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What a tangled web: Continuity a help and hindrance in comics, movies

By Staff | May 30, 2018

The proliferation of comic book movies has produced some excellent adaptations that bring the spirit and, in some cases, the letter and artwork of the originals to life. Other aspects have resembled their comic counterparts in name only.

But perhaps the most comic-accurate aspect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the X-Men films and, eventually I’m sure, DC’s Expanded Universe is a matter some fans harp on: Mixed-up continuity.

Continuity is one of the things we comic fans love and one of the characteristics that has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe stand out.

The events of one film are referenced in another. “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming” stand as their own movies but were born out of “Captain America: Civil War.” That movie, and the “Avengers” films, also continued Tony Stark’s story despite the lack of a fourth “Iron Man.”

In comics, dangling plot threads from a canceled series are sometimes picked up in another book. When I was a kid, I loved seeing the little asterisks, referencing the events of a different issue to explain what was happening in the one I was reading.

I recently read an article on Looper arguing “Thor: Ragnarok” fundamentally changed the MCU by contradicting previous films’ insistence that Asgardians were aliens rather than gods and breaking the link between magic and science. I couldn’t argue with many, if any, of the observations in the article, just like I can’t really dispute the lists and complaints of continuity errors in the “X-Men” films.

But those same bumps, hiccups and changes based on a switch in the people crafting the stories represent what those films and the source material have most in common.

Many superhero origins were a product of the times in which they were created: the Fantastic Four and the Hulk were born of the Cold War. Iron Man’s origin took place in Vietnam. They are classic stories, but when those tales are revisited, details change.

Tony Stark’s life-threatening injury and armor-assisted escape now happened in the Middle East. Aside from making it more contemporary, the change allows Marvel to avoid having an octogenarian flying around in a suit of armor.

To point out just one of many issues with X-film continuity, a young Emma Frost had a cameo in the ’80s-set “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and a larger role as an adult in “X-Men: First Class,” set in the ’60s. There are any number of plausible explanations – they’re relatives, they have similar powers – as well as plenty of only-in-comics approaches: after “Wolverine,” she traveled back in time.

In comics, there could be an issue or an entire storyline based such a contradiction. In his first appearance, the Hulk was gray but Stan Lee changed him to green in issue 2 just because the gray coloring was inconsistent. Twenty years later, the palatte switch was given an in-story reason and the gray Hulk still appears from time to time.

When DC brings Green Lantern back to the big screen, it may not fit exactly with the reference made in “Justice League.” But if we get an awesome “Green Lantern” movie, who cares?

DC’s continuity has been so convoluted over the years, they’ve had three official reboots, plus countless tweaks along the way (Wonder Woman was a JLA founder. No, she wasn’t. Yes, she was). Most of these have had in-story causes and ramifications.

Continuity is one element of comic storytelling, but some of the most beloved stories (“The Dark Knight Returns”) exist squarely outside it. It’s great to use when it works, but it shouldn’t stand in the way of a good story.

Evan Bevins is the writer of the webcomic “Support Group.”