“Crisis on Earth-X” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Over the past few years, it’s been thrilling to see the CW’s DC crossover become an annual staple of increasing, ridiculous ambition. Four years ago, a pre-superpowers Barry Allen cropping up for a two-episode arc on Arrow was considered groundbreaking. Now, in 2017, we have a 160-minute four show extravaganza with enough superheroes and supervillains to rival even Infinity War. Even with the premise alone, Crisis On Earth-X is impressive. It’s a small wonder that they actually pulled it off.
Crisis On Earth-X is not without its flaws, but considering the difficulty and precision of the needle it had to thread and the sheer glut of characters needing attention, it’s a terrific achievement for superhero TV. It circumvents the flaw that bugged the otherwise enjoyable Invasion! crossover from last year, which is the balance between the individual show and the overall crossover narrative (as great as that 100th episode of Arrow was, it sapped the momentum out of the Dominator story), by abandoning any pretence of episodic individuality. Strikingly, the title card and trademark credits of each show are nowhere to be seen, and there is no attempt to ground the narrative in a revolving perspective of whosever show it is. The result is an episode of Arrow that re-introduces the Reverse Flash, an episode of Supergirl where Barry and Iris get married, and the darkest chapter of the show belonging on The Flash. It’s an unashamed, and delightful, mix-up, and exactly what a crossover should aim to do.
The result is a generally satisfying focus on character which allows fully fleshed-out arcs to play out throughout the four episodes without any need to shift perspectives. One of the most effective examples of this is Alex and Sara’s arc, which corkscrews from a fun, only-in-a-crossover situation with their one night stand to a thoughtful and sober exploration of what the two isolated women can teach the other. The space this story is given to breathe allows it to layer in nuance that would get lost if it were compressed in the manner of last year’s crossover, like the affecting callback to Sara’s grief over Laurel as a parallel to Alex’s situation with Kara. The same is true of Jax and Stein, which takes Legends’ meandering separation anxiety arc and injects it with pathos and heart on the way to a gut-punch of a conclusion as Stein sacrifices himself to save Jax, explicitly confirmed as father and son figures at the very last. Even in the midst of a frantic concluding hour, Crisis on Earth-X has time to give over to exploring the web of connections Stein had created in his time in the Arrowverse (the grief felt by Team Flash is something a less astute crossover may have forgotten) and to hammer home its tragedy with Jax’s heart-rending visit to the Stein household to deliver the bad news.
Across the four hours, Crisis on Earth-X also manages to bring a couple of new faces into the maelstrom in the form of Earth-X freedom fighters the Ray and Citizen Cold. Their romantic relationship is shown rather than told and placed in the capable hands of Russell Tovey and Wentworth Miller, queer actors who evidently understand the weight of their roles, and it allows for some of the best LGBT representation the universe has pulled off thus far. It’s always fun to see Miller boomerang back in a different guise, and, given the chance to play the most heroic version of Snart we’ve seen as of yet, he fits into the wider ensemble as if he never left – it’ll be a treat to have him around for a couple more episodes of Legends before he hangs up the cold gun for good.
Any crossover worth its salt needs memorable set-pieces to justify its glittering line-up, and Crisis on Earth-X delivers plenty of them. They’re not entirely beyond reproach – the Arrow hour proves that the show’s trademark murky colour scheme meshes poorly with huge casts of characters with interchangeable powers – but there are some truly impressive sequences here for the CW’s budget. The church fight in the Supergirl episode, for instance was a terrifically concise set-piece that delivers the fun sight of heroes out of costume and gives time over to B-team heroes who get lost in the wash later on such as Kid Flash and Vibe, or villains like the Earth-X Prometheus (Colin Donnell’s appearance was thematically pointless, but such a surprising and emotional callback that its extraneousness didn’t matter all that much). And superhero slug-fests don’t get a lot more thrilling than the giddy final set-piece in the Legends episode that throws about twenty heroes, four major villains and two time-ships on screen and somehow crafts it into something coherent that gives everyone the time they need to shine. It’s no mean feat that the action here was more visually impressive and emotionally resonant than any of the set-pieces in the $300 million Justice League.
