In case you haven’t heard, DC Comics is going to relaunch its entire comic book lineup this summer, even though it last did so five years ago. Marvel Comics also unfurled its All-New, All-Different Marvel Universe last year, which restarted all of its various series with brand-new #1s.
Both (further) retoolings are the result of the continued success of the entertainment giants' respective shared cinematic universes – well, in the case of DC, the expected success, as the DC Extended Universe won't be fully established until next month’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hits theaters. After spending decades trapped in a ghetto of their own making, the comic book publishers are starting to get a taste of that cherished mass market that has long eluded them, and by having their respective comic book lineups more closely reflect the tentpole movies that audiences turn out in droves for, they stand a chance of picking up at least a few of those viewers as new readers – or, at least, that’s the hope.
But it turns out that the films may have much more to teach the comic book industry than just deeper brand-name recognition or superficial resembles. In fact, it may very well be that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the long-awaited savior of its print counterpart, helping to deliver it to the promised land of cultural ubiquitousness. Here is What Comic Books Can Learn From Comic Book Movies.
General audience accessibility
One of the biggest factors in the MCU’s continued success is its accessibility to audiences of all stripes; the movies take the modern essences of the characters in question, reference important narrative or aesthetic touchstones from their five decades of publication, and then throw out all the rest. It’s the best of both worlds for viewers, as they’re not forced to wade through massive piles of back issues (many of which have since been retconned) but still benefit from their existence.
This is a fact not lost on either Marvel or DC’s publication offices. In fact, attempting to thread the needle of ongoing continuity (which the comic faithful clamor for) and a new starting point (for general audiences) is the very motivation behind their never-ending reboots. The catch here is that these line-wide revamps tend to make things even more convoluted rather than streamlined; in the case of DC’s New 52, which saw its long-running series from the 1930s lose their numberings for brand-new first issues in 2011, all characters were meant to revert to younger, edgier versions of themselves who had only entered their various superhero careers a few years previously – except DC wanted to maintain certain aspects of the characters’ previous continuities. In this way, Batman still has his first and third Robins “graduate” to their own superhero identities, has his second Robin die, and currently has a fourth sidekick all within the space of a single decade.
Then there’s the inconvenient fact that no matter the storyline or the “event” series that kicks it off, these publishing stunts are always short-lived. The New 52’s impending demise later this year may be the most recent example, but any number of character deaths, from Superman to Captain America to that second Robin, are more than ample proof on their own. Knowing that, say, the All-New, All-Different Marvel Universe may have a limited shelf life must take its toll on any possible reader’s willingness to buy in (and that’s certainly a very large “buy,” given all the monthly titles and miniseries that comprise such narrative initiatives).
Despite a few minor instances (The Incredible Hulk, for example, was released second but subsequently reshuffled further down the narrative line), the Marvel Cinematic Universe unfolds in real-time; when viewers walk into The Avengers: Age of Ultron, it really is three years after the superhero team first assembled to do its world-saving thing. And while, yes, Ant-Man may have a flashback to 30 years previously, or Agent Carter may be set 40 years before that, these are contained storylines that serve to reinforce what is happening in the present day. Having only a limited number of films or television series released per year certainly doesn’t hurt, standing in stark contrast to the sheer number of titles one is required to consume in order to follow along with Marvel and DC Comics' line-wide narratives.
It may seem a minor point, but it’s actually a pretty substantial one. Consider that audiences can watch characters age alongside them, or that when a new franchise spins off from the main action – Guardians of the Galaxy, we’re looking at you – it feels organic and relatable, not an obligatory marketing ramp-up to the next big “event.” When coupled with the lack of retconning (well, with the single instance of the Agent Carter short film being replaced by its TV show successor) and with the MCU’s recent debut – we’re now only eight years into the whole storytelling endeavor –it's still surprisingly easy for new fans to pick up on the story and follow along.
Of course, it's a little bit too late for comic books to simplify their own history, but there may be a lesson to be learned going forward.