“After seventeen years, Suzanna finally discovers that her husband wasn’t dead at all, and it was him who killed Lillian!” It’s this type of stuff that makes soap operas so ridiculous to the many of us that don’t actively partake of them. Often times in such stories, the writers will run out of ideas or decide they want to bring back a character, so with the careful application of Dues Ex Machina, entire histories can be rewritten. So why do I talk about this now? Because Marvel is very capable of doing the same thing, and already has. Let me explain.
Retroactive Continuity, or retcon, is the biggest threat to Marvel movies. Retcon is basically the altering of pre-established facts in a story. So the character that we were led to believe was dead actually wasn’t, but rather shipwrecked for a time or lost in the vortex of space. If you have ever been reading Wikipedia and you see the words, “apparently died”, you can bet that retcon had something to do with it.
Marvel has done this a lot, actually. In the comics, Spider-man once fought a clone of himself. He beat the clone and continued on. Twenty years later (in real time, not comic time) it was revealed that the clone had actually been functioning as Peter Parker for the twenty years. Thus began the Clone Saga, one of the most hated Spider-man story arcs ever. The fans were mostly outraged because they were now forced with a choice: either believe that their hero who they followed for decades was really someone else all along, therefore the stories they had believed were false, or else discredit new Marvel canon in order to preserve their favorite stories.
At another point, Iron Man was revealed to be a spy for Kang the Conqueror for decades. That means that one of the chief heroes of the Avengers was actually a bad guy for decades. Meanwhile, when the stories were being written, even the writers didn’t have that on the radar. Now, they were expected to disregard the originals in favor of this new idea, no matter how bad it was.
In both of these circumstances, it was later retconned again, so that Peter was actually Peter for the twenty years and Iron Man was never a spy for a futuristic conqueror.
Think about the “Who shot first” debate in Star Wars. George Lucas went back in time to the classic scene where Han kills Greedo in the bar and changed it, so that instead of Han killing Greedo before he can shoot, Greedo shoots first and somehow misses at point blank range. Fans across the galaxy were outraged, and rightfully so. You don’t take canon like that and change it.
So why do I bring this up? Am I just bashing on the comics and George Lucas? No, I am pointing carefully to a couple acts in the MCU that we have seen. Hear me out.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the Avenger movies, have already taken a few liberties with their back stories. I consider retcon to be when the writers of one movie write something, and the writers of a second movie modify it, claiming that the characters just didn’t recognize something.
So where have we seen it?
Most notably, everything to do with Tony Stark’s parents. Iron Man has Howard Stark as being a businessman who died. He fought in World War 2 by working on the Manhattan Project. Iron Man 2 tells us that Howard and his wife were actually founding members of SHIELD. Captain America 1 says that he also helped out with Captain America’s whole story, and was the one to pull an alien artifact out of the ocean. Cap 2 tells us that the couple was assassinated by Hydra agents.
So basically, the writer of Iron Man never intended for Howard Stark to be a secret spy that was assassinated by another organization. He was a businessman and a scientist. Period.
I’m not saying that this was a bad move, as Howard was one of my favorite parts of Cap 1 and it gives SHIELD a little more character. I am saying that if they introduce something dumb into the storyline, they’re stuck with it. Say they decide that Howard cryogenically froze himself so he could return later and wreck havoc. Obviously, this would be something of a bad move on Marvel’s part. Even if they recognize it as a bad move, they are still stuck with it as canon, not just for the future onward, but affecting the entire past. Now, whenever I watch Cap 1, I would be thinking of a cryo-frozen Howard when he comes on screen.
Not that Marvel is going to do something so stupid, but they are getting bolder with retcon.
In Captain America 2, it was revealed that Hydra had infiltrated SHIELD over the course of decades. It led to a wonderful aspect of not knowing who to trust and it worked for the story, but what about when we start thinking about it? What about when SHIELD had control of the tesseract. Was not Hydra agent present to steal it? What about any given point around the entire MCU up to this point where a Hydra agent may have stepped in to screw things up?
The problem is that the original movies, notably Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers, never intended for Hydra to have infiltrated SHIELD. They’re just going to roll with it now. Meanwhile we, as viewers, suddenly have a bunch of potential plotholes on our laps. Its the future movies influencing backward on the already made movies. Retcon.
So far, I can deal with it. Right now, so what? I can explain away the Hydra agents and Howard Stark and all of that. I am worried about the future of the MCU, with unchecked retcon. The actor who played Howard Stark in Iron Man 2 is going to be in Ant-Man. That probably means flashbacks (or cryo-freeze. Who knows, right?). Does that mean that Howard Stark’s back story is going to be altered yet again? Will they change anything else we already know about the MCU, under the pretense of “it was like this all along, you just didn’t know it”?
That’s my big fear moving forward in the MCU. I want to keep moving forward. I don’t want to move back and change things, because they are perfectly fine as they are. And once it’s done, it’s really hard to undo retcon.
So what will this universe look like in the end? Will we see more instances of it, possibly more severe? Only time will tell.