There’s been much of talk of “superhero fatigue” recently. As far as I see it, the superhero film is the popular idea of the moment, and while some people are bored of it, most seem to be okay with it. Either way, it’s undeniable that we see more superheroes on the big screen with every passing year. The success of Marvel Studios’ Cinematic Universe has boosted the confidence studios have in their properties, and we’re getting films based on comic books that didn’t even sell that well in the first place. But as these franchises live on past their sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and shared-universe outings, they are finding themselves in uncharted waters. When it comes to what’s canonical to the ongoing narrative and how both the creators and the audience think of continuity film-to-film, we’re through the looking glass. There’s really only one medium that is comparable, and that is, unsurprisingly, the comic book.
It’s easy to forget the humble origins of superhero comics when Spider-Man is hitting his 50th anniversary and his third cinematic adaptation, but they were never expected to dominate the market in this way. Even when DC and Marvel began to establish shared universes for their creations, they were fun gimmicks to sell comics and keep readers interested. When you’re creating a universe without knowing that it will stand strong over 70 years later, it’s unlikely you’ll safeguard against continuity errors or avoid writing yourself into a corner further down the line. This is why all comic readers will be familiar with the term “retcon.”
The first significant retcon (short for “retroactive continuity”) in the world of comics was in 1956, with DC’s release of Showcase #4. The waning popularity of the non-Superman/Batman members of the Justice Society of America led the company to try and reboot the characters. In this issue, we got a whole new version of The Flash, effectively kicking off the Silver Age of comics. The way they got around the existence of the previously established speedster? By explicitly referring to the Golden Age hero as being a comic book character within the comic itself. As is to be expected of the medium, this became increasingly complicated, with the introduction of the multiverse ten years later.
Things get even grander when it comes to the universe-changing event series that crop up now and again. DC have done it multiple times, from 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths to 2011’s Flashpoint, but Marvel followed suit for the first time in 2015 with Secret Wars. These events allowed them to re-arrange what they liked and jettison what they didn’t. While we’re a long way from anything so monumental, superhero movies are so popular and profitable that it’s a distant possibility that we see the multiverse in the DCEU in a few years time. There has already been talk of what Marvel should do when Robert Downey Jr. gets sick of playing Tony Stark, whether they should re-cast like with James Bond, leave the character to rest, or reboot the universe from the ground up in 20 years time. But this isn’t a comprehensive history of comic book crossovers and retroactive continuity. What I find fascinating about the current state of superhero movies (they themselves almost entirely based off of existing Marvel and DC comics) is how they have begun to replicate the journey comics took fifty years ago, with all the highs and lows that entails. I’ll mostly be focusing on the evolution of the 20th Century Fox-owned X-Men series and the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the timing of their successes have informed how they’ve approached their own continuity.
The closest Marvel Studios has come to a financial flop was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, the follow-up to the initial gamble that was Iron Man. The next film was Iron Man 2, which made $6 million less domestically than the original, despite costing $40 million more to make. It’s widely regarded as the worst in the series (something I personally disagree with), and it wasn’t a huge hit with the fans despite the introduction of War Machine and Black Widow. I think it’s fair to say that the MCU started with a strut and almost immediately stumbled, but they kept moving. Tony Stark received more coherent character development in The Avengers and Iron Man 3, and Bruce Banner was recast and re-introduced in the former. They rolled with the punches, worked on their failings, and jettisoned what didn’t work. The Incredible Hulk’s post-credits scene featured General Ross being recruited by Tony Stark to help with the Avengers Initiative, but ended up making so little sense within the larger story they ended up telling that it needed to be retconned. The comedic expository one-shot The Consultant has agents Jasper Sitwell and Phil Coulson discuss how to prevent Ross’ involvement while satisfying their bosses, eventually deciding to send Stark as a patsy, knowing he would annoy Ross so much he would stay away. It was funny and self-aware enough to come from a Stan Lee comic but clearly canonical damage control. In fact, with a new actor in the role, and the only reference to his standalone movie being the line “the last time I was in New York I kind of broke…Harlem”, the movie was effectively ignored. William Hurt returning as Thaddeus Ross in Captain America: Civil War was a big deal as it was the clearest recognition on Marvel’s part that the red-headed stepchild of the MCU was still part of the family.
