Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hitting the Reset Button on Continuity, part III: When It's Done Badly

The reset button, while a potentially volatile and dangerous thing, is not inherently bad.  In the last post, I gave an example of a good use of the reset button, as well as some reasons why, in the hands of a respectful and skillful writer, it can be a necessary and benevolent change to an established mythology.  Unfortunately, there are for more examples of how the reset button can cause confusion, resentment, and even outright anger at the caretakers of a mythology.  My example for this post is a storyline from one of my favorite superheroes that left me feeling insulted, the Spider-Man known as One More Day.

Must... pull... finger!
Think what you will about the One More Day storyline, but you can't deny that it was heavily controversial among fans of the comics.  It came about from the editorial decision at Marvel to end Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane, under the guise of preserving the character's longevity for the next couple of decades.  The reasoning was that a younger, single Spider-Man was more easy for readers to relate to, therefore Spidey's marriage would be dissolved.

What ended up happening was this: due to Peter's public unmasking during the events in Civil War, his Aunt May gets shot and sustains a mortal injury.  He goes to every friend, foe, and possible resource he can to save her life, all of whom end up telling him that there is no hope, that Aunt May will die.  Some of his more sensible friends even tell Peter that he's obsessing and needs to let his aunt die; it is, after all, the way life works for everyone.  Peter, well known for never being able to lay down his guilt, can not bring himself to do this, and is at prime vulnerability for Mephisto, Marvel's version of the Devil, to make him a very special deal.

Mephisto proposes to Peter and MJ that he will save Aunt May's life in exchange for their love and their marriage.  He would make it so that it simply never happened.  Aunt May would be alive, the world would be unaware of Peter's identity as Spider-Man, and he and MJ would never have been married.  After some agonizing over the decision, they both agree to Mephisto's terms, and share one last embrace and kiss before reality comes apart around them.  Peter wakes up in Aunt May's house, single and apparently always having been, and kisses her good-bye before rushing off into the new status quo.


Before I launch into a tirade of what my problems are with this particular use of the reset button, let me just make a few things clear.  I have never been a particular fan of Spider-Man's marriage to MJ.  I have nothing against the institution or the character, but I've often seen them as more of a crutch or all-too-convenient plot device for writers to rely on or impede the character in some way.  This isn't always the case, but happens enough that I have noticed and sometimes imagined things would be better without that part of his life.  So the idea of ending Peter's marriage in and of itself is not and has never been a problem for me.

I will also say that Straczynski's actual writing of One More Day is really very well done, as is the artwork.  Despite my issues with Joe Quesada on the existence of this story, I can't deny he did a beautiful job of portraying the two lovers with a horrific decision to make in amazing visual detail.  No, the story itself is actually pretty well told.

My issues are with the existence and the perceived necessity of this story at all.  And even as it is well told, there are still a multitude of sore points that emerge in the narrative.  Let's queue up the bullet point list and go through them:

If I had a kid this insightful who turned it around on me, I'd
probably choose the reality where she wasn't born, too.  
That'd show her.

  • The Reset Didn't Happen Organically.  There are those who would argue with me on this.  They point to Peter unmasking during Civil War, Aunt May getting shot and Peter's vengeful tear upon the perpetrators, even the journey he takes trying to save Aunt May.  And I would agree, all those were organic developments.  What I have an issue with is the sudden, very timely, very supernatural appearance of Mephisto to Peter.  Offering Peter a deal with the devil for purely selfish reasons, which he takes despite all logic, all the advice of his friends, purely to allay his guilt.  I think the scene where his own child rips into him for being selfish at least shows that the Powers That Be were aware of the wrath they were risking (hey, I did say this story was well-written).  But I also think the fact that they went ahead and chose this path makes its deliberate nature all the more insulting to the character.
  • Hey Spidey, let's make a deal...
    You can trust me!
  • It Felt Like a Total Deus ex Machina.  I'm sorry, make that a diablo ex machina, since Mephisto is the one involved.  Still, it's the same basic device.  You put the hero in a supremely untenable situation, with no apparent way out, and then a cosmic being or occurrence appears to set everything right.  Okay, not everything in this case, but in the end, Peter gets what he wants: his elderly aunt is restored to perfect health.  All he had to do was give up his marriage to his beautiful, loving wife in exchange.  Overall, it felt like the creative types at Marvel had done all these ground-breaking things with Spidey, then suddenly felt painted into a corner, and decided to use this mighty reset button device to get themselves out of it.  This is what I consider a prime example of lazy, cowardly writing that could have gone in so many interesting directions if the Powers That Be had displayed some moxie and left the reset button alone.  Even if you don't consider it in those terms, the fact that we have a supernatural solution being utilized in a primarily science-based title also lends to the feeling that none of this rings true.
  • Original Continuity Was Not Destroyed, But Starkly Altered.  Hey, look!  Harry Osborne's back!  What?  He was never dead now?  What about the story in Spectacular Spider-Man where he... oh, he's actually been in Europe all that time?  Oh, well thanks for that one!  I thought none of this made sense!  Quesada made a big deal about preserving the stories already told in the comics, basically stating that the only detail that has changed was that Spidey and MJ simply weren't married during them.  So for example, when Venom went and terrorized MJ upon his inital emergence, that was the only detail that was changed.  MJ was just living with Peter, but not married to him when that fun bit of business went down.  So now, whenever we read any of the stories retconned by this reset button, we need to remember to add that one little detail into our Augmented Reality algorithm.  Having to do that, aside from creating headaches for new and old fans alike, just makes it feel like the people at Marvel just didn't care about the readers.  "Hey look, reality's changed, but it hasn't!  See?"  Yeah.  Lovely.
And don't even get me started on some of the other "details," like how Spidey apparent still unmasked during Civil War, but no one cares to remember the event.  Lazy.

In both the good and bad instances, we can see that use of the reset button is a powerful thing.  And, to quote a relevant source, with great power comes great responsibility.  Stewards of our modern mythology have access to this tool, but they need to respect its power, its potential effect on the audience, and the dire consequences it could entail.  To rely on it as a crutch diminishes the mythology overall, and shows a lack of sophistication among the creative staff.  It can be a wonderful thing when used well by the right people, but it should never be abused, overused, or poorly utilized.  

Take heed, creators.  Use this device at your whim, for it is yours.  Just remember the potential for both good and ill, and be willing to accept the consequences of either.  You have been warned.

Respect mah au-thori-tah!!!

No comments:

Post a Comment