The Canon Strikes Back

This was written in response to Asher Elbein’s Atlantic article, “Enough with the Canon.” I agree with what I believe to be the essence of his argument – namely, that trying to assert an authoritative version of a fictional story in order to marginalize alternate perspectives is wrong. However, the article fails to consider both the functional aspects of canon, and the way it allows for a particular type of storytelling that would otherwise prove impossible.

Much Ado About Canon

A number of recent posts on this blog have concerned the idea of extended universe storytelling, and how canon helps delineate what works fall within an extended universe and what works are excluded. Elbein’s article specifically identifies certain “extended universe” stories and singles them out for the purposes of his article, particularly Star Wars and Marvel. Both are owned by Disney, who issue official determinations on what will be considered canon for each of the respective properties.

The article takes umbrage with these canonical edicts, arguing that because these stories are “imaginary,” there is no absolute canonical version of any character. The only “canonical” interpretation that matters, the article argues, is the canon you hold in your mind: whatever creator’s interpretation of a particular character you prefer should be recognized as your “canon,” regardless of outside assentation. In this, the article seems to miss several points, both on the micro- and macroscopic scales.

Why The World Doesn’t Need Snyder’s Superman

To exemplify this friction, the article relies on Zack Snyder’s interpretation of Superman, citing an interview Snyder gave in which he defends the decision to have Superman execute General Zod by stating that it was supported by the “true canon.” The article argues that such an assertion is silly, since the “true canon” is an illusory concept, and by extension, attempting to identify a definitive version of a character as canonical is misguided.

As far Superman goes, the article misses the mark when it attempts to reduce dissatisfaction with Snyder’s Justice League movies to naught but disappointment in a failure to faithfully reproduce previous interpretations of the story. To suggest the only reason to dislike Snyder’s work is because it differs from what preceded it is misguided. A bold, well-rounded, fully developed interpretation of the character that differs from the source material not only would have been welcomed, it describes most adapted superhero characters.

Take Reynoldspool, Ryan Reynold’s unique interpretation of Deadpool from the eponymous movie released earlier this year. Although his incarnation of the character differed from previous incarnations, new and old fans alike responded to the interpretation because it was well-thought out and executed. Conversely, the problem with Superman was never that Snyder decided to make a creative decision for the character that conflicted with previous iterations of the character, but rather that he failed to create an interpretation of the character that was independently engaging.

Many Voices, One Story

From a broader perspective, the article seems to misunderstand the function of canon, and fails to take into account the ways in which canon can create a framework that allows for a type of storytelling that otherwise couldn’t be accomplished.

For one, the article seems to reduce the idea of canon to the identification of a definitive version of a story against which other interpretations must be judged, exemplified through his comic Superman versus Snyder Superman example above. In fact, at certain times the article seems to allow canon to become synonymous with adaption, reducing arguments regarding canon to “how well a certain interpretation presents a preconceived archetype of a character.”

What this reduction fails to take into account is the manner in which canon can create a blueprint that allows a large number of storytellers to join together to tell a massive a sprawling tale on a scale that would have been otherwise impossible. Consider this tweet from Pablo Hidalgo, Creative Executive for Lucasfilm Story Group:

When you ask ‘is it canon?’ The answer means ‘do other storytellers need to take it into account?’ That’s all the answer means.

Without canon to delineate “what storytellers need to take into account,” it becomes impossible for new storytellers to determine what aspects of an extended universe must be considered when crafting their contribution to the broader narrative. Without an established and agreed upon canon, different stories will quickly begin to contradict one another. While this may seem no great tragedy to some, there are those of us who embrace the idea of an encompassing narrative. A broad fictional universe, with an established set of rules and characters, can only continue to function on such a large scale and with so many individual contributors if some delineation has been completed – this is what is known as canon.

Without this canon, it is not possible to have an extended universe narrative that crosses dozens or even hundreds of different stories across a variety of mediums. While the article argues against the intrusion of the Stark family history in Iron Man 2, stating that these instances of world building distract from the contained plot of the movie, I must dissent from this opinion. Part of the reason I enjoy these types of stories is precisely because they are not encapsulated, and the payoff for operating in this sort of connected universe can be great – take, for example, the unexpected appearance of The Falcon in last year’s Ant-Man.

Dude, There’s a Universe in All of Us

 Despite these issues with the article’s argument, its core point is sound: that certain interpretations of canon can be used to suppress minority perspectives. The article provides several instances of perceived outsider viewpoints being challenged, typically on the grounds of being unsuitably familiar with the canon, or not being a real fan.

Naturally, attempting to assert authority by demonstrating mastery of a particular canon is a deplorable behavior. It reveals insecurity on the part of the tormentor, who attempts to parlay information into a position of dominance. In many cases, this behavior likely stems from the tormentor having been subject to torment themselves. In no way does this past torment justify subjecting others to exclusionary behavior. If anything, those that have been subjected to ridicule because of something they considered important should be more cognizant of how their actions might alienate another’s perspective.

In the end, the problem isn’t canon. To suggest being rid of canon is tantamount to getting rid of plot or character – to banish a literary device for its misuse by certain individuals makes little sense. Removal of canon would render extended universes like Star Wars and Marvel impossible, which would be disappointing to myself and many other fans besides.

Instead, I suggest that a new emphasis be placed on respecting the personal interpretations that comprise the canon held by others. When you meet someone with an interpretation of a character that radically departs from your own, there is never any need to demand they prove the validity of their perspective by demonstrating their credentials via pop quiz, nor by denigrating their interpretation by claiming it is wrong or stupid. Instead, recognize the legitimacy of differing perspectives: ask them about their interpretation, or what means the most to them about the character, and see how that perspective might affect or evolve your own interpretation.

Canon Ball

Ultimately, the “ascendant nerd culture” should be about bringing individuals together, not forcing them apart. Established fans should be open to new interpretations from different perspectives, both from the community of fans and from the creators themselves. However, to outright reject canon would make extended universe storytelling virtually impossible, a wholly unappealing prospect. Regardless, the article’s main point is less concerned with canon than it is with respecting all members of the fan community, a message we can all agree upon.

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