Popular Film, Criticism, and the Oscars

On August 8th, 2018, the organization behind the Academy Awards announced that they were going to issue a new “Best Popular Film” category. Needless to say, an announcement like this stirred a lot of controversy. When I first heard about it, I initially agreed with many of the naysayers. I was worried that this was a pity party for popular film, that it was patronizing, and would likely keep films like Black Panther from having a shot at Best Picture (which it 100% deserves, by the way). Many theorize, and I agree, that the success of Black Panther may have contributed to the new category. Perhaps the Academy didn’t think it could include the superhero film in their Best Picture lineup, but also wanted to avoid another #OscarsSoWhite backlash. Good luck with that.

The announcement also begged the question, what exactly is popular film? And why is it different from the Best Picture category? Now that’s another topic for another day, but for the purposes of this video, we’re going to assume that popular film is about what you’d expect: the superhero, Star Wars, or Mission Impossible films of the day.

Now, while the concept of a popular film category is problematic for a number of reasons, I eventually thought about it more and began to come around to the idea. At least in part. You see, some films just don’t belong together, and should not be compared in a single critical award. Many awards know this. The Golden Globes, for example, split their awards based on genre, like drama and comedy. Sometimes it’s hard to even compare stories within the same overall genre. For example, I never really liked people who tried to say that Star Trek was better than Star Wars or vice versa. Because even though they both take place in space and have the word “Star” in their title, the similarities basically end there. One is a space fantasy adventure, and one is an optimistic space exploration story. So even at the sub-genre level, these stories carry very different expectations.

Speaking of which, expectations are one of the most important factors to consider in how a film is either liked or disliked. In my research on writing in specific genres for my book business, I’ve discovered that people really don’t like originality like they say they do. With books, people tend to read only a certain handful of genres, and they get upset when a book doesn’t follow the common tropes usually found in that genre. For example, if you have a book cover that suggests young adult fantasy, people are going to be upset if you don’t have some kind of romance in the book. Preferably a love triangle. Because without that you’ve just written a different kind of fantasy, not a young adult fantasy. In short, you don’t make promises in your marketing and deliver something different.

Now this is probably why the 2009 Star Trek was not well received by Trekkies, or the mainstream Trek fans. Critics loved the new Star Trek, which received a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s higher than any Trek film that came before it. Yet many fans saw it as a betrayal of what made up the fundamentals of Star Trek. It was more of a gritty, big budget space war film, meant to appeal to a broader audience. It did its job perfectly, even if it didn’t fully the expectations of its former niche market.

Expectations are also the same reason why more fans seemed to like the recent Avengers: Infinity War, but there were also many who did not like Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The former met expectations more than the latter, which instead paved new ground as to what a Star Wars film could be. It was different, and definitely did not fulfill expectations. But that’s a can of worms topic that we will probably have to discuss in a seperate video.

Bottom line is that people have expectations of what is good and what is bad. Violating these expectations is what might cause someone to label a film as a “bad” movie.

But what about professional critics?

Film critics clearly had a different view on films like the 2009 Star Trek, or Star Wars: The Last Jedi, favoring both far better than many of the fans. Why is that? Well, to answer that question, we must first take a look at the role a critic plays in our society and how they differ from fans.

First of all, we’re talking about professional critics here, mostly for film, though much of the same could be said of other storytelling mediums. Not the bloggers, not the YouTubers (even though I count myself among that group).

Critics serve a role in helping us understand if we should or shouldn’t watch a film. But it’s a lot more than that. When done well, film criticism will educate us about storytelling, and cause us to think in ways we might not have done otherwise. Perhaps the most famous film critic, Roger Ebert, said this about critics:

“A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.”

The age of the Internet has led to a lot of watered down critics, critics who don’t get much further than saying they liked one story or didn’t like another. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These critics likely speak to a demographic of like-minded people, and therefore their criticism will be valued as indicative of whether that audience is likely to enjoy a story or not. I’m often guilty of this in my own reviews, because I’m not writing to help deepen a person’s understanding of the story (like I’m trying to do with this blog), I’m just letting my audience know if I think they will like it or not.

