Levels of Canon
We're essentially getting to a point where, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are "levels" of canon. The ultimate canon is the movies themselves, which tell a self-contained narrative and are binding upon everything else that calls itself part of the MCU. What's more, the films seem to get priority in terms of storytelling, too. Characters are only passed down to Marvel Television when the studio doesn't feel they have plans for them. Marvel TV only got access to the Inhuman Royal Family, for example, when Marvel Studios canceled the Inhumans movie. Since the corporate restructuring in 2015, there have been no cases of film characters making a cameo on the small screen - a notable contrast with Lucasfilm's approach of not only passing characters back and forth but also imbuing the movies with references to all their other mediums.
But here's the difficult question; what will happen when there's a contradiction between the films and the TV shows? With an ever-expanding slate of Marvel movies and TV series, a contradiction is absolutely inevitable. And all signs are that the films will take precedence. When James Gunn wanted to explore the backstory of Gamora and Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, he didn't care that he rendered a previously-official tie-in comic non-canon. There's no reason to believe Marvel Studios would care anymore about doing the same to a TV series. That's probably one reason only one Marvel show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has really tried to explicitly tie-in to the Marvel movies. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., of course, launched before the 2015 corporate restructure. Since 2015, those explicit tie-ins have become far rarer, with the show instead preferring thematic tie-ins like the Ghost Rider arc that accompanied the theatrical release of Doctor Strange.
This tiered approach to canonicity bears some similarity to the one Lucasfilm employed back before the old Disney purchase. Everything in the old Expanded Universe was viewed as canon right up until the point it contradicted something George Lucas did in the Prequels or animated series. Lucas's content was deemed 'G'-level, 'George'- or sometimes 'God'-level. When Lucas wove Boba Fett's backstory into Attack of the Clones, entire Star Wars novels were branded non-canon. While it made sound business sense, it led to a lot of heartbreak and frustration for fans, as they had no way of knowing what was actually "real" in the shared universe.
Can the Center Hold?
All this raises an intriguing question; can either approach to a shared universe truly last? Marvel's is guaranteed, sooner or later, to cause more serious conflict. The pre-Disney Star Wars fan community often found itself caught up in complex continuity debates, desperately attempting to work out how everything could still make sense. Entire books and comics were erased from continuity at George Lucas's whim, no matter how much some of their fans loved them. Marvel's bound to run into that more and more as the universe grows.
Meanwhile, there's a real hunger among viewers to start to see the threads tie closer together. In the build-up to Avengers: Infinity War, countless fans desperately theorized ways the Defenders could crop up in the film. And even the actors are similarly frustrated. In an interview with Nerdist, Chloe Bennet candidly asked, "People who make movies for Marvel, why don’t you acknowledge what happens on our show? Why don’t you guys go ask them that? Cause they don’t seem to care!" Marvel insiders declare a tie-in to be "practically impossible," but the cries for a more intimately woven shared universe aren't going away, and the pressure is only building.
But can Lucasfilm's approach work in the long term? The concern will be that, as time passes, the canon will gradually become impenetrably complex, and thus restrictive to the creators who Lucasfilm want to direct movies and produce more TV series. But Lucasfilm seems aware of this risk; they learned their lessons through the old Expanded Universe. As a result, Lucasfilm is carefully opening up different sections of the Star Wars timeline, little by little. In the example of Solo, the galaxy's underworld had been relatively unexplored in the new canon up to this point - and deliberately so. It's only now, after the film's release, that other mediums are beginning to explore the criminal side of the Star Wars galaxy. This cautious, careful approach helps the Story Group to develop the galaxy in organic ways, and hopefully ensures the continuity won't become restrictive years down the line.
The reality is that, bar another organizational restructure, there are no signs things are going to change at Marvel. Both Lucasfilm and Marvel may be building shared cinematic universes that transcend the big screen, but only Lucasfilm's approach really treats those other mediums with the respect they deserve. And that's probably the way things will stay.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Ant-Man & The Wasp (2018) release date: Jul 06, 2018
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 05, 2019