameo. And before then he hadn’t been seen at all since the 1990 Flash TV series went off the air, almost thirty years ago. Now, when he returns, he doesn’t appear until halfway through Part 3, yet within a few scenes he usurps Earth-1 Barry’s role as the Flash who must die. This guy, who wasn’t even a part of the story till just now, is suddenly the one performing the big heroic sacrifice that’s supposed to make all of us at home teary eyed.
In any conventional episode of television, this scene would be an insufferable cheat, a violation of all the rules that make a good story. Yet . . . it works! Almost all the random, indulgent, seemingly pointless scenes in Crisis on Infinite Earths? They work, because this is not a conventional episode of television, and it’s not playing by the conventional rules.
The television story that comes closest to what Crisis is doing isn’t one of the crossovers that’s come before, or any other attempts at creating a massive, end-of-all-worlds epic. No, what comes closest is, of all things, The Simpsons.
While The Simpsons began as a straightforward (if unusually crude, and crudely animated) family sitcom, it quickly developed a different form of storytelling. Rather than focusing squarely on the concerns of the Simpson family, episodes would explore events that affected the entire fictional town of Springfield. When the town legalized gambling, we didn’t just see how the Simpsons themselves were affected by it, but how dozens of Springfieldians responded, from gamblers to casino magnates to entertainers to kids turned away at the casino door. Their stories would be told through a bunch of short scenes, some only a few seconds long, that contributed nothing to the plot of the episode. Those scenes could be removed and the story would still chug along just fine . . . but those scenes often contained the episode’s best jokes and most potent satire. Removing them would remove the episode’s soul.
That’s what Crisis on Infinite Earths reminds me of. Its aims may be more dramatic than comedic, but it too is interested in exploring how its story affects, not just its main cast, but the lives of dozens of different characters, each with their own little story to tell.
Clark and Lois send their only son away on an escape pod. Lex Luthor goes on a Superman killing spree. John Constantine has a chat with Lucifer. Black Lightning meets the heroes of another Earth. Sara meets an alternate-future Oliver. Kate meets an alternate future Batman. Brandon Routh’s Superman meets Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman. Tom Welling’s Clark Kent gets an epilogue to his story. John Wesley Shipp’s Barry Allen gives his life to save the universe. And Burt Ward’s Robin cries out, “Holy crimson skies of death!”
Few of those scenes needed to be here. Some of them are entirely tangential to the plot. Others are mere distractions or detours: temporary problems that prolong and complicate the story, but quickly become irrelevant. You could remove those scenes, make this story about 50% shorter, 80% less expensive, and immeasurably tidier.
But that wouldn’t be Crisis on Infinite Earths. If you pared the cast down to just a few important characters and removed all the pointless distractions from the main plot . . . well, all you’d have is yet another crossover adventure, like we’ve gotten from the Arrowverse every December for the last five years. That’s not what Crisis on Infinite Earths is meant to be.
This isn’t just a story about Oliver Queen, Kate Kane, Barry Allen, and a few other heroes coming together to save the day. It’s not even just about all the characters who have appeared on their respective shows. It’s about every character who has ever appeared, on film or television, that was based on a DC Comic. As much as time, budget, and actor availability allow, Crisis touches on every property that it can, showing an entire multiverse of DC characters responding to this greatest of all Crises. From the iconic film version of Superman, first portrayed by Christopher Reeve, to Ashley Scott’s Huntress from the all-but-forgotten Birds of Prey TV show: each is given their moment.
The plotting may be a mess, but the plot isn’t what’s important here. The Anti-Monitor, the Book of Destiny, the Quantum Tower, the Paragons: they’re merely the framework on which these wild tangents are built. It’s where those tangents take us, exploring characters we know and characters we may never have seen before, touching down in world after world, crazy scenario after crazy scenario, that the real beauty of this story lies.
This is not a conventional episode of television. This is a kid grabbing every toy they have, heading out to the sandbox, and playing out every fanciful scenario they can think of before their parents call them in for supper. And if you’re adapting the biggest crossover in comic book history, to create the biggest crossover in TV history . . . I’d say there’s no better spirit to do it in.
