A post from my old Marvel blog concerning the nature of how a shared universe such as Marvel’s operates on a practical level.
Getting back to some of the issues we were dancing around a few days ago, and some of the responses that people have left, both here and elsewhere, I think it would be a good idea to spend a few seconds thinking about the nature of the shared universe, and the best ways of going about getting the best stories out of such a construction. In short, it requires cooperation.
There’s a school of thought that there are certain elements of a given character that are sacrosanct. And there are—but the list is much, much shorter than many readers think it is, I think. And it’s a very subjective list as well—the things I think are sacrosanct may not match up with the things Axel thinks are sacrosanct, may not match up with the things a given reader thinks are sacrosanct.
This is all kind of a corollary to the notion that certain characters aren’t being “respected”, or are being “sold out” or “undercut” by evil people who don’t care about them, or who are only out to make a buck—who don’t have the true, pure love that the reader has for the characters. There’s also a separate ingrained desire for absolute conformity across the line on the part of some readers—a point of view Marvel spent a lot of effort fostering in the 1980s especially, but which quickly became the goal in and of itself, rather than a guideline to telling stories.
Every writer brings a slightly different take to the table in terms of the characters—the same way that every fan has a slightly different take. It all depends on when you started reading the books, what your formative experiences with the characters were. And the plain fact of the matter is that, when you’re working within a shared world construct like the Marvel Universe, there really is no one firm, set, eternal answer. Every answer is true until it isn’t true anymore—until somebody manages to tell a story that, good or bad, changes the preconceptions people have. Like the legends of yore, these stories and these characters evolve to meet the changing demands and interests of the ever-changing, ever-growing audience
I think writers work best when they’re able to tell the truth as they see it (which is a slightly different thing than telling the absolute truth, since nobody can be perfectly unbiased.) And I think it’s a mistake to put the larger cosmology of the interconnected Marvel Universe ahead of its individual stories. I didn’t always feel this way—and it’s not an absolute with me even now. But on balance, the history must serve the stories more than the stories must serve the history.
Given the sheer number of points of view who have worked on these characters and within this universe over the last six and a half decades, expecting every opinion, every attitude, every decision each character makes to be absolutely consistent is absurd. We all care about the stuff we care about, and the rest is negotiable. So yes, that means sometime Iron Man approaches Nova nicely, and sometimes Iron Man approaches Thor more aggressively. As long as the writers on those stories are approaching their work genuinely, each story can work—or at least has an equal chance of making the reader buy into it. Nobody is going to enjoy every comic book we put out, and a bad story is a bad story, but trying to be overly militant about some of this stuff is like creating a police state around the characters, and isn’t going to allow anybody the luxury of doing anything interesting with them.