The Theorist: Ending Franchise Continuity (As We Know It)


By Spencer. A recent piece on io9 examined the contrasting ways that two mega-franchises—DC Comics and Star Wars—have recently attempted to make their sprawling backstories more accessible to new viewers and readers. After rebooting their entire comics line in 2011 with the “New 52,” DC is un-rebooting its universe with the Convergence event, bringing together competing visions of characters like Superman and Batman from different continuities in another confusing reshuffle. Meanwhile, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens coming to theaters this December, new franchise-owner Disney is simplifying things. They are wiping the slate clean on the huge Expanded Universe of books, comics, and video games that, over the past two decades, has mapped out several thousand years of history in that galaxy far, far away. Now, only the movies and the two animated series, The Clone Wars and Rebels, will be considered “canon.”

The question you’re no doubt asking right now if you’re not a Comic-Con-attending cosplayer is, “who cares?” But I’ll go you one better, because I think it’s time that even the most obsessive fans start asking the same question. Why, if at all, does continuity matter anymore? Is it time to leave the whole concept behind?

marvelWhen did it become assumed that every story in a franchise must tie together, no matter how many contortions and ret-cons and overlooked contradictions are required to keep things neat? At some point, doesn’t this hinder the creative process rather than help it? The flaws in this approach are easiest to illustrate in the world of comics. The primary Marvel Universe, for example, has been carrying on a single continuity since the early 60s. In fifty years, a character like Spider-Man has gone through some major life changes—high school, college, the death of a girlfriend, marriage, the erasure of that marriage after a deal with the devil (don’t ask), and a long-term bodily possession by arch-enemy Dr. Octopus (no really, please don’t ask)—all while aging only about fifteen years in story time. Wolverine has had his back story retconned so many times that it’s gibberish. And those are just two characters. The wider Marvel Universe, featuring literally thousands of characters, is now a sprawling mess of contradictions that even Sheldon Cooper couldn’t unravel.

So why bother?

pineshatnerIn the last decade or so, a few franchises seem to realize this and what we’ve seen is the rise of the partial reboot. Star Trek cleverly went this route with the 2009 Chris Pine-Zachary Quinto movie. Billed in the pre-release publicity as a prequel to the original TV series, this was only partially true; a time travel storyline allowed J.J. Abrams to change history and set his movie series in an alternate timeline where he could freely depart from canon. Of course, this eliminated part of the fun for Trekkies who had spent decades quibbling over the internal contradictions of the primary Trek timeline. But it allowed the new films to attract novice fans and breathed fresh air into a franchise that had grown stale after six television series and ten feature films, each more convoluted than the last.

That’s one solution. But the downside is that it feels gimmicky (see Terminator: Genisys, or better yet, don’t see it). Especially once everyone else is doing it too. Studios can only get away with this kind of thing so many times, and it’s particularly hard outside of a sci-fi context, where time travel doesn’t give you a convenient plot device.

Other franchises haven’t needed an excuse at all, and have just elected to start over from scratch with a pure reboot. Take Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Anyone who was complaining that Batman Begins didn’t tie in neatly with the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series deservedly got laughed right out of Comic-Con. And this goes a long way to proving my point.

Whether you’re in movies, television, or comics, why not just embrace the freedom that comes with standalone stories? The James Bond movies have done this successfully for years. With each new actor who takes on the role, there’s been little or no effort spent maintaining plot continuity with the films that came before. Sure, some actors like Desmond Llewyen’s Q or Judi Dench’s M have served with multiple 007s—but nobody, audiences included, gave a damn whether these stories took place within the same Bond “universe.” By relieving audiences of that expectation up front, you do both them and yourself a service. And you very likely come out with a better product for it.

What’s the greatest Batman comic ever written? Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. What’s the second greatest Batman comic? Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. And both were standalone stories.

So please, nerds of the world, take heed: it’s time to let go. Let’s end the obsession with canon and embrace a creative world that puts story first. Let’s see a Star Wars movie that dares to rewrite the history of the Rebellion (or even better, one that wipes out the first 18 years or so of Anakin Skywalker’s biography and gives us the badass we deserved). Let’s send a non-Arnold Terminator back in time to the 1920s or to the Wild West. Let’s reimagine what a Wolverine comic book would look like in a world otherwise devoid of caped superheroes. Let’s get Star Trek back on television where it belongs, with a new concept and without the strained efforts to tie back into the Kirk/Spock mythology. It might make for fewer debate-worthy topics on the internet. But it may also make our entertainment options a little more, um, entertaining.

4 thoughts on “The Theorist: Ending Franchise Continuity (As We Know It)

  1. Absolutely love the rant, Spencer! It touches a sensitive spot for me because I’m a collector by nature, so I could see myself as the one (and have been before) who would dig up obscure things to truly understand the full story — to get the continuity right. I would then also discuss its finer points (argue drunkenly) with friends. But in the end, I’m with you, especially for comics and movies. Continuity can easily become a drag.

    By the way, I also think this about musical artists. We LOVE, LOVE to talk about where blankety-blank is going with their music. We try to link the last album to the new one. Is Achtung Baby a response to Joshua Tree? Or is Death Cab for Cutie sufficiently evolutionary for us? What’s their trajectory? What’s the story of their continuity? WHO cares? Is the music any good? Is there a soul at work? That’s what matters.

  2. I guess that’s exactly the point, Antony. Continuity used to be fun. But it’s not anymore. Some of that is just inevitable with time. When you’ve got only a decade or two of continuity to deal with, it’s the perfect topic for “bar-guments.” But when you tack another couple of decades worth of material onto that same foundation, the whole structure becomes too shaky to stand.

    The funny thing about continuity in music is that we so often try and have it both ways. Some bands we will shred for doing the same thing over and over (take the Black Keys, Weezer, or even Death Cab). Others would get shredded if they ever DID try and do anything different (like Jack White, Tool, The XX, Gillian Welch, Foo Fighters, or even Bruce Springsteen). You just want to keep hearing them do the thing you love!

  3. BTW, the James Bond example is excellent. I’ve never ever worried about Bond-universe continuity. He is a timeless badass spy…that’s it.

  4. You know the funny thing about that, Antony? I once read an intriguing theory that all the James Bond movies ARE in the same continuity. The idea is that “James Bond” is just a codename held by each agent with the 007 designation, so the Connery “Bond” retired and was replaced by a new “James Bond,” then Lazenby’s wife died so he retired early and they coaxed Connery to come back for a while, then Moore, and so on. It makes sense on so many levels, because (a) what spy is gonna use their real name?, and (b) it explains why you had the same M and Q carrying forward between Connery/Moore, Brosnon/Craig, etc. The idea is so sensible that it frankly makes the movies better. But then they blew it with Skyfall by having him go back to his childhood home on the Bond estate. Oh well.

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