DC just revealed its secret weapon to compete against Marvel, and maybe win

Marvel may have beat DC to the multiverse punch, but the multiverse runs deep in DC history. Here's why the franchise will finally stand apart from the MCU.

Warner Bros. Television

Tucked between reveals for movies like Wonder Woman 1984 and The Suicide Squad, you may have missed arguably the most important panel at DC FanDome. In "Multiverse 101," attended by DC co-publisher Jim Lee, producer Walter Hamada, and television producer Greg Berlanti, the future of DC movies and TV was painted with infinite possibilities.

"One of the things that is unique to DC is the large work of fiction that has leaned upon this idea that we are not alone," Jim Lee said. "We have this reality, but there are alternate realities that sit side by side with us. You see this endless spectrum of characters you can create."

With mention of the historic (and surprise) crossover between Grant Gustin's TV Flash and Ezra Miller's movie Flash, the panelists revealed how the DC multiverse connects every piece of DC media — films, TV, and more — without actually "connecting."

"This opens the door for us to do more crossovers to really lean in this idea," said Walter Hamada, President of DC Films. "To acknowledge the fact that there can be one Flash on TV, one in the movies, and you don't have to pick one or the other. They both exist in this great multiverse."

He added, "It opens doors for us in a way you couldn't have if you had a singular universe."

In the aftermath of DC FanDome, Marvel's biggest and older rival is doubling down on the multiverse for its movies in a way Marvel itself has yet capitalize. What's fitting is that it's DC that is credited for introducing the multiverse to comic books and superheroes, paving the way for stories like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to win Oscar gold.

The DC Extended Universe tapping into its past to define its future, and while Marvel Studios got to the multiverse first — it was name-dropped in Spider-Man: Far From Home and will be explored in 2022's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) — DC is in a prime position to show everyone how it's done.

Cover of 'Flash' #123, the landmark issue that introduced DC readers to the multiverse.

DC Comics

Why the Multiverse matters to DC

Hopefully, you get the multiverse by now: Multiple realities manifest as alternate versions of the same characters. If it's not superhero movies you know the multiverse from, then it's from TV shows like Stranger Things and Rick and Morty. It's a pretty popular sci-fi concept.

But the multiverse runs deep in DC's identity. In 1961, DC Comics published a landmark issue in its comic book history: The Flash #123, the first comic to explore the DC multiverse. In the issue, Barry Allen, the second person to don the mantle of The Flash, meets his "predecessor" Jay Garrick, who debuted in comics as The Flash 21 years earlier in 1940.

Instead of Jay Garrick being an old-timer from World War II coming out of retirement in the hip '60s, The Flash writer Gardner Fox did something unusual. He introduced Jay Garrick as a visitor from a parallel reality, Earth-Two. Within the pages of a single ten-cent comic was a big bang of a million possibilities — and potentially billions of dollars.

Both DC and Marvel have explored their multiverses many times. But DC kicked it off for comic book readers with "Flash of Two Worlds," letting the multiverse be intrinsically tied to DC in a way it simply isn't for Marvel. Sure, Marvel has introduced and dissolved parallel universes as much as DC, but multiverse-centric events dot more of DC's history.

It's not because DC actually likes imploding its multiverse on a regular basis, either. As writer Reed Tucker put it in his 2017 book Slugfest, by the mid-1980s the Marvel Universe "was mostly created in a few years by a small handful of people," while DC "had been haphazardly assembled piecemeal over the decades without an overriding plan or a single guiding voice." The significance of era-defining events like Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman, which shrunk the DC multiverse into a single entity for a time, lies not only in its scope and ambition but in the many headaches it alleviated for DC's editors. This simply hasn't been a problem for Marvel as often as it is for DC.

Concept art for 2022's 'Flashpoint' that reveals Michael Keaton's Batman teaming up with Ezra Miller's Flash.

Warner Bros. Pictures

What will the Multiverse mean for DC movies and TV?

Just as DC Comics weaponized multiverse stories to get out of its lagging position behind Marvel, so too DC Films will weaponize the multiverse to stand apart from the shadow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

At a glance, the multiverse means DC won't have to bother connecting all the strings on the corkboard. This frees up filmmakers who may have fun or fresh takes on characters like Batman and Superman to pursue their ideas without fitting a round peg into a continuity square. At the same token, this allows DC to revisit its existing franchises in a way fans will shell out money to tickle their nostalgia. Anything can connect when DC wants it too, or exist in separate universes when DC wants to keep things simple.

Call it Elseworlds. Call it whatever. It's simply the multiverse.

We're already seeing this in progress, and working. Joker, Todd Phillips' popular movie about Batman's greatest nemesis, doesn't fit into the same universe of Batman v Superman or Suicide Squad. Thanks to the multiverse, it doesn't have to. With Joker in its own continuity, Phillips has his vision fulfilled while DC has a popular Joker it can revisit whenever it wants. Based on the reactions to Joker, audiences don't care about shared universes when the ideas are resonant and the takes feel fresh. But if Joaquin Phoenix suddenly turns up in The Flash, DC can just shout "multiverse" and move on.

Based on the reveals for the 2022 movie The Flash, the possibility for previously unthinkable crossovers are also within reach. As revealed at DC FanDome, the solo Ezra Miller movie will — a loose adaptation of the 2011 comic Flashpoint — involve two different Batmans of two different eras. Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck will both return as their versions of the Dark Knight. This is only possible because of the multiverse concept.

Marvel has not yet completely weaponized the multiverse in a way DC aims to do. For boring reasons related to the Disney-Fox merger, the multiverse may be how the X-Men finally debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but no one at Marvel is publicly talking about specifics yet. For now, the multiverse has only been how Marvel ignores Sony's movies like Venom.

The multiverse isn't a "better" idea than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's just different. But it's biggest benefit is that it lets standalone movies like Joker or The Batman exist without needing to shoehorn in an entire connected universe.

While Marvel fans enjoy a remarkably airtight cohesive story spread out over dozens of movies, DC fans have literally infinite possibilities to think about from now until theaters finally open again.

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