FICTIONSIDE 103: Who needs a shared cinematic universe?

Fictionside 003 Shared Universes

 

To mark Jokerside’s fourth birthday, another Fictionside. This time exploring the one thing that everybody in Hollywood wants: A shared universe.

Framed in 10 questions…

 

SOME THINGS START WITH SUPERMAN AND END WITH SUPERMAN. AND THAT’S HOW THIS ANNIVERSARY POST WILL PAN OUT. That legend of the alien child, dispatched to Earth as the last son of his dying planet is one of the great pop culture stories of the 20th century. While Big Blue’s character took shape over a number of years, gaining powers of flight and heat vision until he became the cultural pinnacle of those abilities, it took a mere two for him to bump into a fellow comic character. That would be young pretender, by one year, Batman. The two first stood next to each other on the cover of 1940 New York World’s Fair comic book with only a Robin in-between.

That was the first time any two comic characters had appeared together, and of course it was the light and dark, then in happier guises and brighter colours. Although they’d fail to interact inside, it set a precedent for the extended Super-Family and the growing Bat-family join other parts of the burgeoning and acquiring publishing universe that would become known as DC.

The Teen Titans, the Suicide Squad, the Justice League. The latter would later inspire the envious eyes a stone throw’s away in Midtown Manhattan. As just one of the highlights of his extraordinary mid-1960s productivity, Stan Lee assembled his own super team from fresh and veteran characters in the marvel fold because DC had done the same. So why not him? And 50 years on, it’s those assembled Avengers who lead the charge in a different media.

Where did it start?

On paper – straight from the pen

Many universes have been expanded from a creator’s original sprawling world by other willing hands… And that’s the point

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The RulesOf course, shared universes didn’t start with comics, that’s just a nice four-colour example. Expanded universes are so innate to the prose world that their late appropriation by new-fangled art-forms of the 19th and 20th centuries could be page-curlingly embarrassing. And that’s within genre and without. Expanded universes stretch as far as the might of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Richard Scarry’s Busytown, Edgar Rice Burroughs fantastic and rip-roaring adventures… Many of these universes have been expanded from a creator’s original sprawling world by other willing hands eager to explore the potential, often posthumously. And that’s the point.

What’s a shared universe?

Choose your collaboration carefully

This is shared, not expanded or expanding…

An overarching work where more than one creator independently contributes segments that stands alone while complying with the joint development of a greater storyline or world. That’s the definition of a shared universe. Distinct from a collaboration, a cross-over or string of sequels, spin-offs or the interlinking work of one auteur: it’s a definition ready-made for the ambitions of Hollywood’s studio model.

Hannibal meets Penny DreadfulOn the big screen Quentin Tarantino has built a loose connectivity between his films, through throwaway references and characters, as has Kevin Smith. Bryan Fuller has had great success doing the same thing on the small screen, through often cruelly curtailed series. The same is true of Joss Whedon. But the Whedonverse, Fullerverse and Tarantinoverse don’t count, no matter the involvement of other creators, as theirs are slotting into a singular vision. The involvement of separate properties and distinct creative forces is crucial. This is shared, not expanded or expanding.

It’s no new idea, but while the first major developments came on the page, it wasn’t from the great weight of published genre that shared universes became a public commodity. Hollywood didn’t shirk on seizing the potential.

What’s the Monster in the Room?

The days of Universal Studios

The ensemble that kick-started Hollywood’s original gigantic shared universe

In September 1923, 93 years ago, Universal Studios produced an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a lavish film that became their highest grossing silent movie. Read more…

Highlander at 30: The Beginning – Threat of the Future

Highlander at 30

There can be… Many futures…

The original Highlander film has reached its 30 year milestone on the road to immortality!

Despite its obsession with The Rules, it’s been three decades of contradictory, legacy-obsessed complication. To celebrate the anniversary, Jokerside looks at the lesser seen and most fascinating part of the franchise’s convoluted saga. Not the past Highlands of Scotland, or the presents New York of The Gathering, but the unmistakably dark future awaiting humanity no matter who wins The Prize

IF THERE’S ONE THING ABOUT BEING IMMORTAL, YOU’RE GOING TO SEE A LOT OF THE FUTURE. JUST AS LONG AS YOU KEEP YOUR HEAD. But if there’s another thing, it’s that the complicated franchise that sprung from 1986’s Highlander is all about avoiding that future. On one hand, each Immortal is trapped in The Game, the ultimate Darwinian whittling process that reduces their number in one-one-one sword combat according to The Rules. Down until the last Immortal standing, the One has blocked every other immortal from seeing that future by default. And their reward is The Prize.

