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 Story, Fargo, American Crime Story, Black 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 Theater, ABC Afterschool Specials, Tales from the Crypt and revivals of The Twilight Zone. But in the past few years, it’s come roaring back.
What better way, then, for Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment to bring its Elseworlds library to life than as a television anthology series?
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