Monday, February 25, 2013

Best and Worst Retcons

Time for some nerdy definition! A retcon (short for “retroactive continuity”) refers to the alteration or deletion of established facts in a fictional story, often by the very people in charge of the story. It first originated in the comic book world, which needs to retcon its plots and characters constantly to stay relevant. Now you see it everywhere. It’s not the same as an adaptation (in which the story has been handed to someone else) or a reboot (which scraps the whole story to begin anew). To give an example: say that the fifth Harry Potter novel was released, and Chapter Four dealt with the fact that Harry’s father was a quadriplegic Albanian circus performer who knocked up his mother in the paper towel aisle at Hannaford, and (this part is crucial) Harry and his friends were acting like they’d known this since book one. That is a retcon, and it can be used for good, evil, or miles-high fucking stupidity. Here are my favorites, and the ones that most piss me off.

Honorable Mention: Marvel 1602
While we’re on the subject of comic books, let us gaze in awe at what happens when an outside-the-box wunderkind like Neil Gaiman gets ahold of Marvel’s most iconic superheroes. Like the name says, it takes place in 1602 and envisions everybody as Europeans during the reign of Elizabeth I. Daredevil is a wandering minstrel. Dr. Strange is the court mystic. Magneto is a priest for the Inquisition. Captain America is a (suspiciously blonde) savage from the New World. Iron Man is a Spanish mercenary with a costume the size of a dump truck. It’s absolutely awesome and creative and made me care way more about all the Marvel heroes than I normally do. The reason it gets a mere honorable mention is that it’s technically not a retcon. It’s a what-if. And what-ifs aren’t the same because they acknowledge that they’re merely a teasing possibility, one little thread in the vast tapestry of scenarios. It’s cool, but not really what this list is about. So let’s give a real comic bookish example...

Dang-Blasted’s 5 Worst Retcons

5. X-Men Films: Days of Future WTF
Of all the superhero movie franchises, the X-Men films are the hardest to follow, a tangled pasta pot of plots and character arcs. They also have this bizarrrrrre range of quality, from really damn good to putrid. And they are guilty of some truly jaw-dropping retcons, made worse by the fact that it’s ALL supposed to be canon. Thus, Sabretooth began as Wolverine’s charismatic and well-spoken brother before somehow losing all his memories and personality and becoming a dumb thug with long blonde hair. Mystique is Charles Xavier’s adopted sister -- wow, they sure had become estranged by the 90s! Also, Xavier was crippled at the same time Magneto turned evil, in the 60s, yet in at least two other movies we see these facts contradicted. And there are two Emma Frosts, the evil sexy one in the 60s and the teenage one in the 80s. Need I continue? It’s sad because I really like the series as a whole and I’m also very detail-oriented, so I can’t get around all the times they’ve rewritten their canon. Now we’re getting not only another Wolverine movie but a “Days of Future Past” film that aims to somehow marry the initial trilogy with X-Men: First Class. Jesus Christ...bring a fucking flowchart.

4. Silent Hill Origins: No, See, It Happened Before It Happened...
Ahhh, nothing like a retcon that literally makes no goddamn sense. NO SENSE. Silent Hill: Origins is a prequel to the original game in which you play a brickbrained trucker named Travis Grady. Now, Origins is not a bad game by any means. But its plot...hoo boy. In the first game, we learned that a psychic girl named Alessa Gillespie was horribly burned in a fire and, in her fury and pain, turned the town of Silent Hill into a nightmarish dreamworld. Origins seems to be about that process: Travis saves Alessa from her burning house and is then manipulated by her into finding an occult artifact that she uses to unleash her power at game’s end. There’s just one teeeensy-weensy leetle problem: why the fuck is the town altered before she unleashes her power? If she kicked off the whole thing with the fog and the monsters, why do they ALREADY EXIST throughout the game? Bad enough that a boring hillbilly character is slotted into the established backstory, but...but...NO SENSE AT ALL. Did NO ONE on the development team even consider this?

3. Ratchet & Clank: The Last Lombax in the Universe
Ratchet & Clank is a consistently fun and dynamic PlayStation series featuring the fuzziest, most adorable hero who can also vaporize you with a giant fuck-off plasma gun. Happily, after a good run on the PS2, the series made the jump effortlessly to the PS3 with a brand-new story arc. Unhappily, the new games’ plot centers around the hero, Ratchet, being the sole surviving member of the Lombax species. He’s orphaned, all alone in the galaxy, and has never once met another Lombax. Never. Not once. Except he did. HE FUCKING DID, GUYS. In the second PS2 game, Going Commando, Ratchet was aided by a tall, sexy lady Lombax, basically a furry Lara Croft. The 7th-gen games are definitely not a reboot, yet they utterly fail to acknowledge that Ratchet has met at least one other member of his species. And since the whole “last Lombax” thing is like the DEFINING plot point of the new games, it’s even more baffling and infuriating. This series is so good! How can it retcon so hard?

