Connecting up cinematic universes

Connecting up cinematic universes

Happy Saturday, and apologies for the delay: this week has been a busy one.

First, some personal news:

We got a kitten! Meet Cinnamon, which breaks our established naming convention, but this little guy is essentially Bram's, so he got to name it. I've been calling him Sir Cinnamon, but Bram insists that his full name is Cinnamon Toast Crunch (why, I don't know, he doesn't even like the cereal), but kids, right?

Merlin and Arthur aren't thrilled with this new addition: both have been glaring and sulking at us, and hissing at little Cinnamon, who's already shown that he'll hold his own: whenever Tiki comes over to say hello, he gets a pretty ferocious hiss-pop from him. Merlin’s started to warm up a bit, although he smacked Cinnamon in the face last night for getting too close. Arthur has gone on a hunger strike.

Here's another picture:

Bram’s take? “I don’t like Cinnamon… I LOVE him!”


Update on migrating

As you might notice, this is coming to you from Substack. I’m still in the process of migrating stuff over, and it’s been a bit on the slow end: ensuring that the paid memberships are switched over has been troublesome, because of a mistake that I made in a spreadsheet: I’ve had to ask Ghost to delete the membership database a couple of times, but I think we’ve figured out the core issue (essentially, paid memberships weren’t getting transferred, and it had to do with how I paused payments on Substack.) I’ve been told that it should get wiped again by Monday, and once that’s done, I’ll be able to get everyone migrated. Hopefully, it’ll work.

In the meantime, if you’ve subscribed here (paid or free), you’ll get migrated over in the next batch, just hang tight! One thing to keep an eye on is your spam filter: I’ve had a couple of Ghost messages pop up in mine, and apparently it’s a small issue. I’ll send out a message here on Substack to close out this newsletter when I send out the first message from Ghost as a heads up. I’ll also be providing updates over on Twitter, if you’d like to see the most up-to-date developments.

Thanks for your patience, and the supportive messages you’ve sent along. It’s been a bit of a frustrating process, but I’m optimistic: Ghost gives me plenty of new options to mess around with the newsletter, which I’m pretty happy about.

This week in SF/F

Authorial brands

There was an interesting bit of news that I caught for earlier this week: Hulu has picked up the rights to adapt Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, and if it’s made, it’ll join another adaptation of one of her works, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is about to head into its fourth season.

The two stories are unconnected, but a third work of Atwood’s, The Testaments, is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, and there’s apparently been some discussion somewhere along the line of pulling that book into the Hulu series. It’s a nice move for Atwood, given that there’s already considerable name recognition for her on Hulu, and undoubtably, the folks at the streaming service are well aware of her and her stories, and see the advantage in continuing that relationship.

In some ways, this feels a bit like a mutation of one of those “overarching deals” that actors/directors/screenwriters have been signing with various streaming services: a relationship where they’re locked into a certain network for a bunch of years coming up with various projects. The literary equivalent here are the deals that John Scalzi and V.E. Schwab signed with Tor Books a couple of years ago, and it struck me that it feels almost like an inevitability for authors with large bodies of work and major streaming services who’re looking for content for their subscribers. The streaming boom has been great for SF authors, as the 10 episode TV season lends itself well to book adaptations of all types.

Atwood isn’t the only author who’s had multiple works pop up on a particular service. Philip K. Dick’s estate placed two shows with Amazon Prime Video in the form of Electric Dreams and Man in the High Castle, and HBO is planning approximately a billion installments set in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros (more on that in a second). Even Amazon’s upcoming Middle-earth series was rumored to come with the possibilities of a spinoff series. Netflix recently went all-in on an adaptation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem after it scooped up the rights to The Wandering Earth, another story from the author. It wouldn’t surprise me int he slightest if we saw Netflix dive into other adaptations from Cixin in the event that that series a) actually gets up off the ground, and b) is really successful., neither of which are sure things.

On one hand, a lot of that makes sense: it’s far easier to market a Game of Thrones spinoff to audiences than a brand-new franchise, given that 90% of the world’s population knows what Westeros is. The same is true with an author’s name recognition: midway through writing this on Friday evening, word broke that Martin signed a huge, eight-figure overall deal with HBO that’ll see him developing more projects over the next 5 years for the network. He’s also been out and about to other networks: Syfy adapted Nightflyers a couple of years ago, and he’s got projects with Netflix (Sandkings) and Peacock (Wild Cards), and a film based on his story In the Lost Lands from director Paul W.S. Anderson. Those stories might not be connected by the same universe, but they’ve coming from the same source, which can help audience expectations.

With various streaming services looking for content, going beyond book-to-book adaptations and signing a sort of overall deal with a well-known author with a larger body of work might make sense: they could build a quasi-franchise around that name, with plenty of options for adaptations over a set amount of time. Obviously, they’d have to figure out how to acquire a handful of works all at once: not an easy task, and would likely come with a steep payment to lock up all those rights at once.

