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?
When 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?
In 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.