Normally, this is where I’d list a small number of “Stray Observations”, things from the episode I felt like mentioning that didn’t fit into the main body of the review. But since my review was all about how these little stray moments are what’s really important, that label didn’t quite seem appropriate.
So instead, let’s call this section . . .
HIGHLIGHTS OF A CRISIS:
“The buff guy on the paper towel rolls.”
The appearance of Tom Welling as Clark Kent, after he played the character for ten seasons on Smallville, was one of the most hyped aspects of this crossover. Incorporating a character like this, whose fanbase at least rivals, if not exceeds, that of the property he’s guest starring in, is tricky. Since it’s not his show anymore, and since they could only get him for a brief appearance, obviously he can’t take over and be the big hero who saves the day. But shortchange him too much, and you risk pissing off the people who were so happy to see him again after eight years.
Speaking as someone who watched most of Smallville and had a love/hate relationship with it, I thought this guest spot was pulled off beautifully.
For the Clark of that show, whose powers were always seen as something of a curse, having him end his journey as a normal, non-superpowered guy, working on his farm with a loving wife and two daughters? That’s about the happiest ending he could ask for. As a bonus, taking his powers away explains why he’s not more involved in battling the Anti-Monitor.
Yet that loss of powers isn’t used to make him seem weak or useless compared to the newer heroes. Just the opposite. When Lex Luthor arrives, ready to kill Superman, he finds only ordinary farmer Clark Kent: immune to Kryptonite, bored by Lex’s rantings, and uninterested in the godlike power that Lex can’t fathom anyone not craving. Even with the Book of Destiny in his hands, Lex still retreats, frustrated and humiliated, thwarted by Clark’s simple refusal to play his game. Clark defeats Lex by being more mature than him, and that’s maybe the most perfect note any Superman could go out on.
“What is it you desire?”
In contrast to my long history with Smallville, I have never seen the TV series Lucifer. Taking the comic book series Lucifer and turning it into a police procedural seems like a parody of bad comic book adaptations, like that kid-friendly Watchmen cartoon.
But if Tom Ellis’s brief scene here was meant to entice people into watching his show, well, I think it might work! Guy’s got charisma oozing out of him, if nothing else.
Also, the notion of John Constantine trading favors with the Satan of a parallel universe (Earth-666, no less) as part of his colorful and barely explored backstory . . . that is just *(chef’s kiss)*.
“Keep riding the lightning, son.”
I mentioned above how Earth-90 Barry’s big sacrifice was, by conventional storytelling standards, a horrible idea. And, certainly, it makes Earth-1 Barry’s angst so far this season kinda pointless. But that’s from the point of view that this was Episode 5×09 of The Flash (2014). For legal reasons, that’s technically what this episode was, but if you view the scene as instead being the series finale that The Flash (1990) never got, it’s one hell of a note to go out on.
“Any preference on how you’d like to die?”
When they bring back some or all of the destroyed universes (‘cause, c’mon, y’know they gotta) I hope Earth-74 and its Waverider get brought back, too, complete with Mick’s hammock, drum kit, and beer bottles cluttering it up.
I’m not sure which interpretation I love more: that Snart’s Earth-74 doppelganger just happens to be a computer program, or that Earth-74 Mick somehow reprogrammed the ship’s A.I. to emulate his dead friend. Either way, hearing Wentworth Miller calmly inform everyone, “Alert: Earth-1 is gone”, that just made my day.
“You looked like you could use a drinking buddy.”
The Arrowverse producers haven’t been shy about how they’re building Kate & Kara’s friendship to act as a replacement for Barry & Oliver’s dynamic during crossovers. But I like how they’re not just carbon copying it. With Barry & Oliver, they always took great pains to point out how different these two are. With Kate & Kara, the differences between the two are so obvious, their interactions instead focus on their similarities, and it creates a surprisingly sweet and pleasant bond between them. Kara giving Kate a picture of her with grown-up, non-crazypants Beth was maybe the most heartwarming moment of the whole week.
