Logan only hit theatres last month, and already, critics are hailing this latest instalment in 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise as one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. There are several reasons for the film’s success – not least of all Hugh Jackman’s riveting final performance as Wolverine – but a large part of Logan‘s appeal stems from how disconnected it is from the wider X-Men franchise.
Sure, Logan has links to earlier movies in the series, but co-writer/director James Mangold also glosses over (or even flat-out ignores) aspects of the established canon that don’t support the story he wants to tell. Ordinarily, this kind of disregard for existing meta-narrative leads to fan backlash. But Logan is so damn entertaining that Mangold gets away it – and reminds us that when it when it comes to storytelling versus continuity, the former is always more important than the latter.
Continuity can be fantastic – or a dirty word
While there are different types of continuity – for example, Hugh Jackman reprising his role in Logan is a kind of continuity – what we’re talking about here is the idea that actions within a fictional world have consequences. For example, since Wolverine loses the metal coating on his claws in The Wolverine, it shouldn’t be present in Days of Future Past or Logan, as those films occur at a later point in the established timeline.
Continuity is what allows storytellers to create a “shared universe”: the concept that certain fictional characters inhabit the same fictional universe. Not only can these characters appear in stories together, but what happens in those stories will be reflected going forward, even when a given character appears in a standalone outing.
This creates a sense of history surrounding our characters, and – in theory, at least – allows filmmakers to tell interesting stories that wouldn’t be possible without such a rich backstory to draw upon. Yet there’s two key reasons why for some fans, continuity is something of a dirty word.
For starters, while continuity adds a sense of history to characters, this constant influx of backstory starts to constrict the plots and character developments storytellers can use. Imagine if Logan had strictly followed the established timeline of the X-Men film franchise; Mangold could never have justified the film’s dystopian, Mad Max-lite setting, and the story would have been weaker as a result.
Then there’s the way continuity lumps incoming creators with pre-existing plot developments they either don’t want to explore or that audiences hated (or both!). How do they tell a satisfying story without getting called out for breaching the existing canon? The X-Men franchise has already had to deal with this exact problem: it’s why Fox used Days of Future storyline to effectively jettison polarising flicks X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine from the series’ canon.
The upshot of these two continuity problems is that things get very muddled, very quickly, which makes it harder to tell new stories – and when that happens, nobody is happy. So, should more comic book movie franchises follow Logan‘s lead and start playing loose and fast with canon?
Striking the right balance between stories and canon
As is almost always the case, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Done well, continuity brings so much to the table that it seems a shame for filmmakers (or any storytellers, for that matter) to chuck it out entirely. At the same time, when continuity starts getting in the way of telling a great story, it’s no longer a valuable tool, it’s a dead weight. So how do studios like Fox get the balance right?
One way is to relegate standalone entries and spin-offs that don’t really fit within the established continuity to their own separate sub-continuities. It sounds complicated, however, comics fans are already used to seeing stories explicitly set in alternate timelines (or even universes) outside of accepted continuity – heck, Logan is loosely based on a story that falls within this category! True, this might be a bit hard for the average moviegoer to wrap their head around, but honestly? Most of them probably won’t care, and those that do will quickly figure it out.
The other way to tackle continuity headaches is to go down the “vague continuity” route. Essentially, this approach treats major events and character developments as unchanging touchstones that lend a general sense of history, and leaves everything else a bit, well… vague. Now, this can backfire; the continuity of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was famously so vague that trying to work out how it fit with the previous films in that franchise gave everyone involved a headache. Even so, with enough effort, “vague continuity” can work – after all, it’s the key to the James Bond franchise’s enduring success.
Ultimately, though, the key to getting the most out of continuity is to make sure it props the narrative up, rather than pulling it down. Rich backstories and shared universes are all well and good – but, in the end, they’re nothing compared to a great story.