There hasn't been a "bigger" event in DC Comics than Infinite Crisis. The first word in the title seemed, at times, to describe the number of crossovers and related one-shots and miniseries. Essentially related to its predecessor, Crisis on Infinite Earths and the yearlong 52, which immediately followed it, Infinite Crisis stands as a transition between two eras, a sort of crossroads in the history of DC Comics more than it is a single standalone work.
Nevertheless, the seven issues of Infinite Crisis itself can be read alone, but woe be to the reader who picks it up unaware of the voluminous backstory. Writer Geoff Johns expects the reader to know the basics of COIE and pre-Crisis history and tries to reward those who also know the fine points and even the trivia. Several plots from various DC series spanning the year or two prior to Infinite Crisis are essential to understanding where Infinite Crisis picks up in issue #1, which from the very first scene feels much more like the middle of a longer story than the start of a new one.
Stripped to its barest essence, the plot goes like this: Alex Luthor, the last crisis' only survivor from Earth Three, aided by the Superboy from Earth Prime, dupes many villains and Kal-L, the Superman of Earth Two, into helping him carry out a plan to reboot the universe. Alex, Superboy Prime, and Kal-L each believe that the DC Universe created by COIE was flawed, unnecessarily dark, and that Alex should use his scientific skills to start the universe over, better, based on different foundations. The existing superheroes, notably Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, begin the story in disarray, partly due to their own conflicts, and partly due to plots that Alex has secretly undertaken against them. Ultimately, Alex and Superboy Prime are stopped, but at the cost of several superheroes' lives, including that of Superboy, Conner Kent. In the process, the universe is indeed rebooted, but New Earth is only moderately different than the post-Crisis Earth, and not hewn according to Alex's wishes. At the end of the conflict, the superheroes are more unified and optimistic than they were when the crisis began.
It's a convoluted story that requires so much effort to summarize. Infinite Crisis aspires to higher things than Crisis on Infinite Earths did: The heroes have noticeably different personalities – which is what leads to their conflicts – and even the villains are nuanced: Alex Luthor's plan, at least a sanitized version of it, is presented to heroes like Batman and Power Girl, and they actually need some time to think it over before rejecting it. So the story is more nuanced than COIE. But aspiring to nuance and handling it well are not the same thing, and in trying to do so much, Infinite Crisis does only some of it well.
The plot is engaging for serious fans, and, defying the usual expectations of a superhero story, reads like a mystery: First-time readers began the story not knowing who the villain was, how the universe would be reshaped, or which characters would die. The use of characters who had been in another dimension since COIE made a dramatic splash on the last page of the first issue, breaking a rule that had been inviolate for the previous 20 years. The kidnapping of a very quirky set of superheroes (and Black Adam) posed a mystery that some readers solved – that the hodgepodge of abductees were selected to provide one each from a diverse collection of the pre-Crisis Earths. When Alex reactivated the many Earths of the Multiverse, it created a vast menagerie of worlds for readers to survey, from the prominent Earths like Earth Two to the hyper-obscure world of the Wonder Woman. The cosmic stakes involved were daring and exciting.
The plot of Infinite Crisis, unlike that of its predecessor COIE, is built around complex interpersonal dynamics. This indicates a higher degree of aspiration in the later story, which is certainly owing to the changing times – many great works published after COIE demonstrated that interpersonal dynamics and character development can work in the superhero genre. However, while Infinite Crisis attempts to work on this level, it does not succeed very well. Conflicts between the superheroes, and even the villains, are central to the plot, but they are not true to the characters involved, and do not transition from one status to another in a sensible way. Johns renders the characters in Infinite Crisis as unlike real people in their emotions as they are in their special powers and abilities, and this turns IC's aspiration to complex interpersonal dynamics into a failure.
