Ever since fans got a look at the success and possibilities of Marvel’s shared superhero universe, they’ve wondered when DC Comics would follow suit. But as Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. move forward in launching their shared Justice League universe, it’s an entirely different story on TV.
The CW and DC Entertainment were first to bring a superhero to TV with Arrow, followed soon after by its spinoff, The Flash – a move that signaled a flood of DC adaptations. With Supergirl headed to CBS, Gotham at home on Fox, and Titans coming to TNT (so far), fans are all asking the same question: is a single ‘shared universe’ for DC’s TV heroes being planned – or even possible?
We’ve already offered our opinion of why shared universes on film may be as much of a curse as a blessing, but on television, the common assumptions about what a shared universe actually means, or how it should be demonstrated, is so confusing that we’re hoping to straighten a few things out.
Where It All Started
Few could have guessed just how effective The CW’s plans for spinning forensic scientist Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) off of Arrow and onto his own series would prove, making it clear from the start that the two shows would form a linked, overlapping, and permeable world on the network.
When DC Comics heroes like Black Canary (Katie Cassidy), Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh) and Ronnie Raymond (Robbie Amell) were added to the mix, it seemed Stephen Amell was right to assume that WB was embracing its head start by creating a Justice League on TV. And following the spinoff success, it seemed The CW had plenty more to heroes to bolster their ranks.
When It All Changed
The TV side of the DC universe took on a new shape when Fox announced its own DC Comics series in Gotham, a police drama set years before Batman. Given the absence of the city’s vigilante, it made sense for WB to hand the more colorful (read: off-putting) character to a separate network. Then came Constantine, NBC’s horror series with enough Vertigo Comics mythology to draw from to make crossovers seem unlikely.
Unfortunately, the arrival of Supergirl has made things a bit more… complicated. Kara Zor-El is a full-blown DC Comics “Justice League” superhero, after all – the kind fans would have expected The CW to keep a hold of, being that she’s the exact same age and, presumably, hits a similar target audience as their other shows.
The surprise announcement that a Supergirl series was being pitched by DC and Warner Bros. was followed soon after by the confirmation that producer of both Arrow and The Flash Greg Berlanti would be heading the project. Speculation that The CW’s team was looking to add a third DC hero to its lineup was quickly shot down, but The CW put their full support behind the show on another network.
Kara Zor-El would eventually land at CBS, yet the rumors of a crossover with Arrow and Flash persisted, despite some claiming a shared DC TV universe was already impossible now that WB and DC had scattered their heroes to multiple networks. That notion was further reinforced when Titans was announced for TNT, bringing more youthful heroes out of contention for the network’s Arrow/Flash universe.
But the conversation now dominating discussion of these shows, their larger fiction, and the unlikelihood of crossovers seems based on some seriously faulty thinking (or at the very least, unconfirmed).
The most important question being the one least asked: just what does ‘shared universe’ actually mean?
The Marvel Model Confusion
Ask any comic reader if The Flash and Green Arrow exist in the same universe, and they won’t hesitate. In fact, it’s safe to assume that every DC title takes place alongside all others, unless otherwise stated. Though that may be common knowledge to comic readers, movie fans were shown the exact opposite, thanks to the scattering of Marvel’s heroes in the early 2000s. Young or casual fans weren’t told why Fox’s X-Men couldn’t join forces with The Avengers or Spider-Man, simply accepting that superheroes weren’t made to mix.
Marvel Studios turned that assumption on its head by creating the first “shared universe”; a world in which superheroes’ paths all led to one blockbuster team-up. Crossovers weren’t just possible, they were the main selling point (and were a wildly successful one). Yet, fans who claimed that superhero films were finally “just like the comics” weren’t quite accurate.
Marvel had successfully emulated a comic event (and continues to adapt some of the most acclaimed ones for their films), but setting the bar so high meant a new challenge when the heroes parted ways. Even now, the pattern of rise-and-fall leading one Marvel event into the next can already be seen; a worthwhile ride for film, but when the universe spread to TV, the other edge of Marvel’s sword broke skin.
Why TV Requires a Different Approach
ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was promised to bring a weekly dose of the MCU, but balancing the ‘event’ nature of the films with a serialized story required a massive shift in thinking. The show revealed the downside of raising shared universe expectations so high, as even the most entertaining comic series can’t match “Civil War.” Marvel seems to have noticed too, turning to smaller-scale Netflix shows, emphasizing the individual heroes, pushing their own stories forward instead of the larger universe.
That’s part of the reason we were relieved to see DC Entertainment allowing writers and showrunners to developer their own stories and structures (the best way to find a lasting audience). Or as DC Entertainment’s Geoff Johns put it: “it’s about allowing everyone to make the best possible product, to tell the best story, to do the best world.”
The implication there is that for DC, its TV adaptations – just like the comics – needed to sustain themselves on their own merits; but that makes the construction of a ‘shared universe’ a new challenge, as well.
Would a DC Shared TV Universe Make Sense?