But for a franchise every bit about time as very old men (usually) decapitating each other, it’s the future that casts the most ominous shadow. Yes, even compared to the desperate times of the past, present and Kurgan. As it’s all about time, it’s hardly a surprise that Highlander has struggled with internal consistency from its beginning.

Crucial to the mix is that past of course. Everything’s built on it, and that’s especially pulled out in the rolling soap of the 1990s series that followed that other younger MacLeod, Duncan. Letting grudges and loss scar every immortal, with a wry poetic justice ready to play out in the present, that’s crucial ingredient. That contemporary time has moved since the 1986 of the original film. Onto the presumed 1994 of the third film or the rolling final decade of the 20th century during the television series and first spin-off film. But it remains a small window considering the incidents that built to it. The present is the audience’s window into a hidden world of course. It amounts to fascinating scraps that for all their faux complexity never rise above the simple concept of an archaic fight to the death unravelling in the shadows. It’s the interactions with mortals and skewered police procedurals that make for the intrigue around it. Mortals remain crucial to the plot, but seldom seem affected by the outcome…

Because then there’s the future.

A little bit of asking around the fans, slightly familiar and couldn’t care less of Highlander doesn’t feedback ‘The future’ as a big patch in Highlander’s broad tartan. But for Jokerside that’s the most fascinating part. And typically, there’s more than one aspect of it in the saga’s different continuities. There’s a future post-Immortals where the final player has claimed The Prize, but also alternate futures where immortals are still awaiting The Gathering.

What’s intriguing is that either way, it never pans out too well.  For any of us.

The Threat of the Future

Of course, while Immortals may have long lives of various lengths, packed with memories and presumably great brain power to store it, but most Immortal existences are focussed on surviving to the future. An interesting side effect of knowing far more about the past than any mortal.

Highlander (1986)

Madison Square Garden, 1986. The posturing, melodrama and frankly confounding rules of a wrestling bout in the great arena is just a cover. In the car park below a shout of “MacLeod” pulls us into The Game. The challenger soon dispatched, and with that kill we’re at a step closer to the end of The Gathering.

In 1986’s Highlander Connor MacLeod has been lodged in New York for a considerable time, the pre-destined place of The Gathering. Later in the film MacLeod’s mentor Ramirez eloquently describes it as “An irresistible pull towards a far away land. To fight for The Prize.”

In that first film the last handful of Immortals have assembled for a finite Gathering, despite some ambiguity in what the friendly Kastagir says to MacLeod halfway through. Those Immortals have been whittled down to a handful come the start of the film after centuries of undercover warfare. MacLeod’s opening kill is a scrappy affair which the Highlander finishes with a decapitating strike so strong he embeds his sword in a concrete pillar. When he does he doesn’t utter a word. The first utterance of that famous line falls to his nemesis, The Kurgan.

 “There can be only one”

Of course, that first film makes a classic franchise mistake. Not only does it start in the very final days of The Game, even worse it links the hero’s victory right back to his origin. It’s the same mistake bigger and better received films have made. 1989’s Batman is a prime example. There, slotting the Joker back into the Batman’s creation just as the Dark Knight later aids the Joker’s emergence may look great on paper, but villain takes the twisted superhero’s motivation with him at the end. That was something the DC franchise struggled to move on from… Highlander gave up pretty much instantly. Read more…

FICTIONSIDE 102: Jokerside’s 10 Rules of Engagement

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The Rules

To mark Jokerside’s third and a half birthday, another Fictionside. This time exploring the central tenets that Jokerside loves to stick by / completely ignore.

