The biggest and latest thing now with live-action superhero films and TV shows are the crossover events that feature previous versions of superheroes and supervillains showing up to lend a hand or imperil the current heroes. The most recent and one of the best examples was seen in Spider-Man: No Way Home where the Spider-Man (Tom Holland) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) met two older versions of Spider-Man (both played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) that appeared in their own films.
Of course, fans will be in for a treat this week as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness debuts and promises to deliver a the mother of all crossover events as the worlds of the MCU, previous Marvel films and more will interact. But that’s not all, next year The Flash will be about its own crossover event as the title hero’s (Ezra Miller) time travel antics will create alternate timelines and have him meet previous film versions of DC’s superheroes; notably Batman, reprised by Michael Keaton.
There have been other examples of multiverses in superhero films and TV shows. The TV series Loki, heavily dealt with this theme as the title villain (Tom Hiddleston) was a Loki from an alternate timeline that ultimately did not die as he escaped the events that led to his death in Avengers: Infinity War. This Loki grappled with knowledge about his potential fate, time travel and bizarre variants of his being, which included an alligator version of Loki (!). The events of the TV show probably led to the multiversal crisis befalling the MCU.
The Disney+ animated series What If…? exclusively explores other versions of the MCU, such as one where T’Challa never became Black Panther but instead became Star-Lord, or a world where zombies have overrun the MCU. More importantly at least two characters introduced in the What If…? series will appear in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. They are a dark version of Doctor Strange and a Peggy Carter who recieved the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers. In one segment when a superpowered Ultron and the Watcher fought, their battle raged across different universes, including what may be the Star Wars universe. This series is inspired by the Marvel Comics title What If…? which explored different outcomes and events of the Marvel Universe, only the animated series focused on the MCU and for the most part the series was fun to watch.
Another terrific animated presentation from Marvel was the masterpiece Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which took place in an alternate world where a blond Peter Parker died as Spider-Man and Miles Morales took his place as a new Spider-Man. In his adventures he met alternate versions of Spider-Man including an older, jaded version of Peter Parker, Peter’s old girlfriend, Gwen Stacy and a cartoon pig. The film won the Oscar for best animated film and two sequels will be coming out starting next year.
Marvel is not the only one dealing with animated alternate worlds. DC has released several animated films based on their Elseworlds imprint, which is their own take of alternate universes. We’ve witnessed adaptations of popular Elseworld tales such as Superman: Red Son, Gotham Under Gaslight, and The Dark Knight Returns. These films were excellent adaptations of the source material or were inspired by the original premise.
DC has already had its live-action forays into alternate worlds. Crisis on Infinite Earths was a television crossover event that took place across DC’s Arrowverse TV shows. The event was a very loose adaptation of the classic comic book mini-series about multiple timelines and universes in DC being combined into one. The highlight of that event was, of course, the cameos, Easter eggs and appearances of DC heroes and villains from various live DC films and TV shows that were not part of the Arrowverse. For instance, we got to see Burt Ward reprise his role as Dick Grayson from the 1960s Batman TV show, we revisited the world of Smallville, and Brandon Routh appeared as Superman in a combination sequel to Superman Returns and loose adaptation of the classic comic book mini-series Kingdom Come. But the biggest surprise was that the TV version of the Flash (Grant Gustin) briefly met the film version played by Ezra Miller.
As to the rest of the crossover event, it was acceptable. Being these were Arrowverse shows with limited budgets, the result was what one would expect. Still, it was often entertaining and seeing the concept of a multiverse realized was fun, especially the end of the event which gave us tanatlizing glimpses into other worlds and stories.
These stories about multiverses and alternate characters and situations seemed unheard of fairly recently. Aside from the logistical hurdles of clearing rights and enticing actors to return to roles, the film and TV executives also feared that such stories would be too confusing. Sure, comic book readers and fans would understand the concept of alternate timelines and situations but the average person might not. Fortunately, as we have seen lately, these live-action presentations have been very successful, especially Spider-Man: No Way Home, which became one of the highest grossing films of all time. Still, the writers and showrunners have to be able to thread the needle carefully and tell a compelling and clear story. Otherwise, the result will be a confusing and unsatisfying film or TV show. The important thing to remember is that these are fun and fascinating explorations of our favorite characters. So for now, let’s enjoy and celebrate. these crossovers and multiverses for what they are.