This article contains Elseworlds spoilers.
The concept of the Multiverse has been central to DC Comics for well over fifty years. At the center of that multiverse, there has always been the Flash, and Warner Bros. wasted no time introducing the seeds of the Multiverse and Crisis on Infinite Earths-influenced concepts in the first episode of The Flash TV series back in 2014. This was no accident, and as we learned from the conclusion of the 2018 Arrowverse crossover, Elseworlds, it was only the beginning.
The first appearance of Barry Allen in Showcase #4 (1956) is rightly credited for kickstarting the Silver Age of comics and rescuing superheroes from demise. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Unless you were Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, your prospects as a superhero in the publishing landscape of the early ‘50s were pretty grim, as readers had moved on to horror and romance titles. Adventurers like the original Flash and Green Lantern had long since faded into obscurity. But this revived Flash was the first blast of a superhero revival that soon led to space age versions of other masked adventurers like Green Lantern and the Atom. All boasted sleek, capeless costumes, science-based powers, and scientifically minded alter egos.
But practically coded into the character’s DNA from the outset was an almost metafictional take on the concept of comic book reality itself. Continuity wasn’t much of a concern at this stage of the game, and there’s no mention of Superman or Batman in Showcase #4. For all intents and purposes, Barry Allen may as well be the world’s first superhero. Why choose the name “the Flash?” Because it was the name of Barry’s favorite comic book character, who just so happened to be Jay Garrick, the Mercury-helmeted Flash who first appeared in Flash Comics #1 in 1939.
A simple enough explanation, but one that would be complicated somewhat with “The Flash of Two Worlds” story in 1961’s Flash #123. With this, we have the first appearance of DC’s Multiverse in all but name, a kind of metafictional string theory, where alternate realities are separated by vibrations keeping dimensions apart. Of course, it’s easy for a guy who can vibrate his molecules to transfer between dimensions, and it’s fitting that Barry would learn that the comics that inspired him to take up superheroics were actually a window into another reality.
Earth-2 was shown to be the home of all of the golden age versions of characters (notably the Justice Society of America) who had been revamped (there was no such word as reboot in 1961). From there, they just ran with the concept. Earth-3 was the home of evil versions of DC heroes, where Alexander Luthor is the only superhero. Earth-S is where they put the Shazam family of characters, having kept them in limbo after acquiring them from rival publisher Fawcett after a lawsuit. Earth-X (recently made famous by an Arrowverse TV crossover of its own) is where the Freedom Fighters fought a World War II that never ended. You get the idea, and if you’ve been keeping up with The Flash, Supergirl, and related shows, none of this is news.
Eventually, this multiple reality approach to storytelling proved unwieldy, and DC Comics decided it would be wiser to eliminate all of these parallel worlds in favor of a linear continuity more in keeping with what their main competition was putting out. The concept of parallel earths would be taken to its logical, and infinite, conclusion.
Crisis on Infinite Earths was a comic book event designed to simplify DC’s continuity. This was done at the cost of Barry Allen’s life, which brings us to the newspaper from the future that has haunted The Flash since its very first episode. The “red skies” mentioned in that futuristic headline are a hallmark of DC’s Crisis events (as we’ve seen over and over again, but especially on Elseworlds), and Barry Allen did indeed vanish as he disabled the villainous Anti-Monitor’s anti-matter cannon (don’t ask…it’s too much to get into right now). It was a fitting (and shocking) ending for one of DC’s marquee heroes. In 1985, you simply didn’t kill a character with that kind of profile.
But Crisis on Infinite Earths didn’t just off Barry Allen, it killed Kara Danvers, too. Supergirl had just headlined her own movie, but DC wanted to scale back Superman’s Kryptonian supporting cast, and further prove they meant business, so Kara also fell in battle with the Anti-Monitor. Again, while fans have long become numb to the idea of heroes being killed and resurrected in comics, I have to stress that this wasn’t a thing you did in 1985, let alone with characters who actually headlined their own books.
