The latest DCEU film, Justice League, wasn’t actually bad. Unfortunately, though, it was a patchwork creation hurt by the generally luke-warm response to the earlier films in the series. Given the critical failure of all their previous films except for Wonder Woman, it’s hardly surprising that Justice League tried to make up for some of their earlier mistakes. But with lower-than-hoped box office returns and the upcoming Flashpoint film being heavily rumoured to set up a total reboot of a cinematic universe still in its infancy, it’s a worrying sign.
But fear not, DC fans! There’s always hope, and viewers were recently treated to something far better than Justice League, and it didn’t even cost them their hard-earned cash to watch it. They were given the latest FlArrowverse crossover event, Crisis On Earth-X.
Learning from the mistakes of their previous crossover, Invasion, it continued the recently improved form of the individual shows – Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. It may have lacked the star-power and big-screen budget of Justice League, and still had more than a few weak spots of its own, yet it made up for that underwhelming movie in some surprising ways.
So what are some of the things that that Crisis On Earth X did better than Justice League? Let’s take a look…
Getting The Band Together
You know how crossover events usually work. You saw it in The Avengers, you saw it in X-Men, you saw it in The Defenders, you saw it in Suicide Squad… and then, predictably, you saw it in Justice League too. If you want to get the team together, it can only be because there’s a massive world-conquering villain on the loose. Right? It makes perfect sense, so much so that it’s become as much a cliché as the standard “superhero landing” that Deadpool mocked so mercilessly. Except…
What if that didn’t have to be the reason at all?
While Justice League piled on cliché after cliché and united the team in the traditional way, Crisis On Earth-X went an entirely different route. Yes, there were conquering villains to fight and a world to save in the story, but that wasn’t the actual reason why they all hooked up at the start. In a great break with tradition, they gathered together for something far more personal: the wedding of Barry Allen and Iris West.
While the wedding would be interrupted (another cliché, granted… after all, when has a superhero wedding ever gone smoothly?), this gathering allowed us to see our heroes in a more natural light. The women got together for a manicure, Barry and Oliver discussed the nature of relationships for superheroes, and Alex Danvers and Sara Lance had an awkward one-night stand. It was a social occasion, and the natural bonds of friendship amongst all the characters made the first episode of the crossover a joy to watch.
It’s true that the characters in Justice League hadn’t properly met yet or formed a bond, so they would never have been able to replicate that. But Crisis On Earth-X scored a big win by getting the band together in an original way which nobody else has done yet, contradicting the standard superhero routine.
Everyone v. Superman
There’s a standard problem with any Justice League story, from comic books to animated shows and movies, and that’s making every team member have a role to play even though they’ve got Superman on their side. Usually, this means that any time the League goes into battle, he’s usually written out early on so he doesn’t dominate the entire story. Sadly, because of the mistimed events of BvS, the reverse of this was true with Justice League. Superman’s out of the picture INITIALLY and, at the end, he triumphantly returns to pretty much stop Steppenwolf AND save the civilians single-handedly.
Yes, we know he’s the proverbial nail of the Justice League and is super-important, so his return is a huge deal. But did a film that was meant to showcase the whole Justice League team really have to boil down to being little more than a one-man show?
Crisis On Earth-X smartly removed Supergirl – the biggest player in the game – from the board for large periods of the story. Even when she was around, she never hogged the limelight of the fights because her abilities were cancelled out by her doppelganger, Overgirl. So was the Flash, being matched by Reverse-Flash. With them nullified, this allowed the rest of Team Arrow, Team Flash and the Legends of Tomorrow to play their parts. Yes, most of the time they were just beating up Nazi henchmen, but they did contribute and, beyond that aspect, they all had a chance to shine in their own respective ways.
Was anybody actually impressed with the Justice League tag scene, which set up the return of peach tea-peddling moron Lex Luthor and introduced the underwhelming Deathstroke the Terminator? Not really. The impact Lex had on most audiences already was negative, and anybody with a knowledge of comics is aware that Deathstroke is one of the toughest humans in the DCU… but he’s still just human. Likewise, if Justice League was supposed to set up Darkseid as a future powerhouse threat, it did a piss-poor job of it.
Just about the only thing Justice League set up which the audience reacted positively to was the first DCEU appearance of a Green Lantern. It was a very cool moment.
