Thoughts on expanded universes, part one: Avengers: Infinity War and the problem of paratext

Our universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding,
In all of the directions it can whiz;
As fast as it can go, at the speed of light, you know,
Twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is.
—Monty Python, “The Galaxy Song”

Someone recently added me to the Facebook group “Genre Writers of Atlantic Canada,” and given that I don’t have much to say about the writing of genre fiction but a lot to say about genre fiction (and film, and television), I shared my previous post about my Fall grad course; since then I’ve had about a dozen people sign up to follow this blog. To those of you now following, welcome! Hopefully the next few months will see me being somewhat more prolific here than I have been in the past year or so.

Also, you should be warned: I tend to post fairly lengthy meditations on whatever I happen to be thinking about, and this entry is no exception. I started thinking about the nature of what we call “expanded universes” in popular culture, and this rumination has itself quickly expanded into what will have to be a series of posts (probably four of them, but possibly more).

This blog is basically a space for me to think out loud and work through ideas and arguments. That it’s a public forum forces me to try and be more coherent than I am when I argue with myself in the car or scribble notes in my journal. But that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to brevity, alas …

Screen Shot 2018-05-13 at 2.19.10 PM

The various expanded universes of fandom, from DC and Marvel to Star Wars and Doctor Who, might not quite be whizzing in all directions at the speed of light, but one could be forgiven for assuming so. It seems impossible these days to create an alternative universe that doesn’t get expanded: aside from the obvious examples above, there are now a handful of Game of Thrones spinoffs in the works; the adventures of Newt Scamander keep the Harry Potter Muggleverse alive; and there’s even plans at Amazon to create a Lord of the Rings prequel series. And all of this is just the most recent stuff.

From what I’ve been able to glean, the term “expanded universe” first came to be applied to Star Wars, to the constellations of TV specials, comic books, video games, and novels that accompanied and followed the original trilogy. However much the prequel films were generally loathed, they gave the expanded universe a lot of traction to expand even further, until finally the Disney purchase of Lucasfilm and subsequent production of The Force Awakens deemed, at a stroke, that all of the prior expanded universe creations were emphatically not canon.

The paroxysms of rage this arbitrary decision sent through the fan universe are, at best, incidental to my discussion here, which is more concerned with the broader concept of the “expanded universe” and the significant role it has come to play in popular culture. What was once the provenance of devoted fans has become a financial juggernaut for production studios and publishers, and (often to the annoyance of the devoted nerd community) has spread its appeal to general audiences.

Though I count myself a member of the aforementioned nerd community, my interest here is more academic: in anticipation of my graduate seminar this fall, I find myself thinking rather a lot about world-building and the relationship between such “expanded universes” as Marvel’s and the long tradition of alternative realities and worlds from medieval romance to Middle-Earth to contemporary fantasy. One way or another, this post and the ones following were precipitated by thoughts I had after watching Avengers: Infinity War. So, without further ado …

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Avengers: Infinite Cast

For a variety of reasons, it took me a week until I was able to see Avengers: Infinity War. By the time my girlfriend and I plunked our arses down in the theater seats, I had become very nearly frantic. Any longer not seeing the film, it seemed, and I would inevitably have the big reveals inadvertently spoiled. As it was, I knew there were going to be HUGE SURPRISES, as all of social media (seriously, it felt like all of it was mobilized to taunt me about Infinity War) alluded portentously to MAJOR PLOT POINTS and a certain HUGE THING THAT HAPPENS.

It is perhaps now that I should warn readers that there will in fact be SPOILERS in this post, both for Infinity War and a bunch of other stuff (well, for Game of Thrones, anyway).

Before I get to all of that, however, I should not bury the lede (as I tend to do on this blog), and point out that my interest in this particular film is incidental. I don’t have anything to say about Infinity War that hasn’t already been said, so here’s my tl;dr review: loved the story, was deeply impressed by how the directors and writers didn’t let the ever-expanding cast turn the narrative into an exercise in pulling taffy, laughed my aforementioned arse off (honestly, Thor calling Rocket and Groot “rabbit” and “tree” should not have cracked me up as much as it did, but here we are). Favourite moments: Cap appearing as a shadowy figure at the train station, Peter Dinklage as a huge dwarf, Rocket’s man-crush on Thor, Bruce Banner’s ongoing argument with a Hulk who, having had his ass handed to him by Thanos, has obviously turned timid. There are more, but that will do for the moment.

