Posted on by Scott Delahunt

While getting prepped for the The Avengers review*, a small detail kept drawing my attention. It came up in Iron Man, and continued through each entry of the Avengers Initiative. It’s the setting. Not just Tony Stark’s lab or SHIELD’s headquarters, but the entire universe.

Let me backtrack a bit to explain. Most major comic publisher has its own universe where their heroes live, work, and fight crime. DC’s universe includes fictional cities like Metropolis and Gotham City and fictional countries like Qurac. Marvel doesn’t go for the fictional city, but does have its own fictional countries, like Doom’s Latveria and Silver Sable’s Symkaria. This allows the various characters and titles to crossover and guest star as needed, and leads to team books like Justice League of America (bringing together DC’s iconic characters into one book), Teen Titans (for DC’s sidekicks), and The Avengers (Marvel’s Justice League equivalent.) Image, even though each book is its own universe, does allow its published characters to appear in other characters’ titles, in a form of metaverse**. Over time, as storylines grow and wrap up, as characters are introduced and interact, as villains come and go, each title’s history starts getting complex. Add in the various guest appearances by characters from other titles, and the complexity starts looking like the family tree of European Royalty***. It makes for difficulties to jump in on a title. It also makes for difficulties when adapting.

The first problem with a large universe is licensing. Marvel has had this problem more than DC over the past fifteen years. DC has the advantage of being owned by Warner Brothers, with their main universe titles being released by Warner. Since 1998, Marvel has seen their characters and titles licensed out to New Line Cinema (the Blade series), 20th Century Fox (X-Men and related characters, Daredevil, Elektra, the Fantastic Four movies), Columbia (the Spider-Man series including the reboot The Amazing Spider-Man, the Ghost Rider movies), Universal (the 2003 Hulk), Lionsgate (the Punisher series, Man-Thing), and Marvel Studios (all movies leading to The Avengers). Several things stand out. First up, the Punisher. The Punisher first appeared in a Spider-Man book, then guest starred with other Marvel notables such as Captain America (an Avenger) and Nightcrawler (an X-Man), before making regular appearances in Daredevil and then getting his own title. With the licensing, the Punisher isn’t easily available in any movie with the heroes mentioned. Likewise, Daredevil and Spider-Man share a few opponents, notably the Kingpin, and are based in the same city, New York. Fortunately, New York is big enough that it’s feasible to believe they won’t cross paths often. The excuse will work for movies due to the time between releases.

The next problem is the sheer weight of history. Superman has been published continuously since 1938. That’s seventy-five years worth of stories, continuity, characters, situations, and other dross. Batman dates from 1939. Wonder Woman from 1941. Marvel has characters that predate Marvel, coming in from Timely. Even Spider-Man dates from 1962, over forty years. Some characters even have multiple books. While origin stories may get repetitive, they have the benefit of having the audience come in as a blank slate with no prior knowledge of the character. A movie about a team of diverse heroes, like the Justice League or the Avengers, though, doesn’t have the time to show each team member’s origin and still deal with the central plot. Even in a movie where all the characters gained powers through the same source, like X-Men, there’s a good chance of an outlier (in X-Men‘s case, Wolverine) who has something more happening in his backstory. The X-Men franchise also has the anti-mutant hysteria to add in its setup.

What can the adapting studio do? One way is to just focus on the character and ignore everything else in the universe. This approach works best when the character being adapted doesn’t appear in the same circles as the rest of the universe. The approach also works when the character is best known for the type of story being told. Spider-Man is perfect for a story that’s personal, close to home, or deals with problems that are local to New York. Same thing with Daredevil and Batman. At the other end of the scale, dealing with would-be world conquerors is in line with Superman, the Justice League****, and the Avengers.

Another way is to take in everything from the character’s books, then pick and choose what to keep. This is essentially what happened with X-Men and the Avengers Initiative. It doesn’t hurt that Marvel once split the editorial tasks by group, two of which were the X-Titles and the Avenger titles. The areas are, for the most part, self-contained except for the annual all-title crossover events. Need a villain from Thor to menace the Avengers? No problem! Need a classic Wolverine opponent to act as muscle for Magneto? Easy as pie! The adapting studio has access to a broad range of characters and situations and doesn’t have to worry about having to fill in that man-sized spider hole in the cast.

Then there’s branching off from the main universe to create a new one for the medium. The adapting studio gets the details it needs, the characters it needs, and then branches away at some point, creating its own continuity parallel to the main body. There may be events that are shared, events that are similar, but the two continuities are separate entities. The best example is the Dini-verse, also known as the Timm-verse+, which spun off from the main DC comic continuity as cartoons. The Dini-verse is responsible for the creation of a tragic background for the Bat-villain, Mr. Freeze, and the introduction of Renee Montoya and Harley Quinn into the regular continuity. The Avengers Initiative is doing something similar. In the main Marvel continuity, Iron Man is seen as Tony Stark’s employee and bodyguard. In the movie, Stark just came out and said it; his ego wouldn’t let a lie steal the spotlight.

And there’s the reason for this long aside. The Avengers Initiative are wonderfully done movies, getting the feel of the characters right, but getting some minor but critical details (like Iron Man having a secret identity) wrong. I don’t want to deal with the, “Wait, no, that’s not accurate!” moments while watching an amazing scene. There’s enough small details to show that Marvel’s movie continuity is separate from the main comic line’s. I am acknowledging it here so I can properly watch the movies without having to note discrepancies that don’t make a difference to the scene but do when it comes to continuity.

Next time, the penultimate Avengers Adaptation entry.
Correction: Last week’s Lost in Translation was listed as number 52 when it should have been number 53 instead.

* That is, watching the movies and reading the comics.
** The authors maintain control of their books, and discrepancies are written off as how the character perceived the crossover.
*** Not so much a family tree as a family tumbleweed.
**** Especially if people forget that Batman is a member.
***** My argument really breaks down when people remember that Spider-Man is an Avenger, too. But teamwork can let even the weakest heroes combine to defeat the worst villain around.
+ Named after Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the showrunners for the DC animated universe starting from Batman: The Aninated Series through to Justice League Unlimited.


  • There’s a part of me that secretly believes all the Marvel movies really are happening in the same universe, but that the filmmakers are just choosing to keep the story focused on one set of characters at a time. “The Avengers” is something of the blueprint for how these kinds of mad mash-ups can (and most likely will) happen again.

    • Scott D

      I’m happy to go that way, too. Even Marvel had a similar approach in the mid to late 80s, separating the books to different editors. IIRC, you had an Avenger editor, a Fantastic Four/Cosmic editor, an X-Editor for the X-books, and a Spider-Man/street level editor. Guest appearances happened, but nothing like the company wide crisis events of late. So, Marvel could easily act as if the other characters exist even if they don’t appear. A Daily Bugle being read in one scene (especially with the classic “Spider-Man, Threat or Menace” headline), a worry about the mutant threat as an offside by a minor character, a mention of Reed Richards as a genius even compared to Tony Stark (which he just ignores). Little things help. And, in adaptations, the little details can make or break.

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