We live in a franchise world now. The biggest Hollywood movies are made either as sequels or are reboots but as franchises continue to grow they begin to gather baggage. Star Wars has been running for forty years now and even only counting the seven canonical films, there are plenty of plot holes to find. Why doesn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi recognize R2-D2 or C-3PO in A New Hope when the droids had been following him around in every one of his adventures in the Prequels? The reasons is obvious: the first Star Wars was made with only the vaguest idea of sequels or prequels in mind. As George Lucas built up his franchise, little discontinuities and mistakes began to creep up. Call it nitpicking, call it bad writing, whatever, but continuity errors and plot holes are just going to be a bigger and bigger fact of life as franchises keep growing to ridiculous size.
It only gets worse when you have a franchise that’s starting to show age and has been passed around from director to director. Warner Bros very wisely have chosen to keep Batman‘s various new incarnations separate from each other. But films like the Alien franchise now have over a dozen creative influences over them, and the movies are torn in a million different directions. As a franchise continues to survive in different eras through different consumer tastes and different studio demands, the overall story starts to become a bit warped. Or in the case of these four franchises, the story becomes completely incoherent. Once a franchise wears on too long without a purifying full reboot to clean up the cobwebs you end up in a total continuity mess. You can no longer tell just what is canon and what is not.
The Terminator franchise is struggling with one question: is the future preordained, or can it be changed? It’s a profound concept for a series that’s mainly about Arnold Schwarzenegger in a leather jacket shooting things with a shotgun. Unfortunately it is also a question that the series flip-flops on with every film. At least for the first four movies the time travel rules in each individual episode was consistent. The rules change between movies, but that should be no surprise for a film series that changes director and studio between practically every installment. No, it has been an easy road for Terminator to during its thirty year run. Since James Cameron left the helm Terminator has been moving from flop to disappointment to retcon, in search of the one reboot that will stick. No surprise things got a bit messy.
Originally the concept went like this: In the future the Machines conquer the world on Judgment Day, nuking our human civilization to oblivion. John Connor leads the resistance against them and saves humanity. Then the Machines send back a Terminator to the ‘80s to kill his mother, Sarah Connor and save themselves before John can be born. With a time travel plot it was inevitable that the longer the series went on, the more messed-up its continuity would be. The first film however is a perfectly stable time loop without a logical issue. Kyle Reese going back to the past inadvertently creates John Connor when he falls in love with his mother. One event leads into another, the future has to happen one way.
Then the sequel, Judgment Day, concludes with the heroes stopping the Machines from ever rising, seemingly saving the world. This breaks the time loop meaning that technically John Connor should never exist because his father Kyle Reese would never come from the future because the Machines, who never existed, could never threaten Sarah Connor’s life. If this is already confusing, then time travel plotlines are really not for you. Think about it too long and you’ll start to taste copper in your throat and see stars. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines decided to correct this problem by saying “no, Judgment Day is inevitable, all they did was delay it a bit”. Thus Judgment Day happens anyway, and the loop is restored. Then Terminator Salvation claims that this is not a stable time loop after all. It is set during some new future that John Connor was unprepared for with new weird twists. But still a time loop, just has some mutations.
But then Terminator Genisys happened. All continuity is out the door here. A single freakishly bizarre script basically makes every other movie non-canon. Sarah Connor is now raised by a good Schwarzenegger Terminator who was sent back from the future by somebody – it is never explained. This means everything we’ve seen before is no longer valid. Yet Genisys also tries to be a sequel to the other movies (which cannot exist anymore), starting after Salvation with John Connor defeating the Machines and sending Kyle Reese back to the past. But Connor is turned into a Terminator himself in a wacky twist and goes back to the past to create his own Machines, apparently creating his own new timeline. Yet though John Connor is now the villain the movie still insists that Kyle Reese needs to mate with Sarah to create John Connor, somehow holding onto the predestination concept even as the movie itself eliminated it. To make a long story short: it doesn’t make much sense.
