When Bryan Singer began work on 2005’s Superman Returns, he announced that it would be a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve films, but not the latter two. There were raised eyebrows, but little indignation: the third and fourth films are not fondly remembered, and there is no significant character development in either that would cause problems if discarded. It seemed like a technicality that could be embraced or ignored at will. But it was the beginning of a trend, a prominent example of that most surprisingly specific refrain of 21st century franchises: “Let’s ignore all but the first two films!”
Danny McBride and David Gordon Green have announced plans to make a Halloween sequel that, much like 1998’s Halloween H20, is a direct sequel to the first two films and ignores all subsequent entries, including that 1998 reboot. The first two Halloween movies have now spawned three different incompatible series, tying it with the Universal Soldier franchise, which also boasts three separate continuities branching off the 1992 original.
Neill Blomkamp’s ill-fated Alien sequel planned to pick up where James Cameron’s Aliens left off, with concept art depicting a surviving Newt and Hicks that would strike Alien3 and Resurrection from the record. James Cameron was behind the project, and appeared unbothered by the threat of Ridley Scott’s prequel Prometheus: “Hopefully there’ll be room for both of them. Like parallel universes.” It’s a telling quote, given Cameron has recently announced plans to make yet another new Terminator film, one that is rumored to follow on directly from T2. If that comes to pass, Cameron’s original two films will have bred what must surely be a record-breaking five official on-screen continuities. For a series predicated on the idea that time travel paradoxes can create alternate histories, it is unnecessarily messy.
Terminator could have taken a cue from Star Trek, which in 2009 successfully rebooted the franchise with a canonical universe split. Leonard Nimoy’s Prime Spock appears alongside his earlier and alternate self, assuring us that the franchise’s competing timelines can exist simultaneously. The stories you invested in are all safe.
This is important to viewers, because we want to feel like we are on a journey with characters. To be later told that some parts didn’t count can make us feel as if we’ve been cheated, and gives us little reason to trust that the next story won’t also be one day summarily banished.
Storytelling is at heart a changeable, fluid thing, and erasing the mistakes of the past may seem, on the surface, entirely reasonable. But the failure to embrace the continuity of bad or inconvenient art suggests a willingness to ignore rather than learn. We don’t improve as people by pretending the bad parts of our life never happened, because that is denial. We embrace these parts and move on. If history is storytelling, then our growing inclination to dismiss the parts of stories we don’t like only furthers our desire to dismiss the parts of the world we don’t like. We ignore them. They simply don’t exist.
Audiences are now more amenable to the idea of the Splintered Sequel, one that backtracks to the last satisfactory point and takes it from there. The save point. The last happy memory.
As with diverging histories, the Splintered Sequel is a concept that requires an ur-text, an agreed-upon starting point, yet sometimes even the originating work can be contentious. Weirdly, in the movies this is a concept almost exclusive to Harrison Ford sci-fi franchises. Thanks to director’s cuts, multiple narratives can emerge ahead of any sequel, leaving us wondering which one counts, which one is prime. If we were to ask Han Solo in Force Awakens who shot first back on Tatooine, what would he tell us? Which continuity would win out? The upcoming Blade Runner sequel will surely have no choice but to definitively answer whether or not Deckard is a replicant, something the numerous editions of the first film seem unable to agree upon. (Perhaps they could simply reuse his dialogue from Force Awakens: “It’s true. All of it.”)
In this version of the Splintered Sequel, the originating entry is multiple and one must eventually be crowned by a sequel as the foundational canon.
There’s no such confusion with Planet of the Apes: the 1968 original is king.
Matt Reeves, director of Dawn of and War for the Planet of the Apes, has said that the intention is to converge with the original. But this presents us with a problem, and it’s the clearest possible example of the Splintered Sequel. If you’re hoping to one day sit down and marathon the complete Apes story, you will have no choice but to be selective. The 21st century prequels are equally canonical with the 1970s sequels, but not compatible: either Caesar is the result of genetic testing, or he’s the offspring of super-intelligent chimps from the future who have bootstrapped themselves into existence. He can’t be both. And yet both series claim the 1968 film as their progenitor.
We have to wonder if a series as adaptable as POTA could one day use these conflicting origin tales to tell a story of revisionist conflict between the side that believes the prequel’s virus narrative and the one that believes the sequel’s time travel narrative. It would be a tricky yet thrilling acknowledgement of inconsistent histories, even more explicit than X-Men’s own historical conceit.
X-Men is a franchise that lovingly embraces its own history even as it repeatedly smacks the reset button, acknowledging and contradicting its own continuity in a single breath. As the series presents us with alternate takes on the Holocaust, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Three Mile Island meltdown, it questions its own version of events.
“You do know they’re all bullshit, right?” Wolverine says in Logan as he glowers at a comic book depicting one of his past adventures. “Maybe a quarter of it happened, and not like this.” He could be talking about any of the previous films. Both on and off screen, the cinematic X-Men’s greatest enemy is the unreliable narrator, and Wolverine seems all too aware that history may be chronicling him incorrectly.
Referencing the events from the first film in the franchise, Wolverine tells Xavier that they’re a long way from the Statue of Liberty, and that symbolism is acute. The Statue’s plaque proudly welcomes immigrants, yet it stands on the doorstep of a country now trying to build walls and enforce travel bans. Once a beacon of history, here an emblem of alternate histories. Soon to be buried in the sand.