Monday, May 04, 2009

Wolverine: Origins and Pocket Continuity

I saw the new Wolverine movie over the weekend. Short review is it’s not a particularly good movie, but not as bad as others have been saying. In general, I found the Bryan Singer X-Men movies really overrated, I think it’s really hard to capture the essential appeal of X-Men in a feature film. Chris Claremont was Joss Whedon before Joss Whedon existed, and in the same way that Whedon’s work is most interesting as it sprawls and complexifies, the essential appeal of the X-Men is those long running, convoluted narrative arcs, and the sense of family that develops with the characters over time. You just can’t get that family feeling in a two hour film, certainly not one that’s got to cram in the studio mandated action sequences.

I don’t think Wolverine is as strong as any of the previous three X-Men films, though it’s less glaringly nonsensical than X-Men: The Last Stand. I think the project was flawed at a conceptual level, Wolverine works better as a contrast to the more straitlaced X-Men characters, or as a mentor to a younger member of the team. In this film, as the only hero, everything that makes him unique, the rage, the questionable moral code, is dulled since he’s got to try and tone down Sabretooth and the other crazy mercenaries he works with. I’d have much rather seen a Wolverine film that takes place after the other X-Men movies and follows him and Rogue to Japan, or him and Kitty Pryde on some kind of mission.

But, the film isn’t really that interesting on its own merits. What struck me watching the film was how nebulous continuity is in the context of these ongoing superhero narratives. There’s some obvious departures from comics continuity, having Logan and Victor as brothers, having Gambit save Scott on Three Mile Island, but that sort of thing bothered me less than a lot of stuff that was drawn from the actual comics. I don’t like the idea of Wolverine as someone from 1845, or the notion that he fought in all these wars. I also don’t like the idea of the bone claws in general, I think it ruins a lot of what makes the character who he is. But, these are things drawn from the comics themselves, wouldn’t not having the bone claws violate continuity?

I’d argue that there’s a kind of continuity that supercedes the general accepted continuity, and that’s what I’d call ‘pocket continuity.’ Pocket continuity is essentially the idea that you build your own little universe within the Marvel or DC universe as a whole, and you determine what’s in and out of continuity. It’s somewhat along the lines of hypertime, which said that all stories were true, but the better ones are more true because they’re more enduring. But, in this case, it’s more that you pick and choose the aspects of continuity you like, and decide not to mention the ones you don’t.

Grant Morrison is one of the prime people behind this. Final Crisis ostensibly draws on the entire history of the DCU, but most of its continuity is drawn from Morrison’s own works, or the Jack Kirby Fourth World stuff. Morrison built his own conception of the DCU in JLA and Seven Soldiers, and he goes back to that in FC. Beyond his own work, he draws on the stories he likes, the Kirby stuff, some Geoff Johns Green Lantern material, and discards a lot of the material from Countdown or Death of the New Gods that didn’t mesh with his desired continuity.

I can understand why people get touchy with this. To pick and choose the elements you like can invalidate the notion that this is a linear universe. But, I think it makes for better stories, and a more manageable reading experience. You don’t need to have read seventy years of comics to get Final Crisis, just Morrison’s twenty years of DCU work. Doing this makes for a more auteur centric comic, and a more artistically satisfying one.

Even on Batman, where Morrison made a big deal about the fact that every story happened, it was largely about him picking out the stories he liked from the ‘50s, and drawing on those to tell his own story. You don’t have to read every Batman story to understand it, you just have to read the ones that Morrison decided to bring into his own continuity.

Chris Claremont is another writer who did this, crossing the X-Men over frequently with other books he was writing in the 70s and 80s. He built a little universe where characters like Sabretooth and Mystique floated freely around books that he scripted. Only occasionally would he bring in events from the Marvel Universe as a whole, but if he’s writing Misti Knight or Colleen Wing, they’re fair game for the X-Men.

To go back to the Wolverine movie, I, like every other reader, have built my own vision of who Wolverine is. It’s largely based off the zen warrior Wolverine of mid 80s Claremont and Grant Morrison’s run on the title. This is a guy who’s largely conquered his beserker rages, and is a more self aware character. I found a lot of Joss Whedon’s take on the character a bit off at first, because it deviated from this mode for a more animal, violent Logan. But, I’m sure a lot of people thought that was more true to the character than Morrison’s version.

What I will say is that even though the bone claws are in continuity for the comics, they felt off throughout the whole movie. My conception of Wolverine’s backstory isn’t the one in Origins, film or comics miniseries, it’s of a regular Canadian guy who became a government soldier than an X-Man, not a guy who fought in the Civil War. I don’t think the Origin miniseries is a strong enough story to survive in hypertime, it lacks the visceral power of Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X, and I’m guessing a few years down the line, it may be retconned away.

That’s the thing I love about the concept of hypertime continuity. It takes into account the reality of superhero writing. In an ever evolving narrative, things don’t necessarily need to be proven false to move out of continuity, they just need to fade away. The good stories stick around, the bad ones fade away. That’s probably why virtually every X-Men story is still riffing on Claremont’s run, or Morrison’s, they’re the people who told memorable stories, the vast majority of 90s writers, not so much.