Welcome to my newsletter! You can read the archives and subscribe. I have a bunch of books and I co-host a podcast. A week from Saturday, on Dec. 11, I'm hosting an in-person literary event, Writers With Drinks, featuring Tongo Eisen-Martin, Brontez Purnell, Shruti Swamy, Cat Rambo and Stephen van Dyck. Please please please spread the word and RSVP!
I don't want to blow your mind, but you are living in a shared universe right now. Your story and mine, along with countless others, coexist in a single reality, intersecting in unpredictable ways. That makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and other shared universes like, it way more realistic than anything Raymond Carver or Virginia Woolf ever wrote. Plus shared universes are super fun, as anyone who grew up reading superhero comics knew all along.
And yet! Shared universes are tough to pull off, and they sometimes come out of the oven kinda burnt on one side and gooey on the other. Nobody wants a half-burned, half-gooey universe! So here are some HOT TAKES on shared universes...
When Disney bought Lucasfilm, the first thing they did was to announce that the Star Wars Expanded Universe was no longer canon. It's easy to see why: these novels, comics and games had already told the story of what happened to the saga's main heroes after Return of the Jedi, and they'd also fleshed out that ancient/distant galaxy in a way that would potentially constrain the makers of new TV shows and movies. And yet, this move also reinforced the notion of a hierarchy of canon: the live-action movies and TV shows are the most canonical, with the animated TV shows close behind. And then everything published in other media is only somewhat canonical, and can easily be discarded or invalidated. This flies in the face of the ethos of a shared universe, which is that "it's all connected." And it also makes the universe feel more like a small town than the proverbial "city with millions of stories": to this day, no live-action Star Wars movie or TV show has strayed far from the settings and timeframe of the Original Trilogy or the Prequels. If someone named Skywalker doesn't turn up in a show or movie, you can assume you'll be meeting people who've hung out with a Skywalker.
In any case, back to the original point: if there's a hierarchy of canonicity, with movies at the top and "tie-ins" at the bottom, this can make a shared universe feel more rickety and less fun.
On a similar note, the ultimate dream of the shared universe seems to be to have a story that spans different media: movies and television shows, but also other stuff. One early experiment in multimedia storytelling showed how challenging this can be: in 2013, Syfy launched the post-apocalyptic saga Defiance simultaneously as a TV show and as a MMORPG. Syfy invested $100 million up front in trying to make this work. Syfy president David Howe told The Hollywood Reporter, "No one’s ever attempted this before. It’s been a big learning curve for us, as you can imagine." The plan was to have the game and the show feed into each other, as Polygon explained in 2012: "All involved plan to inject the weekly televised story beats of Defiance into the game's larger fiction, with the outcome of major battles and player-led choices having a similar influence on the show's major arcs." In the end, the game never really had much impact on the TV show, and most of the promised crossovers never seemed to materialize. Defiance the TV show was canceled in 2015, while the game shut down in April of this year.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe arguably took on a new lease on life with WandaVision, Loki, Falcon & Winter Soldier, and Hawkeye, plus the shows to come. Star Wars feels way more like a shared universe in the wake of The Mandalorian and the various animated shows, with a ton more stuff to come. Movies can't tell an expansive story, while it's hard for TV shows to pack as much concentrated oomph as a two-hour film. And again, you can delve into backstories and sidestories and aroundstories way better in comics, books and games, with enough space to really stretch out and no need for expensive sets and effects. Russell T. Davies has been hinting that Doctor Who will go back to the model he pioneered, where the main show spawns other series, like Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, and it feels like television is a natural place for this kind of sprawling cluster of worlds. As evidenced by the Arrowverse. Speaking of which...
Everybody and their grandmother was trying to launch a shared universe during the 2010s. Most of these attempts have been semi-abandoned, or met with mixed success: Godzilla vs. Kong was a big enough hit to keep the dream of a kaiju-verse alive after the underperformance of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and the DC Extended Universe is still sort of a thing. Sony is continuing to develop its own Spider-Man-centric universe, with Venom and Spider-Man as two big tentpoles. And yet, I'd argue the acid test of a shared universe is whether it boosts more obscure entries, like Guardians of the Galaxy—a movie which would almost certainly have failed outside of the MCU. By that metric, there are a few really successful shared universes: the Arrowverse, the Conjuring movies, and mayyyybe the Vampire Diaries universe. (And then there's Fast & Furious, which is either a single series of films with one spin-off, or a complex set of intersecting worlds, depending on your view.)
The thing the Arrowverse and the Conjuring universe have in common is a certain off-beat sensibility, plus they both started out focusing on strong characters with compelling relationships (Oliver Queen and family, and Ed and Lorraine Warren.) Neither universe tried to hit us with easter eggs or tie-ins right off the bat, too.