But true criticism is highly educated in the craft they review, whether that be film, gaming, literary fiction or, indeed, popular storytelling.

But let’s stop there because you might be thinking, well what does all of that matter if criticism of a story is all subjective? And that is a very good question. Let’s take a look.

Recently I had an experience where someone I knew mentioned a book they loved and wanted to get his kids to read. I casually mentioned that the book wasn’t really good. He grew upset at this and told me that was just subjective. Which that got me thinking…

Is it?

In that instance my friend was trying to tell me that my opinion was subjective as a way of validating his own. As if to say that my criticism wasn’t valid because he felt differently. And opinions are one thing, it’s totally okay to like something that most people do not. That’s your opinion. I for one love Return of the Jedi more than any other Star Wars film, even though I know it’s critically not the best of the bunch. Liking something is your opinion, and no one can argue with that. I would argue that having an opinion is not what professional critics do, and I’ll tell you why.

Now, before you angrily sound off in the comments, let me point out that at a certain level, my friend was right, criticism is subjective. It’s based on a system of values and expectations like I mentioned before with genre. We expect good stories to do things a certain way, and “bad” stories don’t do those things. These expectations do shift over time. But then why would it seem like heresy to suggest that, say Iron Man 2 was the best movie Marvel’s ever made. Not that you like it the best, that’s another thing, but that it is the best. That would be a tough pill to swallow, and a claim that most educated critics will not make.

And if everything were to be completely subjective, that would essentially negate the need for educated critics. So where do we draw the line?

Critics subscribe to generally accepted schools of thought. These are standards of good storytelling. And there are a lot of different types. We call these critical frameworks which help guide a critic in their analysis of a certain piece. Now this is where subjectiveness comes into play. A critic can choose to value one or several frameworks over others. And favorability of certain frameworks can shift over time and across cultures.

But that being said, there are standards of storytelling that are considered timeless. These are best identified by looking at popular stories that have withstood the test of time and see what they do, like the works of William Shakespeare. You could also look at elements that pop up in all cultures throughout the history of storytelling, such as the monomyth identified by Joseph Campbell in the Hero with a Thousand Faces. Identifying your list of criteria is essential in criticism, and this is basically what you would learn when studying film or storytelling. You would learn the “rules” for crafting a good story.

Once you have identified your preferred critical framework, it becomes much easier to say a story is bad or good within that framework. For example, if you’re doing a feminist read of a text and the bechdel test is part of your list of criteria, it becomes easy to identify if a story does or does not pass the bechdel test. It either does, or it doesn’t, and there’s no opinion either way. And with that reading, a story that passes the bechdel test would be rated higher. Obviously a story is judged on more than just one criteria like this one but you get the idea.

Now it’s possible to favor multiple frameworks or multiple readings of a given text, which is why some critics come away with seemingly different opinions. This is actually one of the reasons why it’s important to have diversity in film criticism. A feminist reading of a text will likely be far different than that of a straight white young male (which yes, I acknowledge I’m one of those). Reading these diverse opinions will succeed at the purpose of true criticism, of teaching you and helping you appreciate storytelling even more.

Now you might say, Jason, this really isn’t helping your argument that criticism isn’t entirely subjective and I just don’t really need to care about it. Well hold up a minute. Critics may differ, even a lot at times, but when you add them all together, they do tend to agree about a lot of things on the whole. Rotten Tomatoes has a lot of problems, but overall I think it does a decent job of showing the trends for films that critics generally like, and films they generally don’t. It also does one thing the academy awards previously did not: It gives popular film an equal chance at its highest rankings. Only a few “popular” films have ever won the best awards that the Oscars have to offer. Most notably The Return of the King. But these films are few and far between. Rotten Tomatoes on the other hand will have films of all genres and popularities reaching into the top 10%.

However, we again come to that popularity question. You see, in 2017 Rotten Tomatoes gave The Shape of Water a 92% rating. That film eventually went on to win Best Picture for the year. But you know what else had a 92% rating on RT? Thor: Ragnorok. Now, don’t get me wrong. Thor:Ragnarok was an incredible superhero film, and fully deserved its 92%. But the two films simply can’t be compared to each other, even though The Shape of Water also falls under the broad genre of Speculative Fiction. And while I think Thor: Ragnorok is deserving of at least some kind of award nomination, I wouldn’t pit it against something like The Shape of Water.

