“The ability to generate novel, high variance outcomes is based on the availability of ideas. Idea availability can be constrained by local search, in which a limited set of options is considered according to confidently held beliefs. Broader search results in more idea variety and can identify ways to combine knowledge that challenge the belief that constrain innovative behavior. The paradox is that innovative experts also search locally to determine what rules to break, while nonexperts search locally and conform to those rules.” - Taylor, Greve (DOI: 10.2307/20159795)
The concept of story and character crossover/mashup to mix epistemological systems between comic, literary, and film universes is hardly a new phenomenon, but there has been a precipitous rise in its prevalence in popular culture over the past decade; I’m looking to explore the reasons behind the increase in popularity.
A Brief History of Crossover/Mashup in Comics
The first comic crossover between comic universes was in 1940/1941 in All Star Comics #3, featuring the creation of the “Justice Society of America”. The separate universes of All-American Publications and National Periodical Publications were not separate for long, however, as they were merged to form the modern day DC Comics company, best known for its Superman and Batman franchises.
If we ignore the overtures of companies attempting to potentially consolidate their holdings, the first official inter-company crossover would have been Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man in 1976. This was the first crossover/mashup of the two largest comic book companies, DC and Marvel.
Since then, there have been a significant number of crossover comics which have bridged the gaps between epistemic comic systems, including a number of unusual pairings, such as Archie vs Predator and Star Trek / Green Lantern, as well as comics containing “re-imagined” versions of characters from other systems, such as Dave Sim’s Cerebus, which included variations on characters as varied as Oscar Wilde and Groucho Marx, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, serving as a pastiche of influences such as Daredevil, Ronin, and the aforementioned Cerebus. Whereas these aren’t crossover/mashup comics in the strictest sense of the terminology, they display the same willingness to juxtapose concepts and characters in order to create new and interesting scenarios for their readers.
Fan Fiction: The Internet Modernizes Crossover/Mashup
“There’s no way to stop people from interacting with your content. You can ignore or embrace it … to complain about it isn’t going to make it better. Fan fiction makes up 33 percent of all content revolving around books [on the web].” - Bill Tancer
Since 1998, FanFiction.net has risen to boast over two million users and many times that number of fan-generated fiction pieces. It has effectively helped to spearhead the democratization of fan-centric original content, and had been described as “the adult version of when kids play at being TV characters” by one of its contributors. Oddly enough, in stark contrast to the majority of the fan-centric internet and gaming community, FF.net contributors are self-reported as about 80% female, 20% male.
The rise of a public forum for sharing crossover/mashup ideas has helped normalize the concept to the larger community of internet users, and by extent, the population as a whole.
Modern Film Mashup
The first mashup/crossover film to bridge two companies' epistemologies was King Kong vs Godzilla in 1962, but one of the first extremely notable crossovers was Warner Brothers' Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1988 – which managed to secure appearances from leading Disney characters by giving them precise screen time parity with WB’s stars – down to the frame. This level of attention to detail regarding character properties goes to show the delicate nature of inter-company crossover in film, and explains why modern films generally tend to avoid this sort of crossover, giving more attention to either legacy characers which pre-date modern copyright (such as the atrocious film adaptation of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, featuring Jekyll/Hyde, Dorian Gray, Captain Nemo, and other fictional characters), epistemological re-imaginings of existing characters within a particular idiom (any of the Lego versions of popular franchises, such as The Lego Batman Movie or Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales), or intracompany mashups (such as the apparently endlessly popular Marvel Avengers series – or any of Marvel’s seemingly infinite crossovers and guest appearances across multiple mediums).
It should be worth noting that a fair amount of film medium mashup/crossover has taken place in animated films, ostensibly because it is much easier to substitute or secure voice actors than physical actors for their films, as well as the much lower budget associated with those films (which would make the potential risk much lower). An example would be the Superman/Batman: Apocalypse animated film, featuring the two characters from the DC universe.
What attracts us to crossover/mashup?
“I find [it] actually fascinating; sort of a grown-up way of playing with Legos, GI Joes, and Transformers at the same time.” - Scott Eric Kaufman
Franchises and company boundaries are the stuff of corporate bylaw and legal entanglement; one cannot simply expect the imagination to bend to the artificial confines in which we entrap an idea, a hero, or a concept. Children seem to be less aware of these artificially imposed boundaries – which can be seen in the way that children play without regard to them.
As we grow older, we learn more about the world as we assimilate more knowledge and gain more experience, and we experience what David Lynch famously referred to as a “narrowing of imagination”. Our ability to experience and imagine becomes crippled – if we allow it to become so. Much the same way that imaginary play survived in Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying and its eventual metamorphosis into cosplay and other such pursuits, a small (but growing) contingency of fans have helped carry the torch of imagination forward into the doldrums of adulthood.
To what can we attribute the rise in popularity of the crossover/mashup?
I’m postulating that the current meteoric rise in the popularity of the crossover/mashup in pop culture is due to a confluence of the following factors:
- Rise in 1980s/1990s Nostalgia. It seems as though not a week can go by without a new “reboot” or “reimagining” of a 1980s/1990s property, from the third film franchise reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (itself a pastiche/homage to a number of comic book characters), to Star Trek (whose popularity waned after ST:TNG went off the air), Star Wars, Transformers, and even My Little Pony (which has seen a popular resurgence in the unusual “brony” hipster movement in addition to its 2010 series reboot). Whatever the particular causes, this cultural obsession with 20-30 year old items has driven a series of high-budget films, television shows, and action figures, and has reintroduced a number of franchises into the public consciousness which had previously faded from view somewhat.
- Postmodernism. Our collective obsession with meta-content has never been more prevalent than it is now; this can be illustrated by the rise in popularity of heavily post-modern properties such as Deadpool (who is expecting a blockbuster movie Any Day Now), Fight Club, and television shows like Arrested Development and Community. We want to see characters interact in ways other than that which we would conventionally expect – even if it means having a character turn to look directly at us and question the plausibility of his written circumstances.
- Increasing outcome possibilities. If we follow the logical progression of post-modern television, film, comic, and literary content, we can see that our culture seems to grow weary of some of the incessant tropes with which we are bombarded by popular culture. If we know that Spiderman is always going to defeat his adversary, are we watching a film starring him only because we enjoy the spectacle, because the conclusion is a foregone one? Mashing up multiple franchises and characters gives us the opportunity to venture into heretofore uncharted territory. Will Superman defeat The Batman? How would Thor fare against Superman? By expanding the potential possibilities, we’re allowing ourselves to retain some of the wonderment associated with artforms which may have become stale and predictable.
- The internet fanfic movement. There are, as of the last time I looked, more than 20 film franchises with more than 1,000 pieces of crossover fanfic on fanfiction.net. This is an enormous amount of creative effort being put out by the various fan communities, and it shows a strong interest in seeing crossover variations of their favorite characters and franchises.
What has been a niche cultural phenomenon has expanded out to reach the general population, and a new generation of children and adolescents are being exposed to the limitless possibilities of recombining concepts, characters, and situations to form new possibilities to help entertain themselves.
Special thanks to Scott Eric Kaufman for his insight and input into this conceptual analysis, and the cover image is copyright Bongo Comics Group, and is used under fair use to illustrate a concept for educational purposes.