Jan 28 2014

World-building, Mythology, and the Problems they Cause in Storytelling

Published by at 10:00 am under Editorials,Movies,Television

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Man, we LOVE mythology these days. I’m not talking about mythology in the classical sense; we won’t be talking about Achilles or Edith Hamilton today. No, I’m talking about worldbuilding in the realms of sci-fi and fantasy.

Audiences today are pretty savvy to that sort of thing. The big climactic moment of the most recent Doctor Who special was a beat that addressed a problem with a piece of that show’s mythology from 1976 regarding the amount of resurrections a Time Lord is allowed. Like, this was a major plot point.

Heck, some of you guys like the Hobbit movies primarily because they put Tolkien’s worldbuilding up onscreen. I bear you no ill will, nor the fans of Doctor Who who really valued the climax of the special. It’s just… I mean, isn’t the mythology kinda secondary to the point (read: characters) of the story? Ultimately? I’m worried that an over-emphasis on mythology and worldbuilding is gonna wind up handicapping our ability to just write good stories.

It recently came to light that a new character was being thrown into the mix of the disappointing TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Full disclosure: I gave up on this show almost immediately after that tragedy of a pilot. I saw quintessential generic TV — flat, indistinguishalble characters, no tension, dialogue that lacked wit or purpose. In short, a badly written episode of television. As I could sort of care less about greater mythology if it’s not folded into a good story, I bolted. And I’m not the only one.

From what I understand — and this is from people who really want to like the show and are still watching it in hopes that it might be good someday — its improvement has been incremental at best.

It’s also worth pointing out here at the start that the ENTIRE appeal of this show is that it embellishes the mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As opposed to other shows whose appeal might have something to do with, oh, the story they’re telling or a talented writer or actor or something.

lady sif

Anyway, some fans have newfound optimism for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. News broke recently that the show would feature Lady Sif, an established Asgardian warrior from the greater MCU. She seems pretty minor to me, but sure. A Marvel show would use Marvel characters. This is a move that makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense is the notion I’ve seen floated that bringing in Marvel Universe inhabitants is somehow the magic elixir needed to restore life to this show. Why would that help? Where does the notion come from that the inclusion of mythology automatically improves storytelling?

Or, let me put this a different way: What about the writing, pacing, production design, or acting of this show is going to improve due to the expanded mythology?

I’ve recently seen this line of thinking pop up a lot regarding another Disney franchise (jeez), Star Wars.

I think we need another clarification: I’ll be proceeding under the common notion that the Prequels are a complete creative misfire. A lot of you know very well that I think this stems from a nearly complete misunderstanding of the whole thing, but we’ll go with the accepted wisdom for our purposes today.

fett

After the embarrassment of the Prequel Trilogy, and recent announcement of a frankly preposterous number of upcoming Star Wars movies, a number of fans made it known that what the new movies needed to do to succeed was leave the Skywalker clan behind and work on filling in the corners of the Star Wars Universe. Disney, seemingly, is happily complying by greenlighting a Boba Fett movie, along with God knows what else further down the line.

I should point out, by the way, that “over-explaining things” might be the number one complaint about any prequel attempt, not just the Star Wars ones. Mythology is perhaps best when it’s at the fringes of a story; something the fans can parse and speculate about on their own. The classic stories are usually the things that make us interesting in all that peripheral stuff in the first place.

Which brings us to the exact same question we faced with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.* What is it about expanding a mythology that people thinks translates to improved storytelling? Where do people get the idea that Star Wars can’t sustain more than three movies about a multi-generational family, even though Doctor Who‘s been following the same single British dude around for decades? What happens when the MCU or Star Wars Universe has been running for another decade, and somebody wants to buck tradition and tell a story about Cap or Black Widown that doesn’t snugly fit with the established continuity?

Don’t even get me started on the comics industry, with the nightmare that is continuity and canon, and the way those masters hamstring the writing possibilities for sensational authors working in that field. By way of example, suffice it to say that allowing The Dark Knight Returns to exist outside the canon is a large part of what allows that story to be so friggin’ good.

The truth is, mythology isn’t storytelling. Sure, stories need a setting, and a creative, well-established setting certainly affords authors the raw materials to construct some fantastic tales. Too often, though, it seems the simple act of filling in the margins is considered actual storytelling work.

Thoughts?

FOOTNOTE:

* May I never have to type this again.

 





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4 responses so far

  • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

    I’d equate some of this with the same phenomenon where people will like (or at least pretend to like) anything that has a certain actor in it. Ooh, Lady Sif! She’s puuuuurty! She was in the movies and stuff! The show is good now! You know who would do more to make SHIELD better than including every single character in the Marvel Universe? It’s supposed creator. Slapping some concepts together and putting your name on it before moving on to something else and letting your brother do it for you isn’t exactly the best way to build a great series.

    I enjoy SHIELD and think the cast the strong point. It’s just not on the level people expect when they hear the name Joss Whedon. They just need better and more creative writing more than anything else, which is what he would have brought had he stuck around. Few of the detractors really seem to have any actual complaints about why they don’t enjoy it. I’m not really sure what they were expecting. Did they know what an Agent of SHIELD was in the first place? It’s not the best way to approach the Marvel Universe if all you wanted was more epic superhero hijinks.

  • Frothy_Ham

    I think a major problem is that the mythology creation/world building is arguably a lot easier than good writing/directing. I can come up with a ton of moderately compelling ideas for fantasy worlds and settings for a story to take place in but I can’t say I have the talent to turn any of that into something anyone would actually enjoy digesting.

    A certain quantity of content is expected in this day and age, and unfortunately the ratio of truly talented creators to hacks isn’t necessarily increasing, and something has to fill up movie theaters and thousands of TV channels we pay for.

    Going along with all of this is the fact that often times the true quality of something is hard to know while it’s being created. Sure, the script can read well, and your actors can be stellar, but until you have a completed product, you aren’t sure if you have that mysterious, unknowable “X” factor that elevates it.

  • robinvik1 .

    I disagree with the Star wars point. Sure, some stories go on and on, but others have a clear beginning, middle and end. After the story ended should you begin a new story or stick with the old characters? A lot of shows do the later (like Supernatural) and it gives lower quality stories.

  • Giacinta Shidler

    Might infuriate people here, but wasn’t that one of the major problems with The Hobbit movie- and indeed with Tolkien? I love LOTR but I tend to skip past all the appendices and poetry and songs about crap that has very little relevance to the plot at hand. He got so caught up in his world-building and elven language creation that sometimes the thrust of the story gets lost. And I don’t think I’m alone in simply having no interest to wade that deeply into Middle-Earth.

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