It took about 20 years, but DC eventually decided they were better off with a Multiverse and the infinite storytelling possibilities that it offered, and they brought it back, albeit relatively in the background compared to what it had once been. In recent years, thanks to ambitious stories like Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, they’ve utilized it to greater effect, clearly no longer seeing it as a symptom of decades of convoluted storytelling, but rather as what it is: the very thing which helps set them apart from their chief competition at Marvel. The fact that Warner Bros. is now willing to make Crisis on Infinite Earths, long considered to be an impenetrable piece of superhero storytelling that only those steeped in decades of DC Comics lore could ever comprehend, the centerpiece of multiple TV shows says a lot about how far we’ve come in the last few years.
Then again, DC and friends have been not-so-quietly sowing the seeds for their multimedia Multiverse for some time. Infinite Crisis, a video game named after another one of DC’s continuity-altering mega events, was the first serious attempt to place the concept of potentially infinite variations on beloved superheroes in the public eye outside of comic books. It was no accident that in 2014 DC Comics released a literal map of the Multiverse to promote Grant Morrison’s Multiversity, a series that previously would have been considered impenetrable to anyone but DC Comics scholars. That was the first indicator that DC considered stories that took place away from the printed page as part of their official continuity, also designating spots on the Multiverse map for animated series like Young Justice and Justice League Unlimited.
The Flash TV series dove headfirst into the DC Multiverse when it introduced its own Earth-2 (and original Flash, Jay Garrick) during its second season. And now, of course, the Arrowverse is well into exploring a Multiverse all its own. There are a couple of ways that you can look at the DC live action Multiverse at the moment. There’s the “canon” Arrowverse Multiverse, in which it is understood that Supergirl exists on a different Earth (Earth-38) from The Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow (which, if the TV Crisis on Infinite Earths fixes nothing else, it should be this), and then there’s the “implied” Multiverse, where we know that Gotham, Black Lightning, and Krypton, all produced by Warner Bros. TV, do not exist in the same reality as those other three superhero shows, but have never been explicitly addressed or had Earths formally designated to them. And so far, all of this has only accounted for modern DC TV shows.
But that all changed with Elseworlds. The appearance of John Wesley Shipp, not as Jay Garrick, but as the original TV Barry Allen, rocking the classic costume he wore during that CBS TV show’s brief run from 1990-1991 was a real statement of intent. If this Flash’s Earth-90 can exist, then surely there is an Earth-52 where George Reeves’ Adventures of Superman took place; Earth-66, where Adam West’s Batman took on bizarre foes; or an Earth-76, where Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman had adventures. There certainly must be an Earth designated for the Smallville continuity, which was (until recently) the most expansive exploration of a version of the DC Universe in live action ever attempted. This doesn’t mean that the TV version of Crisis on Infinite Earths is going to heavily feature characters from every single DC show on the air (while the core Arrowverse shows film in Vancouver, Black Lightning is in Atlanta, and Krypton is in Belfast…these production schedules are tricky enough). But it wouldn’t take much for a character to be observed through a dimensional window or monitor screen (and something tells me Smallville characters will make an appearance).
But what about the DCEU? Well, I can safely say that there is exactly zero chance that anything that happens on TV will have any effect on what happens in any upcoming DC movies, and they’ll certainly never go out of their way to acknowledge the TV Multiverse, even in passing. Conversely, it’s unclear if WBTV could even use footage from those movies to “unite the Multiverse” via monitor screen or whatever if they wanted to. But they don’t need to. For DC fans, the implication is quite clear. There are infinite worlds in the DC multimedia multiverse, and thus fans know that there’s an Earth-78 where the Christopher Reeve Superman movies took place, and an Earth-89 where Tim Burton’s Batman movies exist. We’ll never get to see those crossovers actually happen, mind you, but real fans will know the truth, and we can take some satisfaction in that knowledge.
* A version of this article ran in 2014. It has been updated with new information. *