Apparently we’re arguing over the importance of canon now. Ay dios mio. Well, this is something that matters to me as a writer, so here’s my two bits.
IMO, the biggest problem we have is that the community (fandom, artists, and critics – and that Venn diagram is far from a 100% overlap) is really discussing two things when they talk about “canon” for a franchise. One type of canon is continuity – the sequence of events that takes place in a story or series of stories set in the same timeline. The other is what I’m going to refer to here as legacy – the body of stories and/or legends that constitute the foundation of a setting/franchise/narrative.
They are not the same thing.
Continuity is necessary for any tale that is not dadaist absurdity. Every individual story has a beginning, middle, and end, with the sequence of events vital to the nature of the characters and plot. When a “plot hole” causes cognitive dissonance, it’s because we notice something missing in what we understand to have occurred. Character derailment is a similar issue, deriving from what we know about a character’s behavior, and a sudden change in that behavior can throw us out of a story.
Not everything that appears to be a plot hole or character derailment is a mistake, especially when dealing with limited perspectives, unreliable narrators, or non-linear storytelling. When fiction completely ignores what came before, though, that’s just bad writing. Willing suspension of disbelief requires that the characters and events have the weight of their history behind them, whether in a single novel or across decades of film and television.
Legacy is not continuity, and this is where our idea of a “franchise” can get messy. Our knowledge of variant storytelling goes back to our most ancient myths, where we can find quite different versions of Heracles, Mulan, Rama, Isis, Coyote, Queen Himiko, and King Arthur. They all went through the legendary wringer long before modern writers got their hands on them. Now our mythic heroes are the Rebel Alliance, the Avengers, the crew of the Enterprise, the Justice League, and the Fellowship of the Ring. All of those groups exist in multiple continuities. Some of them coexist with alternate timelines, even doing battle with their variant selves. Books, television, or movies? Animation or live action? Superfriends, Justice League Unlimited, or Young Justice? Federation Spock or Imperial Goatee Spock?
This is important because not all legacies are good. The original Justice League and Avengers were created in a time when “diversity” meant having a token female character with a team that was otherwise White male heroes. (Yes, the Martian Manhunter’s native form was green, but his secret identity was also White.) The original Star Trek broke boundaries, yet had one major Black character who was also the most prominent woman on the crew – and she ran a glorified telephone operator board most of the time. The other major non-White character was Sulu, and he spent most of his time at the helm reacting to stuff on the bridge screen. The Rebel Alliance was all-White in the first Star Wars (a movie that revived the “rescue the princess” plot even while having fun at its expense), only adding Lando Calrissian after pointed criticism of this. LGBTQ representation in genre fiction functionally didn’t even exist until the 21st Century. (May all the gods bless J. Michael Straczynski – he tried.)
Those are not the only problems with slavish devotion to legacy, because most of the big franchises will step on their own continuity sooner or later. I miss the original Star Wars Expanded Universe, but it was a mess. Fans complained about the absence of Kyle Katarn in Rebel One, but his story was only one of three contradictory tales of the Rebellion stealing the Death Star plans. There is enough Star Trek ancillary media to cover at least ten five-year missions for the original crew alone. DC and Marvel have tangled themselves in their own continuity on many occasions. DC in particular has made a mess of their timeline with their repeated botched attempts to “streamline” it (if you’ve never heard of it, look up the Hawksnarl for a laugh). Marvel made the spectacularly dumb move of labeling the MCU “Earth-616”, which is the same continuity number as the Marvel Comics primary universe. Even the famously well-constructed Legendarium has some switchbacks in its pre-Hobbit historical lineage thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien himself wanting to get “woke” with his Orcs’ bio-essentialism, among other changes. And those are just examples from the (arguably) largest and most successful genre settings in America.
So, what to do? Creators for every continuity within an existing legacy, from the Arthurian mythos to a galaxy far, far away, must answer that question themselves. Each solution will be different because every setting is different. Most of DC’s superheroes are more epic and powerful than Marvel’s, whose costumed heroes tend to be more grounded and human – even their gods! Star Wars is very different from Star Trek. Lord of the Rings might loom large over Western fantasy, but every successful fantasy series finds ways to differentiate itself from Tolkien’s masterpiece.
If I were to offer any advice, though, it would be this: respect. Not slavish devotion, but healthy appreciation for the foundations that permit a new continuity to rise from those which came before. This doesn’t mean Catwoman should be White, or She-Ra must be straight, or Mar-Vell has to be a man. Arwen can rescue Frodo without ruining Lord of the Rings. It could be argued that the best thing about the Star Trek movie reboot series is the romance between Spock and Uhura. All of the listed characters remain true to their fundamental natures and ideals while expanding on who they are in a positive way.
Is there something to be said for coming up with new settings? Absolutely. We should continue to expand what is possible in fiction and real life alike. One feeds naturally into the other. That does not mean we have to leave old favorites behind. So long as the audience is there, let us continue to inspire using old franchises renewed with fresh timelines. Canon is only an enemy if we let it stand in our way. Let us seek out new dreams and new continuities, and boldly go where no creators have gone before.
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