Fast-forward to post-Avengers, with Phase 2 kicking off with Iron Man 3. Reeling from the events of The Avengers, Tony is on high alert, spending all his time creating suits for every conceivable situation. The film was about Tony overcoming this fear and ridding himself of his dependence on his technology. It was the end of an emotional arc across the trilogy, and while he didn’t technically retire from being Iron Man, he destroyed all his suits as a gesture to the most important person in his life – Pepper Potts. However, within the first few minutes of Avengers: Age of Ultron, we see him in a suit again, clearing up HYDRA forces with The Avengers. As he is still driven by the need to make up for his mistakes, creating a “suit of armour around the world”, this worked for me. But given the absence of Pepper in that movie, it seemed as if they’d forgone that particular emotional development to do something new with the character. But Captain America: Civil War uses Paltrow’s absence to its advantage. Tony’s inability to stop being “the mechanic” drove her away, and now he’s alone – still with the intention of putting Iron Man behind him, but now with nothing left but his need to “fix” the world. Not only does this work as character set up, but smooths over any inconsistencies from Iron Man 3 or Age of Ultron. Long-form storytelling can re-contextualise and change its past with smart enough writing, and audiences can accept it. But this new-found power over continuity can also be used clumsily as a tool to force storytelling obstacles out of the way – by, essentially, pretending they don’t exist.
X-Men, while not the first of its kind, brought the possibility of superhero movies to the table. It wasn’t made with the presumption of sequels, or even a decent box office return. The series was fresh for the time, but not made with absolute confidence in the material. By time the MCU had picked up steam, the X-Men had finished their trilogy (in retrospect “The Last Stand” seems an unfortunate subtitle), and had placed their bets on the spin-off/prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Even if they wanted to ape Marvel Studios’ franchise model, they had taken the series to the point of no return. X-Men: The Last Stand was not only a re-tread of the previous two films but also one that unceremoniously killed off three of its main characters, as well as de-powering both Magneto, Rogue and Mystique. After it was met with a negative reaction from critics and fans alike, the series rebooted with X-Men: First Class, going to a safe place in continuity that wasn’t affected by the changes the third film made. X-Men: Origins is so cartoonishly bad that it has basically been ignored by the filmmakers, studio, and fanbase ever since. The Wolverine avoided the rest of the X-Men entirely by taking Jackman’s character out of the U.S. and introducing a different cast of characters. At least until after the credits, which has come to define the current direction for the series.
In a post-credits scene, Logan meets Charles Xavier again, who is inexiplicably back from the dead. There was something about him transferring his mind into another body in X-Men 3, but the basic gist is “Don’t worry about it; be happy that Patrick Stewart is back.” This brings us to X-Men: Days of Future Past, which used its unique position of being a sequel to a ’70s-set prequel to launch into a time-travelling storyline that redefined the universe. Kitty Pryde now has the ability to send people into the past because…the plot needed her to, and sends Wolverine’s mind back into his 1973 body to save Bolivar Trask from being assassinated by Mystique, an event which eventually led to an apocalyptic future where mutants are imprisoned and hunted by giant robots called Sentinels… This is the point where I start to feel like I’m describing a comic book storyline. Once they save the day, Wolverine returns to the future (his/our present), and finds the apocalyptic future replaced with an idyllic one. The Xavier Institute is still running, and both Cyclops and Jean are back from the dead. Why? Time travel. Butterfly effect. ‘Nuff said. It all reminds me of this scene from Austin Powers.