So that’s why I’m in favor of a popular film category of some kind, just as I am in favor of an animated film category. If the academy hadn’t backtracked on their decision to have a popular film category, my only fear would be that popular films would never be eligible for Best Picture and Popular film.

And that brings me to my last point. The films that win best picture are generally considered “good” by critics according to the generally accepted criteria we discussed earlier, and that also shows on review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes. But many, if not all, of the winners also have one other thing in common. They’re not hugely popular with general audiences, with the winners from the past 10 years making a combined $710,270,801 domestically. In comparison, the recent release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought in $936,662,225 alone. So what does it say about the films the Academy selects if they don’t have the same popularity as other blockbusters?

Some would draw the comparison to fast food, saying that a film critic shouldn’t care about popular film any more than a food critic would care about McDonalds. But that’s not exactly an apt comparison. Fast food is popular because it’s convenient, readily available, and pumped full of sugars, fats, and chemicals that cause the consumer to crave more and more. Popular film is different. Sure, you have some films that appeal to basic trends with little substance, but overall having a good story is still the best way to create a popular hit. The Star Wars, Harry Potters, and Marvel Cinematic Universes of the world became popular not because they were using some cheap tricks to gain viewers, but because they were genuinely good stories (for the most part). The box office flop of DC’s Justice League is a great example of how a film can have huge brand potential, with two of the biggest names in superheroes, and still flop at the box office because it simply wasn’t that great according to the values generally accepted by critics and audiences.

I believe that it’s a good idea not to compare films like the latest superhero film to those that typically win Best Picture. Purely from a genre perspective, they tend to be too different to compare. Critics simply can’t use the same critical framework to critique them both. But at the same time, if the films that consistently win Best Picture do not resonate with audiences in the same way that, say, Black Panther does, then perhaps we need to take a closer look at our values in criticism.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. When I was in college we read a story that I think is relevant here. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t find the original source of this story when I was researching this post, so if you know where I can find it, please let me know in the comments.

A professor was teaching a class in a particular classroom. As part of the class, he wrote up a list of last names, corresponding to the authors of the textbooks they would cover that year. That class finished and the professor left the room. He later returned to teach a class that analyzed poetry. When he arrived, the class was already assembled and the names he had previously written on the board were still there. But instead of assuming they were a simple list of names, the class thought that they were some kind of poem, and had come up with all sorts of possible interpretations while they waited for their professor. At first, the professor thought this was silly, as the list of names were just that, and not poetic in the slightest. But when he thought about it, he realized that just because he had no intention of imbuing the names with any additional meaning, that didn’t mean that meaning did not now exist. The students, in interpreting the list of names as they had, had essentially given them a meaning that hadn’t been there before. And who was the professor to tell them that they were wrong? And at a fundamental level, that’s what all storytelling is really, it’s humanity assigning meaning to things.

It’s clear that popular films mean something to a lot of people, more so than most of the films that win Best Picture. Of all the subjective choices we make to determine our criteria for a story, shouldn’t resonation with a broad audience mean something to critics? Perhaps, if only to let us know that there’s something there worth exploring.

But what do you think? Did you like the inclusion of the popular film category, or do you think the Academy really missed the mark, and are glad they backtracked that decision? Let us know in the comments below!

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Live Free or Twihard: Bella’s Heroic Journey for Wholeness in Fantasy

Note: this is a paper I did back when I was in Brigham Young University earning my bachelor’s degree. Whether or not you like the Twilight series, there’s something be understood in the psychology of its readers, to understand what makes something so popular.

