World’s Finest: Small-screen DC picks up the slack where blockbusters lack

Supergirl meets The Flash in "World's Finest."

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for next week’s superhero team-up.

Oh, I’m not talking about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, though I’m sure at least that it will be entertaining. The team-up I’m referring to is the “World’s Finest” episode of Supergirl on CBS, which brings Grant Gustin over from CW’s The Flash.

Batman v. Superman director Zack Snyder recently said he doesn’t think Gustin’s small-screen Flash is a good fit for his dark and brooding big-screen Justice League universe, where millennial musician-model-actor Ezra Miller will play the speedster instead.

Snyder obviously hasn’t been watching the CW series if he thinks Gustin can’t do dark.

But that’s OK. The DC shared universe taking shape on television doesn’t need tentpole Man of Steel movie budgets or immense star power and emo attitude to achieve what Marvel Studios did in cinema – and what DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. obviously never will.

For years, those entities have struggled to match Marvel’s strategy, and failed miserably to capture fans’ appreciation the way the Avengers movies have. But Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman et al simply don’t need a live-action cinematic universe to do that. Warner has dropped the ball only by failing to double down on its clear successes in storytelling: the long line of animated, direct-to-video features such as the upcoming Justice League vs. Teen Titans. Many of these releases differ in style and tone, but they largely work together due to consistency behind the scenes and, often, behind the microphone.

DC translates well to TV, too. Smallville showed that they could do a backdoor Justice League just fine – they just waited about 10 seasons too long to embrace it, until the series’ young stars were feeling the pull of bigger billing and bigger paychecks.

So it all started over again with Arrow, then The Flash and now DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Then there’s Supergirl.

While the other three shows are on the CW Television Network, a joint venture of CBS and Warner Bros. Entertainment, the story of Superman’s cousin Kara lives on CBS, complicating the crossover synergy that served Arrow and The Flash so well. But that’s finally changing on Monday, when “World’s Finest” airs and Barry Allen finds himself in Kara’s world as he tries to navigate alternate universes.

The problem is, DC shouldn’t need to use the concept of the multiverse to bring these characters together. I understand why they did it – after all, the model of “Infinite Earths” has become central to DC Comics’ story structure over the years – but that doesn’t mean it makes for compelling storytelling on TV.

When Marvel set its sights on television, it wasn’t an alternate universe that brought S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Coulson and Carter into our homes each week. There are definite threads connecting these characters to what’s going on in the larger movie world – these links aren’t perfect, but they’re clearly intentional and unite the franchise in clever, unexpected and thought-provoking ways. You can enjoy the movies and TV shows together, or either one or the other, and feel satisfied – and there’s always more to explore later if you want.

The custodians of DC’s characters seem to think that keeping the live-action TV, animated feature and movie universes separate is the key to protecting their brands. They’re right, but only in the way that keeping a prized toy behind glass keeps anyone from playing with it. Appreciating something and enjoying it are sometimes vastly different experiences.

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