This failure is most evident when one reads the first and last scenes that show the Trinity – Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman – and searches the story for events that bridge those two scenes. When IC opens, each member of the Trinity has grave misgivings about the way each of the others operates. Superman and Batman cannot accept that Wonder Woman killed Max Lord. Superman says that she has to answer for what she did, and she says that she will, when the time is right. Superman criticizes Batman's paranoia and spying on other heroes. Batman says that Superman does too little, and that the last time he inspired anyone was when he was dead. That's an abundance of discord in the opening. How does it end? Seven issues later, the Trinity walks off into the metaphorical sunset, happy and relaxed in their civilian identities. Clark Kent gives a speech about their common purpose and unity, and Diana concludes, "It's good to have friends." This is an almost miraculous turnaround from the opening scene. How did this change take place? There are some scenes that seem like they're trying to convey that tremendous change, but they are desperately inadequate for the task:
1) Clark Kent, working at the Daily Planet, hears that supervillains killed some of the Freedom Fighters. He tells his wife, "Bruce is right, Lois. He's always right… I want to stay and talk, but it's time for action." From then on forward, he works tirelessly to stop the chaos caused by Alex and the supervillains until the story is finished.
2) While Batman's out-of-control creation, Brother Eye, sends Omacs to kill the Amazons, Batman and Wonder Woman separately contemplate how his paranoia and her actions led to this outcome.
3) When Superman and Kal-L tussle on a briefly revived Earth Two, Wonder Woman shows up and argues on Superman's side against Kal-L's conviction that Earth Two should replace the post-Crisis Earth.
4) After Superboy, Conner Kent, dies stopping Alex's machine, the Trinity shows up on the scene, just a little too late. Superman and Batman voice that they should have been there, and need to prevent any such events in the future. Then they join many other heroes in a final battle against the villains.
5) When Alex Luthor is subdued, Batman aims a gun at him and has the opportunity to kill him. Wonder Woman breaks her sword and tells Batman it isn't worth killing him. He agrees and throws down the gun.
These five scenes are obviously offered as the mechanism by which the Trinity resolves their conflicts, but they depend upon characterizations of the heroes that had never been seen before, and as character development, hardly make sense. (1) indicates that Superman is prone to stand around as Clark Kent while the world goes to hell – when was that ever a characteristic of Superman? (5) indicates that killing an incapacitated enemy is something that Batman or Wonder Woman might normally consider, but such moments are not typical of either of them. (When Wonder Woman killed Max Lord, he was physically restrained, but not defeated. Wonder Woman killed him not out of anger, but in order to solve a problem with, seemingly, no other solution.) (2) and (4) give the heroes a motive to resolve their differences, but don't indicate how that resolution should take place. Cumulatively, these five scenes, along with the series introduction and conclusion is a ramshackle narration of interpersonal dynamics, and therein the story wastes several scenes, including the series' bookends, on a subplot that just doesn't work. It seems as though Johns decided that the story should open with conflict and end with resolution and then approached the path between them with little care for how it unfolded.
The conflict between Batman and Hal Jordan, however, is resolved in a more satisfactory fashion. When Brother Eye reminds Batman that he had reason to distrust many other superheroes, Batman, flying off with Green Lantern, says, "I'll take my chances." Though we see that decision arise in a moment of necessity, and can only guess at the thoughts behind it, the scene is at least powerful and conveyed with style.
The villains' plan in IC also offers more nuance than that of COIE. Though Alex Luthor is a despicable villain, his plan is curiously sympathetic. In many DC stories, a timeline-gone-bad begins to shape the world, then is prevented or undone by some cosmic maneuver or another. This first occurred when the Justice Society stopped Per Degaton's time travel-based conquest of the world back in 1947, and has happened many times since then. Alex Luthor merely asserts that the entire post-Crisis history is one of those bad timelines that should be erased, and he has some compelling facts to back him up. Even if his conclusion – that post-Crisis history is so bad that its timeline should be erased – is wrong, he's got a reasonable point. And, indeed, his basic idea wins over Kal-L and gets Power Girl to consider it. Even Batman mulls it over for a couple of panels before he rejects it. Unfortunately, after IC goes through the trouble of producing intrigue that perhaps Alex's goal is a worthy one, it gets lazy and makes Alex and Superboy Prime into despicable villains who should be opposed because their methods – not their goals – are objectionable.