The Twilight series has undergone nearly every form of criticism known to the written world. And yet, the enormous popularity of the series speaks to it’s value in the psycho analysis of our culture, particularly that of young teenage girls (the series’ primary readership). Despite shallow characters and a lot of cheesy dialogue, there are many core elements that make Twilight more significant. These include myth, the psychological archetypes found there, and the fantastical narratives used to bring them about. For instance, Bella undergoes a version of the hero’s journey, which is an archetype found in practically every culture. In this journey she discovers many other universal archetypes, like the animus (the male side of herself) which once transcended is a big step in the direction her journey is leading her: to wholeness. Continue reading “Live Free or Twihard: Bella’s Heroic Journey for Wholeness in Fantasy”

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Shadow Control: Batman’s Relationship with Himself Through his Enemies

Many would agree that one of the reasons why Batman is among the more popular superheroes is the ensemble of villains he fights, and that he is defined by these men and women. Practically every single villain is insane to one degree or another. Each is also a reflection of Batman, and the question is often raised whether or not he is the creator of his villains, or whether they created him. Many of these ideas and the symbols associated with them tie into the Jungian archetype of the Shadow. Bruce Wayne has many personal demons to control, much as his alter-ego does with villains like the Joker, or Two Face, and the Shadow archetype is representative of this. In Christopher Nolan’s film version of The Dark Knight he brings this idea to fruition. The Joker and Two Face are used to reflect Batman’s darker side and how close he is to becoming like one of them. They are all, including Batman, part of a Jungian shadow complex that is evident in Bruce Wayne. Wayne not only has to deal with the anti-heroes of Gotham, he has to deal with the possibility that his own split personality is one of them. However, in the film, it becomes evident that Bruce Wayne is able to take responsibility for his actions and turn chaos into order, which is what allows him to control his shadow rather than let it turn him into a villain. Continue reading “Shadow Control: Batman’s Relationship with Himself Through his Enemies”

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The Lord of the Rings and Escapism

Note: This is a paper I did for a British literature class. The paper covers escapism found in modern fantasy literature and using The Lord of the Rings as my primary example. I think it’s one of my best papers so far.

In an academic setting, if you ever mention Twilight, or Harry Potter, or Star Wars, alongside The Faerie Queen, A Mid Summer Night’s Dream, Beowulf, or even Frankenstein you will quickly be excused from the conversation. This often creates conflict between fans and academics. For instance, The Lord of the Rings has often been both praised and rejected by the literary world. This bias is often attributed to “escapism,” considered an inferior reason to read literature. It would be better to read in order to better perceive reality, to understand, to learn…wouldn’t it? Though “escapist” literature has often been frowned upon in the academic community, a close study of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings reveals that escapism is part of human nature and therefore can enhance our reality, instead of covering it up. Continue reading “The Lord of the Rings and Escapism”

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Why all Storytellers and Businesses Should Consider Cross-platform Storytelling

This is something I think every storyteller and entertainment business should learn, that creating a multi-platform story can only help the success of that story. Generally speaking, in any entertainment franchise, there is a particular medium that is the “core” of the story. For Star Wars it’s film, for Harry Potter it’s books, for Halo it’s video games. However, many of these do not exclude themselves only to these mediums, instead of branching out to include others. These are some of the stories that we specialize in here at All Timelines. And here are some reasons why this should be used more than it is. Continue reading “Why all Storytellers and Businesses Should Consider Cross-platform Storytelling”

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Novelization of the First Scene in ‘Casino Royale’

This is a class assignment that I got to do. The class was a literature and film class, focusing mainly on how one platform is adapted to another. In this assignment we got to take a short scene from a movie and adapt it as a novelization, or short story. I chose to take my scene from the very beginning of Casino Royale the twenty-first James Bond film, and one of my favorite scenes in film. I hope you enjoy. I, of course, do not own the rights to any of these characters or situations. This is posted entirely as a showcase of a school project.

James Bond sat quietly in the dark, waiting for his second kill to arrive. It was dark, after midnight, but he knew the man would show up soon. He always appeared at this time of night to perform his dirty work. Bond had already met up with the man’s contact and there wasn’t much to fear from him now. He had later combed through Dryden’s office and set his trap. There was no way that the man could possibly escape him now. Continue reading “Novelization of the First Scene in ‘Casino Royale’”

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What will the Lord of the Rings Amazon Series Be About?