As much as I loved the film, the ending left me vaguely dissatisfied. Considering that the worst comes to pass and Thanos accomplishes his goal of wiping out half the sentient universe with a snap of his fingers, that cosmic genocide lacks the kind of gravity it should have had—mainly because we know that most of the characters will not remain dead for long. Tom Holland’s Spiderman had one of the more poignant departures (both because of Tony Stark’s protectiveness, and because his final seconds were reminiscent of the Tenth Doctor’s “I don’t want to go!”), but given the success of Spiderman: Homecoming ($880M worldwide), it’s highly unlikely that Disney/Marvel is going to let him stay dead. That goes doubly for T’Challa: though it was heartbreaking to see Danai Gurira as Okoye’s expression of abject loss as her king disintegrates, it is even less likely that Disney will let Black Panther and its $1.3B box office go at a single movie.

Black-Panther-and-Wakanda-army-in-Avengers-Infinity-War

Wakanda Forever!

All of this was in my head upon leaving the theater; when I got home and finally read the reviews I’d been avoiding all week, I found my thinking crystallized by John Scalzi:

What I know is that there’s no friggin’ way Spider-Man and Black Panther, to name just two, go out like punks.

This isn’t a question of story, this is a question of economics. Black Panther grossed $688 million in the US and $1.3 billion worldwide; even if a Black Panther 2 made half that (and it seems unlikely it would make just half that), it would still be one of the top five grossing films of its year. If you think Disney, of all companies, is going to leave that sort of money on the table, you are officially super high. Likewise, if you think Marvel is going to let Spider-Man, still their biggest and most well-known superhero, despite years of fumbling at the hands of Sony, lie fallow after they’ve just now reintegrated him into the official Marvel universe (and his most recent film did $880 million business worldwide), then, again, you are supremely buzzed, my friend.

I recommend reading the entire post—Scalzi pretty much hits the nail on the head and puts into words the inchoate thoughts rattling about my head after the movie.

So I’m not going to go on in this vein—suffice to say that the movie is great on its own terms, but the biggest spoilers aren’t what you might accidentally stumble across online so much as just knowing that huge Hollywood studios will always behave with a predictability that talented writers won’t … and that in a showdown between the former and the latter, the former always wins.

There is built into this “expanded universe,” however, something of an irony, given that, on reflection, Marvel’s long game has been hellishly impressive. The Marvel Universe has genuinely earned the modifier “expanded,” as each film has been carefully planned and slotted into a grand narrative, occasionally in ways that sabotaged the individual films (Age of Ultron being the prime example). Each new film that merged extant storylines and characters, such as Avengers and Civil War, was potentially satisfying but perilous for the reasons all crossover stories are: we’re eager to see our favourite characters meet and interact, but anything less than at least competent storytelling is going to at best annoy and at worst alienate devoted fans. That Infinity War with its near-infinite cast of characters not only does not disappoint, but emphatically delivers, is particularly impressive.

But as I said above, there is an irony to this meticulous world-building within the context of multimillion-dollar franchises, which is that success breeds success, and that means that successful stories and characters (i.e. profitable stories and characters) will be milked for all they are worth, or until their key actors’ contracts expire. None of which would be an issue if audiences existed inside a bubble of ignorance, cheerfully oblivious to box office takes and trade news about actors’ contracts and planned future productions. But of course we do not exist in such a bubble, especially not in this era of fan participation by way of social media on one hand,* and studios’ massive investment in long-term, big-budget franchises on the other.

thanos

Can someone please tell me: is it in keeping with comic book/superhero conventions that Thanos, with all of the mystical power of the infinity stones, still feels the need to resort to punching things all the time?

All of which goes to the broader point that we can’t feel too much dismay for the death of T’Challa—and by extension, everyone else extinguished by Thanos—when we know that there are hundreds of millions of reasons for the studio to resurrect him.

Which, oddly, is where I get interested, at least in terms of the theoretical implications for world-building. Normally we would be inclined to deal with such a storyline on its own terms, which is to say, according to the internal narrative and thematic logic it establishes. But the longer-running and larger-scale—i.e., the more “expanded”—a given “universe” becomes, the more it is subject to such external logic as economic considerations, actors’ contracts, internecine squabbles, and so forth. In the case of the Marvel EU, the external logic has come to inflect the internal. By contrast, even though most of us were all 90% certain Jon Snow wouldn’t stay dead after being stabbed at the end of Game of Thrones’ fifth season, we weren’t 100% certain … and that 10% of doubt proceeded from the show’s internal logic, i.e. five seasons worth the show pitilessly killing characters we assumed to be central, from the execution of Ned Stark to the Red Wedding. There were a lot of reasons to assume that Jon Snow would be resurrected in season six, but none of them involved Kit Harrington carrying a billion-dollar Jon Snow franchise on his brooding, fur-clad shoulders. The question of just how deep his grave was dug had rather to be considered against George R.R. Martin’s gleefully murderous storytelling.

jonsnow

Further, however, it is instructive to recall the misdirection in which Kit Harrington and HBO engaged during the months between seasons five and six, in an effort to convince fans that Harrington and therefore Jon Snow would not be coming back. Such extracurricular considerations, like our certainty that Disney/Marvel will be making Black Panther 2, play a role comparable to what in other circumstances we might call “paratext”—which is to say, ancillary texts that define and circumscribe the text proper: title pages, epigraphs, indices, forewords, footnotes, and so forth … or in the case of a film and television, the opening and closing credits. Other paratexts include such considerations as the author or editor or translator, or in film the director(s) and producer(s), or anyone else whose name connotes certain qualities (think, for example, of True Romance, which was directed by Tony Scott, but which was written by Quentin Tarantino, and is almost invariably associated with the latter rather than the former).