One can see the quality of the story sink rapidly between the end of issue #2 and the end of issue #3. Both issues end on surprises: IC #2 ends with Kal-L telling Power Girl that Earth Two should be the basis of a rebooted world, and fans had to wonder how much this true, and to what extent DC may have planned to make that so. Several scenes in IC #3 show unlikely – and interesting – pairs of characters interacting, perhaps none more intriguing and memorable than the meeting between the Earth Two Superman and the post-Crisis Batman. But then, at the issue's end, Power Girl says that she thinks the heroes can come up with a plan to save everybody, Earth One and Two, and perhaps more, when her thought – one of the most interesting points in the story – is suddenly obliterated by a punch from Superboy Prime, who knocks her out with a sneer indicating that he is Evil with a capital 'E' and in so doing, he knocks the intrigue out of the story with the same punch that robs Power Girl of her consciousness. From here on out, Alex and Superboy Prime are mustache-twirling evil villains who will lie, cheat, and kill to force their agenda through. It's as though Johns met some desired quota of complexity in the first three issues and decided that the final four issues could get along without any more depth or nuance. From that point to the end, we see Very Bad characters in conflict against Very Good characters, and so many interesting possibilities are dismissed along with Power Girl's hopes.
In issue #4, when Superboy Prime later turns from a bitter has-been into a sociopathic killer, there's plenty of action and death and not much resembling normal human character development. In fact, Johns seems to narrate a criticism of his own work when Pantha (in the character's final speech balloon) says, "'You started this'? He's just a stupid kid." Yes, the dialogue is simple and stupid. Why didn't Johns write something less simple and less stupid instead of putting it in the final draft? Soon thereafter, when Superboy Prime says, "You're ruining everything! You're ruining me!" he, like Pantha, seems to be delivering a sound criticism of the story rather than speaking as a character within it.
Alex's great threat to the cosmos is, like all of the interpersonal dynamics in IC, ended suddenly and with a shrug. Conner Kent destroys the vibrational tuning fork that Alex needs to reshape the universe, and in so doing, ends Alex's experimentation. However, this is an uncertain victory. The universe was indeed changed by whatever the tower did before or during its destruction, and so the pre-IC universe was effectively erased and replaced by a new one. This is not so different from Alex's plan except that the new universe is not so very different from the pre-IC universe and the change is apparently random rather than any change that Alex or – for that matter – the heroes desire. The story once again gives up on the potential for interesting complexity when Wonder Girl tells her dying boyfriend, "You saved the Earth. You saved everyone." Did he? A lot of characters were changed by Infinite Crisis – were they (the old versions of them) saved? How would Wonder Girl know if they were living in a new timeline that had replaced the old one? Amnesia regarding old timelines is part of the science fiction in COIE, so she should be unaware whether this was a new timeline or not. In fact, it is a new timeline, even though it's similar to the old one, so how does survival and identity work? If someone exists in a universe that is replaced by a similar universe, does that person survive or are they deleted and replaced by a new person who happens to be similar to the first one? Those are interesting philosophical questions, but IC stopped asking interesting philosophical questions by the end of IC #6.
When IC does get philosophical, it also gets vague. What are the heroes like? How should they behave? When the Trinity criticize one another in the opening issue, Superman and Wonder Woman debate, using character names instead of ideas:
"I don't know who you are anymore." "…I'm Wonder Woman." "… I remember a time when you wanted to be called Diana." "…the world doesn't need Diana. The world needs Wonder Woman." Does that dialogue mean anything? Are all of the characters and all of the readers meant to have the same idea of what "Diana" means as opposed to "Wonder Woman"? I sure don't know what Johns means by them. The characters are arguing about whether or not she (whatever you want to call her) is too ruthless. Does "Wonder Woman" connote ruthlessness whereas "Diana" does not? That's never what those names meant to me.