I enjoy speculating a lot. Especially when we still know very little about the thing I’m speculating about. It’s always fun when something I predicted ends up happening. And when it doesn’t, that’s fine too. It’s just fun.

Recently in the news, you may have heard that Amazon is creating a Lord of the Rings series. Details are scarce, but we know that it’s a prequel series to The Fellowship of the Ring, has the potential for multiple spin-offs, and we also know that they have the cooperation of the Tolkien Estate. What we don’t know is whether it will be canonical with the Peter Jackson films, or if they will be their own thing. Continue reading “What will the Lord of the Rings Amazon Series Be About?”

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Three Things to Remember When Studying Adaptations

Fidelity in Adaptations

When you are studying adaptations, it is important to remember that fidelity is not a valid criterion for understanding them. Fidelity implies a direct adaptation, changing only the actual media platform it uses. This is not a good way to study adaptations because it is impossible to study a work of media, when presented on another media platform, as the same thing. They are entirely different. For example, a book is words on a page that people imagine as they read them.

A movie is a bunch of images strung together: light hitting a piece of film. You simply cannot translate one thing to another without making “changes” to the story. For example, some things are easier to do in literature than in film, like point of view. POV can be used constantly in a written medium, but is very hard to sustain for long periods of time in film because of the viewers need to actually see the protagonist. Continue reading “Three Things to Remember When Studying Adaptations”

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Why an Obi-Wan Kenobi Spin-off Won’t be Boring

I’ve been waiting to write about this for a long time, ever since rumors/speculation hinted at an upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi Star Wars spin-off film. I’ve seen a lot of people supportive of the idea, but I’ve also seen a lot of head-scratching.

“How can they make an Obi-Wan film?” they ask. “I want a film with new characters and storylines. Obi-Wan was just sitting around guarding Luke for 19 years.”

First of all, was he? Second of all, even if he did, there’s plenty of potential stories there. Who knows what kind of trouble might have come for Obi-Wan or Luke in that time.

So with that in mind, here are all the reasons why I think an Obi-Wan movie will not be boring, or in other words, why I don’t think he was just chilling in his hut for 19 years. Continue reading “Why an Obi-Wan Kenobi Spin-off Won’t be Boring”

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How Anakin Brought Balance to the Force

One of the most disputed topics in nerdom is the idea of bringing balance to the Force, in the Star Wars saga. Anakin Skywalker is the one presumed to be the Chosen One, destined to bring balance to that Force. Though even this is in dispute. Continue reading “How Anakin Brought Balance to the Force”

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Why a Superman Video Game is the Best and Worst Idea

Almost all well-known superheroes have been adapted into one video game or another. Nothing fulfills the purpose of a superhero story more than being able to step into that person’s shoes and fight for truth, justice, and…high scores. We are inspired by heroes, we want to emulate them, hence the video game appeal. Of all superheroes, none is more recognizable than Superman. He is the epitome of the perfect superhero. Not only is he invincible but he can fly. Who doesn’t want to fly?! I mean really.

The Superman Problem

This is where we get a problem. Even though Superman is the ultimate superhero and the greatest example of goodness, he is almost too good. He is difficult to relate to. He is difficult to find a suitable adversary for. For the most part, his only opposition has either been people who are just as strong as he is or the infamous Kryptonite, or as I like to call it, the short cut. Superman has worked fine as a comic book, but often bombs as a film, and has yet to become a successful video game (despite several attempts). Continue reading “Why a Superman Video Game is the Best and Worst Idea”

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A Shakespeare Shared Universe: Introduction

Hey everyone!

Welcome back to my read series, where I update you every other week on what series I’m reading and my thoughts. Feel free to follow along. Yesterday, I uploaded my first non-sci-fi/fantasy timeline that focuses on Shakespeare. I’m actually a really big Shakespeare fan, more than any other ancient literature. I hated him in high school (probably like most kids). However, the more I learned, the more I grew to love the Bard.