Martin’s in pretty rarified company, but he’s not alone. Names that immediately come to mind include:

  • Neil Gaiman, who seems as though he’s shifted entirely to Hollywood in recent years: He wrote the adaptation of Good Omens for Amazon, has been producing American Gods for Starz, and there’s a big adaptation of Sandman coming to Netflix soon.
  • John Scalzi, whose Old Man’s War has been optioned at Netflix (and could make for a decent franchise if it opted to pick up the other works) and who has a number of other eminently adaptable stories.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, whose Red Mars was to be adapted by SpikeTV (of all places), and who has a handful of other really excellent books that would be fascinating to adapt, like Ministry for the Future or Aurora
  • N.K. Jemisin, whose Inheritance trilogy was just optioned, and who has both the Broken Earth trilogy and City We Became.
  • Octavia Butler, who seems like she’s enjoying a newfound renaissance and popularity, and who not only has an excellent body of work, but who also has an adaptation of Kindred coming to FX.

All of these authors have pretty broad appeal beyond the immediate world of SF fandom and are fairly recognizable within mainstream circles, and with their larger bodies of work, I imagine that in the long run, that would hold some appeal to a big studio. It seems to be the case for Martin — but it’s also worth noting that he’s got a long history in Hollywood and his deal isn’t necessarily for his work, although I imagine that he’s got some ideas about what other stories are in his catalog that are available for HBO to option. Atwood could be on the same track, and it’ll be interesting to see what authors follow.

Snyder Cut + Connected Universes

The long-awaited super-duper director's cut of Justice League from Zack Snyder dropped on HBO Max last week. I don't have a ton of thoughts about it; I thought that the theatrical cut of Justice League (essentially, Joss Whedon's version) was flat-out awful, and the whole SnyderCut was so entangled with toxic fandom that I never really found myself interested in seeing it. (Chalk that up to Warner Bros. haphazard take on its DC holdings as well). But it's an interesting story nonetheless, because of those intersections between studio politics and social media-driven fan movements.

With the release of the movie, I’ve been seeing some folks call for the “restoration of the SnyderVerse,” ie, the DC Expanded Universe that Warner Bros. built off of his Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. That series included Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, Shazam!, Aquaman, Birds of Prey, and Wonder Woman 1984, but after the lackluster showing that Justice League had, Warner Bros. backed off on the larger connected universe in favor of more Wonder Woman-style stories: films that were a bit more character-driven and relied less on the stricter continuity that we’ve seen with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. That resulted in Todd Phillips’ 2019’s film Joker, which was expressly designed as a standalone project.

It looks a bit like Warner Bros. is going to try again with the DCEU. Variety spoke with Ann Sarnoff, WarnerMedia Studios CEO about the future of the franchise, saying that streaming unlocks some opportunities to tell those character stories in different mediums, and she noted that because they’ll have more people talking to one another from various parts of the company, she anticipates that moving forward “the media is going to be more connected, sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in more overt ways.” One example that she cited was Peacemaker, a spinoff of the upcoming The Suicide Squad, and we’ve got an HBO Max spinoff about the Gotham City PD for The Batman coming out on HBO Max as well at some point.

That’s all well and good: Marvel’s been humming along with that in theaters for more than a decade now, and with Disney+ now in the mix, we’ve got a metric ton of Marvel shows coming (which reminds me, I need to catch the next episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier tonight.) I’ve always felt that Warner Bros. has been playing catchup to the MCU for years — Man of Steel was always a bit of a weak foundation for an expanded universe, and I’ve always felt that they could have used The Dark Knight Rises as a bit of a springboard for a successor franchise somehow.

Charlie Jane Anders had a good counterpoint about this, noting that Warner Bros. has put together a secondary universe of DC adaptations on The CW, and noted that there is some incredible strength that comes from not being bound to strict continuity.

Twitter avatar for @charliejane

✨ Please pre-order #VictoriesGreaterThanDeath! ✨ @charliejaneFinally read the Variety interview with Ann Sarnoff about the future of the DC Universe and this bit jumped out at me...


March 24th 20211 Retweet18 Likes

The DC Arrowverse, she says, can “take these characters in such different directions, freed from the requirement to bolster a giant film franchise,” and that Sarnoff’s plans essentially means that in Warner Bros.’ eyes, there’s only one Superman in order to avoid confusing people about continuity. Which, sure: with each new release of show/film X, Y, and Z, there’s some thinkpiece that has to explain where it sits in its respective canon, or has to point out that it’s actually separate somehow. Battlestar Galactica’s a good example: there’s a film and TV series in development, and I can see why they’d be careful to avoid getting their wires crossed.

On the other hand, DC also has the wonderful multiverse concept going for it, meaning that they can simply say that Superman: League of Time or Batman: The Darkest of Sorrows are just located in a different universe and not have it strictly affect things.

But in a lot of ways, this is like getting a new car and trying to figure out the layout of the buttons from where they were used to. Sure, it might not be completely intuitive, but eventually, you figure it out. Fans are generally smart people, and they can hold both the Arrowverse and DCEU in their heads without too much trouble.

Having variety is also useful, because some of those big iconic characters can be used to tell different stories. Anders points out that The CW’s Batwoman has been able to really tackle race and policing in ways that Batman’s never quite been used.

