DC’s Elseworlds Is Perfect For a TV Anthology Series

DC’s Elseworlds Is Perfect For a TV Anthology Series

Word earlier in the summer that Warner Bros. may be interested in developing a live-action adaptation of Superman: Red Son could’ve been dismissed as little more than rumor, except for two things: the sources, writer Mark Millar and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and far more recent reports that the studio is developing a Joker origin story set in a gritty, crime-ridden 1980s Gotham City. We may be witnessing the dawn of a new age of Elseworlds. However, it shouldn’t be restricted to film.

A direct descendant of DC Comics’ “imaginary stories” that peaked in the 1960s, telling out-of-continuity adventures that depicted the heroes in oddball scenarios, the Elseworlds effectively debuted in 1989 with Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, in which the Dark Knight trailed Jack the Ripper through Victorian London. (Although the Elseworlds logo didn’t actually appear on a book until 1991, Gotham by Gaslight is considered the first story.)

 Over the next 14 years, more than 100 Elseworlds titles were published that dropped beloved characters into unfamiliar settings. The rocket carrying infant Kal-El crashes on a Ukrainian collective farm rather than in Kansas, and the Man of Steel becomes the hero of the Soviet Union in Superman: Red Son, by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson and Kilian Plunkett. Bruce Wayne, rather than Hal Jordan, receives the power ring of the dying Green Lantern Abin Sur in Batman: In Darkest Knight, by Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham. The Justice League are reimagined in the Old West in Justice Riders, by Chuck Dixon and J.H. Williams III. In perhaps the best-known Elseworlds title, Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come, the Justice League withdraw from their roles as Earth’s defenders following the rise of the amoral hero Magog, opening the door to an impending superhuman apocalypse.
Free of the constraints of continuity, those books, with their underlying “What if?” conceit, permit virtually endless exploration of characters, archetypes, settings and genres, making them fertile ground for film. Or, better yet, television.

That’s because, although the prospects for Elseworlds (and Elseworlds-style stories) on the big screen are still a little fuzzy, it’s undeniable that television anthologies are enjoying a new Golden Age: The success of shows like American Horror StoryFargoAmerican Crime StoryBlack Mirror and True Detective demonstrate the enduring appeal of the format, for creators and viewers alike. Wildly popular during the 1950s and into the ’60s, the anthology, with its different stories and characters each episode or season, lingered well past its heyday, in the form of Masterpiece TheaterABC Afterschool SpecialsTales from the Crypt and revivals of The Twilight Zone. But in the past few years, it’s come roaring back.

Elseworlds’ Television Potential is Practically Infinite

Using the approach of American Horror Story or True Detective, Warner Bros. Television could use eight to 13 episodes to explore the story of the Dark Knight teaming with Harry Houdini in turn-of-the-century Gotham to stop child-stealing vampires (Batman/Houdini: The Devil’s Workshop) one season, and the tale of three World War II-era heroes (Batman, Hourman and Doctor Mid-Nite) on the trail of Germany’s new weapon, an “Übermensch” (JSA: The Liberty File) the next. But that’s, of course, only for starters. There are dozens upon dozens of Elseworlds stories, starring recognizable superheroes (and villains) in completely different eras, settings and genres, making them familiar to a broader audience while still distinct from what can be found in theaters or on The CW.

What better way, then, for Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment to bring its Elseworlds library to life than as a television anthology series?

Movie-goers clearly responded to director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, to the tune of $813 million worldwide, but there were undoubtedly some for whom Gal Gadot’s portrayal fell flat. An Elseworlds anthology would allow producers to present other versions of the iconic superheroine that wouldn’t conflict with what’s depicted on the big screen. How about a series in which Diana leads the resistance against Jack the Ripper, who’s become king of England (Wonder Woman: Amazonia)? Or a season set in an alternate future where much of the Greek pantheon is allied with the Third Reich, Lois Lane is transformed into a new Wonder Woman, and Superman is turned into … an evil centaur (Superman/Wonder Woman: Whom Gods Destroy)?

Or, as Warner Bros. seems so high on the Joker, with Suicide Squad 2, the Joker & Harley Quinn movie, Gotham City Sirens and an origin story, then why not additional renditions of the Clown Prince of Crime — as the insane pirate the Laughing Man (Batman: Leatherwing), as 1960s gangster Bianca Steeplechase (Batman: Thrillkiller), as the hero who hopes to free a near-future Gotham from the grip of a deadly Batman cult (I, Joker) — sprinkled across multiple seasons?

But an anthology series wouldn’t have to limited to Elseworlds titles, per se, as there’s also Bombshells, based on the popular line of retro-1940s merchandise, which reimagines DC Comics’ heroines in an alternate-history World War II. That said, not every season would need to be an adaptation; the “What if?” premise could easily extend to new stories featuring familiar characters.

The question then is where an Elseworlds anthology series might appear. The CW, co-owned by Warner Bros., is the obvious choice, as it’s home to ArrowThe FlashSupergirlDC’s Legends of Tomorrow and, soon, Black Lightning. However, considering the network is already filled to overflowing with superheroes, there’s a better solution: Warner Bros.’ planned DC Comics-branded digital platform. Announced in April, it’s set to launch next year with a live-action Titans series and a revival of the animated Young Justice. Although the streaming service will no doubt fill out its library with decades’ worth of shows and movies based on DC properties, it can’t be built on the “greatest hits. It requires new content, and an Elseworlds anthology would fill that need, with new characters, genres and settings every season.

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