The Sanctity of Canon: How Being Canon Sometimes Hinders Storytelling

While Hollywood has begun to lean into intertwined storytelling, it’s important to remember the story should always be the driving force.

The sanctity of canon has always been a contentious topic for fandoms, in particular, how inclusive or exclusive it is. Lucasfilm famously dismantled decades worth of precious Star Wars canon in novels and comics after the company was acquired by Disney, pissing lifelong fans who invested precious time immersing themselves in those novels to no end. Warner Bros. and DC films are notorious for setting stories in their own bubble and adjusting as things go on. And then you have Marvel Studios and Marvel Television’s cold-war squabble of the films never acknowledging the television world’s existence, despite the latter insisting they’re in the same club as the former. 

For some, whether or not a narrative is canonized determines its value. The more important or essential a story is to the larger understanding of the written body, the more it outweighs the others, regardless of quality. The less important it is, the less valuable it is. It understandably takes so much time to invest a lot of effort into something so why do it with the inessential stuff? Why should you watch 5 seasons of a show that has zero bearing on the larger story in the metaseries? 

That line of thinking can sometimes be detrimental to how we consume art. Just because something is inessential to the metaseries, doesn’t invalidate its existence. You can partake in a series or a comic simply because it moves you, or because it’s good, or because it makes you happy. Or perhaps you value quality over ancillary world-building. None of the nerdy connectivity matters in the face of gratification and fulfillment. You like a show because you like it.

On the flip side, having something you enjoy be acknowledged feels just as good. It’s a validation of your investment. Imagine what fans felt when it was announced in Star Wars Celebration 2016 that Thrawn, a famous character from the decanonized Legends novels, was being recanonized in the main continuity. Not only would unfamiliar fans get to know a great character they otherwise wouldn’t know, but it’s also somewhat akin to seeing an old friend. You spent 7-years following the intricacies of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., falling in love with their characters, and growing with them every step of the way. Seeing The Cavalry show up in the films naturally feels like an apt reward for all that support.

While the series would often reference the events of the movies, even going as far as to include guest appearances by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Cobie Smoulders, the Marvel films never acknowledged the events of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.E.D. This is something fans hoped would be ‘corrected’ following the ending of the ABC series, with many adamant Chloe Bennet would reprise her role as Daisy Johnson in Secret Invasion – something she has denied.

Fan frustration only became worse when the writer for The Story of Marvel Studios seemed to suggest the series was, in fact, not canon to the Marvel Studios film. Agent Carter being the exception, of course. Fans of the series grew angry, not wanting to hear the series was its own entity outside of the films. The frustration is understandable, to an extent. The feeling that the creatives owe them something, though, is a major problem.

Us fans, we tend to feel a sense of ownership over these stories. We make these stories a part of our daily lives. Quotes become part of our vernacular. Memes become a cornerstone of our online interactions. These characters begin to shape with some of what we identify with, which is great. However, the fact that fans expect to be rewarded for all of these things feels misplaced in the face of corporate interest.

These stories are a business at the end of the day and none of them owe fans anything, as harsh as that sounds. While studios and creatives are without a doubt thankful for the support, they operate on the whims of numbers and their own creative vision. If the idea of fully incorporating hours of television (that were created separately in a vacuum) into a cinematic narrative doesn’t logistically fit with their vision, that’s tough luck for all the fans who want it. The bigger picture of what the company wants gets served above what fans want.

And the way these companies go about dealing with canon is fascinating on a lot of levels. You have HBO and its Watchmen series. When HBO gave The Leftovers and Lost creator Damon Lindelof keys to Alan Moore and David Gibbons‘ dystopian superhero world, Lindelof made sure he only looked at the seminal 1985 comic as his basis. It was the Old Testament he would use to create the Watchmen’s New Testament. This was done despite dozens of Watchmen sequel comics and Zack Snyder‘s reimagined movie adaptation. Lindelof ignored every single one of those and created his own take of what happened after the comic. And it worked perfectly.

Then you have the DC Extended Universe whose canon is a free-for-all. While its cohesion pales in comparison to the relatively cohesive tapestry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC films have that the MCU doesn’t: the freedom to do whatever they want. It’s how you end up with a movie like Joker, divorced from anything their tentpoles are doing. We’re at a point where we will see three different Batmans in live-action (Affleck, Keaton, and Pattinson) next year. These films aren’t beholden to a strict continuity and simply exist on their own merits. In a pop-culture landscape where interconnectivity is getting more complex, being able to watch The Batman on its own feels satisfying.

All of this brings us to the MCU, arguably the most successful franchise with the most cohesive continuity. A decade into its existence, more and more MCU projects are bringing elements from the early days of its canon, signifying Kevin Feige’s vision of a tighter and more consistent network of stories. However, even the MCU isn’t exempt from just throwing things at the window. Thor: Ragnarok famously shits on all the Thor films before it, foregoing much of its predecessor’s qualities including some story beats. 

Marvel Studios is starting to take things further by possibly adding talent from the Marvel Television world. With the closing of Marvel TV along with the shows under its purview and the reported involvement of its key players in the proper MCU via soft reboot, fans have been divided as ever over what constitutes canon. Charlie Cox and Vincent D’Onofrio have both cemented their performances in shows that are being written out of continuity, yet their shadows loom over the future of the MCU. Upcoming shows Hawkeye and Echo are being touted as vehicles for the return of these Marvel TV staples, complete with a new canon. It’s more than likely to see Marvel Studios make more cherry-picking decisions like this when it comes to castings outside its purview. J. Jonah Jameson is another great example of this decision. 

There’s also Lucasfilm, which recently released Star Wars: Visions, a non-canonical anthology show that distilled all the best elements of Star Wars into something fresh and exciting for the franchise. The result is a widely acclaimed show that pushes the boundaries of what Star Wars can be. In many ways, it was a proof of concept of how exciting the franchise could be without any of the main saga’s bells and whistles. 

Like a belief losing its hold on its believers, the sanctity of canon feels subjective these days. What these franchises have come to understand is the importance of fluidity in storytelling. Nothing is sacred, for better and worse. The story is king at the end of the day and takes precedence over anything else.

Should the need arise to forego established premises to accommodate the larger narrative, storytellers should be able to do as needed. 

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