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
Of 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.
On 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
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):
Anything deserves credit
A writer should want (need) to write themselves into a hole
Change is a luxury
Never count on renewal because, bluntly, Networks aren’t often wrong
Works of fiction can’t have plot holes
A creator cannot rely on an audience to fill in plot holes
Remakes, sequels and prequel cannot diminish the original
Enemies must be used sparingly
Narrative knows no bounds, everything has its medium
Canon is there to help fans, not deny them
Let’s jump in…
Everything deserves credit
If it took people time and effort…
Anything 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.
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.
A 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.
We’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. Continue reading “FICTIONSIDE 102: Jokerside’s 10 Rules of Engagement”
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Film is about 125 years old, television nearing 90 and this week: Jokerside turns three! As the next year will see this blog cast its sideways glance even further – with even more splintering of pop culture to come – this anniversary is marked by the start of a new series. Jokerside’s Fictionside will look at storytelling trends and memes – in this first instalment, five recent ways that Hollywood has coped, or perhaps failed to cope, with ageing franchises.
SOMETIMES IT’S BEST TO START SMALL, AND THAT’S BY NO MEANS LESS. 1976. WHEN THE DOCTOR WHO PRODUCTION TEAM TEMORARILY GAVE WAY TO FOURTH DOCTOR TOM BAKER’S CONVICTION THAT HE DIDN’T NEED A COMPANION IT WENT FAMOUSLY WRONG. But that resultant mess, where the Doctor is forced to talk to himself, there aren’t traditional characters to draw out the danger and in its place are long, dull scenes, failed to materialise as the ever-brilliant Robert Holmes crafted a classic tale from adversity. In fact, the fantastically named The Deadly Assassin, heralded a number of reboots. A key one was controversially defining the Time Lord culture that the Doctor had rejected – an astonishing 13 years into the show’s lifetime. But then Doctor Who is a show that, thanks to luck, brilliant decision-making and the marvellous eccentricity of its state-owned production company, has change built into its core. From one episode to the next the sets, characters and even the lead actors can be completely different. That poses a huge and irresistible challenge and one that hopefully can roll on forever. But it’s a freedom that’s all too rare in fiction, scared as it is to paint itself into a box with confidence that a writer, as should be their raison d’etre, can paint themselves out of. Even in Who’s incredible fictional framework, one which had no issue with running that small mid-70s experiment, we have a great demonstration that reboots often don’t go the way they should.
And that’s on television. On film things are slower. Much slower.
Hollywood’s war of franchises may be more heated than ever as studios create, reassert, reboot and continue whatever their rights can manage. It may seem that a lot of energy falls on that mythical and never ending quest to find a new young adult property, as indeed it does, but there are older blockbuster sagas that have asked the question. And the answers vary greatly.
Aging Action – James Bond
Method: Whether shamelessly ignoring continuity or making a joke of it, there aren’t any hints or suggestions that marketing and a few years can’t spin. Welcome to timelessness.
The franchise has remains charged by that cusp it emerged from
A worthy early nod to the British-themed champion of change. Is there a coincidence that Britain lies behind Bond and Who, if not always in money and creative talent? Certainly changes in British society have been tied into the genesis of both. While the Doctor would struggle to hide away in an East End Totters Yard in a Police Box these days, unlike his birth 18 years after the Second World War, Jamaica had gained independence from the shrinking British Empire in the time between the first Bond film, Dr No’s filming and release in 1962. The franchise has remained charged by that cusp it emerged from, external change and Bond’s response to it has played very real role in the super spy’s longevity.
In 2012 Jokerside looked at the intricacies of the Bond timeline, a vague and intriguing string of adventures that have often shamelessly overcome any sticking points by confronting them early and full on. Even when Bond changed his looks five films in, the script took pleasure in smashing these alterations through the fourth all (with the rather balletic punch of George Lazenby). In dropping back to a more faithful take on Fleming, it even had Bond meeting Blofeld for the first time in the second film in succession. It was clear that consistency wasn’t a top priority – clearly a less important consideration in the 1960s without home media. And as wonderful as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is, the return of Sean Connery in the following film left the real legacy of OHMSS as proving that audiences accept a change of Bond.
The X-Men franchise hurdled the reboot trap with the aplomb thanks to the excellent First Class‘ – befitting the extraordinary abilities of its growing cast of characters. But the challenge of where to head next remained. Could the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s growing box office spur Fox on to shape a career for the mutants on film that could rival their history in comic books? A look at X-Men Days of Future Past and past future…
X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST’S TRICK IS NOT JUST THAT IT CONTINUES, NEAR-RESOLVES, AND REBOOTS THE X-FRANCHISE, BUT THAT IT DARES TO TOUCH SOME OF THE SPECTACULAR SCIENCE FICTION FAMILIAR TO READERS OF THE COMICS ON THE WAY. Purists will gripe. Chris Claremont idealists will rant. Fans of Hugh Jackman will blush. Mostly, they will all be right, but the ambition of the fifth main X-Man film cannot be doubted. The cinematic X-Men have jumped like, well, Ripcord from a wall.
