The CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” Midterm Report

Crisis Poster!

Shows will live! Shows will die! And The CW’s Arrowverse will never be the same!

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the landmark 1985-1986 maxiseries Crisis on Infinite Earths left such a massive impression on me as a young teen who’d been collecting comics since age 6, it changed the DC Universe forever as promised and factored into the naming of this very website 7½ years ago. It wasn’t easy for older fans to watch fifty years of comics canon and continuity get shredded and/or remixed, but youngsters with less of an emotional investment had front-row seats for The End of, and the subsequent rebirth of, the DC Universe as we knew it. Between Crisis, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, 1986 was a grandly historic time for DC on multiple fronts. And I was there for it.

Fast-forward 34 years later: I’m a different, older, creakier guy, but I’m still at the comic shop every Wednesday, and still partaking in superhero fare, albeit decreasingly in moderation. DC is still here, still banking on superheroes and trying much harder than I am to stay young-looking. They’ve spent the past eight years unleashing hundreds of their characters onto The CW across six TV series and counting. Here in 2019 going on 2020, it’s their turn for a Crisis.

(Let me throw a courtesy spoiler warning up front: this entry isn’t a full recap, but remarks are up ahead about plot points, surprises, and possibilities in the fourth and fifth chapters that’ll conclude the major crossover event on January 14th. If you’re planning to catch up on your own between now and then, the exits are clearly marked on your browser.)

For context, at this point my viewer relationship with The CW shows has gone like so:

Arrow: Failed to hop aboard because it launched too soon after the demise of Smallville. My wife Anne and I thought so highly of Justin Hartley’s version of the character that I wasn’t ready to see him usurped. I’ve seen every episode that participated in past CW crossovers, but they’ve consistently failed to introduce most of their supporting cast to newcomers. Stephen Amell seems much cooler to me today, though, so I have regrets. One day I’ll catch up, hopefully before I turn 60.

The Flash: Expected to skip it; checked out the pilot as part of a viewing experiment and was unexpectedly, solidly hooked. I’ve stuck with it ever since and love the cast even when they’re being written as fumbling dunderheads to facilitate idiot plots. Thankfully the current season has improved over the previous one.

Legends of Tomorrow: Along for the entire ride so far, though the series took a good while to discover its true calling as a lighthearted, often ludicrous fantasy romp, a sort of spiritual successor to DC’s 1986 sitcom-ish Justice League reboot comic. A few episodes last year perhaps let the goofiness a bit too far off the leash.

Black Lightning: There since episode one, though the current season’s storyline, in which the city of Freeland has been trapped between dual threats from foreign invaders and a corrupt American military, has dragged on exactly as long as I feared it would. Once you introduce the American military as a meddling force into your ongoing saga, it’s nearly impossible to shove them aside and do stories about anything else, like when Marvel’s first Ultimate Spider-Man series introduced a new version of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the comic turned stale as every issue thereafter was all S.H.I.E.L.D., all the time. The sooner they’re extricated, the better.

Supergirl: Big fans of season 1 despite some silly bits that swerved close to Silver Age corniness. Season 2 expanded the cast and trappings too widely and pushed Kara Danvers to the back row of her own ensemble. Season 3 attempted to tackle immigration issues but skewed its earnest, ripped-from-the-headlines allegories so wildly off-the-mark that we gave up on it. Occasionally I’ll read online recaps to see what the old gang’s up to. Sometimes they even mention Kara.

Batwoman: The co-creation of JH Williams III, one of the best comics artists of the 21st century, Kate Kane’s initial appearances were visually striking but didn’t do much to transcend a “Batman II” vibe, which would be great if I unconditionally loved everything Bat-related, but I don’t. Ruby Rose was a fantastic adversary in John Wick 2, but I’d have rather followed her to an original vehicle. For now I wish the series well but I’m opting out. I saw fifteen minutes of the the pilot after I’d made my decision and…that didn’t help.

…so now we have a special five-part event starring all of the above, an event eight years in the making. So far, it’s pretty awesome.

By and large the showrunners and writing teams have stuck fairly faithfully to the original Crisis‘ framework. The Monitor (LaMonica Garrett) was introduced in a series of random cameos, some up front and some silently in the background (including a fun Legends of Tomorrow pop-up in which he ate popcorn and just…watched). Then came the gathering of the protagonists via unwilling teleportation; antimatter waves destroying multiple Earths and killing off old, familiar characters; pretentious speeches about the end of the Multiverse; plans that seem like random nonsense busywork; hushed mentions of the Monitor’s nemesis with the cheesy name of…the Anti-Monitor!; a surprise betrayal; and the destruction of the last Earths standing…or so it seemed.

