How Marvel’s Movies (and Others’ Products) Have Changed Storytelling

Pop quiz for you. Don’t worry, it’ll be easy to answer. Have you ever read any licensed literature? Like Star Wars books, or Star Trek, or Warhammer, or … Sands, really any licensed property? Or maybe seen a tie-in TV show to a movie? Played a game of a movie or a book?

Basically, anything that could be considered “secondary canon?”

Right. I can already tell I’ve lost some of you. So let’s back up. Let’s say you are a movie producer. Better yet, you’re one of those producers like James Cameron who often writes, produces, and directs your own movies. And you’ve just made a hit.

Now, with this hit on your hands, someone has come to you and asked for a chance to expand on the universe! They want to write a trilogy of books that tie into the movie and extrapolate a bit after it! Awesome!

But … you don’t want to write a trilogy of books. You want to keep making movies.

“No problem!” says the publisher with the contract. “We’ve got an author lined up! They’ll write all three. We just need some notes on the movie, for you to answer some questions, and that’ll be all we need!”

So you sign the paper, and the trilogy comes out. You collect a small licensing fee, and a bunch of fans of your movie go on to read the book and form excited theories and ideas.

Except … a year or two later, when you sit down to write the sequel, you’ve got a bunch of ideas that don’t quite mesh with the world and liberties the author of the book trilogy took to flesh out their story. Not that you know this: You probably haven’t read them. Or, if you did read them, you’d know the score as being thus—

The movie came first, therefore the movie is the final word.

In other words, the movie you made is the primary canon. Books, coming second, are secondary canon. Canon being the rules, laws, history, etc of the “universe” you’ve made. Primary means that the movie (or movies) you make always come first. The books, then are only secondary, which means that they are “true to the movie, unless the movie disagrees, in which case the movie is right.”

So, you go ahead and make a second movie. It conflicts with some of the books, but that’s okay, because the movies are primary canon, and readers will just have to understand that the books are only accurate up to the point where they disagree with the movie. Then the movie is right.

The second movie is a hit. Not as big as the first (you did have to swap an actor, after all), but enough. Now there’s a comic book deal. And a cartoon to go with the toy-line. Again, you hand over some notes and go off to make new projects. Maybe answer a few questions. The comic book gets inspiration from the movies and the books, but they’re their own project. Same with the new cartoon, which makes some changes for kids and then works independently of the comics, you, and the new book trilogy that’s coming out … which by the way sort of disregards the old one. but also doesn’t.

This mess? It’s called “stations of canon.” A hierarchy of which story and characters are the “official” story and characters, and which are spinoffs, and which are “law” over the others.

Sound messy? Some of you have no idea. And others of you have all to much of an idea of what this was like.

But this was just how franchises were. Lots of different versions of the thing you liked, with only common threads between them.

Then, a few years later, you decide you want to go back into the series. But now the public is a little burned out, and none of the actors want to come back … so you might do a reboot. Or a side story. Or a TV show (live action, not animated), thus fracturing things even more.

Sands, even inside the material there may be differences. Books written by different authors that have the same characters act very differently. Differing backstories given in different episodes of the same show.

And this? This is how things just were.

It went the other way too. In comics, for example, a character like Spider-Man could be friends with the Fantastic 4 (IMO, not that fantastic, but whatever). But when it came time to make a movie? Too much! Both in casting actors, and expecting the audience to keep track. A movie might drop hints of a larger universe … but that was all it would ever be. Hints. Contracts were for one movie and maybe a few sequels. Other movies in the “same universe”? Different contracts, different characters. No overlap. Just hints of overlap.

Sands, sometimes even movies that did share characters from a common source would have them played by a different actor in each movie. Sometimes they’d reference the others (again, only hints) while other times, they just didn’t exist.

This was entertainment. Everything disconnected. After all, why would the public buy that? It’d never been that way before. Could they even be expected to follow something that wasn’t disconnected, but interconnected?

Then along came Marvel.

Okay, not just Marvel. Rather, I’d like to say it was a generation of like-minded fans who were tired of all this mess. Of the “stations of canon.” They wanted one canon, if at all possible. If nothing else, at least across the same medium.

Maybe even across several. One universe. One consistent story. Be it across shows, books, or games.

But Marvel was the first to do it and make a hit out of it.

A decade ago, I was sitting in the theater with my brother, and we were watching the credits to Marvel’s Iron Man. We’d just had a blast, I was enjoying the music, and we were both excitedly talking about how much fun we’d just had.

And then the music slowed, and the credits stopped. Suddenly, there was more going on. Tony Stark walks back into his house, but Jarvis is off and … Wait a minute, is that … Nick Fury? Avenger initiative?

My jaw dropped. I’d heard rumors at this point that Marvel was going to try and create a “cinematic universe,” but who was certain? I remember excitedly looking to my brother and saying “They’re doing it!”

