Shared Universes and Restrictions in Storytelling

Shared Universes are fun. As a long-time comic book superhero fan, I am familiar with the convention of a universe of characters, all having their own adventures, both individually and in groups. And there’s something neat about seeing our favorite characters meet, which is probably why so much fanfiction has been created in that genre. And just plain ol’ traditional fiction as well. It’s probably easier to list the public domain characters that haven’t met Dracula or Sherlock Holmes at this point than all the ones that have.

But shared universes also have limitations, and one of those limitations is that, for the most part, they can’t really change very much, nor can the characters that inhabit them. There can be all kind of story justifications for that, but ultimately, there’s a lot of underlying requirements at work.

First of all, most shared universes revolving around recurring characters, who by default are resistant to change anyway. Recurring characters, especially those intended for long-running, can’t change very much for risk of alienating their audience. This is why most major recurring characters really only have any lasting character growth in their origin, if even there. Peter Parker’s actions cause his uncle to die (spoiler alert) and becomes Spider-Man to make amends and cope with the guilt. Tony Stark realizes how many people his weapons have hurt and elects to build a suit to, uh , hurt bad guys? (It makes sense in context.) Captain America becomes a supersoldier and punches Nazis.

Perhaps this is why we so often become obsessed with origin stories. For any long-running character, it may be the only chance to tell a story about a real change. Once Peter decides to be Spider-Man, once Tony dons the armor, once Steve Rogers is supersoldierized (TM), they’re pretty much done in terms of major character and story development.

There’s a deeper dilemma with shared universes though, and that’s the universe itself can’t change, and they definitely can’t change in service of one or two characters in that universe. As much as the MCU might be on the verge of disaster (and superhero universes are always on the verge of disaster), it can’t actually fall apart or change or be destroyed. I loved Dr. Strange, but I didn’t expect that Dormammu would succeed in claiming the earth. It would’ve been a weird way for the MCU to end. And in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, I would’ve been amazed if Ego’s plans had come to fruition.

This necessary character and plot stasis means many conventional storytelling assumptions are rendered null and void by shared universe necessities. It doesn’t make stories set in those universes beyond criticism, but it does mean criticism can come from well-meaning places and established “good” writing rules can be…well, I don’t want to say wrong. That’s too strong a word. Maybe, missing the point?

A common complaint about weak writing is that it’s static, but like all such rules, it only applies up to a point. The MCU isn’t perfect, but what it has managed to do is create an onscreen shared universe with dozens of characters, each of which has proven surprisingly commercial. It does that by knowing exactly what works about the formula.

ASIDE: Formula isn’t innately a bad thing. Only poorly executed formula or, personally, formula that doesn’t appeal to us.

So the MCU’s formula is the classic comic book story formula. There’s a situation our heroes finds themselves in. They struggle to overcome that situation. They succeed. There are some character moments, but ultimately, we know that our hero will succeed and that they probably won’t be significantly different than they were at the beginning of the story. (Origin stories aside.)

One of the conflicts between fans of Raimi’s Spider-Man versus Spider-Man: Homecoming is the struggle between a dynamic character-centered story and a plot-centered story with some incidental character moments. It’s not that Spidey’s character isn’t important in both. It’s how centrally important they are. Raimi’s Peter Parker is the center of the trilogy, with everything revolving around him. Homecoming‘s Peter Parker is at the center of the story because his actions shape it, but his person isn’t really changing. He knows he’s Spider-Man. That struggle is over, and now, he’s accepted who he is. His struggle is about how to be taken seriously as Spider-Man, not whether he should be Spider-Man.

The other thing one must accept about shared universes is that they don’t always make sense. Not conventionally. This is because they are usually shared by creators as well, who have their own ideas. It is true to point out that Ant-Man, as established by his own film, wouldn’t have much incentive to join Cap’s side in Civil War, knowing that he’d be a wanted man and that it would put his relationship with his daughter in jeopardy. And why does Iron Man recruit Spider-Man, a green kid who has no connection to any of the other heroes at this point?

Because it’d be cool. That’s why.

It’s not a great reason, and good creators will try to justify it somehow. In this case, Ant-Man might easily be convinced to do something dumb because it’s “the right thing”, which is why he went to prison in the first place. And Iron Man might see Spidey as having potential and think a fight against heroes gone rogue would be a good place to test the kid, where opponents are less likely to go for the kill.

But, really, that’s all justification. The real reason is because it’s awesome to watch Ant-Man fight Black Widow and Captain America go toe-to-toe with Spidey.

None of this excuses every complaint, and there are plenty of examples in comics themselves of this not working, of characters acting in unusual ways because a writer had a different interpretation or needed them to do something out of character. For a shared universe to work, there has to be some central vision that makes it fit together somewhat, and the MCU has so far managed to have that.

There’s nothing wrong with disliking the restrictions of a shared universe or of characters themselves. I lost interest in the X-Men years ago when I realized that they were forever stuck with being “feared and hated” because that’s their story and they’ll keep telling it. I’ve never found Spider-Man in the comics to be engaging because he’s trapped in a second act of self-pity and tragedy that got old fast for me.

But there are decisions going on behind the scene and restrictions in place, and they’re probably not changing any time soon.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

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2 Comments

  1. Allen Crowley
    Posted July 18, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    This is a topic that would remain interesting if expanded to include more than MCU. There are other shared universes and similar limitations apply. Conan is a good example, also Larry Niven’s Known Space, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. There are also more esoteric examples like the sequels to the Wizard of Oz and extensions of the Cthulhu mythos. Even in examples where authors mearly collaborate on a single story face some of these issues and yet create amazingly in depth visions for humanity. In 2001 a Space Odyssey for example it’s hard to tell which came first the book or the movie.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted July 19, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      There are many interesting examples of Shared Universes, and I think a lot of it depends on the purpose and design of that particular universe. There are no absolutes, and maybe I’ll get deeper into it at a later date.

      Thanks for the suggestion and the comment.

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