A few little things have changed. Obviously the cast of heroes differs, since The CW can’t draw on DC’s entire 80-year library. Alexander Luthor of Earth-3, a key character in the original, is MIA here. On the flip-side, a handful of heroes in the shows weren’t invented until well after Crisis (e.g. Kate Kane, Ryan Choi, the TV-exclusive Alex Danvers) and are new to the total Monitor experience. The Monitor’s recruitment drive has had narrower guidelines, sticking mostly to reliable heroes rather than an awkward superhero/super-villain mix. Overall they’re still working from the basic template.

It seems fairly accessible to new viewers, which surprised me. Anne is presently keeping up with zero CW shows but followed along okay, though it helps that she has some pre-Crisis comics knowledge, including but not limited to intense fandom for Christopher Reeve’s Superman and appreciation for Adam West and Burt Ward. My occasional nattering exposition during commercial breaks may have helped, to say nothing of how often I bring up Flash stuff in everyday casual chats during any given season.

It’s been a bit harsh seeing the ghosts of old DC projects returning for split-second revivals, only to disintegrate in an all-CG onslaught. So far we’ve welcomed back folks from Smallville, Titans, Birds of Prey, Constantine (a Legend now, but still), Lucifer, ye olde Batman TV show of yore, Tim Burton’s Batman, and, for die-hard readers out there, two big guys from Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come. And the best is surely yet to come.

Favorite parts so far, spoilers and all:

  • Yes, they get to go first: the indefatigable Barry Allen and Iris West-Allen, a rare positive portrait of a married couple who face challenges together as a couple, as opposed to standard, staid TV couples who live like they’re mortal enemies chained at the wrists and never stop sniping at each other or withholding dark secrets. Yes, Barry and Iris had days like that, but then they grew up and got better, which is a thing real adults can do when allowed.
  • Batwoman coming to terms with the crushing weight of the Bat-legacy she’s inheriting from her cousin Bruce, with or without his blessing. If she’d mined that deeply for emotions in the sneak-peek I stole of her pilot, I might’ve stuck around for a bit.
  • Those darn Legends: still wacky even on alternate Earths. The return of Wentworth Miller as the late Captain Cold, even as the disembodied voice of a Waverider A.I., made for a delightfully snarky reunion with his old parter Mick Rory, who of course is still writing romance novels and now knows that babies love him.
  • Barry and Jefferson Pierce, a.k.a. Black Lightning, in a dark moment going back and forth on the best hero-speech scene so far. It’s a specialty they clearly share, on which they should tag-team more often in the future.
  • Though not actually a part of the five-episode event, the preceding episode of Black Lightning — the only midstream “official Crisis crossover!” tie-in to speak of — was probably intrusive for any BL fans uninterested in a bigger picture, but for multi-proficient viewers it was one of the best episodes to date. It was a powerful acting showcase for China Anne McClain as three versions of Pierce’s younger daughter Jen — one we’ve known since the beginning and two “darkest timeline” versions who could costar in a feel-bad holiday film called It’s a Terrible Life.
  • A performance by Brandon Routh as an aging, tragedy-stricken Superman that was so heartfelt and pitch-perfect that, not for the first time in my life, I find myself wishing really hard that Superman Returns had been a hundred times better so Routh could’ve come back for five or six more films.
  • Kevin Conroy, the best Batman voice ever, grimly glorious in his first chance to play Bats in live-action, albeit in a broken, bitter future with an inhumane exoskeleton that starkly demonstrates what would really happen in a knock-down, drag-out, winner-take-all Batman-vs.-Superman fight.
  • A far better coda to Smallville than its own muddled series finale managed. (“Can’t say I’ve missed these chats.” Oh, how I guffawed.)
  • I haven’t watched Lucifer, but even I recognized and respected Tom Ellis’ cameo, and the happy shock it was for his fans.
  • I’d known Lyla had been on Arrow for a while from her scant usage in past crossovers, but I had no idea she was that Lyla. Now I’m more annoyed for not having kept tabs on Arrow more closely, or else I might’ve suspected sooner. Or, like, at all. That’s some ace advance planning on someone’s part.
  • Special thanks to the Monitor for ignoring Cisco’s pleas not to reverse his idiot decision last season to give up his Vibe powers. As I joked on Twitter at the time: unused tools go back in the toolbox, not in the trash.
  • The emotional farewell to John Wesley Shipp as the Flash of Earth-90. Anne saw it coming a minute or two before I did, but it soon became obvious that a Barry Allen had to die, but not necessarily the Barry Allen, so of course it was the one most likely to get me all choked up for several minutes after his big moment of heroic sacrifice. I was 18 when his doomed series aired, taped every episode, and felt my heart swell every time he guest-starred alongside his heir Grant Gustin. (This was a far sadder moment than the original death of Barry in Crisis #8. His own series had been canceled after 350 issues and had wasted its final 2½ years on a depressing, abysmal murder-trial storyline. By the time Crisis rolled around, Barry’s death felt more like a mercy-killing.)

