Hero Nation is a weekly column about genre news that now appears on Wednesdays.
The walls separating Hollywood’s superhero universes aren’t as sturdy as they once seemed. On Tuesday night, for example, the Flash from television primetime (portrayed by Grant Gustin) ran into the Flash from feature films (portrayed by Ezra Miller) in an unexpected on-screen moment that also served as a sign-of-the-times in superhero storytelling.
Gustin has been the Fastest Man Alive on the small screen since 2013 and he’s in his sixth season as the title star of The Flash on The CW. Miller, meanwhile, has been the Fastest Man Alive on the silver screen since 2016 and he’s slated to return to the role in 2022 with the first solo Flash movie. The pair crossed paths during The CW’s two-episode finale to the Crisis on Infinite Earths, the largest superhero crossover event in television history — an ersatz Avengers: Endgame for primetime.
Alternate-reality storylines with knotty inter-dimensional plots and varied versions of the same characters have been a trippy staple of comic books since the JFK era and now they’ve been imported to Hollywood’s masked-man mythologies.
There’s no better example than Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which boldly killed off the familiar Spider-Mna and filled the screen with otherworldly alternates (a female Spidey, an anime Spidey, a mid-life crisis Spidey, a talking-pig Spidey, etc.) and won an Oscar by somehow pulling the whole thing off.
The Crisis event used the plot device for some truly inspired stunt casting, including appearances by two former Clark Kents (Brandon Routh from Bryan Singer’s big-screen Superman Returns and Tom Welling of small-screen Smallville). But Miller’s cameo on Tuesday was different and more surprising considering his “active duty” status in the role.
“This shouldn’t be possible now,” Gustin’s bewildered Flash says to his cineplex counterpart in a moment of rare intra-corporate, cross-media synergy for Warner Bros superhero storytellers. The moment was also one that breached the narrative firewalls that traditionally separate the film and television versions of DC Comics mythology.
It’s not clear how (or if) the fleeting encounter between two Flashes will be reflected in the hero’s big-screen saga moving forward (in fact, after numerous delays, it’s not entirely clear that the big-screen saga itself is truly moving forward). Any confluence of continuities brings with it a risk/reward consideration, however. Loyal fans might love the callback connections and cosmic complexities of the practice but is it off-putting to uninitiated viewers? It’s one thing asking a newcomer to follow the Fastest Man Alive but how many of them will be able to keep up with a flood of Flashes?
VULTURE CULTURE: There was a second confluence between superhero universes this week that will have intriguing ramifications for Sony’s Columbia Pictures. On Monday, the teaser was released for Morbius (due July 31) starring Oscar-winner Jared Leto as the classic horror character from the pages of Marvel Comics.
Morbius is part of the studio’s mining expedition into the unexplored corners of the Spider-Man universe, an IP initiative that already produced a robust hit with the apparently review-proof Venom (2018) with Tom Hardy. The big surprise on Monday was the fleeting glimpse it included of Michael Keaton back in the role of Adrien Toomes, aka the Vulture, the tech-scavenging villain from Spider-Man: Homecoming. The presence of the imprisoned Toomes in the trailer represents a major new bridge between the Sony expanded Spider universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (It also sets the stage for Sony’s long-discussed screen version of the Sinister Six, the super-villain collective.)
Keaton, of course, has been in the superhero blockbuster game longer than any other Hollywood actor. He portrayed Gotham City’s caped crusader in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1991) and the meta-minded Birdman (2014), which earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor.
Keaton also has some notable previous experience with taking a crossover character into unexpected screen territory. The actor portrayed FBI Special Agent Ray Nicolette in Quentin Tarantino’s terrific Jackie Brown (1997) and then imported the lawman into Steven Soderbergh’s equally terrific Out of Sight (1998).
SUPERMAN RETURNS: The CW is ready for takeoff with Superman & Lois with the Metropolis revival effort securing a series pickup in lieu of a pilot order. The title stars are Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch (who each popped up in character in the Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event) and a big part of their challenge will be finding a 21st Century interpretation of the iconic couple that feels relevant to contemporary audiences but also lives up to the IP’s especially long television legacy.
How long of a legacy is it? Take a look below at the very first television adventure of Clark Kent and Lois Lane, which aired 67 years ago in September of 1952. Also that same month: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was published and the Brooklyn Dodgers won the National League pennant.