On Shared Universes and Marvels

Hello Hypothetical Audience, did you have a good Christmas-solstice-whatever and New Years? Brilliant! But now we must face facts, accept that 2015 has now occurred and get on with things once again. So, for the first column of the year I thought I’d share some thoughts I had while watching films over the break. Over the last few weeks I’ve been watching an awful lot of films that have come out of the Marvel film studio, and for the most part they’ve been very good (the only dud I’ve seen so far being Iron Man 2, which was merely a passable filler), and they’ve been attempting to do what the comics have been doing since time immemorial by tying all the characters and events in to a single shared universe. This is a departure from how this has been run previously, mostly due to the fact that all the licences are now being held under a single studio rather than the mess that previously existed, allowing for multi film-, and even franchise-, arcs to exist. This is certainly the first time something like this has been tried with such a large scope, however it may not be as good a thing as it sounds, depending on how it’s handled, and I shall tell you for why after the read-more-thing.

Being the devious media-soak that I am, I do read an awful lot of comic books in my day to day life. I can see you are all surprised by this. Anyway, this means I have more than a passing familiarity with the various shared universes used within it, and the tricks used to make them work. Sometimes you get a publisher-wide shared universe like what Marvel and DC do, sometimes you get multiples within the same publisher, dependant on theme, writer, starting point and so on, which the most prominent example in my mind would be those within the British anthology comic 2000AD. Like a lot of narrative and creative techniques there can be good ways to do this and bad, and when you get a good one it’s incredibly immersive and makes it feel like a far wider fictional place than just the piece you are reading. When it goes wrong? Weell… One of the biggest issues (excuse the pun) with the way the big american publishers do things is that it often becomes incredibly convoluted, twisting mess of cross-referential goings on that require additional knowledge of multiple other titles to fully comprehend, and this can get worse when a “cross-over event” is going on. While I know you should never treat your audience as total idiots, the fact these publishers expect such in-depth knowledge of the whole shebang poses something of a difficult challenge for newcomers. As a wise man once said, you should always assume every comic is someone’s first (applies just as well to all creative mediums).

The severity of this issue often depends upon the writing and/or editorial teams of a piece. As is often the case the more of each involved, or the more meddling coming down from management tends to lead to overcomplicating in the “too many cooks” vein, especially if those involved are not communicating their intent with one another well enough. Some writers, however, can fully make their stories part of this convoluted mess without achieving the continuity lockout of others and act as a gateway for newbies, though this can take skills to do. It also depends upon the rigidity of how the universe is set out from a world building aspect. One of my favourite, and in my opinion better handled, shared universes in comics is the Judge Dredd universe, all the spin offs are assumed to take place concurrently with all the others, yet since the universe is so unbelievably vast in scope (Mega-City One was once nearly a billion people, for instance) there is amazing leeway given to individual writers to do what they want. After all, what seems like a huge event for one story may just be a drop in the ocean for everyone else, and when big world changing events happen some characters may not be present and react to their fallout with the same surprise the reader would on first encountering it.

But, how does this relate to the Marvel Movies, I hear you cry? Well, its becoming increasingly apparent as the franchise continues that it’s reaching a tipping point where it can become either a good or a bad shared universe very quickly. Given how they’ve got movies planned out for the rest of the decade, it could drastically affect how things pan out for the fans and critics. Lets take The Avengers (Or Avengers Assemble in the UK) as a prime example. The film is essentially a direct sequel to three other films, namely Thor, Captain America and Iron Man 2, and references small plot points dropped in all three. Now, this would suggest they were required viewing to comprehend the film, but the writing was solid enough that you got the general gist of it even without, making it a far more accessible.

Compare this, however to Iron Man 3, which is a direct sequel to the preceding (and, incase I come across overly negative, my joint-favourite Marvel film of the current crop) and again heavily references events from the prior film. Unlike The Avengers, though, the major plot points aren’t as well explained. For most of the film Tony Stark is suffering from PTSD from “The events in New York” at the climax of The Avengers, but the elaboration is much vaguer. When I first saw this it was before I had seen The Avengers and was left slightly confused as to the goings on. What’s more, the relationship to the previous movie creates a minor plot hole too, namely what the hell Bruce Banner was doing during that film after going to live and work with Stark at the end of The Avengers. Neither of these were particularly immersion destroying, and certainly were no where near the “Oh Fuck Off Moment” but still are shaky upon reflection, and show potential to fall into the mess that afflicts the comics, locking out new viewers.

Perhaps the best handling of the shared universe films I’ve seen from Marvel would be Guardians of the Galaxy (The other joint-favourite of mine, for those playing along at home) which takes place within the same universe, and even features a few of the same characters, but since it takes place in it’s own section of the universe is free to do as it wants to a certain degree. Like I mentioned with the Judge Dredd example above, the goings on on Earth in the other films appear of little consequence to the characters since the universe is so vast, yet their own goings on will likely have on the rest of the universe (or at least I hope so given how much Thanos is being foreshadowed, but I digress). This film is pretty much a perfect gateway into the universe as it lacks the awkward self-referential-ness present in the other films (even to a minor degree) yet manages to drop enough plot threads that it should hook enough people in to the rest of the universe to see whats going on.

I’ve purposely harped on about Marvel, both comic and film wise, here because I think they provide the perfect examples of a shared universe gone wonderfully right and horribly wrong in their work. As an aspiring writer who has some grand ideas, they can easily be a playbook of what to and not to do when trying to write multiple connected works. While their general subject matter may not be to everyone’s tastes for whatever reason, this sort of thing is worth looking at for the technical logistics of world building, for lack of a better phrase, which is an area I personally am obsessed with. Creating a fictional world is no easy feat, especially one where there’s meant to be interconnected stories taking place all across it, and for better or worse the Super Hero universes of the big comic publishers are both the most prominent and probably most ambitious example’s we’re likely to see right now, so well worth taking notes from. I know I will.
Until next time, folks,
—Ndro
—A Marvel Unto Himself.

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