That said, I am sad to lose Oliver’s petty, competitive reactions to other superheroes. Him trying to assert dominance and puff out his chest (literally) during these crossovers was always a comedic highlight.
“Never thought I’d say this, but I’m tired of killing Superman.”
Best. Lex Luthor. Ever.
Okay, I’ll admit, I’ve only ever read a tiny fraction of the comics that Lex Luthor has appeared in (though I doubt there’s anyone who’s read them all), but of screen adaptations, I can’t think of any who have done the character better.
Gene Hackman’s Luthor was fun and campy, but always seemed more like a two-bit hustler than a proper foil for the Man of Steel. Michael Rosembaum’s Luthor had a lot of pathos, complexity, and (at times) ice cold ruthlessness, but could never quite make the transition from soap opera villain to supervillain. Clancey Brown’s Luthor had plenty of terrific moments, but he was a little too quick to pout, grumble, or plead when things didn’t go his way. And Kevin Spacey’s Luthor was . . . certainly a choice.
But Jon Cryer’s Luthor, as presented here and on Supergirl last season, is proving to be almost everything I could want out of the character. It’s an almost impossible balancing act, making him a master manipulator who’s always ten steps ahead, while also showcasing the pettiness and narrowness of mind that keep him from seeing how wrongheaded he is. Yet, somehow, they’re pulling it off.
This is a Lex shortsighted enough to steal the Book of Destiny and jeopardize the multiverse, just so he can kill Superman, but with enough foresight to write his own name into the Book so that he’ll survive the multiverse’s destruction (and, in the process, kill Superman). A Lex smart enough to manipulate gods and heroes for his own ends, but who can’t comprehend one of those gods and heroes being Clark Kent. Who won’t lose his cool even when faced with a Bat-interrogation or the destruction of all reality, but who’ll fume with impotent rage when the pillars of his ego start to fall.
When you add in how consistently funny he is, stealing every scene he’s in without undermining his legitimacy as a threat, he may very well be the perfect Lex Luthor.
That he looks so tiny standing next to the Monitor or any of the Supermen is just a bonus. 🙂
“The name is Black Lightning.”
We’ve been waiting a loooong time to see Black Lightning crossover with the Arrowverse. When the show first premiered, I even included reviews of it in This Week In The Arrowverse, assuming it’d be folded in before too long. Well, now I’m a little wiser, and am glad I don’t have to write up yet another review each week. Still, it was nice seeing Jefferson meet up with the other heroes, even if Vancouver vs. Atlanta filming locations mean this must necessarily be a rare event.
Barry and Jefferson bonding over their dead dads was sweet, but the best part had to be Jefferson, even with all the tragedy he’s suffered, taking a moment to appreciate that holy sh*t, Superman is real!
“Well, congratulations, you changed history and lost us trivia night.”
It has been so long since we’ve had the Legends of Tomorrow on our screens, and it was so, so, so good to have them back.
All the main heroes got a short scene establishing themselves before they were gathered together. Supergirl used compassion and invulnerability to calm down a pet dragon. Batwoman fought the Wonderland Gang on the streets of Gotham. Green Arrow discussed his painful past on Lian Yu. The Flash ran around Central City talking on comms. And the Legends . . . went to a bar, and lost trivia night because they suck at protecting history.
All is right with the world.
“So . . . what do we do now?”
As of this post going up, there’s one month left until the conclusion of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Will our heroes restore the multiverse, or will the rest of the Arrowverse just be a riff on Red Dwarf, with our seven Paragons bumming around the Vanishing Point, trying to stave off boredom?
Will Oliver become the Spectre, and finally take that “I am something else” narration literally?
Will at least 50% of the conclusion be our heroes kicking Lex in the teeth for being such an amazingly petty dick?
Those are all important questions, but there’s only one that truly deserves the top honors:
Question of the Week: Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, or John Williams’s Superman theme?