Alternate Cover: a shared universe

James wonders whether superhero team-ups, cool as they seem, are really a good idea - don't they kind of undermine the point of a superhero?

A shared universe is something most comicbook fans are familiar with. Marvel were the first people to really give it a shot, largely because Stan Lee was single-handedly editing and scripting virtually Marvel’s entire output at the time, and could personally keep track of what was going on in every book. DC has a far more haphazard approach to the idea having integrated their titles much later, but pretty much every superhero publisher that’s followed – from Image, to Valiant, to Wildstorm and all number of imitators that have fallen by the wayside – has tried to replicate, with varied success, the feel of Marvel and DC’s “universes.”

With the universe concept a major drawing power of the comics, allowing team-ups and crossovers aplenty, one wonders how surprised we should be that Marvel and, to some extent, DC, are trying to bring the idea to their movies as well.

Between Samuel L. Jackson’s appearance as Nick Fury at the end of Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr.’s much-rumoured appearance as Tony Stark in this June’s Hulk movie, Marvel Studios has certainly hit the ground running with an eye to integrating their properties. On the slate for the future are Captain America and Thor movies, paving the way for an Avengers film that unites those “Big Three” characters, and maybe even the Hulk as well. Warner were reportedly desperate to get Bale and Routh to reprise their superhero roles in a Justice League movie, though the attempt appears to have stalled.

Regardless of how far this ever gets – the politics of such a move are staggering – the intention is there to move the integration into films.

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But let’s hold up a second.

You have to wonder if this is really such a good idea. The thing about most super-hero concepts is that in order to work, there needs to be a certain amount of uniqueness to the characters.

Spider-Man as a concept is immediately weakened as soon as other super-powered heroes are introduced into his universe. No longer does Peter Parker shoulder the burden of being a hero and protecting the public. What does it matter if Peter can’t get out there as Spider-Man when the Avengers are around? Why should the X-Men be persecuted as freaks by society when the Fantastic Four are adored, despite there being no real difference to the public? Superman can do things no person on Earth can – except, of course, when he’s in a universe with the Flash, and Wonder Woman, and even Supergirl.

Superhero concepts, as designed, tend to work best when they stand as the planet’s only available option. In comics, a set of genre rules exist to get around this problem – Spider-Man only fights street-level crooks, while the Fantastic Four handle Galactus, and the Avengers deal with the Masters of Evil. Legitimately, if Galactus showed up and had only Spider-Man to fight against, the planet would be eaten faster than you can say “uh-oh, I’m out of web-fluid!” These unspoken rules of superheroics keep the Spider-Man villains largely in Spider-Man comics, and the Avengers villains in Avengers comics, and pretends that there isn’t any other way about it.

There are some examples of where the genre rules of a shared audience can be subverted to great effect, a particularly famous example being Frank Miller’s use of the Avengers in Daredevil #233 where, after Daredevil faces chaos and defeat at the hands of a character far too strong for him, the Avengers show up unexpectedly and sort the situation out in mere moments.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is a rarity. The question has to be asked – what greater good will be served by placing such iconic characters together on screen? The beauty of comics-to-movie adaptations has always been that they can portray the themes at the heart of each character with a certain purity – one that fits into 2 hours of screen time. What’s the core of the Avengers or JLA concept? Struggling to think of one? “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” is just another way of saying “gratuitous character team-up” – and that’s quite probably what we’re headed for.

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The fan in me can’t wait to see an Avengers, or even a JLA movie – but the rational side of me can’t help but wonder how they’re going to make a story out of it that services all the characters while still doing something unique. Will it make money? Probably. Is it a good idea? Time’s going to have to tell on that one.

James will be back with another Alternate Cover next week; read his last column here.