Of course, those words were half hope. Remember, at that time, what Marvel was proposing to the world was just unthinkable to most people. Up until Marvel, the closest thing you got to a whole chorus of movies with the same actors and a large, overarching story planned in advance across more than three movies was … well, Star Wars. Or Harry Potter. Sure, there were other movies with long-running sequels and tie-ins, but they started to run afoul of the same “stations of canon” stuff at one point or another, either because they’d been through so many hands and studios or simply been rebooted, changed, etc. This was a world where you got three movies at most before everything went onto the back burner. Sometimes even the second movie could get a recasting.

Basically, what Marvel was talking about, what Marvel was suggesting, was just ludicrous to most of the world. One universe. Dozens of actors all sharing the spotlight across dozens of movies. One big overarching story for everything to move towards over a decade or more?

It was laughable. Or at least, a lot of the world thought so, viewers included. I remember talking to people who said that it would never work, laughing the whole thing off as a failure even when Iron Man was the only movie out. Some news outlets and industry sources seemed to think similar. Marvel wanted people to what? Keep track of a plotline across dozens of movies for a full decade? And they wanted actors who would agree to be in all these movies? It was ludicrous! Insane! Marvel had no idea what they were doing! People couldn’t follow a plot that long (clearly these people had never heard of The Wheel of Time)! They wouldn’t! And actors would never go for it.

Sands, the other day a friend of mine, after the huge slam success of Endgame, pulled up old articles criticizing the ambitions of the early Marvel movies, reading aloud one for Thor that brutally criticized their choice of ‘no one’ actors, reaching the conclusion that the attempt (and the actors chosen) would be ultimately forgettable perhaps save as a decent way to waste a special effects budget.

Ow. Brutally condemning at the time. Spectacularly wrong  in hindsight.

But that’s the kind of pressure Marvel faced. A lot of people believed there was no market, no viability in what Marvel was trying to do.

Right up until it became apparent that it was very viable. And Marvel started making money hand over fist. People loved their new movies, even when they had rocky missteps. They loved seeing the characters come to life on the big screen. And they definitely loved seeing that they all tied together. First with little threads, and then in more and more ways until it was fairly obvious that most of the movies were just continuations of the same story, with a “starring role” being the focal point.

Right around the time the first Avengers movie was smashing the box office to pieces was when you suddenly saw all these other film studios sit up and take notice that this “universe” thing had a lot of appeal. And they started working on their own “cinematic universes.”

Minus, of course, the things that made the Marvel Cinematic Universe a big success in pretty much every case. Anyone remember Universal’s “Dark Universe” that was going to be a massive collection of every monster movie property they had their hands on? No? It started out with Tom Cruise in a Mummy reboot no one wanted and that made no sense? No? You don’t remember that?

Well, with good reason. A lot of these “universe” attempts were that in name only. There was no commitment to what made the MCU work, this idea of a seamless collective of an expanding story and setting with the same directors, writers, actors, and general vision. With no commitment and no promise to the audience or even the people involved, no one wanted to risk making the product the way it should be made, so they fell back on the old habits and … well …

Yeah, The Mummy has a 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Justice League has a 40% rating.

But wait, hold up! Wasn’t I talking about how Marvel has changed storytelling? How is that accurate if studios like Universal or Warner Brothers haven’t learned anything?

Well, because this change is still going on. If anything, the failure of those high profile attempts to “cash in” on Marvel’s success showed the studios that the old approach no longer worked because people liked this idea of making one big solid universe and setting.

Which is why the two most successful movies Warner Brothers has done since their constant, early stumbles have been Wonder Woman and Aquaman, both of which were praised from moving away from what WB had pumped out and borrowing incredibly heavily from Marvel’s playbook. Time will tell what will come of this, but for now, it looks like WB is adjusting to how Marvel’s approach has changed movies.

Okay, but that’s just movies. I said storytelling. Well, from Marvel, let’s move to another property owned by Disney, one that’s … well … It’s halfway on adopting this. But it’s a clear-cut example of the change Marvel’s approach has brought.

Star Wars.

Yeah, we’re going there. See, Star Wars is one of the standout examples of “stations of canon.” Sands, it’s where I learned about the term. So broad-reaching was the Star Wars empire of entertainment that even among the books alone, there were stations of canon. That’s right, which book series or author was canon over others. You could actually find lists in the early days of the internet summarizing which books applied to which canon. I’m not joking. This was a thing.

Until Disney took over, and embraced the change to storytelling that Marvel had effectively pioneered.

They decannonized everything but the original films. All of it. No longer canon. Why?

