Over our summer break, I was reading a book whose protagonists traveled to alternate universes which, frankly, I didn’t like very much. But it did get me thinking about the idea of alternate universes in fiction. Not the scientific concept of alternate (parallel) universes—though that’s often the subject of many sci-fi stories—I’m talking about the alternate universes that result from one thing changing in a fictional story. What if Charles Xavier died before he could found the X-Men? What if Captain America was a Nazi? Undoubtedly, a lot of things would be bad. And unfortunately, this is the kind of alternate universe that we often see in today’s fictional media. However, the idea that one different thing could change everything is so broad that I don’t understand why this kind of grimdark change is the most common. Fanfiction also often deals in alternate universes which diverge from canon, but the changes of fanfiction, on the whole, all tend to be more positive and more emotionally satisfying. Though many mainstream movies and TV shows disdain this sort of happy story, an alternate universe which changes originally negative canon material into positive new story fodder can bring with it a wide range of different emotions than the usual grimdark reboot is capable of.
The term “alternate universe” has often been interchangeably used with other terms such as “alternate reality,” “alternate timeline,” and “alternate dimension,” depending on what story you’re reading/watching. In fanfiction in particular, the term “alternate universe” can mean anything from “one thing changes in canon” to a contextual change like “everyone is in a coffee shop now,” something Lady Geek Girl ably points out in this earlier post of hers. In this post, I’m using the term “alternate universe” to describe a What If? scenario that then turns into an Alternate Universe. This kind of story only happens when there’s some kind of already-established story to diverge from, which is why many reboots and fanfics alike often deal in alternate universes.
The 2009 Star Trek reboot film kicks off with one big What If? scenario: what if Nero went back in time and killed George Kirk? The resulting movie escalated with a Jim recklessly trying to live up to his dead father’s potential, Nero blowing up the planet Vulcan, and Jim, Spock, and all their friends eventually achieving the same positions they had in the prime universe, albeit by following a much more explosive path. Many other recent reboots, like X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse, are similarly grimdark. Many mainstream creators seem to have the idea that in order to make things new or more unique, they have to make negative, pessimistic changes.
Even when creators set out to make positive changes, they often go out of their way to show that there’s something “wrong” with the positive world. The show Supernatural hasn’t yet had a reboot (thank god), but it’s set out in several episodes to create alternate universes for itself. In “What Is and What Should Never Be,” protagonist Dean Winchester is captured by a djinn and, under its influence, dreams up a fantasy world where his mother was never killed by a demon. This results in Dean and his brother Sam now living happy lives with jobs and significant others, but Dean can’t let go of the feeling that something’s still wrong. He quickly finds out that all of the people he’d saved from monsters by Living a Manpain-Filled Life on the Lam are dying, because he isn’t there to save them. Using this knowledge, he breaks the djinn’s spell on his body and escapes. The show paints this as a good thing for Dean as well—he’s recognized a trap and refuses to live in a dream world, even though he and his family are happy in it. However, it also inadvertently says that that positive world just isn’t interesting. Without Dean and Sam fighting monsters and being sad, there would be no show.
In fanfiction, we see a much different regard for positive AU changes. The fandom classic Stealing Harry, by copperbadge, creates a Harry Potter AU which asks “What if Sirius and Remus had been allowed to raise Harry?”, leading to a delightful AU in which Harry is allowed to grow up with a support system. Harry’s basic personality doesn’t change, but he’s no longer raised in an abusive environment and he’s allowed to grow up fairly unharmed. Though it’s a creative work produced for free, as is all fanfic, it’s no less a reboot of Harry Potter than the 2009 Star Trek is of the original Star Trek series. But this is a reboot that doesn’t focus on the suffering of its protagonist. Harry doesn’t have to lose his mentors—Sirius, Dumbledore, Remus—over and over, and by fixing the external dramatic factors in the original Harry’s story, the author can instead focus on the internal life of its protagonist and explore ideas like werewolf discrimination, magical protections, and inter-House unity, all of which the original canon left by the wayside.
