The everything for meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee crowd continues to attempt to absorb all franchises into themselves, insisting that they have a right a version of everything that caters to their interests while throwing a fit if something isn’t catered to them. While of course insisting their version isn’t “for you” and often throwing a fit on the rare occasion something they like is turned into something someone else, especially kids, might enjoy. Now they’ve taken to altering beloved franchises that weren’t beloved to them while their pals push back against established canon and continuity for their own ends.
A recent example comes from the I/O9 site Gizmodo and a rant by James Whitbrook (he calls it that, folks) entitled Craving Canon Is Killing The Way We Discuss Movies And TV. (Although we’ve seen sites change titles before due to backlash.) In this piece Whitbrook rallies against the “evils” of canon in favor of re-interpretation…usually to a form that he likes from something he doesn’t I’d wager. (I don’t even have money to wager with.) I found this through a commentary on YouTube taking this thing down but the commentator gets distracted because she’s seen this #$%@ so many times and has rallied against it. I wanted to give this thing a more focused shellacking because this attitude is really at the heart of a lot of modern writers’ problems.
As the pop culture we love becomes increasingly dominated by vast franchises of interconnected worlds and stories, so does it become dominated by one, singular question from diehard fans: Is the thing we’re about to consume canon to everything else we’ve consumed before? It’s an attitude that’s turning our love of stories into some bizarre, archival competition.
There’s a game show we haven’t had yet. This opening tells you the angle Whitbrook is coming from.
Canon is not inherently a bad thing, of course—it can provide structure to chaos and it can provide a sense of not just continuity, but stakes as that continuity progresses. The idea lets characters bear the impact of events on their journeys across not just one narrative, but many, allowing them to grow and change to the point that they might even be entirely different kinds of people compared to where we first met them.
“Canon isn’t bad, but let me tell you why it’s bad.”
There’s still plenty of room for variety and interpretation in even a relatively strictly defined canon—just look at Star Wars, and the kinds of stories it can still tell despite the mandate from upon high that anything told must fit into what’s been established since Disney took over the franchise. But those stories benefit from the added weight of being definitive interpretations and events that flesh out an entire galaxy’s worth of stories. But where canon—or, rather, our hunger for it—goes terribly wrong is when whether Something Matters or Not becomes the base standard for how we consider a piece of media.
Yes, but they were events with established rules of the franchise. You can have variations on a theme. Transformers has done this since literally the beginning. Were the Transformers the result of naturally occurring gears, a supernatural being, a bunch of war profiteers, or a strange artifact that goes from cube to series of panels holding a circular object to everything in between? However, Disney’s Star Wars–which consist of the movies, the last three cartoons, and whatever books, comics, and games started coming out after the Disney acquisition of LucasFilm–exist in one singular universe. That means that the universe itself maintains a consistent logic…or rather it should. The video earlier today noted that new Force powers were created just for the sake of the story. It’s canon, but it violates established lore and continuity.
Critics and fans alike are now less interested in actually interpreting a piece of media thematically or to engage with why they liked or disliked it, but instead to pick it apart and break it down to the base components of what are, essentially, its pure, unflinching facts.
I can’t speak for anyone else but here at BW Media Spotlight I do all those things. And when a new piece of the franchise violates the franchise’s established theme I will comment on it. The Last Jedi and Man Of Steel weren’t necessarily bad movies but the former ignored established rules set up by George Lucas and the LucasFilm cartoons while the latter ignored the theme of Superman and established multiversal continuity as to who these characters are as fictional people. I enjoyed watching them as movies but as part of franchises I like they left a lot to be desired. Because all of those things are part of the base components of that universe/multiverse. You can have violations, like the various evil mirror universes or what if type stories but they are still building off the established continuity.
And before someone accuses me of throwing stones in glass houses: Yes, io9 totally does this too. Like I said, discussing canon can be fun, it can add a lot to a series!
But this craving for it above all else is a toxic attitude, not just to the way we talk about pieces of media from a critical perspective, but in fan circles as well.
It’s not “above all else” though. We’ll complain about a crappy story that follows the continuity established before. Just look at my reviews of Thundercats: The Return. The writer does an excellent job of portraying the characters’ voices and personalities given the situation. The artwork, when Benes isn’t succumbing to his urges to draw sexy poses, is spot-on to the show if the characters aged. It also has an issue where Cheetara is chained to a wall to be the mutants’ rape toy while the now teenaged Wilykit is Mumm-Ra’s concubine and I hate the very fact I had to write this sentence. There have been episodes of TV shows and sequels to movies that continue the same general continuity without errors but do so by changing characters or putting them in terrible situations with horrible dialog, motivations, and actions. Discussing how something fits into a canon or how it matches or violated continuity (again, the video noted the difference and often it’s continuity we’re complaining about more than canon) is part of the discussion about how the next issue, chapter, episode, or sequel breaks or connects within the continuity.
