by Alexander Grevy
"It’s not hard to believe in a world of aliens and wizards and lightsabers, but it’s damned difficult to believe in a world of inconsistency."
Once upon a time, JRR Tolkien coined the term ‘sub-creation’ — a neat little word meant to encapsulate the authors’ process of mythmaking and worldbuilding in narrative fiction.
With successful sub-creation, a fictional world can be turned in to one with such rich and life-giving detail it takes on a life of its own, particularly when spanning across multiple works.
The reader is able to fashion their own connective metanarrative, arching over and interweaving the disparate stories set in these same fictitious universes. Storytelling thus becomes an interactive experience whereby the reader is promoted from passive consumer to creative co-author. When you know that things are happening beyond the work — beneath the text and in-between stories — the world feels real, and you naturally fill in the blanks yourself.
In the last decade, the phenomenon of sub-creation has taken over the silver screen. It started with 2008’s Iron Man and was followed by a hailstorm of Marvel and DC productions. A ‘world’ is created, one that looks a lot like ours, but with some significant alterations.
A range of characters are introduced, killed, rebirthed, villainized, redeemed, and so on ad infinitum. These plotlines then connect across connected movies; characters reappear as protagonists, then supporting characters, or just brief cameos.
Marvel and DC are not, however, the first to delve into the pleasures of the movieverse — not by a long shot.
In the 90s and early 2000s cult filmmaker Kevin Smith rolled out a whole collection of movies set in his so-called ‘View Askewniverse’, a fictional world tied together by the reappearing stoner-duo Jay and Silent Bob. There are popular theories that place all the Pixar movies in a single shared universe. Several Adam Sandler movies are tied together by repeated characters and Easter Eggs; and then there’s the infamous crossovers like Alien vs. Predator or the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong in Legendary’s MonsterVerse. The list goes on.
Cash-grabs at what cost?
This unceasing trend of the never-ending movieverse ultimately begs the question: When is enough enough? When is the movieverse an enriching experience of interconnected sub-creation, and when is it the low-hanging fruit that lazily ties stories together at the expense of verisimilitude? What about Universal’s recent attempt to kickstart their ‘Dark Universe’ with a soft Mummy reboot? A value-adding remake, or just a blatant cash-grabbing failure? (We’re also looking at you, Cloverfield Paradox).
But let’s return to the Marvel-verse. The characters we know and love arguably suffer from being penned by different writers. There is a notable discrepancy, for instance, between the powers of a superhero in his or her own movie compared to their subsequent appearance in someone else’s.
In Thor: Ragnarok, the Warriors Three are killed off in the blink of an eye, denied the necessary screentime to put up even some resistance. Do they not at the very least deserve a few seconds of mourning? It’s oddly jarring when characters who featured so heavily in the two preceding Thor-movies are so flippantly wiped clean from the script. If Thor-director Kenneth Branagh had also been the helmsman of this third installment, perhaps the Warriors Three-character arc would have been more cohesive.
What Would Luke Skywalker (really) Do?
This is not to say that the movieverse is an inherently bad idea. The best scene in X-Men: First Class is arguably the short-and-sweet Wolverine cameo, in which Wolverine declines Xavier and Magneto’s team-up offer while chugging a whiskey in characteristically, hilariously moody fashion.
The point here lies in the value of consistency and cohesion. We like seeing characters and plots intersect across storylines and franchises, but not at the cost of previously established character traits and moviverse mythologies. Would the Luke Skywalker we know and love really go into voluntary exile after accidentally turning his nephew evil, and then just … hope for the best, offering no assistance in taking down the First Order?
Movie-mythmaking can be awe-inspiring and magical. It can transport us to new and different worlds, and deeply invest us in characters we would otherwise witness from one angle. Ultimately, the line between sub-creation and selling-out is a fine one to walk — it can pay off in the form of a satisfied fan-base, or it can shatter our suspension of disbelief in a split second.
It’s not hard to believe in a world of aliens and wizards and lightsabers, but it’s damned difficult to believe in a world of inconsistency.