Is There Room?

One of the challenges of running a shared universe is the matter of what the Torg RPG would call Cosm Axioms. Rules of the road.  Regardless of what characters in the setting might thing, how does the world really work?  Unless your shared universe is totally lacking in fantastic elements, you need to make some decisions, even if the decision is to leave a question unanswered.

Such questions include, but are hardly limited to:
  • How do superhuman powers work?
  • Do all powers come from a single origin, or a small set of origins?
  • Is there magic at all?
  • If there is magic, is it really just another sort of science that isn't well-understood by humans?
  • Are there "cosmic" powers, and if so, how high does the hierarchy go?  (i.e. are there gods, is there an all-powerful God, etc.)
  • How "unrealistic" is the setting when not specifically dealing with the needed plot devices?  (i.e. do unpowered protagonists bounce back awfully quickly from near-fatal wounds, are convenient coincidences thick on the ground, do all scientists know how to do all kinds of science and engineering, etc.)
  • How does society deal with the presence of the fantastic elements?
Not a friendly neighborhood for Spider-Man,
nor for his usual sort of story.  Wouldn't it just
ruin Spider-Man to be dealing with the Devil
on a regular basis?  Hm?

Sometimes, trying too hard to enforce an answer leads to grief (see: the Metagene).  Sometimes explicitly answering a question courts unwanted controversy, especially the "does a particular religion's idea of God exist and interact with characters?" sort of question.  Answers to many of the questions preclude certain kinds of story, or at least make them much harder to pull off...if you want to write a story about someone feared and hated for having powers, but the setting has people pretty chill about the whole thing, it limits you to a power set that is intrinsically going to be bad enough to break through a jaded public's complacency.  And so forth.

Still, how limiting things are depends in large part on how big the shared universe is.  And I don't mean in-story, I mean in terms of the rate of story delivery.  How many different stories are set in the same universe each year?  When you get one novel or movie a year, there's very little room to deviate from the Cosm Axioms.  When there's several dozen comics coming out each year, a few of them can wander away from the axioms without it seeming too inconsistent.  And when you have several decades' worth of stories built up, even the most extreme axioms can be ignored for the sake of a story.

Not even at the top of the dial.
Let's take the idea of magic and cosmic entities in Marvel as an example.  In the comics, the dial goes to 11.  Magic is real, it eludes full understanding for all but the mightiest of entities.  There's personifications of the entire universe (Eternity, Infinity), Death is an entity who may be romanced, there is at least one entity who goes around snuffing out entire universes (Omnipotentia) but who can be thwarted by a smart preteen, and so forth.  The high end of the scale is effectively infinite.  Even a stand-in for God shows up once in a while, and several entities have credible claims to be The Devil.

Imagine how hard it is to tell stories about street-level crime-fighting when your character has met God and fought the Devil?

You don't have to imagine it, Marvel comics are full of that sort of thing.  But there's so many stories that it's easy to set the cosmic stuff aside and concentrate on the more relateable content.

Now consider the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Sure, there's a lot of movies, and a few TV shows that may or may not be part of it.  But even in a heavy year, we get maybe half a dozen distinct stories that could be said to play by the same rules.  There's less conceptual space to work in, so they need to be a little more careful with the axioms.  Sure, there's magic, but it seems to be more of a cryptic branch of science that still plays by recognizable rules.  Godlike entities are more explicitly just very long-lived and powerful mortals.  While there are cosmic plot devices, they're usually not completely beyond the reach of mortals to affect or counter.  Entities like the Collector and the Grandmaster are no longer unimaginably old and powerful, although they still are people you usually don't want to mess with.  Dormammu may represent the high end of what the movies are likely to use, and he's safely off in his own reality where other characters don't have to deal with him.

We're unlikely to see personifications of Eternity or Death or the Living Tribunal, and if they do show up, they will probably be explained as constructs of the viewer, trying to understand the incomprehensible and anthropomorphizing the ineffable.  I suppose such an entity might be invoked to clean up the Infinity Stones mess (as I write this, I have not seen Infinity War), but I get the feeling that if anyone actually knew about the Living Tribunal or whatnot, the various stones wouldn't have been safeguarded in places like Asgard or the Collector's collection.

The Thanoscopter is wholly inappropriate for the MCU.
This also applies, to a lesser extent, in matters of tone.  The bigger the universe, the more stories that there are being told, the easier it is to make a single story work when it breaks the norms.  The MCU movies all tend to sit at a sort of Spider-Man tone, even though Spider-Man is a recent addition.  The basic feel is that events are serious, but that doesn't stop characters from joking around or having sight gags happen to them.  But a Deadpool-style movie would feel out of place unless written off as Deadpool's own insanity coloring what we get to see.  Outright goofy stuff is right out, but so is overly serious and dour storytelling.

Anyway, I'm going to cut this short so that I can honestly say I had these musings entirely before seeing Infinity War.  That way, if my predictions are right, I look more clever.

Dvandom, aka Dave Van Domelen, is an Assistant Professor of Physical Science at Amarillo College, maintainer of one of the two longest-running Transformers fansites in existence (neither he nor Ben Yee is entirely sure who was first), long time online reviewer of comics, has a meeting in the morning so might as well see Infinity War as a Friday matinee, is an occasional science advisor in fiction, and part of the development team for the upcoming City of Titans MMO.
Is There Room? Is There Room? Reviewed by Dvandom on Friday, April 27, 2018 Rating: 5
Powered by Blogger.