Occasionally I’ve been asked…
(Because I’m such a big-time internet celebrity now, totally. Just get mobbed by the paparazzi every time I step outside the door. Such a hassle)
“What is the most important part of a story to you?” To be honest, there’s many reasons why I love the stories that I do: the aesthetics and style of the show or comic or movie, the themes it touches on, well-crafted plots and mysteries, and many other factors. All are important aspects that help me to become invested in a piece of media, enough to see it through to the end, or to overlook other flaws it may have along with those positive points.
But in my opinion, the MOST important factor for any narrative is how well the characters are developed within the story. If I don’t care about the characters, it’s tough for me to care about anything else in the story. All I can say is, if a story doesn’t invest me into the characters, then the presentation had better be stylish as hell or boast an intriguing plot that can work even with boring stand-in cutouts playing the roles within it. In the reverse case, having well-developed and interesting characters can cover a multitude of sins, whether it’s a cliché-ridden plot, pacing issues, or other elements that may not hold up otherwise in less-favorable circumstances.
In short, the characters are the primary foundation of any story, as they are the vehicle that carries the events of that story and justifies its action and progression. Without interesting perspectives for the audience to connect to the events of the story, the whole work suffers.
So what happens when you take characters that are well-developed, well-liked and interesting in their own right, and remove them from their original context to interact with other characters?
Well, you get a crossover. Of course.
With the release of English subs for the Kamen Rider Movie Wars Heisei Generations, I wanted to talk a bit about the movie and reflect more generally on what makes for good and bad crossovers. After thinking on it, what led me to address this as a broader point rather than a simple review of the movie itself, is the realization of why I liked it so much. What makes this team-up work so well in Heisei Generations is why good crossovers are so enjoyable in general, and really why any story works – the strength of the characters within it.
Well-done crossovers are literally my favorite things to watch or read when it comes to superhero stories, because they offer the opportunity for characters that I already love in their own source material to interact with, and react to circumstances outside of their usual context. I just think it’s fascinating to ponder “what if?” between characters that otherwise would never meet each other, or how certain characters would behave if put into unusual settings or scenarios.
When done well, crossover stories can shed new light on characters, their personalities and motivations, by seeing how they behave outside of their comfort zone. On the other hand, there are also plenty of bad examples of crossovers, and I’ll go more into detail comparing those good and bad examples.
First of all, a good example from Kamen Rider, the most recent “Movie Wars”, Heisei Generations
The Heisei Generations movie was an absolute blast to watch for many reasons, it had well-choreographed fights, great soundtrack work, but most importantly it dealt well with all the characters involved, even the ones who only had a handful of lines like Kamen Rider Wizard, Souma Haruto. (Kouta’s relegation to an in-suit appearance with pre-recorded lines is an unfortunate consequence of conflicting obligations, and Gaku Sano, the character’s face actor, was sorely missed.)
Structurally the movie was basically an extended episode of Ex-Aid with special Rider guest stars, but that’s what makes it work as a crossover. The characters fit neatly within a conflict that’s primarily Ex-Aid’s problem, because of the sole fact that they’re Riders and this is what they do.
They beat up bad guys and help out their friends, regardless of whether said friends are in the next town over, or on the other side of the galaxy. The show doesn’t overthink the mechanics of bringing them together, and simply lets the characters speak for themselves.
If anything, where Rider crossovers get bogged down is in trying to connect everything into a consistent shared universe. It’s just not necessary to sell the story overall because as we’ve seen, the most important part of these crossovers is their ability to allow the characters freedom to bounce off of each other in interesting and authentic ways.
Another good example of a well-done Rider crossover is the OOO/Fourze Movie Wars Megamax. (Doesn’t hurt that it also shares a director with Heisei Generations, Sakamoto’s style in action choreography is unmistakable.) It takes three Rider series that already fit fairly closely together into a shared universe – OOO and Fourze, of course, along with their preceding series, W – and uses the main commonality connecting their settings to lay out a threat that justifies all three groups working together. That is, their relationship to the post-Decade answer to Shocker, Foundation X. (I say that, but unfortunately they’ve been pushed to the side since this movie to make room for… well, Shocker again.)
