The cinematic universe model is all the rage in Hollywood, but only two studios are really flourishing because of it: Lucasfilm and Marvel. Surprisingly, the two Disney subsidiaries take a very different approach when it comes to managing their respective universes.
When most viewers think of Star Wars or the MCU, they think of movies. In reality, both franchises are far more than just a range of blockbuster films. The Star Wars canon includes a wide range of ongoing tie-in comics, popular animated series, and even New York Times bestselling novels. The MCU includes a number of official comics too, as well as a staggering number of live-action TV shows. Both cinematic universes are expanding at an incredible rate, even discounting the movies; several Star Wars comics are released every single month, while Marvel Television drop new seasons of their shows throughout the year.
This ultimately means that both Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios are faced with the same challenge; how do they coordinate this content, and ensure there's a sense of continuity between everything that's set in the same universe? Or, to put it more bluntly, how do they manage the canon?
- This Page: How The MCU Changed The Game
- Page 2: Marvel's Approach vs. The Star Wars Approach
How Movies Traditionally Handled Expanded Continuity
There's nothing new about movie tie-ins, whether we're talking about novelizations that expand upon a film's plot, or official comics and books that are ostensibly set in the same universe. But, in general, this kind of content has been viewed as useful for marketing purposes, or else as just another revenue stream. Few franchises have attempted to absorb the other mediums into their canon.
There are good reasons for that. The first is that a movie will be watched by far more people than pick up any of the tie-ins. Indeed, depending on the marketing approaches and licenses, the tie-ins may not even be published or aired in all the territories the film releases in. That means it's not wise to tie the different mediums together too tightly. The tie-ins should be seen as an optional extra, something that the dedicated fans can pick up if they want to continue enjoying the franchise, rather than being baked into the continuity. That's why the countless Star Trek novels are viewed as non-canon.
The second reason is that tie-ins can prove too restrictive for writers and directors, especially when dealing with a shared universe model. In a shared universe, everything has a potential impact upon the rest of the franchise. But the more things that are part of the canon, the more complicated this becomes. It's not hard to imagine a scenario where a writer's creativity is inhibited by a plot that took place in a tie-in comic published a decade ago - one that's mostly been forgotten by fans. For these two reasons, then, film and TV franchises have traditionally ignored the expanded continuity... That is, until Marvel Studios launched the MCU.
How The MCU Changed The Game
Marvel takes a two-tier approach to the canon. On the one hand, you have the movies themselves, which are expected to (mostly) work together. It's true that there are occasional continuity problems between the films. Sometimes they're the result of a simple mistake, sometimes they're because a writer or director decided they wanted to do something different. In general, though, there's a fairly strong sense of continuity between the movies, and they can be considered the highest level of canon.
Then you have the tie-ins, specifically the comics and TV shows. These are sometimes referred to as the wider MCU, in order to differentiate them from the films. They exist within the same world, explore concepts and even characters that have appeared on the big screen, and frequently reference the movies, but the relationship only works one way. Because fewer people watch or read these than go to the box office, the movies themselves ignore these tie-ins. That's why Agent Coulson may have been resurrected in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Clark Gregg won't be doing another cameo in a Marvel movie set in the present; as far as the films are concerned, his character might as well have stayed dead. Fans may not like this, and even the TV actors have protested against it, but by this point it's essentially baked into the design of the shared universe.
But it's important to understand how continuity works in terms of the wider MCU. The tie-ins are indeed part of continuity - right up until the moment they're not. The films are not restricted in any way by the TV shows or comics, so writers and directors are free to contradict them, effectively removing them from the canon at a whim. So far, that hasn't happened particularly often, but as the canon continues to grow it will become increasingly common. Last year's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 presented a very different backstory for Nebula to the one seen in 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude comic. There's already evidence that next year's Captain Marvel will contradict both the same prelude comic and the 2009 digital tie-in, Nick Fury: Spies Like Us.