Over the past year, both Marvel and DC Comics offered up crossover events: Marvel’s Secret Invasion by Brian Michael Bendis and DC’s Final Crisis by Grant Morrison. Both are crossovers on the grandest of scales – mega-crossovers, you might say – and both are steeped in historical ambitions. DC’s Crisis is the third in a trilogy of crises, seeking to build on the success of Crisis on Infinite Earths, which made history in the 1980s with a crossover that had real and long-lasting effects on the DC Universe. It’s also probably no coincidence that Marvel’s big crossover is a “secret,” just like Marvel’s big 1980s crossover Secret Wars, a trend-setting trailblazer for the cosmic-war sub-genre of crossover.
Those two early crossovers set the standards by which all crossovers are measured: a looming menace of doom on a massive scale, the sacrificial death of a beloved hero, and lasting changes in the fictional world’s status quo. Oh, and try not to leave casual readers scratching their heads too much. Let’s take a look at how Secret Invasion and Final Crisis measured up. (WARNING: Capricious spoilers abound.)
Looming Menace on a Massive Scale
The Measure: In a standard comic the Joker may have plans to poison all of Gotham City, or Dr. Octopus may be scheming to blow up New York City. But we expect bigger things of the mega-crossover, which demands a looming menace on a truly massive scale.
Secret Invasion: The alien shape-shifting Skrulls have figured out a way to mimic humans perfectly, and have secretly taken the place of some of Earth’s mightiest superheroes. With Skrulls in place on every super-team, the alien invaders are poised to take over the planet Earth and make Skrull-appetizers out of humanity. As Marvel’s superheroes lose trust in each other, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
Final Crisis: Darkseid and his evil gods finally triumph over the New Gods, leaving Darkseid’s power unchecked. He unleashes an “anti-life” equation on earth, enslaving half of humanity in his thrall, including many of Earth’s heroes. On top of everything, the war of the gods makes Earth into a doomsday singularity, causing all of time and space to fracture, endangering the fate of the entire multiverse.
The Verdict: In Secret Invasion, it’s really only the fate of the planet Earth that’s at stake. That’s so Inferno, so Acts of Vengeance, so very 1990. In the first decade of the 21st century, we’ve returned to 80s-style mega-crossovers where, at minimum, the fate of a universe is at stake–or better yet, the fate of an infinite number of universes. Apparently, Bendis didn’t get that memo, but Morrison sure did, bringing the entire Multiverse back just so Darkseid could screw it up again. Final Crisis wins this category hands-down.
The Measure: In the original Crisis, Supergirl and the Flash gave up their lives to save the Multiverse from the Anti-Monitor, both moving acts of bravery and sacrifice, bringing an end to two prominent characters. Ever since, countless crossovers have sought to replicate those poignant sacrificial deaths – though few have succeeded.
Secret Invasion: Just when it seems Earth’s heroes have finally turned the tide against the Skrulls, the aliens reveal their weapon of last resort: they trigger a growth serum in Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp, making her grow to giant-size and release a deadly toxin into the Earth’s atmosphere. With her last breaths, the Wasp tries to get away to save the lives of her friends, and Thor creates a massive vortex to prevent the toxin from doing harm – but the brave Wasp, alas, is no more.
Final Crisis: At the start of the series, Martian Manhunter is killed, but that’s really just a warm-up, to send a this-is-a-really-serious-big-time-crossover message. As the series climaxes, Batman alone manages to find his way into Darkseid’s cosmic singularity hideout. The Dark Knight breaks his vow to never use firearms, shooting Darkseid with a time-traveling bullet that’s toxic to gods. Darkseid is mortally wounded, but not before he strikes Batman down with his Omega Sanction.
The Verdict: This one is a hard call. Batman’s death is clearly the more Earth-shattering event, but that also means we all know it will never stick. (At the end of Final Crisis there’s already a hint that Batman’s death is not terribly permanent.) The Wasp, on the other hand, is not as much of a headliner, but she’s been a significant figure in the Marvel Universe, and especially the Avengers, almost since the start. She’s much more likely to actually stay dead for a few years.
On the other hand, the two-page splash of Batman’s fall is beautifully rendered, and there’s something poetic about Batman resorting to the use of a gun, the very weapon that killed his parents, to save the universe.
In contrast, the artwork of the Wasp’s death got in the way of the story rather than advancing it, and her death felt a bit rushed and inessential to the overall story arc.
This one goes to DC, but only by a nose.
The Measure: One side effect of a story that involves dozens of characters, several subplots, and multiple battles is that it can easily confuse or alienate some readers, especially those who don’t buy every single issue of every single comic your company publishes. A good mega-crossover avoids this pitfall by providing enough exposition for even somewhat casual readers to understand what’s going on.
Secret Invasion: As with any crossover, there are a lot of heroes running around, and quite a few subplots, and the Skrulls-imitating-heroes thing probably only adds to the confusion. But Marvel included a nice one-page synopsis at the start of each issue, making things a bit easier on casual readers or those who lack perfect nerd-recall.
Final Crisis: A good number of new characters were introduced, and the plot jumped around a lot. It also felt like some key plot points were glossed over very quickly – like why and how Darkseid’s doings were also tearing apart the fabric of space and time. Multiverses do tend to get confusing.
The Verdict: Neither company scores very well on the confusion factor, but Marvel wins this one handily, if only for the inclusion of the reader-friendly cheat sheets.
Shaking up the Status Quo
The Measure: The first Crisis was famous for shaking up the status quo, not only with several major deaths but also with the end of the Multiverse and the re-writing of DC’s history. The final – and perhaps the most crucial – measure of a crossover is its lasting effect on the universe and its characters.
Secret Invasion: Norman Osborn, also known as the villainous Green Goblin, is the surprising “hero” who shoots down the Skrull Queen. For this single benevolent act, the U.S. government not only gives him a medal, they put him in charge of international intelligence, the superhuman defense initiative, and the Avengers. In his new role, Norman Osborn gathers a secret cabal in the basement of Avengers Tower, including Dr. Doom, Loki, and the Hood. The supervillains are in charge now.
Final Crisis: Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, has been resurrected. Martian Manhunter is dead, and Batman will at least be seriously out of commission for a while. It’s rumored that Superman and Wonder Woman will be taking some vacay-time, too. Oh, and it looks like the history of the Multiverse has been re-written, again.
The Verdict: DC definitely had some big deaths and resurrections, but beyond that, it’s not clear if there are any real far-reaching consequences of Final Crisis, other than the re-writing of the history of the Multiverse (and really, how many times is DC going to play that card?). In Secret Invasion, Norman Osborn’s takeover of the Avengers felt like a bit of a non sequitur, but it does seem like it will affect multiple characters and hopefully generate some interesting stories. On that basis, I’ll have to make Marvel the winner in this category.
That brings us to two wins for Final Crisis and two for Secret Invasion – a perfect tie. Overall, both crossovers had moments that were highly engaging and took their respective universes in interesting new directions. Both also felt rushed at times, with casts that were a bit too large for the number of pages, seeming to sacrifice character development for the sake of the star-spanning plots. Bendis and Morrison have each written brilliant characters and dialogue elsewhere, but those particular talents only showed through occasionally in these series. But then, those are not the standards by which a mega-crossover is judged.