The avenue that allows them cross over is fairly simple – bad guys want to take over the world and steal the powerful transformation trinkets and artifacts that the series’ Riders rely on in order to gain the power for global domination . Again, this allows the freedom for the Riders to all interact with each other in interesting ways. They all have an appropriate stake in the fight, so they easily are able to team up effectively when it comes time to face the real threat of the movie.
The main difference between Megamax and Heisei Generations is just the fact that the former sticks more to the traditional Movie Wars formula of having two separate storylines for the Rider series involved, with them only working together at the end of the movie. But both of those separate stories fit in reasonably well with each other, and also stand on their own very well to boot. The OOO side gives a very welcome epilogue to the tearful events of its own finale, and the Fourze side gives a fun adolescent romp that shows off the more irreverent, lighter tone of its own series.
The bad examples of Rider crossovers come about usually not because of poorly explained details describing how all the Riders end up in the same place, but because the characters – once put together – are not written consistently with their original source material, and wind up being widgets within a plot that requires them to act in a contradictory manner. In this case, the details aren’t as important as providing a framework for the characters to act naturally. Scenarios that necessarily force those characters into ill-fitting actions or roles will lead to weird head-scratching moments that take the audience out of the action of the plot.
One such example is in the “Taisen” Spring crossover from a few years back, Heisei vs. Showa. As the title suggests, the main focus of this movie revolves around a conflict between the older Showa-era Riders (from the original Kamen Rider #1, Takeshi Hongo in 1971 and ending with the movie-only Riders in the mid-90’s, Shin, ZO and J), and the newer Heisei-era Riders (starting with Kuuga in 2000, and extending to the then-currently-airing Rider series, Gaim). The fact that they’re fighting at all is a stupid contrivance, and to create that conflict, Rider characters that normally shouldn’t be jerks are forced to act that way.
The worst example of this is with Takeshi Hongo, Rider #1 himself, who grouses at the newest Riders for not being tough enough to accept deadly consequences and loss in their heroic tenures. Mind you, this is coming from the man who hugs puppies in his own original series.
The dissonance in characterization is distracting, and the motivation that they throw out to justify this umbrage against the newer generations of Riders just flat-out makes no sense, requiring the audience to suspend a lot of important development from the original series to accept it within the movie.
The Showa-era Riders had to deal with a HUGE amount of guilt and pain over the loss of loved ones, no more or less than the Heisei-era Riders. V3 and Stronger’s motivations in becoming Riders in their first episodes were both to get revenge for the death of loved ones. Hiroshi Tsukuba, Skyrider, lost both of his parents to the evil schemes of Neo-Shocker during the events of the show, and it drives his own willing sacrifice at the end of his own series. But evidently whoever wrote this movie either didn’t know, or didn’t care about any of these details, instead forcing square pegs into round holes in making these characters fit into a pre-determined story.
This issue of ignoring important character details that would otherwise make for interesting scenes isn’t just endemic to Japanese spandex-wearing karatemen either. In fact, bad toku crossovers share a lot of issues with badly-executed crossover events within western comic books. Forcing heroes to act out-of-character, contriving nonsensical conflicts for the sake of having hero vs. hero fights, downplaying or weakening older characters in favor of promoting the newest ones, all of these are common complaints about the worst examples of superhero comics in general.
In some ways, the problems comics sometimes run into when dealing with crossovers are unique because so many of those crossovers take place within a wider shared universe, where the stories aren’t required to dwell on the mechanics of how the crossover occurs in the first place. But because they share space with wildly-varying elements and styles, sometimes justifying those small, self-contained regional conflicts within the universe takes an effort. Just take the DC universe for example, where you’ve got the spooky psychological horror of Batman’s Gotham right across the bay from the clean, chrome-fixture-and-glass-windows futurist lines of Superman’s Metropolis.
When kept to their own spheres of influence, these questions of how both can coexist don’t often come up, but when crossovers happen, those stories also have to answer the question of why the characters are trespassing into each other’s usual territory, or involving themselves in “neutral” territory where they typically don’t belong. For example, why is Superman intervening to stop a villain in Gotham where he previously stayed hands-off? Why this instance, in this particular story, and not others? The question of scale and personal motivation must be developed consistently for those crossovers, or occasional larger cosmic-level crisis events, to feel authentic to the reader.
Toei generally doesn’t have to worry about this, as the shared universes for Rider and Sentai properties generally only exist within the crossover movies, and are almost always special one-off events with no consequences within the main series of their respective heroes. There are a few exceptions where some events carry over, or plot points within the crossovers prove to be important to the main series, but those are exceptions.
