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Superhero movies and shows are becoming homework, and it could kill them

You know what sucks? Homework. I hated homework when I was in school. In one semester of history in high school, I didn’t even bother. And I like history. Very few people like homework. We value our free time. And that’s exactly what’s threatening the tidal wave of comic book television shows and movies on the market in the last few years. They’re starting to feel like homework, and that’s affecting both peoples’ willingness to keep up and the week-to-week, movie-to-movie quality of these products.

In 2014 and 2015, the newest comic book properties to see live action were Daredevil, The Flash, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Each of those was a shot in the arm to its respective universe. Daredevil proved comic book shows could work on Netflix, Flash showed that truly comic-book focused shows could work on broadcast television, and Guardians of the Galaxy brought a new tone and style to the increasingly stale Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Now, in 2017, I’m finding myself struggling to stick with the CW universe. I’m frustrated with how boring Iron Fist was, and dreading how that could affect the Defenders show. I’m admittedly kind of stoked about this year’s Marvel menu – Guardians 2, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spider-Man: Homecoming all look like a blast. But even so, it all comes down to one thing – there’s an obligation to see all of them. They’re all required viewing to stay current or, at least, are made to feel like that. They’re homework.

This is, more than even the most faithful of panel-to-screen re-creations, the one thing that carried over from the comic-book page to the silver screen. For decades now, this has happened in comics: before you could read the latest volume of anything, you had to read any number of prior volumes to play catch-up. Small wonder standalone graphic novels have taken off, both with regular comics fans and lay readers. Most are self-contained stories that don’t feel like homework.

32 flavors and then some

And then there’s the fragmentation of the titles themselves. Right now, Spider-Man comes in Amazing, Ultimate, Astonishing, All-New-All-Different, 2099, and plain-old Spider-Man varieties. Over the years, Spider-Man has been Spectacular, Unlimited, Untold, Friendly, Superior, and Giant-Sized. Some of these are part of the main continuity and some not. If you’re not having a mild panic attack yet, you’re probably a comic-book fan. X-Men, Batman, the Justice League, Iron Man and the Avengers are all guilty of this to some degree — a splintering of the lineup as a way to milk that much more attention and money from a title as the overall audience for comics dwindles.

This stuff gets complicated and confusing, and it becomes off-putting even to many committed fans.

Think of comic books – get your pitchforks ready – like soap operas with extremely high stakes. Complete with evil twins, love triangles, attractive people in sexy outfits, and everything else.

While this is indeed a problem in comic books, though, both of the major players, Marvel and DC, have an answer to this: a continuity reset. Sometimes it’s a massive success, sometimes it crashes and burns, but in the end it brings things back to some manner of basics.

One of the very first of these was DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, a 12-issue mini-series meant to do away with the multiverse that helped make things so complicated. By the end, Supergirl and The Flash (the Barry Allen version) had both died trying to save everyone. And decades of conflicting powers, origins, and histories were wiped clean, giving the artists at DC carte blanche to work on characters from near-scratch.

This is something all these shows and movies are going to have to figure out eventually, but the concept is rife with problems in a live-action universe that make it harder to pull off without confusing or putting the viewer off in some way.

Live-action movies and television shows are not strangers to reboots, remakes, and rehashes, but these items are rarely connected to each other by anything other than the the Tommy Westphall Unified Television Universe Theory. The Flash, Supergirl, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow are all intimately tied together, as are Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist.

In comic books, there’s more of an inherent sense that the universe is plastic. Artists change all the time. Some artists’ runs are more beloved than others, but generally speaking no one bats an eye when artists swap out in a given book. As long as the super hero’s name is preceded by the right adjective, the story goes on uninterrupted for both the character and the readers.

Human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together

Now, imagine that same question with Iron Man or Thor. Or, more appropriately, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth. These characters and their actors are, for millions and millions of people, intimately linked, as is the look and feel of that universe. If Hemsworth gets tired of playing the role of Norse God, if the story demands they swap him out, if he ages out, then what happens? Audiences are attached to not just the character, but the actor, too. And you don’t have to pay Captain America in anything other than imaginary army buxx. But Chris Evans makes real money and demands commensurate pay to match his influence.

If you swapped in another actor in place of the one sitting in the spot, it gets confusing to viewers. Spider-Man has seen three actors now sit in his role, but chances are good that Tom Holland will see himself linked to that role for the foreseeable future because he is now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Swapping out Batman was a simple matter before, as well. We’ve had as many Batmen as we have James Bonds.

Now that Ben Affleck is tied to the character as a part of the DCEU, though, swapping him out is going to be much tougher. And if WB and DC won’t budge on giving him artistic license with the character and his standalone film, they might find themselves doing that sooner rather than later. But imagine if suddenly Josh Brolin or Michael Fassbender were standing in place of Affleck while Henry Cavill and Gal Godot were still Superman and Wonder Woman. The mask helps, but there’s a cognitive dissonance there. It’s like changing Batman from one art style to another while the other characters are drawn as they have been. For casual viewers, it could be confusing. For invested viewers, it could be downright off-putting.

This doesn’t even factor in the idea of a character death resetting between movies as part of a continuity reset. My head is starting to hurt.

When, not If

All of this is going to become necessary eventually. Batman didn’t age a day between his debut in 1939 and the end of the Crisis in 1986, but Michael Keaton is now old enough to play the geriatric Spider-Man supervillain the Vulture, while Ben Affleck is playing a version of the Batman who has already been around for ages and is tired. Downey Jr. is going to need a real Iron Man suit just to walk at some point.

Marvel’s attempts to re-identify its core characters, like the Totally Awesome Hulk Amadeus Cho and the Invincible Iron Man (IronHeart) Riri Williams, if they stick, could eventually make their way to the big screen, too.

Or, as I suggested at the beginning, people will get tired of trying to keep up with how complicated this stuff is and stop going to these movies. The tangled web of interconnected plots is just the start. The truce between Sony, which owns the rights to Spider-Man movies, and Marvel, which owns the Avengers and Guardians, could break down at any time, too. Something like swapping out a beloved actor could be a straw breaking the camel’s back for already-frustrated viewers.

Marvel and DC are both going to have to figure this stuff out, and they’re going to have to do it at the movies and on television. And it might not be much longer before that happens. Continuity resets happen in comics to help keep readers coming back, and figuring out how to navigate them in live action is going to be crucial to keeping all these cinematic and television universes alive and breathing and to keeping us watching.


Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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