The Culture Beat

April 5, 2010

Crises on multiple realities

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Science,Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 1:37 pm

This is a big year for alternate universes in pop culture. Where to begin? Last summer’s movie hit Star Trek rebooted the franchise by positing that a Romulan villain’s trip to the past that caused the death of the future Captain Kirk’s father, radically changed history. But it wasn’t by obliterating the long history of the Enterprise and its crew but by creating an alternate time stream with the same characters having different first meetings but still winding up together for some yet unwritten adventures.

And the J. J. Abrams sci-fi series Fringe, offered a mind-blowing revelation of a parallel universe impinging on the one of the main characters. But viewers of Abrams much more infamous series, Lost, are now experiencing alternate reality whiplash as the new and final season has left behind the series famous flashbacks and flash forwards to “flash-sideways” where we see the series’ characters living in a world in which Oceanic flight 815 never crashed on the island. Viewers are now asking which is the real world? Both? Neither? This picture of Jack Shephard in the Side-ways world suggests the parallel nature off his predicament.

It’s important to note that all of the above are part of Abrams’ Bad Robot productions with many of the same writers and producers using these concepts to create mind-bending tales whatever their understanding of or commitment to specific scientific theories.

Last night I watched JLA: Crisis on Two Earths, the latest in Warner Bros. direct-to-video movies featuring superheroes of the DC universe. The concept of multiple realities, based on the theory that every human choice creates a new universe, thus leading to a “multiverse” of infinite earths, feeds the concept of such stories. Despite the current vogue, the concept of parallel universes that are to some degree different from our own has spawned tales long before the 20th century. But instances of the science fiction thread discussed here can be found in television at least as early as several episodes of The Twilight Zone of the early 1960s and in the famous Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” wherein Kirk finds himself on a different, barbaric Enterprise with a goateed Mr. Spock.

Comics got into the act when in 1961, DC Comics offered “Flash of Two Worlds,” the “Silver Age” tale of the original speedster, Jay Garrick, from the comics “Golden Age” of the 1940s, meeting the new Flash, Barry Allen, who had been the instrument of DC’s rebooting of its superhero stories by re-inventing classic characters in an updated form. To account for characters of the same name who didn’t live in the same world, DC borrowed the alternate reality concept and posited that the Jay Garrick earth was slightly ahead, history wise, of Barry Allen’s earth and that many of the same characters had their versions in each world. Thus we would see more and more DC characters re-introduced into current continuity as inhabitants of “Earth One” often crossing over to or being visited by their counterparts on “Earth Two.”

Eventually there were two Green Lanterns, Atoms, Hawkmans (Hawkmen?) and others each with their distinctly different costume designed that sent young readers’ brains spinning with wonder and delight. Periodic expansion of the concept led to the discovery of other earths, one with an “Crime Syndicate” that had evil counterparts to Superman, Wonder Woman and others and resisted by its lone hero, Lex Luthor in a topsy turvy reversal.

Eventually, by the 1980s, DC had accumulated so many characters and parallel earths that it did a major housecleaning with its historic 12-issue series, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” which saw the elimination of the multi-verse into a single universe. That tradition of dimensional crossovers is the basis of JLA: Crisis on Two Earths. The Batman criminal counterpart, Owlman (voiced by actor James Woods) does a surprising dive into philosophy by surmising that an infinite number of worlds created by choices makes human free will pointless and humanity insignificant. Thus it would be no crime if he was to set off a superbomb that will destroy the multiverse–just because he can. This isn’t the first time DC animators have delved into modern philosophy. In this YouTube clip from the Justice League series, titled here “Sartre and Superman,” the original evil Lex Luthor advises an android seeking purpose for his life, to go all existential and create his own purpose. Owlman shows his fidelity to his nihilist beliefs in the movie’s climax. This and a well-executed story lifts the movie out of simple bash and crash beat ’em ups.

Ultimately, none of these stories is meant to prove the reality of quantum physics. Writers just love to explore the dramatic story potential of parallel lives intertwining. Indeed, many are meditations on the consequences of human moral choices, again reminding us of the significance of our actions and the power of imagination.

Note: Soon after posting this, my buddy Thom Parham, also known as the “DCU Continuity Cop,” let me know of several errors of names of the complex DC history, which I’ve since corrected and for which I am grateful.


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