2. Star Wars: Everyone is Everyone Else’s Buddy!
We all know about this one, which makes it no less deserving of my personal contempt. Time really is relative with space travel; how else could Ewan McGregor turn into Sir Alec Guinness in nineteen years? But that’s not the thing from George Lucas’s sad, self-masturbatory prequel trilogy that grinds the gears of anyone who values continuity. It’s that all the characters from IV through VI appear AND THEY ALL FUCKING KNOW EACH OTHER. Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO...okay, I can just barely buy that. But how about the fact that both Anakin and Obi-Wan were close pals with R2-D2? “I don’t seem to remember ever owning a droid...” mumbles Sir Alec. Wow, the Tatooine suns really must have baked your brain if you can’t recall the YEARS you spent hanging out with Artoo. Also, Yoda’s in tight with Chewbacca and all the clones are Boba Fett, why not? This cast-wide retcon is so hated that Star Wars fans had to build a convoluted theory about Artoo and Chewbacca being rebel agents, just so their roles in the prequel could make the tiniest smidgen of fucking sense. Yo, Lucas, when someone else has to repair your own shredded narrative, it’s time to stop using the dead Tauntaun costume for erotic asphyxiation. Dipshit.

Okay, the Star Wars prequels suck, but at least they aren’t constructed entirely from retcons. The same can’t be said of poor Heroes, the textbook example of how to ass-rape a good idea to death. Season One of this show was so goddamned stellar (didn’t hurt that Lost was rubbish at the time) and gained so many trusting fans, and we were all the victims of a long con. Why? Because the Heroes creative team only had one season’s worth of ideas. So they recycled. And they revamped. And they hit the reset button on their characters again and again until everything they did became arbitrary. Oh, now these two are siblings. Oh, now this dude’s origin story is something totally different. The worst victim of this tinkering was creepy villain Sylar, whose popularity led to him basically becoming the fucking main character, with constant, maddening adjustments to his personality, his motives, his parentage, his backstory, and the scope of his powers. None of this bullshit is remotely forgivable. And the worst part? We stuck with this turkey for four fucking seasons because the showrunners kept promising us that they understood our anger and they were going to inject new energy into the narrative. Let me use all caps for a sec: “INJECTING NEW ENERGY” IS NOT THE SAME THING AS FORCING YOUR PLOT AND CHARACTERS TO START OVER FROM SQUARE ONE. FUCK, FUCK, FUCK YOU. For once, I’m glad the network gave up and shot this show in the fucking head.

Okay. My hate and vitriol seems to be exhausted. Time now to look at the ways in which a retcon can actually improve a story. Yes, it can! Here are some prime examples.

Dang-Blasted’s 5 Best Retcons 

5. Batman: The Dark Knight Gets...Dark
Everyone in my age group can tell you how Batman is. Batman is brooding. Haunted. Grim. The antidote to overly perky, colorful, whitebread dopes like Superman. But go back a generation or two. Look at the original Batman comics, or the Adam West version. Batman used to be a campy goofball too! Hell, all the iconic villains -- The Joker, Poison Ivy, The Penguin, etc. -- are among the least kooky foes Batman once faced. Everything changed in the 80s, when comics as a whole became darker and more adult to reflect a more jaded world. Batman got it worst -- and best. Thanks in large part to people like Frank Miller, Batman stopped being lovable and became a frightening vigilante who wasn’t allowed to enjoy being a superhero. Let’s face it, this was a good thing. We kind of need the dark, gritty Batman and all he represents. We need both the comfort and the cautionary tale. And think on this: if Batman had never gotten dark, there’d be no Christopher Nolan trilogy. Q.E.D.

