0. We Crave Mythologies, Not Stories
Humanity has always told and listened to stories. Given that these stories sometimes provide the backbone for an entire culture or mode of being, it is only natural that stories should evolve to suit the needs of the cultures that tell them. Western culture has changed a lot over the last fifty years and one of the ways in which our culture has changed is that we have acquired a taste for longer and longer stories. Once upon a time, we watched films, read novels and enjoyed TV shows that could be watched in almost any order. Now, we read series of novels, watch trilogies of films and feel cheated if our TV series do not end by paying off storylines that span multiple seasons and dozens of episodes. As a culture, Westerners no longer crave stories… they crave mythologies.
While explanations for this trend towards narrative expansiveness may lie beyond the scope of a single blog post, I would suggest that we crave fictional mythologies because the religious mythologies we inherited have lost all credibility and the market has stepped in to fill the gap. Though we may not believe in the mythologies of Marvel comics in the same way that our parents believed in God, the experience of engaging with escapist literature is very similar to that of engaging with religious text. As J.R.R. Tolkien once put it:
It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having peculiar quality.
This ‘turn’ comes in the form of the moment when we suddenly lose ourselves in a fictional world and cheer inwardly when the narrative logic of that world asserts itself upon the events of the plot. When a hero finally wins the day or the tragic queen finally dies, we feel a sense of consolation that is entirely lacking from the ‘real world’ we inhabit for much of our waking lives. This desire to feel that the world abides by the rules of a story and that everything in the world happens for a reason is central to the religious impulse. Even a staunch Catholic like Tolkien recognised that the sense of fulfilment we gain from a good piece of escapist literature offers a faint echo of the sense of fulfilment that can be gained from having Faith in the Christian story.
As Westerners have come to demand more and more from their escapist media, creators have responded by not only satisfying those desires but by encouraging them whenever possible. These days, one cannot have a successful film without a franchise and one cannot have a franchise without a suite of media tie-ins including novels, games, TV series and comics. Each of these spin-offs adds complexity to the franchise and allows for the creation of yet more products whose worlds intersect that of the core franchise. The talent, manpower and money poured into the construction of these trans-media megatexts would be horrifying were it not so historically familiar… The truth is that our culture builds media franchises for the same reason that the Ancient Egyptians built pyramids and Medieval Christians built cathedrals: We are taking the fantastical and making it concrete so as to make the fantasy feel more like reality.