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Two movies in, and it's pretty clear Star Wars is back with a vengeance! Lucasfilm has clearly learned the lessons of the Prequel Trilogy, and has avoided the kind of controversy that greeted the Prequels. At the same time, though, the relaunched Star Wars has taken a tip from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — it now spans comics, movies, TV shows, novels, and more!
But while the idea of such a complex inter-media franchise may seem to be taken from the #MCU, Lucasfilm has actually taken a very different approach. Along the way, they've actually avoided some of Marvel's pitfalls, and may well be doing a better job. Here are the differences between the two franchises — and a few tips for Marvel moving forward!
1. "Everything Is Connected"
While #Marvel insist that everything is connected, the reality is that there are essentially 'tiers' of importance in Marvel's canon. The movies rule the roost; they set the ongoing narrative of the MCU, with the TV shows essentially orbiting them. Marvel's consistent assumption is that more people will see the films than will watch the TV shows or read the tie-in comics, and so connectivity runs only one way.
The classic example here is Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson. Joss Whedon made the deliberate choice not to include Coulson in Avengers: Age of Ultron, believing it would confuse the majority of moviegoers. He explained:
"As far as I’m concerned in the films, yes he’s dead. In terms of the narrative of these guys [The Avengers] his loss was very important. When I created the television show, it was sort of on the understanding that this can work and we can do it with integrity, but these Avengers movies are for people to see the Avengers movies and nothing else. And it would neither make sense nor be useful to say ‘Oh and by the way remember me? I died!’”
As the years have passed, it's led to an increasing amount of frustration for the cast of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in particular. Chloe Bennet, for example, famously fumed:
"People who make movies for Marvel, why don’t you acknowledge what happens on our show? Why don’t you guys go ask them that? Cause they don’t seem to care!"
In perfect contrast, in Rogue One, Forest Whitaker played the part of Saw Gerrera — a freedom-fighter introduced in the Clone Wars animated series. Incredibly, we now know that Saw Gerrera's story will continue in Star Wars: Rebels. The character is seamlessly transitioning between the movies and the animated shows — and even makes an appearance in the official tie-in novel, to boot!
I can understand Marvel's approach; it makes perfect sense from a financial viewpoint, because the truth is that the films will always be watched by more people than the TV series. But Rogue One perfectly demonstrates that it's possible to transition a character between different mediums; you just have to plan it in advance.
2. Seamless Continuity
"Continuity" seems to be Lucasfilm's watchword. Rogue One is tremendously impressive; novels, animated shows and movies all tie together in one incredible example of seamless continuity. The prequel novel Catalyst sets up Rogue One perfectly, and characters transition effortlessly from one medium to another. It's all because of the Lucasfilm Story Group.
Before Lucasfilm was acquired by Disney, Star Wars had a very different approach to continuity. In the old Star Wars, there were two levels to continuity: the 'God-level', or 'word of Lucas', and everything else. If Lucas said it (whether in a movie or TV show), then it was binding. Everything else had to continually reorient itself around Lucas's changing vision, not least when he returned to launch the Prequels.
The classic example is Boba Fett. Fett's history had already been explored in the old Expanded Universe's 'Bounty Hunter Trilogy', but Lucas took a different approach with Attack of the Clones. The movie was binding, and details from the 'Bounty Hunter Trilogy' were either rendered non-canon or explained away by tortuous retcons.
After they were taken over by Disney, Lucasfilm set up the Lucasfilm Story Group. Their job was to do away with the old canon, rendering the old Expanded Universe as 'Legends', and start from scratch — with one single level of canon, where every medium intertwined seamlessly. Rogue One is all the evidence we need to see that the Story Group — which includes continuity mastermind Leland Chee — is doing its job. It's been supported by strong, continuity-aware writers like James Luceno, whose masterpieces Tarkin and Catalyst weave a fantastic single narrative through the Star Wars universe in preparation for Rogue One.
Now let's contrast that with the build-up to Doctor Strange. The Doctor Strange Prelude comics were excellent, and the final one-shot — The Zealot — presented a wonderfully three-dimensional vision of the villain, Kaecilius. Ironically, though, the movie itself didn't capitalize on this at all; it was easy to see that The Zealot had been planned out an earlier stage, and that the film had been changed substantially afterwards. The reality is, that kind of sloppy continuity only comes from poor coordination.
I'm not suggesting that Marvel should bring back the old 'Creative Committee'; the old Creative Committee seems to have been intrusive and heavy-handed, interfering with Directors and frustrating scriptwriters. I am, however, suggesting that Marvel Studios, Marvel Comics and Marvel Entertainment need to coordinate closely at all times. It's an open secret that Marvel Studios was split out from the rest of the Marvel Group because the key players couldn't get along; while there are positive signs that some of these issues have been resolved, the problems are still visible.
3. Unified Leadership
Fundamentally, Star Wars has one advantage over the MCU; it has a unified leadership, with a better structure. With the build-up to Rogue One, we've seen the benefits of that. We've seen seamless inter-media continuity, carefully coordinated for maximum effect. We've seen characters transition from one media to another. We've seen concepts developed in a novel become intrinsic to the future shape of a movie.
Marvel has done a tremendous job with the MCU, but the reality is that the behind-the-scenes structures of the companies involved is getting in the way. Lucasfilm has just demonstrated the benefits of a unified leadership, centered around a single villain, and willing to exploit the potential of any media in order to tell their story.