1970s – X-Men Days of Future Past (2014)
Magneto’s recruitment strategy was never conducted at Jongleurs…
Crucially, the reboot’s ongoing chrono-oddesey allows it to build on First Class’ major contribution: humour. That was cruelly lacking in the original trilogy as most of it fell to the gruff rebellion of an over-tall Wolverine who couldn’t carry a spark into his solo missions… The original trilogy almost swept it under the carpet as sheer class (McKellen, Stewart) rose above it, in search of the inner-Shakespeare. The other characters made for a dry bunch.
Cyclops was an underdeveloped straight-laced foil to Wolverine’s outsider. Late-arrival Angel was a tortured idealist. Kitty Pryde’s fall into a love triangle with Rogue and Iceman didn’t so much add steam as highlight how artificial and dull teenage romances can appear onscreen. When Beast finally appeared he mostly anguished in the War Room, specs propped on his nose. Good guys are dull they say. But it’s not like Magneto’s recruitment strategy was conducted at Jongleurs – h simply attracted the less academic mutants. Toad’s disappearance from the chronology that followed the first film wasn’t because of the lightning bolt that hit him. It was because of Storm’s delivery.
The great news is that following the events of Future Past all the good guys are back! Party-hat-materialising mutant power, go!
In the second life of the X-Men, the humour is here to stay. Along with huge set-pieces that put 2000’s compact but slight X-Men film to shame. Hopefully, while we wait for a sequel that’s unlikely to involve the original trilogy cast, at least in the way this manages, we can expect more of that. After all, there’s little worse than a dull X-Man. That’s why we never see Solemno sitting there quietly in the corner waiting for Apocalypse…
As Future Past’s takes the initiative of fusing a franchise past and present as quickly as it does, the futurism of the original trilogy becomes a dystopian refuge. The near-future stylings of the 1999 original inevitably make more sense. The future, no matter how harrowing, suits it. For all the spectacular devastation and nods at Portal, other X-Men films, and other X-Men yet to come, it carries a heightened level of threat.
In comparison, the past carries the fun of the film, by dint of not being the dead-end of the future, but also the melancholy of nostalgia. Things are not necessarily less serious in the 1970s, an interesting point of reversal considering the franchise’s start nearly 30 years later. While the science-fiction of the future and the mechanism back to the past, the film is afforded the time to breathe, this time soaking in the flares and sideburns, although the decade is as generalised as the 1960s was in First Class. It’s a credit to director Bryan Singer, returning to the franchise in the big seat for the first time since the triumphant X2, weaves news real and fake into the film more skilfully than Vaughan managed in First Class and his 1970s may actually be more fun than the swinging ‘60s. That’s some achievement.
Marvel’s pre-release dig seem all the wiser…
There’s a playfulness in a film that knows it’s going to be good. The X-Man franchise has never had that kind of swagger before, and it descends directly from First Class, bolstered by an incredible cast. It’s tempted to see it directly challenging competitors. At its most brash, Magneto’s stadium lift could be a poke at The Dark Knight Rises, as could be the Russian templedom of the film’s last stand. Thanks to the ridiculousness of the Marvel properties rights issues, it’s an inescapable conclusion that Quicksilver was included to take a slice out of The Avengers rather than snaffle some of its zeitgeist.
Radically different from the fleeting appearance of the MCU‘s speedster, Future Past‘s Quicksilver is highly effective as a face of the 1970s and a main carrier of comedy. In the brilliant but dour, modern-day but near-future, Captain America: The Winter Soldier the silver speedster’s post-credit cameo was sinister going on creepy. Its inclusion was understandable, but it also handily beat Fox’s franchise to the punch. As an effective member of The Avengers and X-Men, Quicksilver falls between the two studio camps under the old rights deal, a messy situation but one that the mutant-verse got the better of. the X-Men’s Quicksilver is realised as an ADHD kid with an attention disorder to match his metabolism and a predilection for a con – a great screen adaptation. His intriguing characterisation combined with his comic mantle suggests that Marvel’s pre-release was wise.
Future Past lets Quicksilver carry the key joke set-piece of the film, with Jim Croce’s 1973 If I Could Catch Time in a Bottle backing his speed force antics (another extra-diegetic nod in a film that uses the music of the era expertly). there’s even time to nod to the character’s deeper comic roots. During that audacious escape, the franchise’s second magneto jailbreak, a throwaway quip about the Master of Magnetism (father to Quicksilver in the comics, and here it seems) is neat. It’s a shame that Magneto couldn’t, before his Nazi-hunting days, also sire a rights detente between Marvel and Fox. the time conceit enhances the comedy. Wolverine’s cryptic comments about the Quicksilver he knows in the future, so far unseen, are intriguing. His younger self will certainly return, but who knows if he’ll make it through to the 1990s.