This doesn’t just extend to superhero movies. As Disney are making monumental profits by building on existing franchises in the MCU and the Star Wars universe, other companies are following suit. For every failed attempt at reboots, spin-offs and sequels (Total Recall, Robocop, Terminator: Genisys), there are profitable and crowd-pleasing exceptions (Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman Begins, Star Trek). I’m a big fan of the Alien series – in which most people ignore Alien: Ressurection – but I am not a fan of the prequel Prometheus. Prometheus didn’t directly tie in to Alien, but it was connected enough to change the context of the 1979 film. I didn’t like it or what it did with the mythology (explicitly stating anything about the “space jockeys” removes all mystery and interest in my opinion) so I just flat-out ignore its place in continuity. This is something all fans can do, and with the huge amount of media to consume, it’s getting easier. You take what works and what doesn’t for you. Even creators can take this approach, with Neil Blomkamp supposedly making a sequel to Aliens that retcons Alien 3 out of existence. For anyone who enjoys the third film but ends up liking Blomkamp’s sequel, they may have to internally reconfigure the continuity of this universe depending on what entry they’re watching. This kind of mental acrobatics would have been unacceptable to expect from moviegoers at the turn of the century, but now it’s part of the investment we make in long-form storytelling.
Given the sheer number of comics, as well as the many years they’ve had to develop, there are certain retcons that I doubt we’ll ever come close to. For the most part, the amount of money that goes into these blockbusters prevents reckless risk-taking in universe shake-ups, so the clean-up is unlikely to be as embarrassing as the Spider-Man plotline One More Day. Don’t know it? It’s the one where Peter Parker made a deal with Mephisto (aka The Devil) to save the life of his Aunt May. The trade? His marriage to Mary Jane. Mephisto claimed to want to destroy their love because it is “tastier than any soul I could devour,” but really the writers wanted to take the hero back to the life of a single man without having them divorce. Marvel later clarified that the events of their relationship remain exactly the same, they just didn’t get married. Mephisto apparently didn’t want to destroy their love, but strike a blow to…the institution of marriage?
The X-Men movies have recently been making their way through history one decade at a time, and with Apocalypse set in the ’80s fans have started to wonder whether they’ll eventually catch up to the present. Only a few days ago, producer Simon Kinberg confirmed that the follow-up to Apocalypse will be set in the ’90s. In First Class Michael Fassbender was 34 playing a 32-year-old. Presuming he sticks around for the next one, he’ll be in his forties playing a character in his mid-sixties. It’ll be a huge stretch to see the cast skip ahead any further without aging properly, especially the younger cast members introduced in Apocalypse, but it’s something that’s been happening in comics for years. Peter Parker has aged about fifteen years since his debut in 1962, and I’m okay with that. Is it possible to extend the same suspension of disbelief when it comes to the movies? When serialised movies keep going this far, are they still subject to the same level of criticism as it pertains to traditional film structures and logic?
The truth is, I can’t really answer any of these questions as a plain moviegoer, or a cinephile. I’ve spent too much of my life entrenched in the wonders and pitfalls of nerd culture and comic book fandom. When something doesn’t hit the mark I know they can do better, and however much I say otherwise I am still willing to jump into adaptations of characters I love each time, if only to chase the bursts of imagination that enchanted me in the first place. One of the reasons for the universe-wide retcons in DC and Marvel comics is the need for accessibility. It can be overwhelming and ultimately distancing for newcomers to start reading a series when the character history is so complicated.
Despite the fact that X-Men is now sixteen-years-old, the superhero phenomenon is only in its infancy. It will, like the comics it draws from, reach a level of complexity that only works because audiences have a history with these characters. There was a time when I would be the one explaining to friends the significance of Captain America’s shield being made from Vibranium in The First Avenger. Now, those same people are theorising what will happen to the Vision when Thanos comes for the mind gem. Year-by-year the full weight of the weird and wonderful, previously confined to comic book shops and private conversations, is being brought to popular consciousness. For better or for worse, I am very interested in how it turns out.