Shared Universe Continuities are Not the Mark of Success

(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.)

Shared universe continuities are what’s in these days and Marvel is the prettiest girl at the prom. With ten feature films (twelve more coming in the next four years), two network shows, a handful of shorts, and the five upcoming Netflix series, all taking place in one gigantic cross media realm, it’s undeniable the juggernaut that they’ve put together. Fans love it because it mirrors the world of the comics with its interconnectedness and because it’s a total pioneer effort that has yet to be replicated, though arguably “Star Wars” is in a somewhat similar position. This web of stories starring the Marvel characters has no rival, even for their counterpart DC Entertainment. Though they have four TV shows on the air now with another 3 in development, none of them are tying into their larger “cinematic universe” at all. Should DC Entertainment be trying to connect all these things though? As impressive as it would be to have multiple behemoths of cross referencing universes, it’s still not a necessity just because Marvel has made it work.

By this time next year, we could be looking at three totally separate Batman continuities that are part of mainstream live-action entertainment. Fox’s “Gotham” will be into its second season, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will be weeks away from release, and if TNT’s “Titans” debuts, it will have to reference Batman if not outright include him. To take it a step further, we could be looking at three different Superman continuities as well, with Henry Cavill playing him on the big screen, the in-development CBS series “Supergirl” blazing its own path, and the David Goyer-penned “Krypton” on Syfy set to explore the life of the big man’s home planet via his grandfather. That’s five different factions of storytelling with no baring on each other and almost no chance of them ever referencing one another.

This might be seen as a confusing asset to general audiences or television watchers. “What do you mean there’s a Supergirl show and a Krypton show and they have nothing to do with the Superman movies?” I remember when I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the first time and after the Scarlet Witch/Quicksilver scene concluded, I heard someone say “That’s how they tie into the X-Men.” So yes, there will be people that don’t understand that not everything is connected, but I think on the whole audiences are smarter about this sort of thing than we’d like to give them credit for.

Separating the shows and films is a good call, because it gives the producers, directors, and writers the freedom (to some extent) to tell the stories they want to tell. Seniority will always be given to the films, of course. If Zack Snyder wants a character in a movie that they also want on “Arrow,” sorry Mr. Queen, you’re not going to win that fight. This scenario, however, allows storytellers to dig deeper into the mythology of these characters and find another obscure or interesting piece of the world to make their own. Even on that level, they will no doubt run into problems when they want to use characters. We’ve had this come up already as both “Gotham” and “Arrow” used the C-list villain The Dollmaker, but that’s not an issue since each show gets to use the character how they want and in their own context. That’s why it’s important and why not every company has to have a gigantic media universe. When you have a variety of media that isn’t tied into one place and worried about servicing each other for an even larger narrative, you have room to breath and tell a range of different stories.

Let’s look at Fox’s “X-Men” movies as another example. The filmmakers and studio wanted to make a continuity for the characters on the big screen and did fine enough until X-Men Origins: Wolverine came along and put a dent in it. Then X-Men: First Class came out as an attempt to reboot the series but managed to make the continuity even more confusing. Fox course corrected with X-Men: Days of Future Past, essentially resetting it all and doing away with the films that fans weren’t fond of, but did they have to do that? Isn’t a wacky, obtuse continuity something fans dig about the comics? And was the muddled continuity of some of the movies really the reason some fans didn’t like them? X-Men: First Class is tied with “X2” on Rotten Tomatoes as the second-highest rated “X-Men” movie, so I think quality overrides potential confusion. There will always be acts of retconning (retroactive continuity), but that comes with the territory of these colossal stories. I would argue contradictory elements within the movies doesn’t diminish their quality either, but when you have a bad movie that differs from another movie as well, it’s going to get hammered on that point just as hard.

What DC Entertainment is doing with their films and shows is ideal for them. None of this is to disparage the work that Marvel Studios has done either, but what they’ve achieved took a lot of hard work. It’s the exception, not the rule. We should be thankful we have at least one masterwork of live-action continuity that is functional. It would be great if more of them came along and were operational like the MCU, but we shouldn’t expected it of every franchise, especially if they don’t want it to. It’s not the grandiose shared universes that indicate quality, it’s the stories within them that make them worthwhile.