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When worlds collide: Comic book crossovers, movies and you

With the DC comics universe in a state of perpetual crisis and Marvel preparing for wars both Secret and Civil, we offer an introduction to comics crossover events for the uninitiated.

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Marvel's Civil War in a nutshell. Marvel Comics

Superheroes are hot properties now, on the big and small screen, and it's a great time to be alive if you've grown up with these characters. But comic books are hard work. Keeping track of everything that's happened to a character is a full-time job, and as superhero movies and TV shows move into the tangled web of crossover territory, the casual observer might be at a little bit of a loss.

Maybe you've heard rumblings of Marvel's Secret War ending the universe as we know it. You could be a little confused by all the hype generated by the subtitle of a movie. Maybe you're wondering why DC has the next five years' worth of its movies already announced.

Neverending stories

Most comic books, particularly superhero comics, are serialised. Each month, the new issue of Batman or Captain America will build on the months and years of issues that have come before. Think "Game of Thrones" or "Breaking Bad" telling one ongoing story over the course of a few seasons -- or, for that matter, "Neighbours". Now imagine those series have been running for 50 years.

We're not messing around here. Sure, characters are revamped and rebooted, plots are contradicted and overwritten. Yet things that were written in 1973 are still very relevant parts of a character's history in 2015.

But it doesn't stop there. Characters don't have these fictional, decades-long histories in isolation. DC and Marvel, the comic world's "big two" publishers, have entire universes established for all their characters to inhabit.

Even though Bruce Wayne is off being vengeance, the night and Batman in Gotham City while Superman outpaces speeding bullets in Metropolis, these two DC Comics characters are living in the same fictional world as each other, and can meet. Meanwhile, Marvel characters such as Iron Man and Captain America are in a different fictional universe altogether.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it's called -- a set of interlocking TV shows and movies -- is its own little pocket of superhero continuity now, based on but separate from the comic books. Versions of Thor, Captain America, Iron Man and company all inhabit the MCU in movies such as the upcoming " Avengers: Age of Ultron", and spinoff TV shows " Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and " Marvel's Agent Carter" make references to the same events seen in the movies.

That shared reality is the reason that some of the Marvel characters made cameos in each others' movies even before the first "Avengers" movie called them to assemble. It's why people stay after the credits during Marvel movies and freak out at a 2-second glimpse of a shield or a hammer. A bigger world is being built.

DC is hot on Marvel's trail, with the upcoming "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" being set to establish DC's own cinematic universe. Unlike Marvel, DC also has a second, separate universe for its TV shows, with the CW's cornerstones "The Flash" and "Arrow" already in place. So don't expect Barry (the Flash) or Ollie (the Arrow, based on Green Arrow in the comics) to turn up in the "Man of Steel" sequel.

Crossover potential

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Characters die in crossover events. At least for a while. DC Comics

So, while comic books usually focus on a single character or group of characters, these characters all potentially have bigger sandboxes to play around in. Any time the stars of different titles appear in the same comic book issue or a movie is a crossover. But the big crossover events go beyond that.

These are the landmark events that define a comic universe. Typically, they'll shake up the status quo. They mean big, world-changing Consequences, capital C. We're talking about the kind of mess that can only be solved (or caused by) an entire world's worth of superheroes and villains.

Sometimes reality itself gets punched (this is a thing that actually happened). Sometimes a hero seemingly gets killed, but is really just sent back in time (this is a thing that actually happened twice). Characters die, cities get destroyed and sometimes history gets rewritten.

The aftershocks of a crossover event are as permanent as things get in the (admittedly flexible) realm of comic book canon, and individual characters will be feeling the effects long after they happen -- look at Tony Stark struggling with PTSD in "Iron Man 3" following "The Avengers" and its Battle of New York.

Crossovers are coming

For its latest crossover event efforts, Marvel is trotting out two classics. The original Secret War, fought in 1984, was one of the first big crossover events in modern comics. A mysterious figure called the Beyonder brought characters together from all over the Marvel universe. They got into a fight. The upcoming comic-book-only Secret Wars, kicking off in May of this year, promises that there will be no more Marvel universe -- only Battleworld, a patchwork Pangaea made of various time periods and dimensions from Marvel continuity. Superheroes are probably going to get into a fight.

On the big screen, the upcoming third Captain America movie, "Captain America: Civil War," looks to be based on a comic crossover event, the Civil War of 2006. The comic book Civil War centred on the Superhero Registration Act, relating to whether superheroes should disclose their secret identities to and work for the US government. Captain America and friends took up one side of the debate. Iron Man and company were on the other. What followed was a very reasonable debate with government petitions -- just kidding. They got into a fight. The details of the War may be changed for the 2016 movie, but that gives us an idea of what to expect.

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Daredevil will soon be prowling Hell's Kitchen on Netflix. Netflix

Marvel is also set to expand its cinematic universe in the coming months with Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist taking to the streets of New York on Netflix. The four of them have already got a planned crossover event in .

DC Comics is keeping slightly closer to mum about the upcoming "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," but we do know that it's going to spin off into half a dozen connected franchises.

Crossover events have been a major part of DC's and Marvel's printed comics for decades now, often one big event feeding directly into the next to keep the idea of a constantly changing universe alive (and, more pragmatically, to keep readers invested).

Now that the idea is hitting the mainstream with DC and Marvel's billion-dollar movie franchises, this kind of complex collision is inescapable for casual fans. But that's no bad thing. Crossover events are really a distillation of what comic books do best. Putting all your favourite heroes in one place and having them start punching things.

I, for one, can't wait.