Spoilers abound – for this and other DC/Marvel properties
In November 2017, the CW premiered an ambitious four-part crossover event between Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow. Encompassing multiple Earths, doppelgängers and appearances by an eye-watering roster of superheroes, and a level of fan-excitement that Justice League couldn’t possibly match, it was supposed to be a triumph for the network. And, in terms of viewership, I suppose it was.
But seriously, CW? Why did it have to be Nazis?
Our Crisis on Earth-X event sees Supergirl, Alex Danvers, Green Arrow, Felicity Smoak/Overwatch, Sara Lance, Martin Stein and Jefferson Jackson (the two halves of Firestorm) and even Mick Rory arrive in Central City for the nuptials of Barry Allen (The Flash) and Iris West. Unfortunately the ceremony has barely gotten under way when the church is attacked by a Nazi army helmed by doppelgängers of Green Arrow and Supergirl (complete with SS regalia upon their uniforms – thanks for that visual).
We learn that, of the many alternative Earths that make up the DC multiverse, there is one Earth that no sane person would ever dream of crossing over into, the pinnacle of crapsack dystopia… an Earth where the Second World War was won not by the Allies, but by Adolf Hitler. This is the so-called Earth-X. A world where the cruel Arbeit Macht Frei stands over the gates of extermination camps, two of the heroes we associate with protesting the innocent and defenceless preside over a fascist regime and refer to others as “lesser human beings” and there is no hope.
Fascism is not something consigned to history’s darkest era. With a rise in electoral support for neo-fascist parties across the globe, and a president who described the white nationalists arching in Charlottesville, Virginia as having “fine people” in their ranks, it is a movement that is far from dead, and that fact should terrify us.
Nazism and Popular Culture
The creep of Nazism is occurring not just in real life, but they are becoming more prevalent in the fictional media we consume as well. Amazon TV recently adapted another alternative history tale, The Man in the High Castle, which also paints a grim world in which the Axis Powers triumphed in the Second World War. Unfortunately, their publicity stunt on the New York subway was… controversial, and rapidly pulled.
2016 saw the controversial decision by Marvel to have their stalwart of American values, Steve Rogers/Captain America declare “Heil HYDRA”, with an attempt to claim that Cap had always been a HYDRA sleeper agent. And despite numerous debates online, HYDRA IS a Nazi-spin off organisation. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. recognised this (skip to 0:52 to hear Skye call Grant Ward out on HYDRA’s origins within the universe).
I appreciate that the HYDRA Cap/Secret Empire storyline has subsequently evolved, but one cannot deny the exceptionally poor taste with which it was executed in the first instance. Even comic book legend and long-timer friend of Jack Kirby, Buzz Dixon, has expressed his horror, and undoubtedly the horror that Kirby (himself the son of Jewish immigrants) would feel at this violation on his beloved character. (Hell, Steve Rogers even canonically rescinded the title of Captain America when he felt he could no longer go along with current government policy and objectives)
In fact, throughout the history of comic books, many of the greater characters were the creation of Jewish-American writers and illustrators. Former Spider-Man editor and author Danny Fingeroth explored the relationship between these Jerry Siegel, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Bob Kane and their characters in his book Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero. You can read an interview with Fingeroth here.
Crisis on Earth-X
Alternative history is itself an intriguing prospect, it has to be handled tastefully. And having Supergirl/Overgirl as a Nazi general and Green Arrow/Dark Arrow as the Fuhrer of a bleak and brutal dystopia was in incredibly poor taste. To put Sara Lance face-to-face with her father’s doppelgänger, and hear him confess to murdering his daughter for her sexuality with same casual attitude one might use to describe clearing out a wasp nest; or to have Earth-1 Oliver Queen meet a brutalised extermination camp prisoner who looks exactly like his beloved Felicity… It leaves one feeling nauseous. Superhero crossover events are meant to be fun and entertaining – does this sound enjoyable? I found it sickening.
Many viewers praise the crossover for it’s LGBT representation, and I do acknowledge the importance of seeing 4 major LGBT characters in the form of Sara Lance, Alex Danvers, Ray Terrill/The Ray and Earth-X’s Leo Snart. To those who remember the persecution such groups suffered under the Third Reich, seeing superheroes actively fighting back can only be empowering.
