Why did Crisis on Earth-X resonate so much more than the blockbuster?
Monday and Tuesday night, The CW aired this year’s much-hyped crossover event uniting superheroes from all four of its DC Comics series produced by Greg Berlanti, a 4-part extravaganza titled Crisis on Earth-X.
None of the individual shows on the network receive what other networks would consider strong ratings and, of the impressively large roster of heroes, The Flash is the only true A-lister of the bunch. Though Superman’s made past appearances on Supergirl, he was nowhere to be found in Crisis on Earth-X. Neither was Batman. Nor Wonder Woman.
While the recent Justice League film boasting the smaller but far more impressive cast of DC heroes met with a thud at the box office and mixed reviews by critics and fans alike, Crisis on Earth-X — not even the first of the Berlanti-verse mega-crossovers — briefly trended on Twitter at number one on its first night beating literally every other topic in the world and seems to be getting an overall positive response from the audience.
So what did Justice League do wrong and Crisis on Earth-X do right?
Keep It Simple, Stupid!
There’s an old design principle known as KISS, as in “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Crisis on Earth-X (COEX) didn’t introduce a dense mythology requiring loads of exposition explaining Darkseid, Apokolips, Parademons, and Mother Boxes.
No, instead they made their job easy by just centering the plot around Nazis from a Man in the High Castle-like alternative universe — knowing Superheroes kicking Nazi butt is all the spectacle you need to fill an audience with childish glee.
There was even an early scene where Green Arrow fights some ninjas too. The Nazis were played by real human actors and stuntmen, as were the ninjas; they weren’t just abstract CG creatures like the Parademon minions in Justice League. And the budget for these shows is considerably smaller than Justice League‘s $300 million.
The Villain Problem
Even though the biggest criticism of Marvel’s MCU has always been its penchant for weak, poorly-motivated “destroy the world” villains — and even though DC has had plenty of time to learn from Marvel’s mistakes — DC managed to fall into the same trap.
Nobody cares about CG Steppenwolf and his CG Parademons with their incoherent Darkseid blah, blah blah Apokolips blah, blah blah, Mother Boxes blah, blah, blah scheme to something, something destroy the world.
A great villain is a motivated villain. MOTIVATION. MOTIVATION. MOTIVATION. Villains, like heroes, are best when they have clear, concrete reasons for doing what they’re doing instead of just being evil for evil’s sake. They’re driven by understandable human frailties.
Marvel’s Loki is an Iago-like figure, envious of his brother. Magneto is driven by an almost heroic determination to fight those who unjustly persecute his people, only to the point of extremism. Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave has been called Marvel best villain. The product of childhood abuse himself, he’s ultimately driven by a desire to be loved paired with a toxic sense of entitlement and an almost god-like ability to bend others to his will.
In COEX, the main villain plot ultimately just boils down to Oliver’s alternate universe Nazi counterpart trying to save his wife from dying.
Characters and Stakes
One advantage COEX had over Justice League is that audiences have gotten to follow these characters grow and develop over a span of several years. And amidst all the kicking Nazi butt action, the story still managed to be, at its heart, about the characters and relationships, the human drama.
Much of Part 1 centers around Barry Allen and Iris West’s wedding before the Nazis even show up to spoil the party.
That wedding triggers relationship drama for Oliver Queen and Felicity Smoak while Firestorm’s surrogate father and son team of Jefferson Jackson and Martin Stein struggle to say goodbye to one another due to Stein’s impending retirement from life on The Waverider. And Alex Danvers too is still stuggling with her breakup with Maggie Sawyer.
Justice League gave us another standard “Save the world” threat that, despite every single member of the film’s audience living on the planet that’s in danger, never once felt like real stakes. Even the relationships we’re meant to care about, like that of Lois and Clark, felt empty because the previous films in the franchise just skipped over their entire romance to get to Justice League faster. An abstract threat of global destruction is met with audience apathy when there are no personal stakes to ground it.
Throughout COEX, heroes and villains alike face the threat of losing their loved ones. Even though Nazis are a safe choice for villains presented as evil for evil’s sake, COEX adds personal stakes by making most of the main villains alternate universe doppelgangers of our heroes and imbuing some of them with human vulnerabilities.
Nazi Green Arrow and Nazi Supergirl are married and may potentially put each other’s safety above their Nazi cause. So the audience can see at least some of our Oliver and Kara in their villainous counterparts.
The writers of COEX even developed audience investment in newly introduced relationships of minor players like the romance between Captain Cold’s alternate universe counterpart and The Ray, the latter character making his Berlanti-verse debut in COEX Part 3.
Because the DCEU films rushed to their team-up film finish line faster than The Flash, they set up almost nothing to be paid off in Justice League. Audiences were never given a reason to care about Lois and Clark’s relationship. Batman’s only established meaningful relationship was his long-dead mom. There was no plausible payoff for that relationship. Wonder Woman was the only one audiences had any real emotional investment in, and the key relationship in her story had been dead for 100 years by that film. So nothing short of Steve Trevor rising from the dead could have plausibly paid off anything from her storyline either.
This was not the case in Crisis on Earth-X. Audiences were rewarded with a crossover event that culminated in not just one but two major couples tying the knot and one major character’s emotional death. Oliver faced a ghost from his past. Two unlikely characters from different series enjoyed a one-night stand. There was even another Captain Cold/Heatwave reunion scene that, while has seemingly been done to death at this point (no pun intended), continues to reward viewers who have been following the relationship of these two characters for a long time (and some who have followed the relationship of the actors for even longer).
Further, the way the crossover transitions from its two long-overdue marriages to the funeral of a major character is a quintessential example of what Aristotle called “peripeteia,” or a sudden reversal of circumstances, which the Greek philosopher considered the most powerful component of a tragedy.
What the writers of the DC superhero shows on The CW understand — and conversely, what Justice League fails to — is that the time invested watching these characters face stuggles, both ordinary and extraordinary, necessitates an emotional payoff.