Shared Universes

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I’ll admit it:  I’m a huge nerd.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me in real life.  If the modest shrine to Captain America in my home didn’t tip them off, then the Batsignal light in our dormer window should do it.  I’m not even joking about that.  I’m known around the neighborhood as “Batman,” and it is known that if the Bat-light is on, the bar is open.  The light is frequently on.

But now, as I write this, we are approaching peak nerd-dom.  In a month that included my birthday and the most holy day of my faith, the real highlight comes in just a few days when Avengers: Endgame hits theaters.  For those not as nerdy as me, or who have been living under a rock, Avengers:  Endgame is the culmination of a ten-year, 22-movie experiment in filmmaking.  The Marvel characters (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Spider-Man, etc) inhabited what’s being called a “shared universe,” meaning that Iron Man appears in his own movies, but he also shows up in the Hulk’s movie.  Hawkeye shows up in Thor’s movie.  Then, they all joined forces in the Avengers.  This interconnected library of films was unprecedented in its scale and scope, and has created a deeply satisfying story.

What makes it so satisfying?  I could wax poetic about what I think these characters represent about the idea of being heroic.  I could cite some lofty (and often ridiculous) academic theories about superhero stories constituting a new, modern mythology.  Or I could just say why I think Captain America is just so damn cool!  But I’ll spare you all that.  Instead, I wanted to explore the idea of a shared universe.

Marvel didn’t exactly invent the concept.  You could make an argument that all the stories from Greek mythology are a shared universe.  I remember being pleasantly surprised when I was reading the story of Jason and the Argonauts and Hercules, my hands-down favorite, showed up.  Many stories have been told using characters and locations from the works of L. Frank Baum and H.P. Lovecraft.  In movies, the original Universal monsters – Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman – they crossed paths several times.

Quentin Tarantino has said he envisions all of his films existing in the same universe, and careful viewers can spot some of the connective tissue.  In television, we’ve seen multiple examples of this in the form of guest stars, spin-offs, and more.  In fact, a couple of guys here (bigger nerds than even me, apparently) have made the observation that through careful tracing of which show’s characters have appeared on other shows, more than 400 TV shows are interconnected, and St. Elsewhere is the hub of that universe in their grand unification theory.

The genre in which I write, crime fiction, has seen shared universes as well.  John Grisham has visited the same fictional Mississippi town many times in different books.  I had a special, unexpected thrill one year when two of my favorites, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole crossed paths in each other’s books.  They didn’t mention the other by name, licensing issues I’m sure, but to regular readers it was clear nonetheless.

And that thrill I mentioned, I think that’s what makes the shared universe so satisfying, when done well.  It opens the door to larger possibilities.  It sets up tantalizing questions of who’s the better detective or the more formidable fighter.  Who would find the murderer first:  Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot?  Who has a cooler car:  James Bond or Batman?  Who would win in a fist fight:  Jack Reacher or Miss Marple?  Okay, that last one may be a stretch, but you take my meaning.  The idea of the world in your story is not being limited by even the author’s imagination creates a wide horizon for even more exciting stories to come.

This Friday, I’ll be basking in the glory of a shared universe 22 stories in the making.  What’s your favorite shared universe?

–Ben Keller

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