“Continuity is absolutely crucial for compelling, satisfying, and powerful storytelling.”
“Continuity stifles creativity and is overseen by a bunch of insufferable nitpickers.”
These two statements represent the opposing arguments that storytellers and fans so often stake their passions and emotions on. Continuity, by definition, is a fairly basic concept: this shit should make sense.
If a character has an empty gun, we better see him load it before he shoots and kills his enemy. If a story is set on a cloudy winter night, we shouldn’t witness someone squinting from the sunlight unless there’s a good reason.
But that kind of continuity is just the tip of the iceberg. What we’re really talking about is when something major that happened two seasons or fifty issues or seven novels ago and should have a bearing on a current story is completely ignored without any explanation.
The onus in this world of franchise filmmaking, comic books with over 75 years of history, serialized television shows, and epic tales told over the course of multiple novels is on the storyteller to not only remember all these details but to use these details to define whatever comes next.
And that’s where things get complicated.
If storytelling is a contract of lies between creator and audience, continuity is the signed assurance forbidding any breaches of trust. As audiences, we want to feel like our time and money are well spent on stories that will evolve and progress in a way that makes sense and satisfies.
After all, the whole appeal of a long, epic story is that we are being drawn into something that’s rich with detail, character development and plot machinations. It’s not being unreasonable to expect that these enormous stories share some semblance of logic. Every time a reader or viewer encounters something that doesn’t make sense, our capacity for willing suspension of disbelief cracks. Each crack is a pang of disappointment that the magic trick has been interrupted with the sight of its strings and wires.
This breakdown can happen within the span of a single chapter, but it’s more likely found over the course of several films, hundreds of comic books or multiple seasons of a television show. There are continuity flubs that are usually forgiven; someone wearing the wrong color t-shirt in a shot, for instance. I say “usually” because that’s not always the case.
I remember as an editor working at Marvel Comics one fan who would incessantly email me telling me that Wolverine’s eyes were supposed to be blue, not brown. When I sent him the cover to a classic Frank Miller cover with brown-eyed Logan staring back, he found a reason to not accept that evidence of continuity in favor of his own. Rather than come up with a fan explanation for Logan’s shifting eye colors (perhaps a second mutation? contact lenses?) he decided to let it ruin his enjoyment of the stories.
I can’t justify or explain that kind of response, but I can understand the larger continuity issues and how those might sully the integrity of a good story. These are the continuity betrayals and they’re something altogether different. Many fans feel justifiably betrayed when a character acts completely different for no good reason, or a crucial mystery remains unsolved, or a change in the direction of the plot completely ignores the logic of everything that has come prior.
If that kind of thing doesn’t boil your blood when you really invest yourself into a story, then you and I will just never understand each other. I used to know a guy who insisted that continuity was unimportant to him. It was all about THIS story and the promise of the next story to follow it, not anything that had come before. That seemed like an absurd statement to me; there’s something incredibly satisfying about experiencing a story that is a culmination of everything that has come prior.
The whole art of storytelling is all about this dynamic. It’s set-up and payoff. Like a good joke. And if the payoff doesn’t jibe with the setup, then you haven’t told a legitimate story.
Of course, we can endlessly debate whether decades of lore and narrative over countless chapters, episodes or films should justify a statute of limitations on certain details. But generally speaking, as an audience the longer the story, the more substantial our investment in it. So we tend to feel entitled to expecting at least the illusion of parity with what has come prior. Even though we know deep down that these stories are pretty much being made up as they go along, some part of us needs to believe that it’s all headed somewhere; the moment we start to doubt that is the moment we stop believing the story altogether.
And then of course there are the times when we’re actually instructed to stop believing the story. There’s a special circle of hell for storytelling organizations who cut a story off before its conclusion only to reset it back to its beginning. When a company ditches its entire history of stories to start over from scratch it tends to get a lot of people very, very upset.
Comic book companies are notorious for hitting the reboot button, but we’ve seen it in films, too. The new Ghostbusters film doesn’t operate in the same continuity as the 1984 original; Daniel Craig’s James Bond never faced off with Goldfinger (despite the fact that his Aston Martin still has the ejector seat); Ben Affleck’s mass-murdering Batman clearly isn’t an extension of the character played by Christian Bale in The Dark Knight trilogy.
Heck, this isn’t even a new phenomenon; the Universal Monsters films were constantly being rebooted and remade; the Godzilla series restarted in the 80s and 90s before the most recent updates in 2014 and 2016; even the classic film Ben Hur (1959) that was just rebooted this year was itself a reboot from a 1925 version!