Johns is on a roll, a bad one, and he uses the same ineffective style of discourse lower on the same page, with Batman going after Superman this time: "You're not human. You're Superman." "I know that." "Then start acting like it." How could Superman not act like Superman? Isn't however he acts what Superman is like? In real life, when someone isn't acting the way you like, do you tell them, "You're [the person's name]"? No, because that would be just as meaningless as it is in this scene.
It doesn't even feel like Johns finds this dialogue meaningful. Four issues later, the Earth Two Wonder Woman returns for one scene, to counsel her counterpart, and tells her, "…the one thing you haven't been for a very long time is human." That's exactly what Batman said that Superman shouldn't be! Is being human something Superman and Wonder Woman should be, or not? Or should they be "Superman"/"Wonder Woman"? Does anyone read this dialogue and think they understand what the characters are getting at? I sure don't, and when I put these scenes side-by-side, I don't think Johns does, either.
If there is something good that "Superman" means, the demolition of Kal-L, not to mention Superboy Prime, seems to undermine whatever that is. It must be said that the Kal-L in Infinite Crisis does not very much match the Golden Age character from 1938, nor the Silver Age character shown with graying temples in the late Seventies. In fact, he's rather a dupe, tricked by a Luthor into doing the wrong thing until it's far too late. He's naive, saying with wide eyes, "Superman always saves Lois Lane" as his wife dies. And, in an ignominious finale if there ever was one, he is beaten to death, fist-to-face, by a teenage version of himself. That scene ends with yet another Superman telling that teenager that being Superman is "about action." Kal-L's action in Infinite Crisis is a disappointing version of whatever Superman was ever meant to be.
An unpleasant irony of Infinite Crisis is that the four COIE survivors say that the post-Crisis world has gotten too dark and lost its way, and then Infinite Crisis shows a Superboy ripping people's arms and heads off while razoring other heroes in half with his heat vision. Black Adam pokes his fingers through a villain's face, and the superhero present on the scene is not outraged, but simply asks, "Was that necessary?" The villain Alex Luthor – the very one who felt that the world was too dark – promised other villains that they will be allowed to rape Power Girl. Yes, Alex Luthor is hopelessly sick and contradictory in this regard, but so is Infinite Crisis itself. If Johns feels that the DC Universe has gotten too dark, why does he up the ante? If he doesn't feel that way, why does he have so many characters – even the original Superman – say so?
Infinite Crisis is a mixed bag. It has many powerful and memorable scenes, as dark as when an obscenely powerful group of supervillains ambush the Freedom Fighters and as light as when the Flashes zoom in to run Superboy Prime right out of the universe. It dangles interesting possibilities before the reader, some of which are harder to appreciate now that the era has passed, but worked very well then as part of a mystery regarding not only the events in the story, but in the sort of DC Universe that it would go on to create. And it created a very fine DC Universe, ushering in an era of comics that were possibly the best DC ever has produced. But as a single work, it is deeply flawed, repeatedly biting off more than it can chew, or more than Johns decides to chew. It would have been greatly improved by trying to do fewer things, and then doing all of those things well. Instead, it attempts to be a character-driven cosmic, science fiction whodunit and manages to be a hasty, half-done rendition of all of those things. That extends to the art, which has multiple artists working on each issue, with unapologetically rough transitions between scenes, and some panels looking dreadfully rushed.
Crisis on Infinite Earths was a landmark work with an almost total lack of character development. Johns clearly took up the challenge of making Infinite Crisis a more complex sequel, but failed to deliver on that challenge. IC would have been a better work if the aspirations had simply been lesser. As the older Wonder Woman tells her younger self, "You can start by not trying to be so perfect." A simpler IC would have been a better IC. But when I spend a moment positing that Geoff Johns should have striven for IC to be something lesser, I quickly start to dreaming, instead, what if he had striven for something just as great as he had planned and then had managed to pull it off? That's a story that I wish I owned.