4. Redwall: Getting Rid of Humans and Racism
Ever read Brian Jacques’ Redwall series as a kid? Remember how the talking animals rubbed elbows with humans and the mice were into racial supremacy? No? Reread the first book in the series; your jaw might drop. Jacques hadn’t quite established the rules of his fantasy universe, and so there were constant hints that humans existed somewhere: horses, cats, and other domestic creatures; an abandoned human-sized farmhouse. Yeah, because a world in which animals talk, wear clothes, and build abbeys is totally a world humans would be privy to. What’s really jarring is that the mice of Redwall are kind of condescending assholes to the other species: we’re in charge, we built this abbey, and the rest of you are only here because we’re kind to the lower orders. Hell, the badger character is used like a beast of burden -- a far, far cry from the kick-ass warriors and noble rulers of future books. Yeah, the original Redwall novel is....awkward like that. And the series would have been a lot less fun if Jacques hadn’t gotten a clue and made the very next book a prequel which retconned things. Of course, he continued to define characters as good or evil based entirely on their species. Which is still fucking racist. But that’s a rant for another time.

3. The Ring Series: We Have To Go Deeper! (BWWAAAAAAMMMMPH)
The Ring is about the ghost of a dead girl who haunts a videotape and kills people with her split ends. If you’ve just seen the movie. I like the movie. But the original novel by Koji Suzuki is waaaayyyy more out there, and its two sequels (Spiral and Loop) will bend your brain into a Gordian knot, as each one alters the premise and redefines everything. It may have started out with a murdered girl implanting her ghostly self onto a videotape, but in Spiral, she was rewritten as a kind of thought-virus -- literally a killer meme -- jumping from VHS to the printed word and even back into a living womb. It became a ghost story that somehow felt plausible because the “ghost” was a sentient idea that gained enough power to achieve its own kind of reality. Like Santa Claus. Only horrifying. Then, in Loop, Suzuki dropped the bombshell that the first two books took place inside a computer simulation. The characters were just data and everything that had happened was part of a doomsday scenario being studied by scientists. It takes major balls to retcon your own best-selling novel this hard. Your fans will either be furious or will call you an absolute genius. Guess which type of fan I am.

2. Silent Hill 2: It’s All In Your Head
I think the main reason Silent Hill: Origins fumbled was that it tried to attach itself to the plotline of the original game, which was a little goofy and vague. We might have gotten a whole series of increasingly stupid shenanigans with psychic little girls and religious cults if it hadn’t been for the brilliant minds behind Silent Hill 2. Yes, I’ve talked about this at length before, and yes, I do consider it a retcon. It didn’t undo the events of the first game, but it did offer an entirely new interpretation of what Silent Hill was. It wasn’t just Alessa Gillespie’s psychic flip-out that turned the town into Hell on Earth. Nope, it was something deeper. Less tangible. The evil was always there, a parasite waiting for a host. And the host is our minds. James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2 is wandering through a nightmare that is made only for him. Everything he sees, he sees because of who he is, what he’s done, and what haunts him most. And when other tortured souls enter Silent Hill, they see entirely different things. For all we know, there are no monsters at all, only this formless thing that forces us to face the worst in ourselves. This redefinition of Silent Hill opened up the franchise’s potential, and the strongest entries are those which ignore the Alessa Gillespie backstory and just run with their own nightmare.

1. Swamp Thing: From Mutated Nerd To God-Avatar? Not Bad!
We end where we begin: in the comic-book world, with a glorious example of trashing a character’s origin story because it was lame. The original Swamp Thing was nothing more than a dweeby scientist, Alec Holland, who was caught in an explosion, fell into a swamp, and became a shambling green lunkhead made out of moss or something. And THEN...they brought in Alan Moore, the mystical oddball god-king of comics. Moore’s general writing strategy is to scream “FUCK YOU!!!” into your ear and then do the opposite of what you expect. He began with Issue #21 of Swamp Thing and immediately retconned everything: now Swamp Thing wasn’t Alec Holland at all, but merely a plant that had absorbed Holland’s memories as he died. And that was only the prologue. Under Moore’s control, Swamp Thing was ultimately revealed as a bodiless spirit who could possess any plant -- ANY plant -- and embody it to his will. And he was only the latest in a long string of such beings. Ever hear of the Gaia hypothesis? It suggests that all living organisms on Earth are, on some level, connected in a single network. Swamp Thing is the avatar of the shared consciousness of all plant life. In other words, a god. How powerful is he? He kicked Batman’s ass once. Flat-out, no contest, totally unfair fight, just RUINED Batman. That’s a far cry from merely being a nerd who morphed into a vegetable. Behold the kind of epic awesomeness that a retcon can birth.

Stay tuned for the next post, in which I delete everything and pretend this blog has always been devoted to play-by-plays of Canadian curling tournaments. In Swedish.

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