Crisis On Earth-X, however, went one step further by not only teasing a character reveal which got a reaction but also created some debate amongst viewers. Nobody even guessed at this coming. The caterer at the Allen/West wedding seemed to be someone from the Flash’s future, who’s related to Barry himself… and presumably a fellow speedster. Many Flash fans instantly assumed it was Dawn Allen of the future Tornado Twins, while others believed it was Jenni Ognats – XS.
Interestingly, both of those characters could provide insight into how the show (and the FlArrowverse itself) might end, with Barry and Iris escaping to the future following the events of the Crisis On Infinite Earths, which has been teased since Season 1. Also, it may even point to an upcoming appearance by the Legion of Super Heroes. To tease a character is one thing, but to tease a character which keeps the fans guessing and could be key to the whole show, now that’s a real hook.
Justice League Action?
When it came to the action scenes, the Justice League film certainly delivered. Wonder Woman’s opening fight continued the strong form she’d shown in her own movie, while the slugfest of the heroes against the newly-resurrected Superman delivered one of the finest action moments in all of superhero movies. However, the final battle against Steppenwolf wasn’t that impressive and showed little originality. The parademons did nothing, while Cyborg stood around like the world’s biggest USB memory stick. Aquaman provided some moments, but did nothing that revolved around his Atlantean skills.
The action scenes in Crisis On Earth-X weren’t exactly movie quality, and that’s to be expected given the limitations of TV. However, despite the lower budget and small-screen format, it was astonishing how good those fights actually looked… and it’s fair to say that they were of movie quality too. Using the now-traditional character-overlapping fight scene style and some excellent choreography, there was always something happening.
Each character was shown using their natural talents too. Heatwave incinerates Nazi henchmen, while Mister Terrific threw a T-Sphere… with the Atom riding on it. Firestorm separated into his two host bodies to complete separate tasks simultaneously, while Vibe created a portal so that Green Arrow could leap from one area of a fight to another. Every time there was a fight, it was like beautiful organized chaos. And at the end of the day, the crossover provided fans with enough dynamic action to make them happy.
If there’s one thing which surprised absolutely nobody about the Justice League film, it was the return of Superman. For months, the movie’s marketing team tried to convince fans that he wasn’t going to appear in the film at all (despite all evidence to the contrary), and then teased that he may possibly appear but only in a dream sequence. Nobody believed that for a second, making it one of the least impressive on-screen reveals of all time. While the film did redeem the character of the Man of Steel, the film itself was sadly predictable.
While the character of Superman may have been nowhere near Crisis On Earth-X, it’s ironic that a former Superman actor gave fans one of the biggest surprises of the entire crossover. Brandon Routh, now playing the Atom in Legends of Tomorrow, only made his first appearance in the crossover at the end. However, to see him burst on to the scene and single-handedly take down the Reverse-Flash, it was a feel-good moment out of left field. It reminded viewers of how important he can (and should) be to his respective team.
His appearance wasn’t the only surprise of the crossover series either, with the arrival of Mister Terrific, the Ray, Metallo, Eobard Thawne (with Harrison Wells’s face) and more. Also, a shocking rejected wedding proposal, a second wedding proposal, and… the return (sort of) of Captain Cold, who’s even cooler on Earth X than his Earth 1 counterpart… it seemed like every time things became too normal, another twist or reveal was thrown at the viewers to keep them on their toes.
No mention of the Earth-X crossover can be complete without mentioning the death of one of its biggest heroes: Professor Martin Stein. The possibility had been hinted at for a while, with one of the bigger subplots of this season of Legends revolving around Stein and Jax separating the Firestorm matrix so that Stein could retire from the time travel superhero life to spend time with his wife, daughter and grandson. His leaving was on the cards anyway, but his exit in this fashion was brilliant storytelling.
It’s fair to say that, however unlikely it may seem, his death had more of an emotional impact than the hollow deaths of Superman in BvS, that of Odin in Thor: Ragnarok, Quicksilver in Age of Ultron or Professor X in X-Men: The Last Stand. The nearest emotional comparison is probably the death of Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, which is no mean feat given that Stein is possibly the least-likely superhero of all time. On an emotional level, it easily outshone anything on offer in Justice League.
Since his introduction in The Flash, Stein has connected with viewers in a way which has made him one of the most popular characters in the FlArrowverse. His ever-developing father-son relationship with Jax culminated in this bittersweet moment, and while his death scene may have been milked a bit too much, the moments which followed – showing the impact his death has on Jax, his family and his team – are truly heartbreaking. With almost no effort, this did what so many movies fail to do: it touched the audience.
