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Crisis on Infinite Earths leaves us with a cataclysmic cliffhanger

Commentary: The CW's comics and TV crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths is unlike anything seen before, and won't be back with a resolution until January.

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Crisis on Infinite Earths pulls together many of your favorite DC heroes in an epic clash. 

The CW

If you're having comic book crossover withdrawal now that Avengers: Endgame is firmly in the rearview mirror, I have the antidote. Fans of DC Comics will want to tune in this week to a television event on The CW called Crisis on Infinite Earths

Crisis is a crossover that draws from five DC shows that run on The CW network and make up the so-called Arrowverse. They are Arrow, The Flash, DC's Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl and Batwoman. The storyline follows an iconic comic book arc of the same name and deals with the potential destruction of every dimension, or the "multiverse." So yeah, the stakes are high. (Disclosure: The CW is partly owned by ViacomCBS, parent company of CNET.)

The crossover kicked off Sunday night and concluded on Tuesday with a massive cliffhanger. It'll return on Jan. 14 for its final two hours. 

What excites me about Crisis isn't the plot or the special effects, which, yes, are on a TV budget. It's that Crisis pays tribute and draws from multiple iterations of DC projects from the last several decades, regardless of who worked on them. It's a celebration of nearly all things DC, with loads of fan service for casual and hardcore followers of these worlds. 

Who's in this crossover? Seemingly everyone. 

Warning: Spoilers ahoy!

spoiler alert

Smallville fans will appreciate Tom Welling and Erica Durance reprising their respective roles of Superman and Lois Lane -- a variant of the Superman and Lois Lane who now appear in Supergirl, played by Tyler Hoechlin and Bitsie Tulloch. Confusingly, Durance also shows up as Alura Zor-El, Supergirl's biological mother. Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman in the classic '90s animated series, will make his live-action debut as Bruce Wayne. Cress Williams, who stars on The CW's final DC show, Black Lightning, will also meet his fellow network heroes for the first time. 

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The crossover kicks off this Sunday.

The CW

Brandon Routh, who plays Ray Palmer (Atom) in Legends of Tomorrow, will don yet another Superman suit in a nod to Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns. (Images of him in a Kingdom Come-inspired costume already inspire nostalgic goosebumps.) Also making appearances are John Wesley Shipp, who played the Flash in the short-lived series in the early '90s and Ashley Scott, who played Huntress in the failed early 2000s Birds of Prey series. 

Just minutes into the first episode, we saw Robert Whul, who played Alexander Knox in 1989's Tim Burton-director Batman. Fittingly, he hails from Earth-89. We also saw Burt Ward, who played Robin in the 1960s Batman series (Earth 66) and, surprisingly, Alan Ritchson's Hawk and Curran Walters' Robin from Titans (which concluded its second season on the DC Universe streaming service). Presumably, they were all swept up by the crisis, which took the form of an ominous red cloud. 

Even Lucifer, played by Tom Ellis, dropped by for a surprise cameo that somehow made sense. 

As someone who's watched or at least heard of every one of these shows, I'm jazzed about all this heady nostalgia. 

What's happened so far

Part 1: Harbinger, played by Arrow vet Audrey Marie Anderson, has gathered a number of heroes, including the Green Arrow, Flash, Supergirl, Superman, Lois, Batwoman and Ray Palmer and Sara Lance from the Legends.

The heroes make their stand on Earth-38, the home of Supergirl, which faces an onslaught of a red anti-matter wave destroying everything in its path. Despite battling against the Anti-Monitor's forces, she and the rest of the heroes ultimately abandoned her world with several billion refugees.   

The most shocking development is Queen sacrificing himself to buy time for more people of Earth-38 to flee to his own Earth. The first episode ends with him bidding farewell to Flash, Supergirl and his time-displaced adult daughter, Mia. (Comics can be complicated.)

Part 2: This being a comic book-based series, it didn't last long before Flash, Lance, Mia and magic-wielding John Constantine, also a Legend, attempt to resurrect Queen using a Lazarus Pit's rejuvenation properties in the second episode. They succeed, but he returns without a soul or ability to recognize his friends and family. 

The highlight of the second part is the battle between Supergirl's Superman battling the Routh version of Superman, who's been mind-controlled by Lex Luther (again, comics). Supergirl and Batwoman, meanwhile, travel to Earth-99 to find an older, bitter Batman from The Dark Knight Returns comics, who ends up dying in a scuffle with Batwoman. 