Here are nine of Jokerside’s rules of engaging with pop culture (full explanations below):

  1. Anything deserves credit
  2. A writer should want (need) to write themselves into a hole
  3. Change is a luxury
  4. Never count on renewal because, bluntly, Networks aren’t often wrong
  5. Works of fiction can’t have plot holes
  6. A creator cannot rely on an audience to fill in plot holes
  7. Remakes, sequels and prequel cannot diminish the original
  8. Enemies must be used sparingly
  9. Narrative knows no bounds, everything has its medium
  10. Canon is there to help fans, not deny them

 

Let’s jump in…

  1. Everything deserves credit

If it took people time and effort…

Hellraiser Pinhead and the Lament ConfigurationAnything that makes it to the small or big screen has taken time, effort and thought. No matter how tempting it is, no matter how flawed the end product, no matter how much you disagree with it, there’s more chance of Batman V Superman crashing at the box office than a group of people dedicating months to producing something that deliberately failed against their goals. Yes, even rush jobs like Hellraiser Revelations, which a Pandemonium’s worth of evidence might suggest was a cynical attempt to retain franchise rights, deserves some credit because aside from any studio or legal issues people persevered to make it happen. Clive Barker has every right to dismiss it, Doug Bradley too, and many others. But anyone who’s handed the keys to the franchise, even with a sharp production schedule and light budget is unlikely to resist opening that puzzle box.

From top to bottom, there are big credits that reflect every collaboration and rewards them. So, it’s unfair, bordering cruel, to disparage that work. And after all, everything is an acquired taste…

Jokerside seldom slips at the negative, even considering half the Hellraiser franchise on an equal plane, but it’s tricky. Take a trip to Victor Frankenstein last year. That was Jokerside’s first, long-awaited trip to see a Frankenstein adaptation on the big screen (you know, we love Frankenstein) and while the end result was a disappointment it just shows how behind the scenes nonsense can get in the way of incredible talent working in front of and behind the camera. That kind of mess can be impossible to decipher, it might be aspersion and it’s doubtful the behind the scenes tales will ever spill out. But really, what needed to be said about a film that crashed at the box office, was poorly treated by British cinema chains and was surely not what the creators envisaged.

Always remember the glasshouses. No matter which demon, scientist, captain or bunch of pixels built them.

  1. A writer should want (need) to write themselves into a hole

With a quill you are fearless…

It’s one thing to set a cliff-hanger at the end of film, book, comic, television series… And another to use it to pitch the direction an intent of a whole second stab. As arc shows have fast become the accepted norm, that’s all the trickier to navigate when a huge weight of concept shows appear year after year, propelled by hubris and concept and are… Promptly cut off after one season. Step forward Flash Forward. It’s the kind of thing that makes people utter inane comments like “Oh, if I’d have known it was only going to last one season, I’d never have bothered…” Really? It comes to something when a full US season of over 20 hours requires years of promised story yet to be written to warrant investment. After all, why bother with the second year when it could just as easily be cut off before the third…

For all the success (and contemporary criticism) The X-Files found by asking constant questions, giving few answers and hedging bets, there was an early warning shot when the ambitious five year plan of Dark Skies was cut short.

Television is both serial and finite, it’s Schrödinger’s Idiot Tube and you don’t get to both turn on your cathode ray and turn it off.

The Leftovers - A JokersliceA flip-side comes with renewals that are taken for granted or when there’s an occasional guarantee of multiple seasons. Lost was a prime example of the latter, with later truncated runs balanced against a fixed six season commission. Wonderful, but could it have been to the detriment of the show’s story? Recently, one of the sublime break-outs of the past two years, The Leftovers, had the mixed blessing of a confirmed but final third year. In that case it is very good news, and feels exactly right. But only as that show has bold, risky storytelling at its heart. And that’s rare.

Hannibal was another bold show that knew full well it was lucky to run three years on prime time network. Bryan Fuller would have had no issue keeping its intoxicating story going longer even though [spoilers] he ended the third year with a superb Reichenbach moment. Though we all lament for Fuller’s take on The Silence of the Lambs (truthfully, already echoed in earlier seasons), that was both a satisfying conclusion and a huge hole to write himself out of. A hole it might be said that Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t bothered to write himself out of over a hundred years ago. Back to the X-Files, the recent limited run poked fun at the outrageous stretching enigma that typified its original nine year run, but ended with a satisfying cliff-hanger that will likely, but possibly never, be resolved.