And that got me thinking: what if there was a Shakespeare shared universe? That’s when I got the idea for my own story, which I am currently writing. The story is called Plots and Errors, and it’s going to be a YA series of books. I plan on competing the first book during NaNoWriMo this year. Continue reading “A Shakespeare Shared Universe: Introduction”

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The Reckoners Readthrough, Part 2

Welcome back to the second and final chapter of my Reckoners read-through. Be sure to check out the first installment if you haven’t already. This is a series where I read through some of my favorite series and record my thoughts in blog form. This post will be relatively short because I only have two books to discuss today. But it was a really great series, and I highly recommend it to everyone. If you’re a fan of Brandon Sanderson, you’ll love it. If you haven’t read Sanderson, you should. I’ll be doing a similar read-through for his Cosmere series later in the year.

Anyway, in the last post I talked about Steelheart, the first book in this series, as well as the short story Mitosis which takes place between Steelheart and the sequel, Firefight. Today I’m talking about the last two books in the trilogy.

3) Firefight

Firefight follows Sanderson’s habit of having a lot of twists and turns in the second act. Everything seems to go wrong in this book and you never see it coming. But you do grow to love the characters even more. Each of them has something that makes them unique (though admittedly sometimes it seems like Sanderson is trying too hard at this). Again the idea that Superheros are the enemy, and the real heroes are those without powers, makes for compelling storytelling.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much the previous short story, Mitosis, actually fit and improved this book. There were a lot of references to the short story that passed over my head the first time I read Firefight. So I can attest to reading everything chronologically. It was a good call. Now this book ends in a really bad cliffhanger (typical of the second installment of a trilogy), so that leads me to…

4) Calamity

This is the book where you realize just how brilliant Sanderson’s world-building is. Everything you thought was just a coincidence is explained. Plot threads that were hinted at in the first book come together. What started out as just a fun story becomes a thriving world. I won’t spoil the ending here, but I thought it was brilliant. Everything came together and it felt like the end of a very complete story. I highly recommend it to everyone.

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The Reckoners Readthrough, Part 1

Hey! So welcome to a new series of posts that I will be doing every few weeks tracking my progress as I read/watch/play-through many of the timelines that you find here on the site. You see, AllTimelines.com is more than just a website for me. I started creating timelines because I loved to experience these franchises in chronological order, and that’s what I’m going to do here. I plan to write a brief (very brief) review of each item and give you my thoughts on the overall progress.

We’re starting with something simple, The Reckoners trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson. There are only three books and one short story in this series, but I thought it would be a good place to start, especially since I plan on reading through Sanderson’s much more massive Cosmere series starting later in the year. And fair warning, this article WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS! You have been warned. So let’s get started. Continue reading “The Reckoners Readthrough, Part 1”

Support For All Timelines:

All Timelines’s lists, reading orders, and guides are made possible by reader support on Patreon.

If you like All Timelines's reading orders/timelines and want exclusive reader rewards, your support on Patreon would be tremendously appreciated! Rewards include:

  • Patreon-only updates on what goes on behind the scenes and what's up and coming.
  • Priority reading order requests
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The Future of the Arrowverse

As this site proves, I’m a huge fan of shared universes. Between Star Wars, Marvel, and DC Comics, I have found countless hours of entertainment. One of the biggest shared universes is the Arrowverse, named after the TV show Arrow, which started the timeline. The Arrowverse consists mostly of the shows Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow, though it also includes the 1-season run of Constantine and the short animated series, VixenSupergirl, on CBS, was another show that crossed over into the Arrowverse, but only in the form of an alternate dimension that the Flash was able to visit because he can do that. Continue reading “The Future of the Arrowverse”

Support For All Timelines:

All Timelines’s lists, reading orders, and guides are made possible by reader support on Patreon.

If you like All Timelines's reading orders/timelines and want exclusive reader rewards, your support on Patreon would be tremendously appreciated! Rewards include:

  • Patreon-only updates on what goes on behind the scenes and what's up and coming.
  • Priority reading order requests
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  • A direct hand in growing All Timelines!
  • Promotions of your site, blog, or YouTube channel!
  • And more!

Any size contribution will help keep All Timelines alive and full of new geek culture guides and content. Support All Timelines on Patreon for exclusive rewards. Thank you for reading!