So that all the stuff made from that moment forward—no, it wasn’t so it would “be Disney’s.” At least not entirely. No, it was so that from that moment forward, all the canon would be consistent. All books. All shows. All media on the matter. It would all be canon. No longer would their be “stations of canon” (and from one of the most famous sources of it). There would just be one universe. All the stories would line up, and if a reader picked up a comic, read a book, watched a show with their kid, or saw the movies, all of them would share the same story. You would never have to worry about whether or not what you read or saw lined up because it was one. Big. Story.

Then they stumbled. I’m not going to get into the whole Last Jedi thing because if you’ve been on this site before you know my thoughts on that. But they stumbled. How? Well … for starters Disney wasn’t able to give up some of the more lucrative hits from before things were decanonized, which led to some of those books and stories continuing without being “new canon” which meant that they were right back at “stations of canon,” just less of them. And then they couldn’t get a consistent set of directors or writers to helm everything, so the canon started to leap all over the place like an electrocuted bullfrog.

But the point is they’re tryingStar Wars, one of the larger entertainment franchises in the world and one of the classic examples of “stations of canon” is trying to move away from that. Because the people in charge have seen the writing on the wall. You don’t just fire and forget secondary items like books, games, or cartoons. You make them all part of the same story.

Naturally, it should be pointed out that this does cost more money and time. Going back to the example we opened with, if you’re going to keep close tabs on your canon, that means when someone comes to you with a book deal, you or someone with authority needs to sit there and orchestrate that book deal so that everything lines up. And the cartoon. And the sequel movie. Etc etc.

Which again, is where some of these attempts at this new type of storytelling have fallen flat. No one’s in charge, or the person in charge doesn’t care, or the person in charge doesn’t actually have any grasp of storytelling or … this list goes on. Sometimes it’s all of them.

But again, I said Marvel changed storytelling. Can I give you an example of where it’s worked?

You bet I can. Readers, let’s talk about Halo for a moment. Yes, the Xbox shooter that became a franchise rivaling Star Wars (and no, that isn’t an exaggeration).

See, Halo started out like most other normal franchises. The books were licensed out to authors who had some notes to work off of, but as with all things back then, were intended to be secondary canon. The games had a rough overarching story, but that was it.

All of this changed after Microsoft acquired Halo completely and began building their own studio in the years 2007-2009 (right around the time Iron Man became a thing, along with Marvel’s grand vision, which is why I said earlier that not just Marvel get the total credit, but a like-minded generation). This new studio, someone decided, wouldn’t just make new Halo games … they’d be responsible for all the Halo content. Not just getting it made, but making sure all of it fit one canon.

That’s right. Halo is another series now where everything you read, see, or enjoy is canon. There’s someone at 343 (the studio that manages all things Halo) who has, as their job, checking everything against their grand bible of all things Halo and making sure if it contradicts canon in some way they adjust it before release.

Well. Almost. See, because it started as a licensed project like any other, there was some extensive retconning made of the early books which angered some fans to no end. And there are still some rough areas where 343 just had to straight-up declare some early works inaccurate. But past that?

Everything that comes out of 343 right now, be it book, comic, radio drama (seriously, listen to Hunt the Truth sometime), game, whatever, is all part of one big massive story. No stations of canon. Just canon. One canon.

This changes … well, a lot. As this idea of “one canon” becomes more and more acceptable, books, movies, games, comics, and more are going to start to change. Are already changing, in the examples offered and more besides. Vanishing are the days of licensed books, for example, where you just grabbed a contract, read a few notes, wrote a story set in an established setting without consulting anyone, and published it.

Now, if you pick up a contract (or are requested, as things are shifting that way) for a licensed book, you’re going to be getting extensive notes. Your work will be vetted and checked by people familiar with all the canon, people who will request changes to keep your story in the established setting and history. Who will then add your work to that setting’s canon upon release.

This is new territory (for most, at least. If you’ve ever seen a few shared book universe like The Ring of Fire it’s probably familiar). It used to be you just had to nail a few specifics and that was that. Now? You’re going to be working with people to make sure all the details line up both backward and forward.

And Marvel has now, with the smashing success of Endgame, made this the de facto way in a lot of people’s minds for how to move forward. Everyone who looks at franchises is looking at Marvel, at Star Wars, even at Halo and starting to ask “Why aren’t we doing that? That’s where the fans (and the money) are!”

My guess? As this “new” approach to canon and entertainment moves forward, we’re going to see a lot more of it. Some missteps like Universal and Warner Brothers, certainly, and likely not in small numbers, as it’s very tempting to jump onto the new in word while still doing the old in deed (just ask those behind-the-times book publishers).

But this changes how many in the entertainment industry have seen entertainment for decades. No longer is a universe a collection of vaguely connected stories and characters, linked only by a few common elements.

It’s all one big story. No matter where a reader or audience member comes in, they’re all entering the same expansive universe. From dozens of authors and creators.

That’s awesome. Me? I’m all for it.

And I look forward to seeing where the future takes us, and this new approach, as we move forward.

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