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The RulesWe’re well past the days when episodes reset every week with a laugh on the Bridge of the Enterprise. Writers should always aim for the boldest and most satisfying conclusion for a story, no matter the difficulty it causes their future selves. They should be confident that no matter how dire or finite the ending, a writer or writing team can pen themselves into a new story the next time round. After all, real life carries on regardless, and it takes writing itself out of ridiculous situations for granted every second. That is life. It doesn’t stop.

So writing to a limit or writing to infinity is a trap to be avoided at all costs. And come the end of a series, no matter how demarcated, no matter how Blake’s 7 it all seems, a writer must be ready to continue that story. That’s what Charles Dickens was doing week to week far before a TV writer hedged their bets. Read more…

Back to the Future – When the Future Zoomed Past

Back to the Future Day

It’s already two weeks since Back to the Future went the way of so many science fiction prophecies tied to a set date in the future… We sailed past it. The baffling exposure Back to the Future Day achieved makes Judgment Day’s continued slide in the Terminator franchise look like an act of mercy. At least there’s still a dystopia waiting, while those ‘proper’ hover boards are nowhere in sight. Jokerside takes a look at that definitive series…

“Marty, you’re not thinking four dimensionally”

THERE ARE MANY REASONS FOR BACK TO THE FUTURE’S SUCCESS. THERE’S THE CONFIDENT ORIGINAL THAT MARRIED A GREAT AND HIGHLY QUOTABLE SET OF SPARKLING SCRIPTS WITH SOME OF HOLLYWOOD’S BRIGHTEST AND BEST. There’s the bold film-making that enabled the second and third instalments to be produced back-to-back bringing and brought an unprecedented approach to continuity. There’s Huey Lewis and the News. But perhaps most importantly, there’s the genuinely amusing, good natured and cartoonish fun of it all. And that’s powered by superb comedic performances, particularly from one of the finest physical comedians Hollywood has every produced in the central role of Marty McFly.

Still, it’s remarkable that a trilogy that fell short of $1billion takings, inflation unadjusted, inspired such strong devotion from the youth of the 1980s come 21st October 2015. As every social network reminded us, that was Back to the Future Day.

That’s when in the ancient year of 1989, we first saw the DeLorean arrive in the skies of 2015 and exactly how the 21st century would pan out. Almost. It was the furthest point forward in the trilogy’s springed jump of 30 years that had started in 1985 and already taken us back to 1955 before an extra boost of energy carried us back 100 years to 1885 at the finale.

Back to the Past

“I finally invent something that works!”

It’s always fascinating to watch the original Back to the Future’s opening. In a film of remarkably well directed, with exquisitely framed shots from Robert Zemeckis, it’s a masterclass. So many story points are laid down in that pan through Doc Brown’s studio – from the central conceit of time carried bluntly through the many clocks on the wall, past the subtle foreshadowing of the press cuttings of the Brown mansion and fortune, to the box marked plutonium stashed on the floor. Before Marty’s legs and skateboard appear at the door, before the punchline of the overcharged amp and we see Marty McFly’s face or heard the Doc’s voice, we’ve seen so much of what’s in store. The tone is perfectly set and we know this is going to be a hell of a ride – starting with the Huey Lewis powered skate dash to Marty’s school.

In the film that unravels there are countless mysteries and half suggestions of something more. The recurring importance of Wednesdays, the guns that jam on several occasions… Those may suggest a pre-ordained edge to the paradoxes that unfold, seemingly hermetically sealed in the franchise and often in the brilliant visual conceit of photographs. In the first instance, it’s certainly a jammed gun that sets off the three films chain of events.

It’s crucial that those films follow the cause and effect set by that chain of events. Unfortunately the only link that doesn’t quite make the grade falls at the close of the first film, the one that takes us to Back to the Future day. Not only does the spiral of despair waiting to kick-start for the McFly family on that day not quite cut the grade for pulling Marty (and his girlfriend) Jennifer into the future, it doesn’t quite fit that the time-conscious Doc would to take such desperate measures to deflect the future. Especially, as the films spend a considerable amount of time drawing out the personalities, including Marty’s mysterious uncle “Jailbird” Joey Baines, it seems to be wilful distortion of nature. By dint of happening in the future, any of those events could be remedied in the present. That points spelled out by surely the most serious, when Marty dodges his ‘chicken accident’ in the final act of the trilogy. And once that change had been made, it probably reset the future chain of events in the first place. Read more…

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