But although Alex and Sara share horrified looks when the meaning of the pink triangle on certain prisoners’ uniforms is explained to them; another major demographic ruthlessly persecuted by the Nazis are almost ignored – that of our two Jewish leads, Martin Stein and Felicity Smoak. Felicity at least stands up to Dark Arrow and declares that her grandparents were Holocaust survivors; but whilst the moment is dramatic and showcases her bravery, that is it. Both Stein and Felicity would have grown up in communities with many other survivors, hearing about the suffering and seeing the devastating long term consequences on former camp prisoners. Yet, at no point are they given a voice to discuss this, either with their friends or, more appropriately, with one another. Maybe it would have spoiled the “entertainment’ of the crossover to discuss secondary trauma – but should a targeted genocide within living memory ever be used as entertainment? I argue most vehemently that it should not.
The Untimely Demise of Martin Stein
And now, to my most egregious point about Crisis on Earth-X: the cruel and unnecessary death of Martin Stein. It was well known that Stein was in the process of being written out of Legends of Tomorrow, due to Victor Garber’s Broadway commitments. But I take umbrage with the tasteless manner in which this was done – shot in the back by faceless Nazi goons. Legends have not been as overt with Stein’s Jewishness as the writing team on The Flash were (his having rabbi training was a plot point to facilitate the marriage of Caitlin Snow and his original Firestorm partner, Ronnie Raymond), and indeed his religion was only made apparent out with the star of David visible on his coffin.
R.I.P. Professor Stein – you will be much missed
Stein was one of my favourite Arrowverse characters – a genius, a badass grandfatherly figure who still had adventures into his 60s; a voice of reason and supporter of his friends and team-mates. In recent series, he gained a family in the form of his daughter Lilly, and a grandchild. The writers had the perfect vehicle out of the series for him – a Firestorm cure and a lovely retirement from superheroing to focus on his loved ones. (Maybe he even uses his recent encounter with Hedy Lammar and other scientific geniuses of the past to become their definitive biographer? Just my headcannon then?) His death was purely for viewer trauma. Despite being a weepy soul, I seldom cry at movies and TV shows – but this had me in tears. What this to solidify the determination of the assembled heroes to defeat the Earth-X villains? Probably, but I would have thought the cruelty they had already witnessed (some of them were imprisoned in a damn concentration camp, for crying out loud!) ought to have been motivation enough.
Stein’s final scene with his Firestorm partner/surrogate son Jax was truly heart-wrenching. Despite their near constant bickering, there is a great deal of love and respect between these two very different men, and both Garber and Franz Drameh portrayed this beautifully. And of course, Jax has to be the one to knock on Clarrisa’s door, and inform both her and Lilly of Martin’s tragic demise. Does Clarissa realise at whose hand Martin’s life was cut short – is her horrified wailing the result of also knowing her Jewish husband was slaughtered by the group who have tried to commit genocide against her people?
DC Bombshells versus the Reich
Superheroes have fought Nazis for as almost as long as there have been Nazis – we all remember the panel of Captain America punching Hitler? DC’s Bombshells, an alternative history comic places many of DC’s female heroines front and centre in the Second World War. In issue 3, Katherine Kane’s Batwoman confronts a thug who sells information to the Nazis to help them track Jewish families feeling the country. When he gives the pitiful excuse that they are “just Jews”, Batwoman declares, “So am I.” Zatanna is forced to work for Duella Dent/Joker’s Daughter, lest her status as Jew be betrayed and she finds herself arrested. She and Constantine are inevitably caught and sent to a ghetto, her forced to wear the Star of David and him a pink triangle. We see them huddled together in fear; we see a young girl called Miriam gather out children in the basement and invoke the names of great Jewish heroines to comfort them – before transformed into Shazam and joining the forces fighting to protect the ghetto.
But why am I not criticising Bombshells for it’s portrayal of the Holocaust in the same way as I am Crisis on Earth-X? Because in Bombshells, we see both LBGT and Jewish superheroines with the power to fight back. They aren’t largely anonymous victims just there for the shock factor like most of the prisoners in Earth-X’s concentration camp are; they have agency, they have feelings, and they have a purpose in the story. There is no “saviour” coming – these characters are able to be their own saviours and the saviours of their people. This isn’t a narrative about the meek victims awaiting for the Americans to swoop in. Often, fiction fails to tell stories of the persecution of the Jewish people that includes their attempts at resistance and fighting back. Bombshells is almost unique in that regard.
