Retconning in Film is More Trouble Than It’s Worth

(Author’s note: Spencer’s Soapbox is a weekly column here on SHH where yours truly tries to spur a conversation on specific topics. Dive in to the latest installment below and check out the previous ones by clicking here.)

Something that happens with some frequency in comic books is retconning, or retroactive continuity. It entails taking a previously-established piece of canon and altering or adding to it, typically to accommodate a present story. This is the kind of tool that can cause as much praise as it does headaches, and it’s making its way into the world of movies with much more prevalence. Earlier this week it was revealed that a 27-hour marathon of every Marvel Studios movie will take place in anticipation of Avengers: Age of Ultron at participating theaters, and it got me thinking about the act of retconning in features. This is a topic that was also brought up recently given Neil Blomkamp’s comments on his upcoming Alien film. Is it something that we’re going to have to get used to with how blockbuster franchises are expanding? Or is it more trouble than it’s worth?

Let’s look at Iron Man 3 as an example (spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen it), because there are some heavy notions of retconning going on in that movie (despite my supreme affection for it). The film starts out with a huge piece of retconning, setting up the relationship of Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen with Tony Stark years before he even invents the Iron Man armor. There’s also that genius bit of a storytelling twist in the reveal that Ben Kingsley is in fact a drunk actor and not the “real Mandarin,” who is actually Aldrich Killian and who has been pulling the strings since the start. This is retconning in film when it works. Setting up the story, without significantly altering or devaluing the previous films (arguable to some, of course) but making changes to the entire landscape of the character going forward. It delivers a new perspective on the three “Iron Man” movies in ways that make it feel complete. Despite what you might think of Iron Man 3 as a whole, it gets retconning right.

They couldn’t let it go though, especially after the fan “outrage” for The Mandarin twist, and Marvel had to make the “Hail to the King” One-Shot. The crux of this short is that Aldrich Killian was either mistaken or simply lying when he proclaimed to be The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 as “the real Mandarin” was upset with how Killian and Ben Kingsley’s Trevor had made a mockery of his name. It’s a fun short, but is a prime example of confusing film retconning. To the people that didn’t like The Mandarin twist, it’s seen as a way to “fix” what was done in the movie and assure them that a “real Mandarin” story is in the cards (though it probably isn’t). But to the people that liked Iron Man 3‘s twist, it’s a funny PS that doesn’t change that movie at all, but in fact adds an extra layer to the absurdity of the original situation. So which is it, officially? No one has said either way, and since Marvel’s One-Shots appear to be dead, I don’t think we’ll ever know.

Let’s jump over to Fox’s Marvel films, some of which were completely removed from the continuity at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Here’s another example of confusing film retconning at work, because at the end of the film not only is the entire status quo erased, but characters previously dead are alive once again. Which movies happened? Which movies didn’t? We probably won’t know until after X-Men: Apocalypse, but even then it’s not a guarantee. One thing many took from “Days of Future Past” is that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is gone, and yet a spin-off movie focusing on Deadpool is set to arrive before “Apocalypse.” It’s entirely possible this film won’t reference “Wolverine,” but the same actor is in the role so confusion will no doubt abound.

Marvel Studios appears to only break the glass in case of an emergency, but Fox seemingly goes out of their way with every “X-Men” movie to apply retconning. Be it for story purposes or fan service, literally every “X-Men” movie changes something about the previous one. Even Warner Bros. is gearing up for some retconning with their upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which will have a veteran Batman that has been active for years and, if some reports are to be believed, say that Aquaman was actually present in Man of Steel.

So should retconning be used in feature films or is it a tool that needs to live and die on the page? It’s a useful thing for filmmakers to have in their back pocket, but it certainly needs to be taken out sparingly. One of the primary reasons that fans really love the MCU is its expansive continuity, and screwing with it in unfavorable ways only to have to go back and patch up your other mistake will no doubt lead to a confusing shamble. It’s hard to imagine a future when Marvel Studios comes out and says that one of their films completely “didn’t happen,” though The Incredible Hulk is almost in that territory. How will fans react if that day comes? It is really worth making more money in the present to sweep your past efforts under the rug? Perhaps it’s a tactic that we’re just going to have to accept. I can’t imagine some general audience members will even care about the issue, but I take umbrage with it.