Once upon a time, Stan Lee, with a host of other extraordinarily talented creators, saw the silliness of the existing comic market and, on advice from his wife, decided to create the kinds of comics he wanted to read. And so was born Marvel Comics. The “world outside your window.” Rather than being set in fantastical locations like Metropolis or Gotham City, the Marvel Universe took place in largely in New York City, and its heroes acted like real people. And the public reacted to the heroes like the public in our universe reacts to celebrities, willing to adore, willing to believe the worst. It was a very different thing from what had come before, a very different way of looking at things.
It was a revolutionary, new way of looking at and producing comics. It took a more “realistic” look at a super-hero universe. But at the same time, it remained fundamentally a comic book universe, defined by its fantastic aspects.
And then, somewhere along the line, various writers decided to take an even closer and “realistic” look at how such a universe might work. At that’s where we got things like Civil War or Identity Crisis. Someone looks at something in a comic book universe and says “What would be the real world ramifications of this?”
This is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the most intelligent and thoughtful comics of all time, Damage Control, by the late and great Dwayne McDuffie, came about because he had thought about the many, many super-hero battles that took place in the NYC of Marvel and the damage they must have caused… that never stuck around for long. So he invented Damage Control to explain it. But the key difference here is that he applied comic book logic to it. Rather than figure out how it would work in the real world, he figured out how it would work in a comic book universe.
And that leads us to the problem. Or, at I like to put it, the “Emperor Has No Clothes.” Let’s look, briefly, at Civil War. Civil War (much like Acts of Vengeance had a good decade prior) posited the idea that, in the real world, we would want super-heroes to be government controlled and regulated, to know exactly who was behind each and every mask, because the idea of allowing every Peter, Steve, and Luke to run around fighting crime without any kind of oversight at all was ludicrous. To which I say, “Well, duh.”
But the problem is, with any established universe, you establish a certain kind of inertia, a certain set of rules. And when you pull on that thread, the real world view begins to clash with the narrative inertia, and it does so badly. Yes, in the real world, we’d want all super-powered individuals to be registered and tracked. But here’s the thing. You cannot expect readers to take such a view seriously when you’ve had sixty plus years of super-heroes running around willy-nilly doing as they please. You just can’t. It’s illogical, it’s a sudden swerve into a wall. Because once you make that swerve, you can never fully put that genie back into the bottle. Unless you flat out reboot, it will always be something that you’ve done, always something there in the background that colors everything going forward.
Or consider the similar narrative of the X-Men. It’s insanely hard to argue against the regulation of mutants and super-powers when an individual’s mutation can make them more dangerous than the entire US army. Or even when a given mutant could take out a city block because somebody snuck up behind them and went boo, and they lost control of their exploding power. But the inherent metaphor of the X-Men has always been one of tolerance and minority representation. Attempting to realize or think too deeply about just how dangerous mutants could be destroys the metaphor.
To prove I’m not just picking on Marvel, let’s take a DC example. Superman. Time and time again, Superman writers feel the need to trot out the narrative thread that the US government (or at least, certain highly placed individuals within it) deeply distrusts Superman or otherwise fears that he’ll go rogue and try to make himself emperor of the Earth (complete with rocking pope hat.) And yes, from a real world perspective, as Man of Steel and its follow ups try to tell us, the idea of an omnipowerful alien being would be really freaking scary.
Except, again, it goes against the grain of more than seventy years of Superman as a benevolent protector and all around fantastic example of a person. The fans all know what kind of person Superman is, and have all those years of narrative weight behind them. You can only fight narrative expectations so much (See putting Cap on one side during Civil War and expecting the other side to have anyone supporting it).
Again, this kind of approach can work for a single story. But the trick with that is to ultimately show that the person espousing the ideas is wrong, if not just flat out nuts. Because that’s the only acceptable answer within the narrative you’ve created. Otherwise, it just stands out all the more for how badly it clashes.
And once you’ve exposed one hole in how your universe is constructed, the others only become more and more obvious. Your suspension of disbelief begins to fall further and further apart, and it becomes that much harder to take anything in the universe seriously.
Because unless you’re working on your own creator-owned project, at the end of the day, there’s two things you always need to keep in mind. 1) The universe has to be able to continue to go on without radical reinvention, and 2) eventually, someone else has to follow up whatever you’ve done. Too many writers forget both of these things, and it’s lead to the rather nebulous and somewhat downtrodden state of the industry today.
You can introduce reality into your fictional universe… but only so much. Because those cracks are damn hard to reseal, even with really good Spackle.