Paratexts serve to define a text, and provide tools for understanding and interpretation.

On an individual basis, we probably think nothing of them unless they are unusually invasive or self-reflexive; but every time you purchase a book because it has an intriguing cover (which, despite the cliché injunction not to, happens all the time), or, conversely, buy it specifically because of the author, paratext affected or inflected your reading and understanding of the text proper.

But in an expanded universe like that of Marvel’s films, we experience something like a cumulative effect, simply by dint of the small army of writers and directors involved; When we consider that many of the names attached—Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler et al**—come with certain specific stylistic and thematic connotations, that cannot help but affect our expectations going into the various films. And while the Marvel films have attempted—mostly successfully—to attain a consistent aesthetic and tone, they nevertheless comprise an aggregate of directorial styles and varying quality of story that makes an entry like Thor: The Dark World seem dramatically out of place with Black Panther (or for that matter with Thor: Ragnarok). And while Infinity War certainly counts as one of the best installments, the contrast between the Guardians of the Galaxy aesthetic (faithfully rendered by the Russo brothers) was something of a jarring juxtaposition with the earthbound sequences.

pratt-downey

To be fair, I’m stretching the strict definition of paratext somewhat, but then the “expanded universe” as concept and practice invites a certain amount of boundary-stretching on any number of fronts—which is one of the aspects that fascinates me.

That being said, I realize I’ve now written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 2500 words and I haven’t actually attempted to define what we mean by “expanded universe.” Oops. Well, that will be installment the second: what determines an expanded universe? What differentiates it from a merely expansive universe? How does the Marvel or Star Wars EUs compare to those of Tolkien or George R.R. Martin?

Stay tuned.

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FOOTNOTES

*Social media is of course just one aspect of a broader participatory current that has always been present in fan culture, with fan fiction and slash fiction having long been key methods of creative and imaginative interaction. The internet has of course multiplied and disseminated fan creations, as have the various wiki pages that compile and catalogue arcane details of given universes. This participatory dimension is something I’ll look at more closely in my second installment.

**This list of prominent dudes serves to highlight Marvel’s need to introduce some estrogen into the mix. On that note, it should also be pointed out—as frequently and loudly as possible—that the best three films arguably to emerge from both the MCU and DCU in the past year, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman were directed by an indigenous man, an African-American man, and a woman (Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and Patty Jenkins), respectively.

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2 Comments

Filed under Magic Wor(l)ds, nerd stuff

2 responses to “Thoughts on expanded universes, part one: Avengers: Infinity War and the problem of paratext

  1. Reblogged this on YOURS IN STORYTELLING… and commented:
    Here’s a fellow maritime author’s take on THE INFINITY WAR.

    And here’s my thoughts on what he has to say.

    WARNING – THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS BLOG ENTRY!

    Okay, so I loved this movie and I also reviewed it. As for your points about “economical spoilers” – well, they are pretty good points, but I figure it this way.

    I just think about all of those Hammer Dracula movies that I watched as a kid. Dracula ALWAYS bit the dust at the end of each and everyone of those movies – but I always knew, even back then, that Dracula was going to be back by next summer.

    I grew up reading comic books and I am used to heroes biting the dust and coming back. It’s just what these guys do. Batman had his freaking back broken, and he’s still swinging around Gotham, pausing every now and then to kick Superman’s butt!

    Go Batman. Go Dracula.

    I guess I’ve got a thing about night creatures…

    • Fair points, all of them … I guess what I’d add to my thoughts is something to do with the diversity of audience and the difference in expectations that different experiences bring. An avid comics reader like you, as you say, is used to having those graves dug pretty shallow, as well as just the broader tendency of comics to reboot every few years and bring back dead or defunct characters, often in ways that are very different than before.

      I’d suggest also that the MCEU has been very specifically engineered to appeal to both long-term comics readers and those who come to the genre with little knowledge and experience … and also that cinema on this scale doesn’t lend itself to quite the same flexibility of storytelling that do comics. Perhaps that entails a different investment in certain storylines and characters, especially given the attachment audiences develop to some actors’ portrayals (I remember when all this started with Iron Man, there was a broad skepticism that Robert Downey Jr., with his recent fraught history of addiction, could carry the film; and now he IS Iron Man, and it’s almost unthinkable to consider someone else in that role).

      Thanks for the comments! I find this whole thing quite fascinating.

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