One question might occur to anyone watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a good show so far, shaping up into a look at race politics in America, and also with punching and shooting.
Like the Disney+ show WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier takes place within the continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is the 13th TV show set there, I think, along with 23 movies (Avengerses, Iron Mans, Ant-Mans, etc.), all telling stories with synaptic character and plot connections to the others. That is, by my rough count, more than 400 hours of story, spanning almost a century of in-universe time. I’ve seen them all, and I’m a decades-long comic-book reader with a good memory. But I’ll tell you, even I can’t keep all this stuff straight without Wikipedia and a pause button.
It happens every time one of these programs triggers the visual-grammar signals. A character walks into their lighting. The scene pauses. The music changes. This person is important. But … why? They’re new? Or they’re not? It’s time for the question: Wait—who’s that?
If you’re a casual (or even avid) consumer of Marvel things, or of Star Wars content—equally vast, and also about to expand even further on television—maybe you recognize this feeling. If you just want to watch an episode of Star Trek: Different Uniforms, or even a new James Bond or Doctor Who (if those ever come out), you’d be excused for panicking a little. The continuities have grown too vast; every new installment becomes a pop quiz for a class you took three semesters ago.
At the entry and intermediate levels of these story universes, it’s fun to learn all the new stuff. This is the acquisition-of-expertise phase. Climb on board! And at a certain type of advanced level, sharing these obscure references and interconnections is part of the in-grouping process. It’s like knowing every starting lineup of your favorite baseball team.
But for the kinds of people who didn’t spend their childhoods immersed in all these stories, maybe you’re now facing what seems like an unclimbable mountain of canonical content. To my great good fortune, I have been able to professionalize my nerdiness. You got a reference? I’m a reference librarian. I eat Easter eggs for breakfast. And I’m here to suggest that you deal with the surfeit of canon the way I do:
Don’t worry about it.
Because, come on! Who can remember? Back on WandaVision, it was Darcy, the reliably charming Kat Dennings, comic science assistant from Thor. Oh, and also Agent Woo, the reliably charming Randall Park, comic FBI foil from Ant-Man. On Falcon and the Winter Soldier it’s Baron Zemo, the reliably sinister Daniel Brühl who blew everyone up in Captain America: Civil War, and Sharon Carter, Emily VanKamp from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a reliably charming and helpful secret agent. But who’s Owen Wilson playing in that new Loki trailer? And, wait, isn’t Loki dead? Oh but no, this is the Loki who escaped when the Avengers went back in time from Avengers: Endgame to Avengers. Right. These shows and movies introduce new characters with the same confidence as people who’ve already shown up elsewhere, and there are so many people now.
For sure, the way these modern story universes intertwine and weave together is a miracle of narrative. Captain America: The First Avenger dropped story seeds in 2011 that blossomed in Avengers: Endgame in 2019. The last season of Clone Wars retold the massacre of the Jedi depicted in Revenge of the Sith from the perspective of the ex-Jedi Ahsoka Tano, who Rosario Dawson now plays in live action—on The Mandalorian and, at some point, her own spin-off. Neat! In some movies, Batman is just starting out; in others he’s grizzled and jaded. Should you care why Spider-Man has a cool robot costume? Do you need to know where the bad guy on The Mandalorian got a dark version of a lightsaber, or indeed that there are dark versions of lightsabers?
Those questions have answers. You can look them up. But they shouldn’t, de facto, matter, or determine your level of enjoyment. The actions of very online hashtaggers stanning for particular versions (ahem) aside, the most ardent devotees are sanguine about canon. Take the fans of the underrated DC Comics-based direct-to-video animated movies. (Most of these cartoons are on HBOMax now.) Some of those have a kind of shared story universe. Others are outside it. Doesn’t matter. As one longtime comics obsessive once said to me: “I just want to be entertained.” If you find yourself wondering which one of these stories is “real,” try to remember that none of them are.
The evidence that you don’t need the backlog of backstory to have fun is in the ur-text of modern sci-fi worldbuilding: Star Wars. The first one. That universe felt “lived in” not only because the tech looked beat up, but because the characters refer to stuff from the past like we viewers remember it, too. No one knew what Clone Wars, Kessel Runs, or Galactic Senates were. They all happened off screen. The movie wasn’t compelling despite that—it worked because of it. The audience had to fill in with hunches, guesswork, and personal head canon. It’s that energy that makes someone a fan, not their ability to rattle off the Fett clan’s genealogy.
Half a century later, every one of these shows and movies has a Dr. Science or Lieutenant Spy ready to uncork a catch-up monologue. Listen along, or go get a snack. Whatever. Up to you. (At least Thor: Ragnarok had the decency to deliver its “previously in Thor movies” expo dump as a comedic Shakespearean play-within-the-play instead of the now-typical VFX’d PowerPoint presentation.)
If stories aren’t emotional or entertaining to people who didn’t do the reading, they fail. Backstory can’t be the point of our moviegoing or TVstaying experience. Whether you’re an omega-level expert in aliens, androids, and wizards or a casual consumer who just wants to know if Dr. Spock is the pointy-eared one or what, all this content should at minimum be fun and interesting. The metaphors should have something to say about the real world, as all good genre stories do. Carry those decades of canon if they thrill you, but shrug the weight off if they don’t. Don’t worry about who that person is.
Because right now, Marvel and Star Wars and Star Trek run the risk of their narrative cruft turning into gatekeeping, into a computer voice saying “access denied.” That’d be a bad outcome. The goal here is to have more people to talk about fun things with, not fewer. Knowing the history of the Marvel Universe might make Falcon and the Winter Soldier better; not knowing it shouldn’t make it worse.
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