Now That’s Comedy
In Justice League we saw a brighter, happier Superman who could actually laugh, because… well, presumably that’s a side-effect of being resurrected from the dead. Unfortunately, owing to the patchwork nature of the film, in trying to lighten the tone in general they course-corrected too much. The end result? Batman was mostly used for laughs, and some have criticized the portrayal of Batman in JL as being out of character for the Dark Knight.
The FlArrowverse, in general, hasn’t always excelled in the comedy stakes either, and over the years many of their jokes have fallen flat. In recent times though they’ve had more hits than misses, and fortunately, with a crossover like this, it’s possible to give just the right comedy moments to just the right characters. Some of the biggest laughs came from Dominic Purcell as Legends’ Heatwave, who’s been a real standout of that series as it’s progressed. From seeing the always-gruff Heatwave enjoying the chaotic violence at the wedding, to having him wearing a less-than-macho bathrobe, just about every moment with him was hilarious and never felt out of place.
There were a couple of sly jokes referencing big-screen superhero antics too. Jax’s dismissal of becoming Spider-Man was a neat swipe at Marvel, while Supergirl got to deliver a line to Overgirl which was straight out of Superman II as an amusing homage. Green Arrow had to play catch-up with Supergirl and the Flash when it came to travelling, and his paranoia in making a kryptonite arrow was a fun dig at BvS. Even the choice of actor to play the wedding officiant was inspired. Even if some viewers didn’t get the joke, the show wasn’t any worse off for it.
While some people may have jumped over Joss Whedon for liking a tweet which dismissed CGI Steppenwolf in Justice League as a lousy villain, the comment was accurate. CGI characters, no matter how good they are, don’t hold a candle to real-life physical performances from actors. Given that Steppenwolf’s quest was to unite three cosmic EA loot crates, it gets worse. But what really hurt was that Steppenwolf is practically unknown even to many comic book readers. When the Justice League’s villain was first announced, even some hardcore DC fans said “Steppen… who?”, and even those who knew who he was would be hard-pressed to remember a dozen appearances he’s made in any comics beyond The New Gods.
Earth-X isn’t exactly well-known to most fans either, nor are the characters who reside there. But in the crossover show, it made sense to simply use doppelgangers of well-known heroes as the villains because at least the viewers would recognize them in some way. They may not be CGI giants on a movie budget, but at least they got the job done. However, that isn’t to say that Crisis On Earth-X didn’t have its own problems with them, or with the CGI.
The actions of fascist overlord Oliver Queen, his wife Overgirl, and their henchman Reverse-Flash (Really? Can anybody imagine him being just a henchman?) are questionable, and they make poor decision after poor decision. A lack of romantic chemistry between Oliver X and Overgirl was a weakness too, while their Nazi stormtroopers were little more than cannon fodder for the heroes to fight. And, even though the villains have the upper hand during the middle act of the story, they still came across as incompetent morons who were only there to fill the villain-of-the-week requirements.
However, when all’s said and done, at least the familiarity of the Crisis On Earth-X antagonists and their scenes gave us some kind of insight into the characters. As supervillains go, they’re sadly still close to the bottom of the pile… but still more credible than Steppenwolf.
Wonder Woman has easily been the breakthrough character so far in the DCEU, and that proved true again in the Justice League movie. It’s bizarre that Batman debates handing over the reins of the team to her, when he seems to provide nothing to the team himself. He may self-deprecatingly joke that his super power is that he’s rich, but the problem is that he doesn’t provide any other skills beyond that to the team. There’s no sign of the world’s greatest detective, and he fails miserably at persuading Aquaman to join the team. His sole contribution to the two major fights he participates in are getting Alfred to drop off Lois Lane and driving the Batmobile around in circles.
Wonder Woman, by contrast, does the job and very well too. She’s a credit to the League. It’s just a shame that there was so little for her to do on screen.
By contrast, the women of Crisis On Earth-X take centre stage several times, and it isn’t just Supergirl who dominates. White Canary commands her own team with skill and heart and fights alongside Alex like they’re on the same wavelength. Vixen and Zari get in on the action in the fourth episode, while Caitlin Snow unleashes her Killer Frost persona several times to great effect, as well as offering her medical knowledge throughout.
Yet the real standouts have to be Iris West and Felicity Smoak. Despite occasionally being relegated to the “significant others” role for the Flash and Green Arrow in their shows, both are powerless but strong-willed. Here, even when their super-powered friends are falling in battle and have been captured, they continue to fight on, using their natural cunning and intelligence. They may not have the bracelets forged from the Aegis, but they didn’t need them.