Going to the theater now feels like going to a comic book shop. You can usually pick between Marvel or DC at the box office every summer. This extends to TV and streaming — it’s possible to have an entertainment diet made entirely of superhero media and still not get to it all. (Trust me, I’ve tried.) Despite this pervasiveness, we tend to mostly talk about the big-budget film stuff. The MCU and everything you need to keep up with it. It can, frankly, feel like work — but there are still places where keeping up with superheroes is what it should be: goofy, nonsensical fun.
One of the strangest successes in superhero comics’ march across pop culture has been what’s known as the Arrow-verse: The CW’s sprawling universe of connected DC superhero shows that all spun out of the Big Bang that is Arrow, a 2012 reimagining of the vigilante Green Arrow through the lens (and the budget) of a CW soap. Seven years later, that small-screen universe is reaching what looks like the apex of its existence: Crisis On Infinite Earths, a five-part miniseries adapting one of the most seminal comic book crossovers of all time.
Crisis (the show) is an audacious piece of television. Three of its five episodes have aired over the last three nights and are streaming now on the CW app, with the final two parts airing back to back after the holidays, on January 14th. It’s equal parts Power Rangers and pro wrestling, a love letter to superfans, and everything garish and off-putting to the uninitiated. Entire scenes are dedicated to obscure cameos, characters are introduced with very little explanation and dispatched with even less. It’s all very silly and also remarkable; the rare TV event parseable solely to fans who have followed a half-dozen shows for seven years, by design.
Crisis (the comic) was an equally audacious endeavor, albeit one with the opposite motive. The fictional histories of DC superheroes were getting too complicated, too contradictory. The solution, then, was to end it all, casting every story ever told in a DC comic across a wide multiverse, and then bringing that multiverse to an end. The comic book Crisis was an act of consolidation, letting the editors, writers, and artists of ‘80s DC decide what they liked and what they did not from the previous fifty years of stories so they could start again.
On TV, it plays out far less neatly: Following teases that began with last year’s Elseworlds crossover, a long-gestating cataclysm is finally here. Parallel Earths are being wiped out of existence one at a time, and now the heroes of Earth-1 (the Arrow-verse, including but not limited to: Oliver Queen / Green Arrow; Barry Allen / The Flash; Kara Danvers / Supergirl; and Kate Kane / Batwoman) must hop from one universe to the next in order to find “Paragons” who will defeat the Anti-Monitor, the cosmic villain who began the eponymous Crisis.
The whole thing barely makes a lick of sense, with far too many plot threads to possibly wrap up in a satisfying way. Mostly, it’s a joyride through the DC universe, paying homage to every possible iteration it can. Burt Ward, the Robin of the ‘66 Batman TV series, has a cameo set on the Earth of that show, as does Robert Wuhl, who played reporter Alexander Knox in Tim Burton’s Batman. Stick around for a while and you’ll be treated to scenes with Tom Welling, the Clark Kent of Smallville; Kevin Conroy, the voice of the ‘90s animated Batman; and Brandon Routh, reprising his role as the Superman of the Richard Donner / Bryan Singer films. (Routh also plays Ray Palmer / The Atom in Legends of Tomorrow; Crisis is not afraid to double dip.)
An easy comparison would be Avengers, that this is a cornier, small-screen version of Infinity War / Endgame. And yes, there are superficial similarities, with all the people getting dusted and the overtures toward bidding farewell to Oliver Queen and Arrow, the show that started it all. But the unabashed earnestness of it all — the conviction with which garish costumes are worn, nerdy jokes are delivered, and lo-fi recreations of famous comic panels are staged — it’s got a cheesy heart you can’t buy with any amount of money.
Crisis On Infinite Earths isn’t going to do a whole lot for anyone who hasn’t kept up with the Arrow-verse — you don’t have to be caught up on everything to know what’s going on, but you do have to know enough to fake your way through a conversation at Comic-Con. But at a brisk three episodes, it’s also worth seeing for sheer spectacle. Even with superheroes everywhere, there’s nothing remotely as comic book as this out there, and I doubt we’ll get something quite like it again.