Reboots are sometimes interesting, compelling, exciting pieces of work. But not many of them. Most of them are kind of a drag, and fans of the original material are usually justifiably bummed. A story that they loved has now ended unceremoniously and been restarted to pivot in a different direction.
Fans still have those stories and can revisit them anytime they want, but there is the sense that they don’t count anymore, as if they are old and outdated. The stories have been removed from the pop culture conversation and by extension, so have the fans. Now they must either embrace the younger, literally less storied incarnations of these characters and properties or move on to something else entirely.
On the other side of the divide are the new fans approaching the property for the first time. Rather than chase down old back issues or endure a bunch of old films that don’t speak to their generation, they get to be exposed to these iconic characters without the homework. And standing besides them are the creators who have been freed of the shackles of continuity and can take the property into exciting new avenues that would have been impossible before… at least in theory.
Both sides of this continuity dispute have legitimate points, and I can’t pick a side when I look at this in the larger forest-for-the-trees sense. I certainly have biases for certain franchises and properties where I feel like reboots or dramatic changes in characters’ behaviors defeat the purpose of even calling it the same thing. But I also understand that at a certain point, continuity becomes a barrier to new voices and new audiences and that others should be able to comfortably approach this entertainment that has brought past generations so much enjoyment.
Ultimately any continuity will have to be rebooted at some point unless the storytellers and business people decide to make the moral, ethical decision to just end the story and walk away from it. And unfortunately, that kind of thing doesn’t often happen. Not as long as there’s money to be made, anyway.
We will continue to see Star Wars movies until the sun explodes or everyone gets sick to death of lightsabers. The comic book publishers will continue to reboot their universes as soon as the soap operatics of thousands of characters interacting with each other gets too complicated to possibly keep track of. And if a television show is popular enough, just wait a little while and it’ll be back to undo everything you ever loved about it in the first place (I’m looking at you, X-Files).
It’s no wonder then that the anthology television series or the miniseries is my new favorite thing or that non-franchise single-story films provide a much needed balm to the wounds caused by franchises I can no longer embrace. After you’ve been through the heartbreak of falling in love with an enormous epic storyline only to watch it get unceremoniously dumped in favor of the watered down reboot that softens every quirky edge and guts every ounce of subtext or depth, there’s only one logical solution: low commitment one night stands with entertainment you won’t dial up again.
If you can get over the bitterness and return to the ex that hurt you, it’s often worth trying to see things through the eyes of the creators behind the scenes. Sometimes there’s something to be said for a clean, blank slate.
Sure, it may seem lazy on a storyteller’s part to not be able to tell their story within the context of what has come before. But keep in mind the often overwhelming volume of stories, relationships and thematic material that has prefaced their arrival. Then consider the challenge on the part of this storyteller to not only bring something new to whatever franchise he or she is writing but also to craft a compelling story that gets people’s attention.
The difference between artists and fans is that fans often want stories to continue in logical progression. We want to see characters grow and plots to follow what we have seen before. If something has been unexplained, we want the story to address these holes and fill in the blanks so that we can move forward with a clear understanding of the conflicts our characters must overcome.
But artists don’t usually care about what has come before. Their job is to get people’s attention and bring in new audiences, and the best way to do that is to strike off in an entirely new direction. And if that means that something gets forgotten or continuity errors crop up, that’s just the way the story omelette breaks a few logic eggs.
Sure, the rockstar mentality of certain creators can get frustrating to those of us who have invested our interests and passions in what came before from the working class, blue collar Joes and Jills who delivered such consistently enjoyable storytelling. But a new direction is not inherently a bad thing; when we force storytellers to slavishly follow previous narratives, themes and ideas but insist they improve or outdo everything that has come before and increase sales, we’re asking the impossible. It’s the artistic equivalent of driving faster on a road that keeps shrinking.
So I have a suggestion. It’s something that has largely worked for me.
Seek out creators you love and get invested in the direction they take their creative properties; but when they reach their end, be ready to follow them out the door. It’s likely you love this franchise because of what they brought to the table, not just because the high concept of the property is bulletproof no matter what storyteller is at the reins.
After all, there have been plenty of bad Batman stories. There are terrible James Bond films. And Star Wars? Well, you know how I feel about that.
It’s not the art you love, it’s the artist. And if you stick around to see what the next guy brings to the franchise, you’re going to have to rewire your internal logic and you’re going to have to accept that their interpretation will be different. This is no longer the same story and it’s no longer the same continuity. The marketing might insist otherwise, the PR people will stress how it’s all part of one big plan, one big epic. And this is merely the next chapter.
But that’s a lie. And you should know it. Save your willful suspension of disbelief for art that actually deserves it.