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Source images: Marvel Studios | Illustration: James Bareham

Is the MCU part of the Tommy Westphall Universe?

The story of the actual most ambitious crossover in history

Apologies to the one-two punch of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, but there’s only one “most ambitious crossover event in history”: the effort that fans have put into cataloging the Tommy Westphall Universe. The TWU hypothesis makes it possible to state that virtually every television show of the past 30 years — a massive swath of American entertainment — exists in the same setting.

We are here today to answer a single question: Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so lauded as an ambitious crossover series, a part of the Tommy Westphall Universe?

What is the Tommy Westphall Universe hypothesis?

The Tommy Westphall Universe begins with three major pillars of crossover-prone television, each crafted by either Tom Fontana or Dick Wolf, TV producers and close friends. Their long-running series St. Elsewhere, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and the Law & Order franchise regularly featured character cameos from each other in more than a dozen appearances from 1995 onward.

But why is it called the “Tommy Westphall Hypothesis” and not, say “The St. Elsewhere Hypothesis?” TWU became internet fodder because it has the sort of absurd punchline that is irresistible to nerds.

In the final scene of St. Elsewhere, it is implied that the entirety of the show never happened. The events of the six-year medical drama were merely an elaborate fantasy played out in the mind of minor character Tommy Westphall, inspired by a snow globe with a model of the title hospital inside it.

And if everything on St. Elsewhere happened inside Tommy Westphall’s head, you could suggest that, by logical extension, every show that crossed over with St. Elsewhere is also inside Tommy’s head. And every show that crossed over with those shows, and every show that crossed over with those shows ...

You can see how this quickly got out of hand, as I will now illustrate.

Fact: The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a part of the TWU

I can prove the connection in several ways.

The simplest route from St. Elsewhere to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is through Arrested Development. St. Elsewhere characters appeared on Homicide: Life on the Street. Detective Munch from Homicide: Life on the Street appeared in the Arrested Development episode “Exit Strategy.” And Tobias Fünke — all blued up — appeared as an Easter egg in the Collector’s collection in Avengers: Infinity War.

But I can understand if that’s not enough for you. After all, it wasn’t David Cross in that scene, so it could have been any blue, mustachioed, shorts-wearing man or alien in that tube. It could be a reference, rather than a crossover. Let’s try another route.

We can go straight from Homicide: Life on the Street to the Marvel Comics Universe, thanks to a page from 1996’s Cable #33, in which the time-traveling mutant mercenary runs into Detectives Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor).

Cable, Frank Pembleton and Tim Bayliss in Cable #33, Marvel Comics (1996). Jeph Loeb, Ian Churchill, Rick Leonardi/Marvel Comics

From the main Marvel Comics universe, Earth-616, it’s just a dimensional hop away to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Earth-199999. Am I suggesting that the entire Marvel Multiverse is inside Tommy Westphall’s head? From a strict logical standpoint, yes.

But Cable isn’t the only way to get to Tommy Westphall through the Marvel Comics Universe, just the shortest. See, from Homicide, you can get to The X-Files, thanks to yet another Detective Munch cameo. From St. Elsewhere, you can make it to the interconnected ABC Soap Opera Universe. From each of those starting points you can, through circuitous means, make it all the way to Twin Peaks.

And from Twin Peaks, you can make it from FBI agent Dale Cooper to Valerie Cooper, the government liaison to the clandestine mutant rescue team, X-Factor. Valerie is Dale’s sister, as shown by this critical document from 1991’s X-Factor #71:

Valerie Cooper talking about her connection to Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper in X-Factor #71, Marvel Comics (1991). Peter David, Larry Stroman/Marvel Comics

And just like with Cable meeting characters from Homicide: Life on the Street, once you can get to Earth-616, you’ve got Earth-199999, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in the mix as well.

So what does all of this mean?

Absolutely zip. And I can explain why.

The Tommy Westphall Universe hypothesis did not spring fully formed from collective fan consciousness. Rather, it was first postulated by the late writer Dwayne McDuffie — a long-time veteran of Marvel and DC Comics, founder of Milestone Comics, co-creator of Marvel’s “Damage Control” and the superhero Static, and generally, a very smart comics guy.

McDuffie was also a pillar in one of the earliest interconnected superhero cinematic universes, the DC Animated Universe. He worked on Static Shock, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited, writing, story-editing, and even eventually producing large chunks of the shows. And it was exactly the connections between them that prompted his hypothesis.

McDuffie noted that the first crossover between Static Shock and the DC Animated Universe — a 2002 Static episode called “The Big Leagues,” featuring Batman and the Joker — was causing a bit of a stir among a small community of fans. For the most part, the episode went over well with viewers, and even turned some Batman fans, who’d only shown up for the crossover, into Static fans.

But there was a vocal minority who seemed to want to know what the crossover “did” to the continuity of those two shows that, until then, had not seemed to exist in the same setting. In a 2002 blog post, McDuffie laid out his answer: It didn’t do anything to the continuities of those shows. Or, at least, it shouldn’t.

“Complex interlocking storylines across dozens of series,” he said, “will inherently prove to be absurd. Let me demonstrate.”

Actor Chad Allen as Tommy Westphall in St. Elsewhere
Actor Chad Allen as Tommy Westphall in St. Elsewhere
Jack Hamilton/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

His demonstration was the first elucidation of the Tommy Westphall Universe, which McDuffie called his Grand Unification Theory. If TV crossovers were held to the same rigorous standards as comic book crossovers, he points out, St. Elsewhere would never have been allowed to have its bizarre ending.

If taken to their most literal extreme, the combination of the finale and the crossovers would swing a scythe over the stories of dozens of classic TV series now “canonically established” to be the figment of a child’s imagination. Ally McBeal, The Practice, Cheers, Fraiser, Seinfeld, Wings, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H — and those were just the ones he came up with on his own.

“So what does this prove,” he concluded, “other than the fact that I’ve got too much free time? Well, my point and I do have one (I can steal this catch phrase because, as I’ve already proven, Ellen never existed), is that while guest-shots and crossovers can be fun, obsessive, cross-series continuity is silly.”

McDuffie even took the argument a step further, saying that the TV model of crossovers should be adopted into superhero comics.

“Anyone who has read my old columns knows my radical stance on comic book continuity,” he wrote, “[...] I think comic book continuity should be treated as TV continuity traditionally has, that is to say, every show has its own, individual continuity — even when that show shares characters from other shows [...] This allows them to have all the fun of crossovers, without the silly baggage of both shows having to keep it all straight (and, wonder of wonders, you can watch and enjoy either show without ever watching the other one).”

Thought experiments like the Tommy Westphall Universe are fun, McDuffie freely admitted — and I think the widespread adoption and study of his Hypothesis since his blog post supports that. There’s even a Tommy Westphall wikia site, which was invaluable in the writing of this post.

But, and this is the part that’s easy for a lot of nerds to forget, interconnected continuities are a much more powerful marketing tool than they are a storytelling one. Batman’s appearance on Static Shock created new Static Shock fans. We’ll sign up for Disney Plus because that’s where Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes’ story will be continued. The downside to continuity is when it’s taken so seriously that it constrains the storytelling.

So repeat to yourself: St. Elsewhere is just a show. You should really just relax.