Back to comics, in looking at the effectiveness of crossovers within shared superhero settings, we can compare two different varieties. One involves crossovers between typical properties of the comic universe crossing over with a different universe entirely, like JLA/Avengers, or Archie vs. Predator. The version that I’ll primarily deal with here though involves crossovers that happen within the shared universe in question, such as the year-long limited series 52 that spun out of DC’s Infinite Crisis event.
52 has the monumental task of addressing how to connect a wide variety of disparate characters together in unique ways. These connections are made either through chance encounters, or in conflicts that are shared between characters in dealing with the fallout of a massive event in the cosmological structure of the DCU, that also led to the disappearance of its three biggest superheroes. Such an earth-shattering shift in the status quo would naturally have far-reaching consequences, and we see how those same consequences play out over many different aspects of the DCU, from different perspectives.
The fact that it’s able to cross over such wildly different characters in meaningful ways, and remain largely consistent with the characters’ other appearances and continuous development outside of the series, is its biggest strength and why it’s so widely praised. This focus on consistency of characters (for the most part) is especially impressive when you hear about the crazy shenanigans that went on behind the scenes of making 52, and realize the process of writing, editing and producing everything was held together with spit, twine, hopes and lot of good fortune. But at the end of that process we get many different unique scenarios that all tie together to make an equally unique overarching story.
A character who had only known life on Gotham’s gritty streets as a detective becomes involved in a global conspiracy to stage a coup in a middle-eastern country. A group of mad scientists with vastly different nemeses, grudges and neuroses are brought together by a mysterious benefactor that indulges their most insane whims. A family man with a bizarrely circumstantial power is flung to the outermost reaches of space and forced to find his way back against all odds. A character who had been treated as a braggart and a joke is specifically chosen to save the very fabric of space and time from utter destruction. 52 works because it throws its characters into circumstances far beyond their comfort zones without losing sight of how they were defined by their original contexts in the first place.
Not all good superhero crossovers happen on such a grand scale though. Just a few weeks ago, the current run of DC’s main Batman title featured a one-off team-up story called “The Brave and the Mold”, a play on “The Brave and the Bold”, a title given to other superhero team-ups within the universe. Albeit, it’s traditionally associated with Green Lantern – the Brave – and the Flash – the Bold. It’s been expanded in more recent years to include team-ups between various characters though, and I guess Tom King couldn’t pass up the pun. It brings together two superheroes that typically have no contact with each other, Batman and Swamp Thing, aka Alec Holland.
Swampy is usually associated with the darker, more bizarre and mystical aspects of the DCU, rather than the street-level detective work that Batman engages in. But what brings them both together here is an unexpected theme reflecting on mortality, and how both characters are defined by, and deal with, death within their experiences. It’s a dichotomy that proves strikingly thoughtful, and uncovers uncomfortable aspects of each character through their juxtaposition. Helps that the writer, Tom King, is very good at dealing with nuanced views on heavy themes that create conflict and friction between otherwise-heroic characters. (By the way, read Omega Men if you haven’t already.)
There’s other smaller moments within the DCU that I could name that serve similar functions, in rounding out characters by playing them off of unique circumstances. Hell, DC published an entire ongoing series with this same concept that was actually called “The Brave and the Bold”. Ever wanted to see Superman team up with Catwoman to crash a supervillain-sponsored auction while Bats was out of town? (Catwoman has a massive crush on him, by the way. It’s adorable.)
How about Hal Jordan and Kent Nelson – the original Dr. Fate – meditating on the meaning of life in the grand scheme of the cosmos and individual agency within it? Raven and Supergirl bonding over the shared experience of having literally the worst dads ever? It’s the small encounters like this that reveal unique aspects of the characters and the universe in general, and helps that shared universe to feel more, well, shared as a result.
Regardless of the scope though, the elements that make these crossovers work are the same as what makes toku crossovers work – the characters are consistent and draw meaningful connections from their original development and context into new circumstances. Just like with any other story, if the character work is shoddy, inconsistent, or unlikeable, the rest of the story likely falls apart around it. But if the characters remain authentic to their roots, and connect with aspects of their characterization that made the audience like them in the first place, then crossover scenarios can provide for some of the most memorable and entertaining scenes from superhero stories.