THIS MUTANT LIFE #7: How Much Does Continuity Matter?

James McAvoy

Navigating the space between acceptable and unacceptable continuity changes can quickly turn dicey, as many comic fans are predisposed toward territoriality at all costs.

During one idle afternoon at the comic book store I worked for long ago, I got into a heated argument with a co-worker over whether it was okay for Scott Summers to date Emma Frost in the absence of a Jean. I was for; he was against. Picture this sad, lonely sight: two supposedly grown adults, yelling at each other with the type of boiled-over invective reserved for Gaza Strip negotiations, not the love lives of fictional characters.

Another point of contention from another co-worker: whether or not the reimagining of Commissioner Gordon’s backstory in "Batman Begins" to make him a Gotham native was "ruining the character," as she asserted. And she really believed it! In her head, Gordon’s character was irrevocably changed because he was an insider rather than outsider, and without a proper Gordon, the entire movie may as well have been a reel of white noise.

All that said, I can only imagine how such a conversation about "X-Men: First Class" would’ve gone, were we still co-workers in 2011.

Here’s a movie that showed little regard for traditional continuity, plucking characters out of eras and bloodlines to smush them all together. Here’s Havok, without his brother! Here’s Mystique, growing up together with Professor X! Here are Darwin and Azazel, two relatively new mutants being shoehorned into the X-Men origin story! It would be enough to make those co-workers stamp and shout. But it worked, because the continuity was warped to fit the needs of the story rather than the other way around. And millions of people who saw the movie and didn’t have any greater frame of reference for origin this or continuity that were none the wiser about what great liberties had been taken.

That’s the ugly truth about comic books: that because the core audience is already so small, their experience doesn’t matter as much as that of the potential mainstream consumer. Think about it: the audience for a television show or movie is thousands of times larger than that of a typical comic book. More tickets were sold to "The Avengers," for example, than copies of the main "Avengers" comic book will be sold this decade. (My math on this is admittedly patchy but just trust me, intrepid reader.) Which means the demands of a fanbase who wants to see their favorite character portrayed exactly on screen as they are on paper doesn’t matter that much, because it’s not the diehard movie studios are trying to reach; it’s everyone else, those who won’t automatically purchase a ticket just because it has a Marvel or DC logo slapped on its poster. (I mean, even "Elektra" somehow made almost $60 million worldwide.) Hell, even the comic books don’t matter that much -- every time that something "important" happens in one of them, news outlets are given the story in advance so that non-readers might be intrigued by them, unwittingly ruining the months of buildup for plenty of readers who’ve yet to hit up their local store. (Witness the way the major, major spoiler in the newest issue of "Avengers vs. X-Men" was disseminated across mainstream newspapers.)

Continuity can damn a movie, lest we forget "Green Lantern," which tried to condense decades of characters and complex continuity into an opening sequence that was surely a turnoff to any consumer looking for a fun-if-not-weighty summer movie rather than a history lesson. The movie flopped, and the sad part was that its creators probably thought they had to fit in all of that history in order to make the character work on screen. Instead, we’ll probably never see another "Green Lantern" movie because the first one was botched so horribly -- and while the absence of another superhero movie ranks decidedly low on the list of things to be concerned about, it’s not like plenty of movie lovers wouldn’t have appreciated a smart, cool science fiction movie.

It’s almost guaranteed that we’re going to see some rearranging of parts in "X-Men: Days of Future Past," which won’t possibly be able to recreate Chris Claremont’s original story without heavily changing the structure and the participants. (For starters, the three main characters -- Storm, Kitty Pryde and Wolverine -- have yet to be introduced in the new timeline.) But here’s an anticipation of all the hubbub over what they do and don’t change: It doesn’t matter, and fans should be content to sit back and enjoy the movie for what it does rather than what it doesn’t.

This Mutant Life explores all corners of the cinematic X-verse, from the kids of "First Class" to the berserker rage of "The Wolverine." Suggest topics for future columns in the comments or on Twitter!

Previously on This Mutant Life:

» The Value of Bryan Singer

» Talking "Wolverine" With Chris Claremont

» Claremont Looks Back on "Days of Future Past"

» Why "Wolverine" Should Stick To His Own World

» Hopes For A "First Class" Sequel

» The Status Of "X-Men" On Film