At the same time…a few things in this Crisis could’ve been better:

  • The shadow demons are fewer and not quite so menacing, though that may be because the shows have no space to allow for casual casualties. Whereas the originals racked up endless kills straight out of DC’s Who’s Who directories, on TV their body count stands at one (1). So they’re flying, shadowy Stormtroopers. Big whoop.
  • Related note: the quest to bring back Ollie Queen via Lazarus Pit and MacGuffin search has so far been the most distracting subplot. With Part Three bringing in the Spectre (whom I didn’t even know had been added to the Arrowverse), it’s not hard to know where this is going, thereby getting the Spectre into the game as he was the first time around, while at the same time enabling a later mantle-passing that once went to Hal Jordan in the comics. Kind of a weird swap. Until that happens, for now his subplot feels inessential.
  • Per canon, the Monitor’s cryptic declarations and his fake insistence that everything’s going perfectly according to plan…are still tremendously irritating. Again, that’s comics-accurate, but not endearing.
  • Billions have perished already, including every guest star and nearly every supporting actor, but comics crossover bylaws dictate that everyone has to recover from grief supernaturally quickly because the show must go on. As a husband and father who didn’t ask for any of this (I’m not even sure he’d ever driven outside Freeland before), Cress Williams comes the closest to demonstrating that the lives of his loved ones mattered deeply to him, that their instant collective loss was devastating, and that they’re not just motivations on paper to him. Beyond his range, though…Our Heroes are repressing their feels too, too well.
  • Tom Cavanaugh’s transformation from Witty Harrison Wells Variant #76 into Crisis supporting player Pariah has thus far drained him of any and all stand-out qualities. Morose Harrison Wells in a flashy George Perez suit looks fine but is not my favorite Wells.
  • Brainiac 5: still missing a good five or six hundred IQ points after jumping from page to screen. Turning him from a pompous genius into an alien Balki Bartokomous was another irksome deal-breaker between me and Supergirl.
  • Every time characters quote from the first four Superman films, Anne spots it immediately and finishes the line right along with them while rolling her eyes. It was cute the first couple times they did it on Supergirl. Then they kept doing it. Years later, they’re still doing it. Guys, we get it. Everyone our age or older loved Christopher Reeve. It’s okay to let go and move on. Eventually you’ll have quoted everything he’s ever said and then what? You start quoting them all again? Or move on to his other films? Should we start expecting Easter eggs from Switching Channels and Monsignor?
  • I’m struggling to accept Jon Cryer as Lex Luthor. He could be fun in the past (cf. Hot Shots!, Dudes), but as Luthor? It’s not computing for me. Granted, I’m sure there’s no legal way they could’ve persuaded Gene Hackman out of retirement, and literally nobody is clamoring for the return of Kevin Spacey…but if I were the Emperor of The CW, this crossover would be costarring Clancy Brown, his voice in the animated Justice League. Oh, what might’ve been.
  • Most off-putting change from the comics: the Anti-Monitor looks so weird with a nose.

…but my final opinion is I’m having big fun anyway. It sucks that we have to wait another month until the two-hour finale, which may or may not feature any of the following developments:

  • All the series’ Earths will likely merge into one. Future crossovers will be easier to facilitate.
  • Histories may have to be rewritten as needed to interlock all the better. Hopefully this doesn’t mean redoing everyone’s origins from the ground up, because honestly we’ve seen Barry’s mom die more than enough times by now.
  • On Kevin Smith’s Sunday night post-game talk show Crisis Aftermath — I was one of the eight viewers who stuck around for both installments — Arrow writer/producer Marc Guggenheim confirmed Part Four, the Arrow episode, will reveal the Monitor’s and Anti-Monitor’s secret origins.
  • Considering the second Crisis Aftermath debuted the promising trailer for their next series Stargirl, perhaps her first appearance will predate her pilot?
  • If the TV miniseries follows every last step of the comics maxiseries, Part Five should be absolutely, positively, totally, literally everyone against the Anti-Monitor in the biggest TV superhero battle royale. It should look expensive and blow minds.
  • If we’re to take this seriously and come away truly reeling, that means more deaths. A few previous deaths will of course be reversed (no one believes Black Lightning will henceforth be just Cress Willians doing weekly soliloquies against white backdrops, right? I mean, it could work, but no), but for Crisis to REALLY capture the spirit of the original Crisis…that’s hard to do without a tragic parade of harsh fatalities that have fans up in arms, rending their garments and vowing revenge or at least sobbing heavily until their dead favorites come back in some altered form. But in the meantime, it should hurt.
  • Also, if there could be no Lazarus Pits in the newly singular Earth, that would be great.

Ultimately, will The CW’s version have the same traumatic impact on their shows as the original did on an entire line of comics? It’s not as though all the actors are being fired and replaced with entirely new ones, but still. For now we hold tight and keep pacing back and forth while waiting for the hopefully thrilling conclusion to The CW’s epic answer to Avengers: Endgame.

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