Oh, and the fact that the villains in Bombshells are canonical villains instead of a twisted alternative Earth variant of heroes also helps.
The Evil Doppelgänger Trope
Evil counterparts are a ubiquitous plot device in popular culture, and one can use these to explore complex issues – is our moral code inherent in our DNA, or a product of our early influences and circumstances? Are we all equally as capable of great virtue and heinous malevolence under a prescribed set of circumstances?
Ironically, the Arrowverse has briefly touched on these issues before. In The Flash Welcome to Earth 2, Barry is forced to fight the doppelgängers of his friends Caitlin and Ronnie I’m the form of Killer Frost and Deathstroke. Earth-1’s Caitlin later meets Killer Frost, and the two talk briefly about their lives and how they could have ended up on such differing paths. The season 2 finale also introduces us to Henry Allen’s Earth-3 equivalent, Jay Garrick AKA the Flash – two men both wrongly imprisoned, and yet in spite of Henry’s lack of superpowers, he displayed the same bravery and moral compass as Garrick, even facing his cruel end with dignity. Garrick, freed from his captivity, vows to continue fighting, and to continue using the Flash helmet of the evil Hunter Zoloman, only this time to truly mean hope and not some twisted equivalent.
Legends of Tomorrow also sees Leonard Snart take advantage of time travel to change his father’s fate (and subsequently the abusive childhood both he and his sister endured). He tells young Leo not to allow anyone else to hurt him, especially not with words. Sadly, Snart’s actions have no effect on the timeline and his and Lisa’s childhoods remain the same; but it does raise the question of what effect a less violent upbringing might have had on Captain Cold? We see throughout the series that, kleptomania aside, he is capable of heroism, and his Earth-X equivalent is a freedom fighter with the resistance against Dark Arrow and Overgirl. Even in series two of Legends, in Eobard Thawne, Damien Dahrk and Malcolm Meryln’s alternative Doomworld, we have Sara and Amaya as the henchwomen of Major Darhk, fighting a vigilante Felicity Smoak. In Supergirl, we’ve seen Kara suffering from the effects of Red Kryptonite.
That there is both artist and intellectual merit in exploring a subversion of the traditional morality of a character. But is turning our heroes into Nazis really an appropriate way to do this?
The 2010 animated movie Crisis on Two Earths, on the other hand, manages to explore this issue. On Earth 2, Lex Luthor and the Jester are the last heroes fighting against the Crime Syndicate, a mutated version of our Justice League where super-powered being use their abilities to threaten, intimidate and kill any in their way. Ultraman, Superwoman and Owl Man belittle such notions as self-sacrifice, love and justice. What would a world look like if our strongest and most moral protectors used their intellect and powers for self-gain and indiscriminate violence – this is the answer. We also see the added twist of our usual rogue’s gallery of villains trying to defend the populace – a Jester who sacrifices himself to allow his ally a chance of escape with their only hope; a Luthor who would rather take a beating from Ultraman than ask Superman to step in “because this has to mean something after you’re gone”; President Deathstroke making the difficult decisions between giving power to the Crime Syndicate and keeping the populace (and his daughter) safe.
Wouldn’t something like that have made for an epic TV crossover? We’d still have seen two Supergirls facing off against each other, but without the tastelessness of one being a Nazi. Maybe Barry is forced to partner up with that Earth’s Eobard Thawne and Hunter Zoloman – how does he cope with working alongside the doppelgängers of his parents’ killers? Sara and Oliver forced to push their feelings about Laurel’s death aside and fight alongside Damien Dahrk; our favourite pyromaniac meeting a Detective Mick Rory of CCPD; or Firestorm versus the technological genius of crime boss Lilly Stein. Wouldn’t you love to have seen that?
Any DC Crisis event has the potential to be epic. To pull off many of effects that this event did, on a television budget, was impressive. Crisis on Earth-X certainly was visually spectacular; but this does not forgive the triggering and insensitive nature of its plot. Are we to see cosplay versions of Dark Arrow and Overgirl at next year’s Comic Con? I hope not.
Fascism, Nazism and ultra-right wing views are dangerous; they harm us and the world we live in. Likewise, the collective trauma of a group of people, who suffered brutalisation and faced genocide within living memory, should not casually be used for entertainment. There are more than enough modern fascists in real life; let’s not subject ourselves to them in our art as well.