I’m taking a brief break from my Mass Effect 2 competition with a fellow chum (which will either end in a bottle of scotch for me or a bottle of urine for him) to talk about something that’s been on my mind a lot recently – comic book crossovers. Be warned, there are spoilers below.
This has been a staple of the medium for decades, and in a lot of cases it works well – Batman, of course, meets up with a lot of his Bat-family compatriots (most of whom have their own books) and also engages in adventures separately with many members of the Justice League. Iron Man prolifically meets up with fellow heroes like Black Widow, Thor and Captain America. Even the X-Men cross over sometimes, with Wolverine being in at least three different Avengers/equivalent groups and Namor having been in at least five different superhero stories that I can think of. Minor crossovers like this add a bit of distinct flavour to what is either already an enticing meal or a bland, samey morsel in desperate need of some variety.
Then you get to the big crossovers, which have become something of an annual occurrence; House of M. Final Crisis. Fear Itself. Blackest Night. These are the gigantic, universe-shaking super-events which promise massive changes and forever alter the superhero status quo for their respective continuities. One wonders, however, whether they’re entirely necessary as a frequent staple.
Every year, since 2004 at least, there has been at least one massive crossover event coming from both companies that has acted as the centerpiece for their yearly publications. Whether they encompass every single hero or just the vast majority of books varies from event to event, but as a general rule of thumb these climactic, action-packed crossovers serve to reach out and touch elements of every corner of both companies’ universes in some capacity. Avengers Disassembled versus Identity Crisis. Infinite Crisis versus House of M. Civil War versus 52. Each time something occurs, on a galactic or interpersonal level, that mixes up the formula and sets things on a slightly (or majorly, especially with the Avengers crossovers) different path than before.
The problem is that the gravitas of a colossal-super-hyper-magical-mystery-chocolate-fudge-awesome event is lost when it occurs every single year, and each time the stakes attempt to get raised more than the last time. It ends up becoming hollow and token if you’re expecting the two sides of the Civil War argument to get back together next year, or for Batman to return from the dead after Final Crisis wraps up. This also ties in heavily to the concept of comic book death, when the climax of an event features the passing of a major hero that you almost certainly know for a fact will not stay dead for longer than a few months. This is particularly egregious of Fear Itself, which ended with Thor defeating the Big Bad before succumbing to his wounds. Given how popular he’s become in the wake of the big-screen movies and Chris Hemsworth’s absolutely gorgeous abdominal muscles you know he’ll be back next week, and this makes the entire endpoint of Fear Itself seem quite devalued.
Crossover events work, but as with everything they’re only really good in moderation. Having major characters die as the ending of a story doesn’t work if it happens all the time. Changing the status quo every year gives readers – and new ones in particular – little time to acclimatize to the reshaped world they’re experiencing. And really, can one of you guys come up with a big bad guy who doesn’t want to simply destroy the world or break reality of change the universe into a cookie jar? Having one of those plots every decade works. Having one almost every year just seems far too cheap.
My theory is that a really huge heavily-publicized centerpiece crossover should happen no less than four years after the previous one. Minor things like Shadowland and Brightest Day don’t count – your Infinite Crises and Secret Invasions need time between each other for the universe to adapt and fester in order for the new evil to come and take control of the plot. All this constant retconning, cheap character death and megalomaniacal antagonists who seem like they were yanked out of a Captain Planet episode merely defangs the true bite that a major event is supposed to inflict. It’s hard to have the kind of emotional investment you need for a big hero-slaughter-spree crossover when its apparent it’ll get changed somewhere soon down the line.
And to be perfectly honest, killing any of both universes’ Big Three – Bats, Supes and the Amazon Hooker versus Tin Man, Captain Hammer and the Anti-Nazi – no longer has any emotional or narrative value whatsoever. They’re the flagship characters, and will just be back when the cash flow starts to drip away and the writers have run out of ideas.