Terminator’s continuity will never recover from a hit like this.
Godzilla is the story of a giant radioactive monster destroying Tokyo. The big green guy has one of the longest running film franchises in history, lasting over sixty years and thirty movies. That’s a lot of skyscrapers that the King of the Monsters has destroyed. When your franchise is that old, it is bound to have continuity issues. James Bond’s continuity between movies more or less did not exist until the reboot. Godzilla however, has made it a special case to be as confusing as possible. There is usually one film that can be considered actually solid canon in Godzilla, and that’s the original 1954 Gojira. And even that can be changed depending on the needs of the script of whatever film you happen to be watching right now.
There have been three separate Godzilla “eras” if you are just counting the Japanese films. The series begins with the Showa Era, the iconic beginnings of kaiju films. The pop culture cliché of what a Godzilla film is based mostly on these films: cheesy brawls on miniature sets in rubber costumes. This is also one of the first examples of a shared film universe, as Godzilla would eventually crossover with various other monsters like Rodan, Mothra, and King Kong who were introduced in their own independent movies. Those movies do not quite match up, since as we know, King Kong actually dies in his 1933 movie. But that’s just the start of the issues, which are too numerous to get into here. The Heisei Era would create its own continuity starting in 1984 unrelated to any of the previous films besides Gojira. It also would see Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah where Godzilla is eliminated from time by aliens but winds up coming back to life somehow, just to show that even individual movies can be continuity headspins. Then in the 2000s a whole new era began unrelated to either continuity, the Millenium series, mostly self-contained Godzilla films.
To get to the point: all told that is least seven separate continuities in one film series, and that’s not even counting the two American takes from 1997 and 2014. Right now the situation is at its most complicated ever, since Legendary Pictures is running its franchise at the same time that Toho is making a native reboot with Godzilla Resurgence. That’s two Godzillas competing with each other on both sides of the Pacific.
Also, if that’s not confusing enough, the ridiculously corny American dubs make things even worse. The older dubs would change the plots, creating two different versions of the films, sometimes heavily recut to add in American actors. American actor Raymond Burr was crudely included into Gojira in the American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters. The first sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, was renamed Gigantis, the Fire Monster in its first American release. This was a poor attempt to fool audiences into thinking they were seeing a brand new film, which pretends that Godzilla is some other monster named Gigantis.
All this makes for an utterly bewildering effect on any casual fan. The series is pretty much impossible to follow no matter what order you watch the movies. Which is fine since really any Godzilla movie is just about the destruction and the giant monster fights. But between movies the characters of the giant monsters might change radically in surprising ways. King Ghidorah is typically the ultimate evil of the Godzilla universe, yet in All-Out Giant Monsters Attack, he’s actually a guardian spirit of Japan fighting the very evil Godzilla. Mechagodzilla has gone from a weapon built by ape aliens to a super robot built by the JDSF from the bones of the 1954 Godzilla. Heck, Godzilla himself bounces between pure evil, anti-hero, noble beast, to superhero depending on the needs of the script. His origin is equally over the place. In the original 1954 film he’s a prehistoric monster awakened by nuclear bombs, in the Heisei series he’s a radioactive dinosaur, and in the Roland Emmerich movie she is an iguana.
Highlander is a franchise that had no reason to turn into the continuity mess that it is now. The first film was the model of plot elegance and simplicity: a group of Immortal warriors fight for thousands of years to become the last one standing and win the Prize, the ultimate power of the universe. No time travel, no twists, no complications. The plot is so simple that the film’s catchphrase essentially explains it all: “There can only be one”. The story is basic enough that the first 1986 film, Highlander does not even try to explain who the Immortals are or where they came from. Because the details are irrelevant. What matters is the characters and the spiritual action with katanas in New York City set to a rocking Queen soundtrack. Unfortunately, the first Highlander also finishes the story. The hero, Connor MacLoud kills the evil Kurgan, avenges his mentor, Sean Connery, and wins the Prize.