It’s impossible to talk about this crossover without mentioning its foes; the Earth-X Nazis. Especially at a time where everyone is conscious once more of the threat that such a fascist ideology can pose, making Nazis, especially those deriving from a world where Hitler won the war, the villains is to open a can of worms that has to be handled with sensitivity. Make no mistake, it’s beyond satisfying to see our heroes beat up fascists for four hours, and the Darwinian philosophy of the Earth-Xers in their belief in only the strongest having to survive makes them a compelling counterpart to the heroes who believe in a duty of care for those who can’t protect themselves. Crisis on Earth-X smartly resists making the Nazis sympathetic – there’s Dark Arrow’s love for his dying wife Overgirl, but the punch-line to that arc is Oliver using Dark Arrow’s grief to get in a kill-shot in the heart. It creates urgency for the story, but by no means are we meant to feel any emotion other than hate towards even those who dominate the story. And during the trip to Earth-X during the Flash episode, there was a generally sensitive depiction of the despondency caused by decades of cyclical, endless oppression based on arbitrary fascist values.
Yet the crossover didn’t always hit the mark. The trip to a concentration camp to add a bit of peril for a cliffhanger (and fodder for the introduction of Citizen Cold) ended up on the wrong side of tasteful, and the swastika-filled opening in which Dark Arrow hunts and kills James Olsen, a black man, was a clumsy use of imagery the weight of which the crossover evidently didn’t quite understand. Truth be told, it’s hard to tell whether the alt-word setting was a good premise at all – it’s hard to imagine even the most sensitive and thoughtful piece of fiction running into absolutely no obstacles depicting such a story in this fragile political climate – and that shows occasionally. Accepting that the premise was perhaps fundamentally flawed, it was executed in a way that exhibited a decent amount of cognizance of the weight of such foes (the stunned reactions of Jax and Felicity in particular was a strong bit of character and thematic work) and allowed for just a little bit more catharsis than usual when it came to the big fights between heroes and villains.
There were a few other problems that hampered the crossover at certain points. While the majority of the character arcs stemmed naturally from the individual shows and felt like culminations of long-running plotlines, the emotional story set up between Oliver and Felicity felt like it had been bolted onto the crossover with very little to actually justify its placing. It’s a plotline that unearths the least convincing parts of a relationship that’s never really made a decent case for its existence, and creates the most frustrating moments of arbitrary drama in the crossover. While the other plotlines felt like they complemented the heroes vs. Nazis action in some sense, Oliver and Felicity seemed to be a distraction. Moreover, the pay-off was especially disappointing, in which the couple tread all over, both in-show and out, a satisfying conclusion with the resumption of Barry and Iris’ wedding. It casts both, but particularly Felicity, in an unappealing light, and there’s not enough emotional resonance in their wedding to justify the interruption of the crossover’s original premise. A very different sticking point was the return of the Reverse-Flash. Tom Cavanagh is excellent as ever as Eobard, and it’s fun to see him share antagonistic scenes with Grant Gustin once more, but Eobard tagging along with the Earth-Xers is a nonsensical complication to the very simple and effective idea of mirror images that’s not explored in enough depth to justify the technobabble explanation. It’s understandable that the writers would be reticent to fold in another evil Barry Allen after Savitar, but there were dozens of other ways that an evil Flash, even one played by Cavanagh, could be included without the ultra-complication of Eobard’s involvement.
On the whole, though, Crisis On Earth-X was a thoroughly satisfying crossover that translated an insane level of ambition for TV into a surprisingly tangible end product. It manages to thread a needle the past two crossovers didn’t, which is to balance characters across all four shows with the requisite spectacle that a huge line-up of superheroes practically requires, and tells a far more compelling tale than that of the Dominators and Vandal Savage. In a sense, it’s hard to imagine them going bigger than this, short of plucking one of the biggest arcs in DC comics off the shelf like Crisis on Infinite Earths off the shelf, so this feels like a fitting, and fittingly flawed, culmination of a steady five years of this tiny little DC universe expanding into something huge. It’s downright amazing that we get to see stuff like this on TV, to be honest. 2017 has been a flawed year, but never a better time to be a fan of comic books.