As Logan, the latest installment in Fox’s 17-year-old X-Men franchise, continues to soar at the box office and garner praise from both critics and audiences alike, it raises the question of just how important continuity is from one film in a series to the next.
Logan itself does a fairly excellent job of avoiding the subject of continuity by serving a largely stand-alone story that requires little to no past knowledge of the characters and only dropping vague references to previous events such as one mention of an incident at the Statue of Liberty. Is he talking about the climax of Bryan Singer’s 2000 film X-Men or something else?
Of course, much has been written about the horribly indecipherable and inconsistent timeline of the X-Men film series up to this point. Professor Xavier was killed in the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand, and even that film’s nonsensical post-credits stinger implying some crazy form of resurrection doesn’t explain how a reborn Xavier would still resemble Patrick Stewart when he turns up again in The Wolverine, Days of Future Past, and now Logan.The universally despised X-Men Origins: Wolverine doesn’t mesh with the later established canon of the prequel trilogy with regard to Xavier, Cyclops, or Emma Frost (not to mention Deadpool). And even taken separately, there are internal inconsistencies within the prequel trilogy regarding the ages of Summers brothers Cyclops and Havok, as well as Storm. And while Wolverine’s amnesia is explained, X-Men, Sabretooth clearly seems to remember nothing of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Oh, how I envy him!).
Then there’s Mystique. I actually forgive all of the common complaints about Mystique continuity errors because her slow aging across all the films is easily explainable either through her ability to control her appearance or by arguing that maybe, like Wolverine, she might just age slower. And because she never directly interacts with Xavier in the entire original trilogy — and had broken ties with Xavier way back in the early 1960s, according to X-Men: First Class — I’m perfectly comfortable with the lack of acknowledgement of their surrogate sibling relationship established in the prequels. Less forgivable, however, is that Days of Future Past established that, in the new altered timeline, it was Mystique posing as Striker who put Wolverine in the Weapon X Program, when it’s clear the writers immediately regretted that decision and pretended otherwise by the very next film.
While annoying, continuity has never made or broken an X-Men film. When last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse flopped, no one seemed to blame it on its inconsistencies with the established canon. But, with the X-Men films, there’s a sort of emotional continuity where, if you’re not thinking too much about the specifics, it all “feels” consistent.
But what about a history and canon going back 50 years? Whenever the topic comes up of more Star Trek — either on television, a TV-adjacent internet platform, or on the big screen — my friends are probably sick of hearing me advocate against the proposition. It’s not that I don’t love Star Trek — I’m a lifelong fan who grew up on The Next Generation — nor that I haven’t found any joy in the last three reboot films. I’ve enjoyed some elements of all three. Part of it is that I’d prefer writers took what they loved about Star Trek and applied it to new original work inspired by Star Trek rather than bathe in the nostalgia of past writers’ sandboxes (and yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor).But at least as problematic to me is the issue of history and canon. I’ve determined that I’ll forgive almost any violations of canon if you tell a good enough story. However, I know not everyone else agrees. And should some brilliant filmmaker or showrunner with their own singular vision one day step forward and boldly take Star Trek where it’s never gone before — as Nicholas Meyer once did with Wrath of Khan — I would hate for intellectual ideas sparked by that Star Trek to be overshadowed by a fan community obsessed with all the many inevitable ways that project comes into conflict with literally 50 years of Trek lore. And given that the next Star Trek property, CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery, is yet another prequel series, it seems highly likely there will be numerous continuity errors — be it a new piece of Starfleet tech the audience recognizes would have immediately solved dozens of problems faced by later Enterprise, DS9, or Voyager crews or an encounter with the Romulans prior to first contact in The Original Series‘ “Balance of Terror,” etc.
Swinging over to the opposite extreme, we have the 007 films, a series even older than Star Trek but where audiences have accepted the lack of almost any effort to forge a coherent sense of continuity. Even when the Daniel Craig Bond films attempt to retroactively establish continuity, the very attempts are laughable. Which is a shame because Skyfall probably ruined a popular fan theory that quite inventively built a fairly brilliant unifying theory that brought all the Bond films together into one neat, coherent narrative.
The theory goes that the name “James Bond” is just a moniker assigned to different MI6 agents attached to the 007 designation. So after Connery’s “James Bond” retires, a completely different agent played by George Lazenby is assigned 007 and with it, the new name “James Bond.” When he quickly dies off, retires, or transfers to a new assignment, Connery briefly returns to MI6 until retiring again and being replaced by yet another totally different guy played by Roger Moore, etc, etc. It also explains why Bond is so careless with always using his real name all the time instead of an alias. This device has even already been established for some of the franchise’s other characters like M and Q. Who’s to say it’s not also true for Moneypenny, Felix Leiter at the CIA, and Bond himself?And had Skyfall not embraced the book canon and taken us back to the Bond family’s ancestral home, there was at least some hope we could have one day seen a 007 film featuring all previous portrayers of the iconic spy where they all are literally former James Bonds in the diegetic world of the film itself. The only way I can think of now to explain Skyfall away within this theory is if you add a Jason Bourne-like element to the narrative wherein all James Bonds have their memories altered to believe they really are James Bond and that the whole Bond family back story at Skyfall is a lie they’re programmed to believe. And, with the clear Bourne influence on the Daniel Craig films already, that might not be that radical a direction.
If there can be a definitive answer to the question of whether continuity even matters, James Bond holds the answer. The continued success of the 007 franchise over this many decades — despite, let’s face it, most of the Bond films not being very good — must certainly serve as the best argument that audiences just don’t really give a crap about continuity.