I agree with the point, but I’d point out that the MCU has been able to get around that problem later in the game as it’s brought in more diverse filmmakers: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Black Panther certainly brought a different perspective to superheroes than Iron Man or Thor did, and I think ultimately, the success and diversity of those stories comes down to the willingness of Marvel to give some creative license to its creators, something that Warner Bros. started to realize. I generally enjoyed Joker because it was something that likely never would have been made in an overarching structure like the DCEU or MCU — and while I’m less interested in the “violent loner losing his grip on reality” type of story, I hope that Warner Bros. takes some cues from it moving forward.

Currently Reading

The current to-read list this week, which I’m picking my way through chapter by chapter:

I ended up picking up Beloved Beasts for a bit of a change, and I’ve been listening to Network Effect while driving / walking around. Nothing’s quite broken out for me yet, but I’ve been keeping a running list, reading a chapter or two before moving onto the next book, and slowly making progress on the to-read pile little by little. Of those, Fire Cannot Kill a Dragon is moving along breezily, which is nice, because we’re about to hit the 10 year anniversary of the series.

Further Reading

Blerds! The New York Times has a great profile about Omar Holmon and William Evans and their website Black Nerd Problems. I hadn’t come across it before, but it’s something I’ve started reading, especially as they’ve got a book coming out about that topic later this year. The piece is a dive into the rennaisance of black nerd culture, tracing some high profile figures like Jordan Peele and Ava DuVernay, and and how Black fans run into their own barriers within fan circles.

The tension is this: Black nerds unsettle the myth of a monolithic Blackness. In an American imagination that has historically stereotyped Black people as alternately ignorant and emotional or sexualized and cool, the nerd — smart and cerebral, unsexy and decidedly uncool — creates cognitive dissonance. Not only do Black nerds confound racist stereotypes, they also pierce the protective orthodoxy of Blackness passed down in the United States across generations.
  • Bookstore woes.  The Strand is a bit of a legendary destination for bookstore lovers, but it's had its issues over the years, especially since the pandemic began a year ago. Madison Malone Kicher over in Vulture has the story of how its booksellers and management have ended up at odds with one another over priorities and worker safety. Ultimately, it's a story of business selling an image of progressive values, but not completely living it.
  • BookTok. I saw a bunch of authors worried that they’d have to join TikTok now because of this, but I don’t think that that’s really needed. It’s interesting to see how new platforms will elevate books and authors in unexpected ways.

Chinese SF renaissance. Xueting Christine Ni has an interesting post up on Sixth Tone, a website about China, in which she talks about the future of Chinese SF and its connection to the country’s older traditions and stories.

On a site note, it looks like she’s got a new Chinese science fiction anthology called Sinopticon: A Celebration of Chinese Science Fiction coming out in November. Insta-preorder!
  • Disney recognizes reality. Reality being, the COVID-19 pandemic is nowhere near over, and while vaccines are rolling out, there’s still a long way to go before theaters are safe again. Accordingly, it’s bumped back Black Widow to July, where it’ll still open in theaters, but it’ll also debut on Disney+. This is pretty huge: they’ve been steadfastly saying that the film will be theaters only when it debuts. Because that worked well for Tenet last year.
  • Free Solarpunk anthology. I’m a big fan of the Arizona State University’s science fiction / science project, Center for Science and the Imagination, which does a lot of cool work at the intersection of reality and fiction. Their latest offering is Cities of Light, which features four excellent stories from Paolo Bacigalupi, S.B. Divya, Andrew Dana Hudson, and Deji Bryce Olukotun about optimistic solar futures. As I noted in my post/review, each of these stories are loaded with ideas about what the future might look like, and go beyond just the technological implications: they look at economics, race, and so forth. And it’s free to read. I just picked up a POD copy, which will hopefully arrive soon.

Necessary Sequels. Over on Variety, Owen Gleiberman has an insightful post about Hollywood’s obsession with sequels and continuations, and has a great observation about how the existence of a “cinematic universe” helps mask some of the empty calories:

“When a Marvel or a “Star Wars” movie is conceived as just one piece of Tinkertoy in a larger structure, it can seem, at the very least, to have a reason to exist. Good or bad, it’s another link in the storytelling chain. Yet that same dynamic can also rob a film of purpose. How much investment can we have in a piece of Tinkertoy? The end of it isn’t even an ending — it’s just a stop.”
  • Peter S. Beagle regains his work. This is a relief to see: Peter S. Beagle, the author of The Last Unicorn, has been through all types of legal hell the last couple of years: he sued his former manager for elder abuse and fraud (amongst other things), and has only just regained the rights to his work back.
  • RIP Jessica Walters. Jessica Walters shined as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development and as Mallory Archer in Archer, and I was sad to see that she’s passed. The Atlantic has a great look at why she excelled in those roles.
  • Trailblazer. Michael Dirda reviews two new reissues from the British Library by an older science fiction author that I’ve yet to come across: Muriel Jaeger, The Question Mark and The Man With Six Senses. He makes the case that he’s an author that deserves some reexamination.

That’s all for this week: as always, thank you for reading. Hopefully, we’ll be moved over to Ghost for the next roundup.