The point of these trips to other Earths, which also saw a quick cameo from Welling's Superman, who gave up his powers to start a family, was to find seven "Paragons," or individuals able to stand up to the Anti-Monitor. The show identified Supergirl as the Paragon of Hope, Sara Lance as the Paragon of Destiny, Routh's Superman is the Paragon of Truth and, after the Batman drama, Batwoman as the Paragon of Courage.

Part 3: Conveniently, Palmer creates a Paragon-detecting machine (why not?) and identifies the remaining three Paragons. Flash (Love), Martian Manhunter (Honor) and Ryan Choi, a human scientist from Palmer's hometown. In the comics, he's the next Atom. 

The Flash and two of his teammates, Frost and Cisco (Vibe) locate the weapon that the Anti-Monitor is using to destroy all the Earths. Earth-90's Flash (the early '90s Shipp version) running on a treadmill at super speeds to power the machine, which will explode if he stops for any extended time. In comes Black Lightning, teleported by a character named Pariah to help contain the explosive energy. 

The (main) Flash is ready to sacrifice himself by overloading the machine, but Shipp's version opts to steal his speed and take his place, allowing the rest to flee the weapon, halting the antimatter wave from destroying the sole remaining Earth. 

The Flash's wife, Iris, the Elongated Man and Palmer head back to Ivy Town to recruit Choi, who initially wants to go home and spend his last moments with his wife and son. Eventually, Iris inspires him to join the cause. 

Supergirl, meanwhile, is tempted to use a powerful tool called the Book of Destiny (again, comics) to resurrect Earth-38. But Batwoman stops her, fearing the attempting would destroy Supergirl. 

Finally, John Diggle, Arrow's perennial sidekick, Mia and Constantine head to purgatory (after a short stopover to see Lucifer) and in an attempt to get Queen's soul back. Queen doesn't want to return, and a new character, Jim Corrigan, says he's destined for something else. 

The episode ends with Harbinger returning, now possessed by the Anti-Monitor. She kills the Monitor and destroys the last remaining Earth. At the last moment, Pariah sends the seven Paragons to the Vanishing Point, a place beyond time and space. The show ends with the Routh Superman disappearing in red energy, replaced by Lex Luthor. 

The show returns in January. 

A fitting end

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Brandon Routh gets another chance to play Superman. 

The CW

Crisis also serves as a capper to Arrow, the first of this latest wave of DC shows. The success of Arrow, anchored by an eponymous hero played by Stephen Amell, allowed The CW to expand into multiple shows that let its characters walk out of one series and into the next. Even as Warner Bros. struggled to create a DC Extended Universe on the big screen, it successfully cobbled together the Arrowverse on the small screen. 

To give you an idea of how far the Arrowverse has come, Arrow started as a gritty Batman Begins-esque show grounded in reality. Now multiple series deal with flying super-powered beings, time travel and, of course, multiple alternate universes. 

It's also a testament to the forward thinking of the writers that the seeds of this crossover were planted in the first season of the Flash five years ago, with a reference to the main character disappearing in a "Crisis."

A majority of Arrow's truncated season has served as a giant prelude to Crisis. Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) has been tasked by an omnipotent being named the Monitor, who's working to prevent an antagonist, the Anti-Monitor, from destroying everything. Along the way, he's had a chance to provide some emotional closure with key characters from the show. As a longtime Arrow fan who's stuck with the show through its ups and downs, I can think of no better way to say goodbye to the "Emerald Archer."


No need to be caught up

While I'm a fan of Arrow, I've struggled to keep up as The CW expanded its roster of DC heroes on screen. I've watched the first season of nearly every show, but with two small kids, I've hit my limit. I'm well behind on The Flash, Black Lightning and Supergirl, and I haven't even bothered to watch Batwoman. The only exception has been Legends, which is certifiably bonkers and amazing. 

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Lois and Clarks 💓

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Thankfully, it doesn't look like I'll need to be caught up on those shows to follow Crisis. After the first episode, I felt reasonably comfortable with some of the character interactions, many of which were focused on Supergirl's cast. There were a few bits of interpersonal drama I picked up through context, and the rest I was fine to go along with (including a massive dragon that somehow shrinks back to an iguana?).

The second episode focused on the characters on hand, and despite not spending a lot of time with them, I enjoyed the different interactions with characters I thought I'd never see together. 

If the showrunners are smart, they'll continue to keep the story contained and let us appreciate character interactions without getting too deep into the baggage from their respective shows. 

All I need is a focused, rip-roaring adventure that balances a massive cast with fantastic special effects and a fitting conclusion to some of my favorite comic book characters. 

It worked for Avengers: Endgame, right?

Originally published on Dec. 7.  
Updated on Dec. 10: To include details from the episodes.