The hunger for facts above all else leads to things like “filler episode” becoming a derogatory term for stories that don’t advance the larger ongoing plot of a narrative or don’t include some shocking new revelation that someone can add to a list.
Filler episodes are a different discussion and I do agree that the hate they get, especially from anime fans who forget many Japanese animated shows are adaptations of a manga that comes out only slightly more often than George R.R. Martin gets his Song Of Ice And Fire books out and thus need to fill up a season somehow. A good filler episode or arc can at least give us good character moments that help better define and connect us to the character…or otherwise are just a bit of fun while we wait for the source material to catch up. Otherwise you get how the original Fullmetal Alchemist or Game Of Thrones series ended.
It predicates the gatekeeping act of being a fan that is built on how much you know about a thing over whether you actually enjoy that thing or not. It’s an attitude that in turn feeds the equally unruly and constantly growing spoiler culture because a fandom that values pure details above all else puts weight in the knowledge of those details.
What do either of these have to do with the main discussion? Gatekeeping also happens when you take something you don’t like, turn it into something you do like, and tell the fans who have been connected to that franchise longer than you’ve even heard of it or in some cases even been alive that this “wasn’t made for them” when they complain about the huge continuity errors and desecration of characters and even base concepts they love. The desire not to have some big moment in a story spoiled by either the trailers by marketing people who couldn’t care less so long as they got their bosses your money or fans who want to discuss something and thinks everyone should have seen, read, or played it at launch day whether it makes sense in their lives or not has nothing to do with canon or continuity. Why are these two sentences even in this article?
The need robs discussions about the stories we get of nuance and interpretation, because who cares what you think happened when there’s an answer from the Word of God to that question you might have had? And more sinisterly, beyond the way it shapes our discourse, it’s a craving that further enmeshes our love of a world not to the world itself, but to the masters behind that world. To twist a lit-crit turn of phrase, there cannot be the death of the author, if the author’s got their own fandom wiki.
So basically you’re taking an absolute stand on the debate of “death of the author”, where what the author was trying to get across can be ignored in favor of your own interpretation whether the author was going for that or not. Again, not part of this debate. Now you’re just ranting against everything that goes against you getting the version you want because everything needs to cater to you at least once.
It’s fine if you want something to matter to a world and characters you care about, but it shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all to your investment in them, either. Fandom is such a wide, shareable passion, full of different opinions and interpretations about a thing, united by a shared, vested interest and love for storytelling. Valuing the sterile facts of those stories more than the things about them that make us think or feel is a sad thing indeed.
Again, those facts are part of the story. Imagine one movie or one book. Not a franchise, not a series, just one movie or book. Somewhere in the middle everything established about the characters or the world they live in is completely tossed out not because what we the audience or the characters themselves thought was true was wrong and this was all a dodge. Good stories can come from that like Magic Knights Rayearth. It can also be a bad thing like…the other half of Magic Knights Rayearth now that I think about it. However, those are series…except it’s actually the same thing. A series is just a longer story, a universe where multiple events happen to the characters and world, not just a one time event like a one-shot novel that wasn’t intended to have sequels. Whether it’s one movie long or a series of movies, or even a television series, it’s all one story. In the case of alternate continuities there are still established rules for a proper remake, like He-Man & The Masters Of The Universe, or a re-imagining that completely ignores if not outright mocks the original incarnation, like She-Ra & The Princesses Of Power. (Said mocking was happening right in the promotion for the series.)
Themes, characters, writing, and all that other stuff is still important. However, whether it’s one story or a series of stories set in the same universe, or even multiverse since if you change too much about the characters (Battlestar Galactica) what you actually have is a brand new property co-opting old names, continuity is important. You can make anything canon you want. Lego Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures isn’t part of the official Star Wars canon but it is partially in my head canon (just in a less satirical form). The argument is whether something fits properly into that canon or violates established continuity. There’s a back and forth from Paramount whether or not Star Trek: The Animated Series should or shouldn’t be canon. All three timelines are canon, the classic continuity, the Kelvin timeline of the Abrams movies, or the Prime timeline Kurtzman web shows. All the Transformers TV series are canon though only some of them share in the numerous continuities and only the ones that violate multiversal continuity would be under scrutiny. I don’t like IDW’s or Michael Bay’s continuities but they are canon to the Transformers multiverse. We could spend days going over Superman’s numerous continuities, some of which don’t feature any of the other DC universe characters.
Continuity is very much part of getting the story right and is just as worthy of being a benchmark as all the other ways we examine a piece of media, even if we’re just comparing act 5 to act 3. Continuity is another one of those things writers need to get right, even if they’re the sole writer. Ignoring that is to ignore as much an important part of the story as not sucking on the dialog because a good story can be a poor adaptation which means it’s still not a good piece of the series.