This presented a huge problem for the sequels. Where do you go after all the Immortals are dead and your hero accomplished his mission? A good solution would have been to use the Immortal concept as a recurring plot point throughout history. You could place the heroes in individual adventures with great figures from the past. Instead the Highlander sequels consistently decided to violate the clear rules of the original and introduce new Immortals. So there can never be one. Of course, even with that mistake, Highlander’s sequels suffer from every continuity problem imaginable. Essentially none of the movies make sense in connection with any of the others. Plus several of them have two or three recuts that create a whole variety of issues within their own running times.
Highlander II: The Quickening decided to retcon the entire concept by claiming the Immortals were aliens from the planet Zeist. Which was a random swerve so bizarre and poorly received that the studio demanded recuts of the film for home release, removing all mention of the word “Zeist”. The movie takes place in a Blade Runner rip-off cyberpunk future. That cyberpunk future was completely ignored for all sequels starting with Highlander: The Final Dimension, which returns to the then-present day of 1994. Things only got worse with the TV series, which decided that new Immortals were always appearing and Connor never won the Prize at all. And the last film, Highlander: The Source, starring the series protagonist, Duncan MacLoud, fast-forwarded to a completely different post-apocalyptic future unrelated to the one from The Quickening. The Source also decided that the Prize is not actually ultimate power, no. In fact the Immortals really want to turn into normal men and have children.
To relief of anybody trying to follow this, a Highlander reboot is planned. However, not much seems to be coming of it, as there has been little word for a few years on the project.
The X-Men series is the old man of the superhero film franchises. It is a rare beast: a single series of superhero films has been running with stops and starts for an impressive sixteen years. With consumer tastes changing radically for superhero films over the course of this century, it was inevitable that X-Men would turn into a mess. But time travel really did not do anybody any favors.
It began easily enough. Three movies, X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand came out between 2000 and 2006, creating a consistent trilogy. Nobody liked the third X-Men movie but it roughly finished the story that directors Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner were telling. Fox decided that what the audiences really wanted was a stand-alone Wolverine movie and made X-Men Origins: Wolverine. X-Men Origins had a few continuity issues here and there. Sabertooth is suddenly Wolverine’s brother and immortal, and Colonel Stryker lost his Southern accent. But those were minor gripes compared to the completely negative reception the movie received. X-Men Origins between its Will.i.am cameo, complete bastardization of the Deadpool character, and terrible special effects, was a movie begging to be torn from continuity.
Fox then created a whole new prequel film, X-Men: First Class, featuring the young versions of Professor X, Magneto, and Mystique. Mystique and Professor X turn out to be adopted siblings, which was clearly never intended for the original trilogy. This did not necessarily retcon X-Men Origins but that film’s place in canon was tenuous at best. Then the studio decided to bring Bryan Singer back and merge the continuities of First Class and the original series with Days of Future Past. In the middle of a bizarre time travel plot to stop a post-apocalyptic future, Days of Future Past retcons everything. So X-Men 1, 2, and 3, all no longer exist outside the memories of Wolverine. And now we can be absolutely certain that X-Men Origins: Wolverine never happened.
But even assuming the two timeline theory, the X-Men franchise has continuity problems all over the place. The version of Deadpool that appears in X-Men Origins cannot possibly exist with the version that appears in Deadpool’s own movie that came out earlier this year. Did Apocalypse just not appear in the original timeline or what? There are two totally different Angels, two Moira Taggarts, two Emma Frosts, and at least three Jubilees, all existing in different decades. They never explain how Professor X got his body back or how Wolverine fell into Colonel Stryker’s hands after Mystique saved him in Days of Future Past.
No wonder then that the best regarded film to come out of the series in years is Deadpool. That spent most of its running time lampooning the mess of plotholes that it’s surrounded in. Really that might be the most mature way to handle a continuity trainwreck, get ironic and self-aware. Or just give up and finally pull a full reboot.