It's significant that the first Arrowverse spin-off, The Flash, established a much lighter, sweeter tone than Arrow, and every subsequent show has pushed in its own direction. I feel like the secret to a successful shared universe, post-MCU, is a light touch and a willingness to go all over the map tonally. (In other words, the DCEU probably should have followed up Man of Steel with Shazam.)
And that leads me to...
A key factor in the longevity of shared universes is variety. In recent years, Marvel has done a Western, a political thriller, a spy-fi movie, a wuxia epic, a light space opera, a gonzo comedy, and so on and so on. But you know what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not really done yet? A romantic comedy. Or just a straight-up romance, no comedy. Or a light comedy about a group of friends who are getting older. Or a family saga where nobody is actually a supervillain. Or a sweet coming-of-age story. One of my favorite Marvel comics, to this day, is Mary Jane Loves Spider-Man, which did a wonderful job of bringing romance into the Marvel universe.
Could you do a romantic comedy with fight scenes? Sure, of course—there could be a fun set piece, in which a couple processes their relationship while beating up bad guys. Does a superhero story need fight scenes? I'd say no.
In any case, spy romps and action movies and even space epics are basically all action-based, and usually coded as masculine, even if they have the occasional lady protagonist. I think a shared universe that dared to incorporate genres that are traditionally viewed as feminine would have greater longevity and a wider, more loyal audience. A Marvel rom-com would not need a $200 million budget, either.
A capacious universe means you never have to make a straight-up sequel to any of your movies or other stories. And sequels are hard. The first movie in a superhero franchise is usually the origin story, which is kind of a gimme. But the second movie has to find a new story to tell about that hero, who's already claimed their heroic mantle. The obvious choices are "hero decides to quit" (Spider-Man 2) or "hero faces a much bigger, scarier threat this time" (The Dark Knight). But the origin story is sort of the free square on the superhero bingo card: it's relatively hard to screw up, and everybody understands it. Everything after the origin story is harder. Which is why the MCU hasn't done a traditional sequel since, I'd argue, 2013's Thor: The Dark World. Since then, they've only done crossovers, to varying extents, in which the story is wider and has more than one hero. Thor: Ragnarok was a Hulk movie as much as a Thor movie, for example. (Okay, now I'm remembering Guardians of the Galaxy 2, which doesn't feature any major crossovers, but does split up its characters and foreground its supporting cast more than the first one.) The point is, a multiverse isn't just for easter eggs—it's a way to avoid having to do traditional sequels.
As I already mentioned, everybody was trying to launch their own shared universe around the time of Obama's second term. Now there's a new trend: multiverses. DC, Marvel, Sony's Spider-Verse, the Arrowverse and various other franchises are going all-in on parallel realities. I loved Into the Spider-Verse as much as anyone, but I'm not sure why every movie suddenly has to be about two or three different versions of the same story intersecting. It's great for fans, who love to collect all the different action figure variants and obsess about all the various reboots and de-boots and pre-boots. But if the promise of a shared universe is "everything really happened," then the promise of the multiverse is "nothing really happened." In the MCU, Tony Stark is really dead, and his death affects all the movies and TV shows to some extent. But in a multiverse, a different version of Tony Stark could also be alive—or he could be a fish-headed goat man. Nothing matters! Not only is the multiverse the opposite of a shared universe, in which a single canon is all-important, multiverses are highly corrosive to shared universes. Why should we care about anything that happens in any of these movies or shows, when we know there are an infinite number of realities in which something different happened? How do we even know for sure that the Thor movies are in the same reality as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies? A multiverse means no real consequences, and ultimately no shared continuity.
Speaking of Legends of Tomorrow, as I did above, I have been clamoring for a collection of all the songs featured in the show, almost all of them sung by the main cast. It's finally here, and DC's Legends of Tomorrow: The Mixtape is utterly delightful. It's been on pretty heavy rotation at my house lately, and my main takeaway is that Tala Ashe is a major powerhouse singer, and Olivia Swann has some incredible pipes as well. The "Mr. Parker's Cul-De-Sac" theme keeps revealing hidden layers! (And there's the punk rock version to boot.) This is a whole new way to appreciate one of the best shows on TV.
It’s Time to Reimagine the Future of Cyberpunk (Wired Magazine)
What Happens to Democracy When Local Journalism Dries Up? (Washington Post)
On voting rights, Democratic senators need to face reality (Washington Post)
Thiel, Silicon Valley and the Rise of Tech Neo-Reaction (Talking Points Memo)
Dave Chappelle's "Some Of My Best Friends Are Trans" Story Doesn't Hold Up (Confirm My Choices)