But Quicksilver’s set-piece is not just for laughs. It adds a necessary balance to darker onslaughts and the step-up in terms of threat is huge. And it brings a heightened palette for action to match it. While First Class’ Shaw-led attack on the CIA may have challenged the opening set-piece of X2, Future Past features at least three that blow the other films in the franchise out of the water.
The weight of opposition
Wolvie’s back in the limelight after his cameo in First Class, and once again he is the nearest thing to a leading mutant in the team. It’s fortunate that the plot device gives him plenty of room to share the comedy around and it’s worth noting the strength of the cast that came in to portray the younger versions of established characters. The younger mutants have been gifted greater plot roles, but they also excel in the period-ridiculousness. Fassbender and Mystique are highlights once again. A film before, one had started as an assassin, the other a confused teen. Now both are terrorists. Given a fair share of screen time, it seems all the stranger that Wolverine struggled to hit the same heights of humour or imagination in his solo films.
Perhaps the greatest sign of intent comes in the continued bold casting of villains, as once again Magneto is kept as a secondary, conflicted anti-villain. Peter Dinklage’s curiously emphatic Trask is a particular highlight in a film that relishes throwing up ambiguities, no doubt set free by Magneto’s greyer journey. Files of subjects recall Sebastian Shaw’s hypocrisy, although Trask is a quite defenceless human, cowering bewildered in the White House panic room by the end.
But it’s the weight of opposition set against the strong core that is more important than paradox or logic, reason or rhyme. Although this can lead to blips… It’s a shame Magneto of the future, faced with the ultimate mirror of his grand design is so vulnerable, an inverse of the ascendancy of the loner master of magnetism in the past. Naturally, McKellen and Stewart are superb in their relatively static scenes. A high-point? Possibly the ambiguity of Magneto’s skulking off at the approach of the Sentinels. he seizes the role of antihero at the end.
If the tremendously satisfying Future Past leaves the audience with anything, it’s a dose of its own confidence. I only hope Matt Vaughn’s Kingsman:Secret Service, for which he supposedly jumped the X, can live up to expectations. In the resurgent X-Universe he helped to create, Bryan Singer only has one further goal in mind…
The 1980s… Apocalypse (2016)
a sign of intent in name alone
X-Men: Apocalypse. Now that’s got a ring to it. And a villain who might just knock The Avenger’s Thanos into a Cosmic Cube. At the close of Future Past is a prophetic, epic post-credit teaser – Pyramid building, the ominous Four Horsemen in the background… Trailing what has been described as a disaster (level) movie. There’s every likelihood that Bryan Singer will return and that the awe-inspiring story of X-Men versus a mutant God will build on the progress laid in the 1960s and 1970s as they head to the 1990s. The time between films may prove to be most important. There have generally been three years between each ‘main’ X-Film, (including 2011’s First Class if you spring from 2009’s Wolverine). Apocalypse faster arrival (you can see the build-up already) signals a sign of intent in name alone. It’s even enough for Hugh Jackman to reconsider hanging up his claws.
A reboot trick greater than 2009’s Star Trek…
In picking up the reigns of Future Past, Singer’s unearthed a reboot trick that exceeds First Class, and may p[rove greater even than 2009’s Star Trek ruse. On scrutiny, there are only a few logic flaws that chip away at it. Professor X‘s resurrected physiognomy following his brutal assassination in The Last Stand is unexplained, but then this is a world of mutants so who can say? Still, it would have been impossible to refuse Patrick Stewart an invite (he simply wouldn’t let them) and one shouldn’t go searching for plot holes in a film all about paradox.
At the end we have a reset character list, the distinct benefit of them being near-exterminated, a reanimated Cyclops and perhaps most importantly, the chance top redo The Phoenix story line. But there may be no greater indication of the luxury that the franchise can now enjoy than the fact Apocalypse is unlikely to touch the reborn generation of the first trilogy as it serves up a far more straightforward sequel to First Class.
The years have confirmed the simple, elegant, and crucially funny answer to the age-old question of a prequel or sequel can diminish an original film. Simply, neither can – though many try. Days of Future Past proves that a sequel/prequel (two-for-one!) can even enhance a previous film, correcting the wrongs of The Last Stand. As Professor X said, “Infinite decisions mean infinite consequences, for the future is never truly set…” If that’s all this and First Class have in their favour, that’s not bad going. Fortunately, it isn’t all they have. Having traversed a key comic story line with aplomb, reignited the passion of the Wolverine, righted the timeline, and with a whole untapped world of mutants to delve into and a Marvel schedule to take it on its mutant toes, this franchise is clearly flying.