Obsession With Canon Does More Harm Than Good

Travis Newton
Horror Marvel
Horror Marvel Movies

If you’re a wiki editor or a massive fan of any franchise, you might think too much about movie canon. I know I’m guilty of it. I’m perfectly aware that Jaws: The Revenge can’t really co-exist in the same canon as Jaws 3-D. But that doesn’t prevent my brain from doing mental backflips to try and figure out how they might — or should — fit together. And now we, the fans, have developed an obsession with establishing just how disparate installments in a larger story fit together. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

In this era where movie attendance is on the decline and big franchises reign supreme, studios are figuring out ways to get people back in theaters. Because original films are harder and more expensive to market, studios are getting clever. Now, studios are using branding to make lower-budget standalone films seem like franchise entries. (This isn’t a new technique, but it is effective.)

Putting the “Cloverfield” in 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 cloverfield lane

10 Cloverfield Lane is one such lower-budget film. Its connections to 2008’s Cloverfield are tenuous and (frankly) irrelevant. Some preliminary reactions to 10 Cloverfield Lane expressed some confusion about how the film fit into the Cloverfield story. But if this story takes place in a larger canon, I fail to see how that creates meaningful connections in that particular story. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a great movie with or without its Easter eggs, but it doesn’t function as a sequel or meaningful supplement to the 2008 film. The Easter eggs are nothing more than fan service. Fan service is fun, but it’s rarely a replacement for actual substance.

I can make the same argument about Black Mirror, the techno-horror anthology show from Charlie Brooker. He and the show’s other writers have littered the episodes with Easter eggs. Together, these little nods could imply a flimsy canon, and fans are rabid to piece it all together in continuity. Don’t get me wrong, I like Black Mirror quite a bit. I think there is incredible value in some of its stories. So why do we focus on Easter eggs when the impact of Black Mirror lies in its storytelling?

Finding Faces on Toast

Our brains are wired to seek connections and patterns, even when those patterns are meaningless. It’s why we see shapes in the stars and faces on toast or why we have a tendency to think that correlation proves causation, even when it doesn’t. It’s why fan theories are a thing — we’re just putting two and two together. We love to link data points in our heads because together they lead to a mystery or a conclusion. They tell a story. We love stories because they turn chaos into order, and we can’t turn that love off. But I worry that focusing on how canonical stories fit together takes too much focus away from the individual stories.

Spoilers for M. Night Shyamalan’s Split follow

Split M. Night Shyamalan Anya Taylor-Joy

Even before Universal and Blumhouse released Split earlier this month, much of the entertainment sphere was already buzzing. The secret of the film’s ending (it takes place in canon with Shyamalan’s Unbreakable) was already out, because entertainment sites could turn it into highly clickable news. And most of us love to think about or learn how stories fit together. So naturally, the ending is the most talked-about part of Split. On the one hand, I’m glad people are talking about Split. But on the other hand, the reasons why Split is so good don’t have much to do with the larger canon in which it exists.

End of Split spoilers

Canon Restricts Good Storytelling

While we all love a good canon, they’re never built to last. When they’re big, they get unwieldy. They start to restrict what kinds of stories can exist within their limits. So to keep a franchise running, we resort to full reboots or official “what if?” stories that exist outside the boundaries of a previously established story. Take the recent Deadpool movie, for instance. Its relationship to previous X-Men films is not clearly defined, despite containing references to past films. And Deadpool himself doesn’t truly have a place in the long-running X-Men movie canon. His shenanigans necessitate that reality bends around him. He can’t conform to the style of the other movies. That’s precisely what makes him so much fun.

X-Men-First-Class James-McAvoy
Young Professor X uses his powers to work out how the X-Men films all fit together

The X-Men movie franchise hasn’t been especially careful with its canon. Many of the movies directly contradict elements from previous entries. The First Class timeline, now spread across some 20-odd years, makes absolutely no chronological sense. But the trick is that it doesn’t have to. The films have no obligation to practice a Star Wars-esque devotion to their canon. And in that way, they can cut loose and explore. They can experiment with tones and settings and different make-up designs. They can re-use mutants in fun and odd ways. And they can make movies like the upcoming Logan, which will sport an R-rating for bloody violence (among other things).

When it’s all said and done, maybe it’s best that we don’t know how Logan fits into the X-Men film canon. Maybe we should skip the 20-minute YouTube videos with red arrows and circles that promise to explain the secret links between movies with “Cloverfield” in the title. The priority in storytelling is to make sure a story makes sense unto itself — that it is whole and complete. And I think, as fans, that we can adjust our priorities accordingly while still enjoying the many pleasures of franchise storytelling.

Travis Newton
Travis Newton is a Fan Contributor at Fandom. He began writing about movies and TV for CHUD.com in 2012, and co-hosts The Drew Reviews Podcast with Fandom Entertainment Editor Drew Dietsch. He’s partial to horror movies, action games, and Irish Breakfast tea.
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