Since I’ve largely been blogging about Marvel movies, but not much about writing per se, I thought I better do something writing related to break up the topic a little.
Something which I think is of great interest to writers is long running series, and while perhaps the shared universe thing is less common (but not unheard of and perhaps a likely new thing) the techniques and nature of creating them could be of help.
Just a reminder, as always, I’m no guru or expert on writing, these are just my observations – and a few insights gleaned from other smart brains about the place!
So what makes a shared universe work? (or not work in some cases I relatively recently saw Justice League, just saying.)
Just before I begin making points – or rather halfway through making points I realized I had to jump back and talk about this – it may be wise to actually define what a shared universe actually is. Because I didn’t actually realize until researching for this post that shared universe actually refers to the sharing of the ‘setting’ between creators. That is to say the “shared” part which I confess thought meant shared between stories actually refers to writers/directors/whoever.
So what counts as a shared universe is actually pretty strange, e.g. according to Wikipedia Freddy Vs Jason, and Alien Vs Predator count as shared Universes, whereas Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings do not (as they are overseen by canon creators)
All of that is probably a distraction because I’m not really getting at how different creators work together per se, but how the ultimate stories work together well, so for the purpose of this post I’m more focused on the idea of multiple stories being told from the same fictional universe whether with multiple creators or not.
So that confusion out of the way – let’s move on…
One of the most confusing and controversial conversations is about how best to handle the level of ‘sequel’ in a long running series – and when the plan is a shared universe the conversation gets even more confusing.
Something I noticed in the Phase 1, and majority of Phase 2 MCU movies is a lot of effort put into making the individual films digestible without viewing earlier installments. Even Avengers, the first team-up movie spent a fair chunk of screen-time getting characters introduced. This almost seems contrarian, in the sense of whats the point of having individual movies if the team-up one introduces them again anyway? But the odd thing is there is a lot of merit to ensuring any given story is complete on its own, this isn’t just a mercantile technique to maximize enjoyment, it actually cuts to the heart of what stories are.
If I use a music metaphor, an artist can create several interconnected pieces of music of their album that work best to listen to in sequence, however if a track doesn’t sound right on its own, its not really an individual song/tune its just more of the first track. Stories are the same, the Avengers film is enhanced by watching the Phase 1 movies but by no means is a requirement.
Note: this is an element that gets progressively more tricky as the MCU evolved which I will mention as my marathon through it continues.
Of course this idea of standalone movies creates a catch-22 problem. What threads then do connect the movies? They can’t be completely standalone or people would feel cheated on the opportunity for long term development that the universe offers! What the MCU movies do that other creative attempts seem to have struggled with is understanding how to build off previous material to make a fresh story without creating reliance on that material.
For example: In Iron Man 3 Tony Stark experiences PTSD from his near-death in Avengers. If you’d seen Avengers this would definitely enhance your experience of this plot point. However, the way this is presented does not require you to have seen that. It sounds like a minor point but its actually crucially important, in Iron Man 3 they ensure its explained the why and where from Tony’s anxiety comes from. If the writers didn’t bother fully explaining because they assumed people would draw the connection from Avengers I think this wouldn’t have worked.
To back this up I will contrast with a DCEU example (and apologies to big fans I’m assumed the DCEU is generally accepted as a poor example of universe building)
In Justice League in a tense moment between the heroes Batman accuses Wonder Woman of hiding away due to the loss of Captain Kirk, an event that is shown in the Wonder Woman movie. It’s supposed to be an important character moment, however there are multiple problems with it. First of all Wonder Woman isn’t really shown to be hiding away, quite the opposite really. But more importantly other than a couple of hints the movie Justice League doesn’t setup this character issue as a key tension to be resolved until that point. The writers are heavily relying on audiences having seen Wonder Woman and experiencing tension from her loss from that film and translating it over into Justice League.
This point is getting nit-picky and confusing so I’ll try and summarize a little clearer. In a shared universe of course you want long-running and ongoing plot threads that stretch across different films, because that’s part of the point. However these need to be skillfully managed.
Now just to be clear this isn’t just a technical complaint – its not that its too demanding on audiences to remember plot points from previous movies (although that is an issue) it’s about how stories work, from a perspective of raised tensions and resolutions. When someone watches a movie or reads a story its not just the technical content but the dramatic presentation that creates emotion – you can’t rely on a story told previously to create immediate drama but you can build from it.
Wow that point went on longer than expected, I guess I should look at some other things:
What exactly is shared
It might seem obvious, but shared universes do actually need to be shared. People usually focus on characters, places, history which again is clearly important, but there are elements that perhaps get overlooked.
For example, and not to continually pan DC, but their EU has been criticized for being tonally all over the show, Man of Steel and Batman V Superman were considered ‘gritty reboots’ Wonder Woman was a great film but its hopeful and adventurous presentation felt like a separate world, and Justice League was so haphazard within itself it didn’t feel connected to any other movie. Whereas MCU movies while in wildly different settings, always has similar themes of presentation and tone. The humour, the fairly traditional story structures and the nature of the people that populate the world(s) is consistent. That’s not to say there isn’t variation within MCU movies, but there is a sense of consistency, it would be weird if Spiderman appeared in a movie where everyone was cynical and dark.
People often focus on timelines or universe history when discussing a share universe, but personally I think its the finer structures that make the real difference. People are more comfortable accepting the weird co-incidences like why didn’t SHIELD help Thor or Iron Man in Phase 2 rather than marked changes in tone or story structure.
This brings me to my final point:
Keeping things fresh
Given the above points it raises the question – if you’re going to create a bunch of stories that have similar tone, structure, joint history but standalone power, how do you keep things fresh and interesting alongside this?
I haven’t reached these movies yet, but I believe some MCU movies are stumbling blocks, of struggling to create new material without losing the old attraction. What I’ve noticed is important is always pushing the characters. In a comic book universe there are only so many ways you can threaten the Earth/galaxy/reality (but by gosh they really have tried) but there are always new ways to push characters . The important thing is that the MCU writers don’t just continually up-the-ante so to speak, it’s not just worse and worse situations, its new and complex scenarios like Iron Man mentoring Spider-man, or his falling out with Cap’n.
To bring this back to writing specifically, many of these thoughts apply to books as well as movies. While I think books lend themselves more to long running series than universes per se, the principles are still present. You want your books to be standalone, but if they are connected to be connected in the subtle and unobvious ways that leverage the other books in the serious to enhance, but not necessarily rely on them.
What are your thoughts on shared universes, are there any aspects you think Marvel haven’t done so well?
What about any points I’ve missed?