Again, it’s important to point out that sharing a universe and sharing the screen isn’t the same thing. If Arrow or The Flash don’t physically appear on Supergirl (or Titans), it doesn’t mean they’re non-existent in the show’s fictional world – or forbidden to ever appear. Nor does it mean a story logically bringing The Flash into Supergirl’s world (not hard to imagine) or vice versa, would need to re-define the ‘rules’ of the shared universe.
It’s a delicate art, presumably aided by the fact that Greg Berlanti is playing a pivotal role in conceiving all three shows. But that doesn’t mean Oliver Queen or Barry Allen will – or should – be central figures in Supergirl , as the top priority is delivering on the star herself. An Arrow crossover with The Flash came sooner than expected but, as Berlanti explained, much of that was due to plain old luck:
“So much has to go right for us to be able to make a great show. Again, I think of myself as like, if I were watching them, I would want to see [a crossover]. But we have to get so many things right to make a good show and so much of it is luck, unfortunately.”
Incorporating some other DC shows may not be so easy – but for good reason. If DC announced that they considered Arrow and Gotham to be set in the same universe, it wouldn’t make much sense. Separated by decades (in the traditional comic book timeline), fans would likely agree that if Gotham were set in the present, its style and personality would still define it as its own story and universe. Any sudden appearance by Barry Allen into Jim Gordon’s origin story would be as poor a decision as the same carried out in a “Gotham” comic series.
Again, Geoff Johns explained that he doesn’t see such a division as a flaw or splinter in a single ‘shared universe.’ Instead, he looks to the comics, and sees the emergence of a DC Multiverse:
“Arrow and Flash are the same universe, and we get a lot of great story out of that — especially when we have episodes that cross them over, but that’s also where our superhero universe lives. We look at it as the multiverse… they all co-exist.”
Could Supergirl & Titans Join The Universe?
Competing networks scoffing at the idea of joining forces may prove to still be the case, but times are certainly changing – and CBS turning to the talent behind The Flash and Arrow (Greg Berlanti) for their own show could prove telling. Now that Flash showrunner Andrew Kreisberg has been brought on to executive produce and help write Supergirl, CBS’ decision to order a full series commitment before seeing a pilot makes a bit more sense.
Whatever potential crossovers have or have not been discussed, it’s clear CBS wanted their very own DC superhero, with the talent responsible for The CW’s shared universe handling development. Either that, or The CW looked to add a DC heroine to DC’s TV catalogue and saw CBS’ slate of female-led dramas as a suitable home. That’s pure speculation, but we know CBS is now even more likely to see Supergirl assembled in Flash‘s image.
We’ve long argued that the rise of ‘event television’ and comic blockbusters have changed the game for superhero properties. It’s also worth noting that DC’s TV universe began on The CW – a joint venture between CBS and WB – and that Titans is in the works at another Time Warner subsidiary. Given those relationships and the ratings records set by the first Arrow/Flash crossover, the sales pitch for a shared superhero universe is obvious. Sony realizing that adding Spider-Man to the Marvel Universe would benefit both sides certainly didn’t hurt.
Network executives may still choose to ignore that a rising tide really can lift all ships, but if Titans or Supergirl wins early praise or ratings success, don’t be surprised to hear rumors of Warner Bros. Television plotting a multi-night, multi-series, multi-network crossover sure to dominate the TV conversation for weeks.
Why Fans Are Part of The Problem
We all want to see Supergirl join forces with Flash and Arrow. Stephen Amell wants it. Greg Berlanti wants it. But while comic book fans are certainly part of the reason for both Marvel and DC’s live-action success… they can also be their own worst enemy. That means that despite all the evidence implying CBS and WB are considering such a shared universe, they won’t even state that it’s being considered. Why? Because if they did, questions about doing justice to Supergirl would instantly cease, replaced with crossover talk.
When is it coming? What story will it tell? How often will they happen? What does this mean for Arrow and The Flash? Will Firestorm or Atom appear as well? With CBS interested in making a show that’s actually successful on its own, there’s nothing to be gained (in the long run, at least) by showing all their cards.
From our point of view, that only means good things for audiences… provided they can exercise some patience, and perhaps a little optimism.
Fans may, quite understandably, be looking for a rigid plan and strict guidelines to steer DC’s live-action endeavors, but Warner Bros. has taken a different path from Marvel for some time – one that we’ve seen as closer to the mindset behind the actual comics industry. In short: creative freedom with loose supervision, and crossovers that are explored if and when they make sense.
As always, we’ll cross our fingers and remind readers that in the world of comic books, TV, and film, the impossible can happen if the circumstances are right. Some in DC’s TV universe have already spoken of a plan to build a Justice League on TV, but what do you think of the idea? Does it seem like a no-brainer for DC and WB to build toward in the future, or do you think it’s a long shot?
Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments, and remember: no matter what WB says, no one can stop YOU from believing Jim Gordon and Quentin Lance go bowling on weekends.
Gotham airs Mondays @8pm on Fox. The Flash airs Tuesdays @8pm on The CW. Arrow airs Wednesdays 28pm on The CW. Supergirl is expected to air in 2015.