Another fandom classic, Team 8, by S’TarKan, is a Naruto AU where Naruto is placed on Team 8 instead of the canonical Team 7. Naruto’s been ostracized all his life by the village, and in canon, he deals with this by acting out because any attention is better than no attention. In Team 8, he has a team who supports him and a mentor who truly educates him, and as a result, he learns better ways to gain respect and better ways to battle. He doesn’t have to be stuck with angry, jealous teammates and a teacher who favors his teammates over him, and similarly to Stealing Harry, the story is thus free to focus on intra-village politics, fulfilling romantic relationships which make sense for all characters involved, and clan dynamics.
Both of these stories are “positive” situations, but their emotional fulfillment in no way makes them less intriguing. Harry still has to fight Voldemort, Naruto still has to deal with the Uchiha and a burgeoning Hyuuga insurrection. These canon-divergent fanfics don’t introduce more suffering into their protagonists’ lives (though of course there are fanfics which choose to do so), but lessening the angst doesn’t make the story boring. In fact, it leaves room to introduce more complicated emotions than just “we’re in danger, we have to save the world!” and adds subtleties to character interactions that “bigger” reboots can’t achieve.
Many of the alternate universes introduced by mainstream media reboots seem to think that only death and other such activities are capable of being engaging story revivals. But as we get more and more reboots under Hollywood’s uncreative eye, I don’t think that making an alternate universe more angsty than its original is the only way to make it more interesting. If we get another X-Men movie next year, why not let it be one in which Jean Grey doesn’t get possessed by a cosmic entity and instead struggles with and learns to deal with the ethical dilemmas of her ability? If we have to have another take on Cap, why not have one where he’s the white liberal ally always at protests and rallies? It could be an entirely new way to explore a canon material and include emotions which aren’t just painful.
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Oh how I wish Hydra!Cap was an alternate universe.
Okay so in Marvel at least…
– AUs seen in their main line are generally born from time/dimension-travel tales in which people try to avert (or inadvertently create and then have to fix) said bad alternatives. If the resulting world would be better than there would be no reason to reset to the status quo, would it? (I hate how much superhero comics do this. :/)
– Their “What if…” comics line seems to have had an obligatory downer ending rule, and the most well known standalone AU (Ultimate Marvel) had an unusually high concentration of assholes. And let’s not even touch Marvel Zombies and the likes.
– But these are not all their canonical AUs. I mean MC2 was a perfectly normal superhero world just one generation was allowed to pass, as is Earth-65 where Gwen Stacy became Spider-Woman and Peter Parker died tragically (also apparently everybody is gender, morality, age, ethnicity, etc. bent), 1602 was not particularly dark either (just doomed because outside reasons, and it eventually became its own standalone world), and they also have spin-off babies world, cartoon animal world, fairy tale AUs, and who knows what else.
I’m just saying there are more better or at least not worse canonical AUs than people might realize (in the case of Marvel 1 in about 20, not ZERO).
In the case of What If?, it was really a matter of creative freedom.
Writers can’t make drastic changes to the main continuity, because they need to keep the characters alive and usable. No matter how many times Peter Parker stops being Spider-Man, he always eventually puts on the costume again because we want Spider-Man. If Doctor Doom is defeated, he’ll come back later.
In an alternate universe, there’s no need to keep it usable, so the writers are free to have characters die left and right. They took advantage of that, which often led to ridiculous situations.
That said, there have been a number of times somebody made a change to improve the main timeline; however, these tend to be introduced as bad futures such as “Days of Future Past” and “Age of Ultron” from which someone travels back in time, rather than someone in the ‘present’ deciding to make a change.
(I’m making a catalogue of scifi universes for my own blog, and a substantial number of Marvel’s universes can be summed up as “X happens. Everybody dies”).
One of my favorites, (and I don’t know if this counts as AU) is the Ghostbusters reboot. In which much the same thing happens as in the original movie (including cameos of characters from the original, in different occupations) but all the primary characters are women and there’s more of a focus on their relationships. You can see Katie Dippold’s hand in the narrative, as its exactly the type of thing a woman writer would focus on. I didn’t see the reboot as particularly grimdark.
Especially interesting in the context of being published just after the Ducktales reboot premier, which seems to be differing from the original series (but less so the comics, i think?) in this style – What If Donald was in a position where he and the boys moved in with Scrooge McDuck, rather than having Scrooge take care of them while he did another tour with the navy. Not darker, not grittier, though also not lighter, or fluffier, just… Different.
And I think that’s something a lot of creators miss. Media, both on the art and the pop side, seem to have been mistaking dark for interesting and light for boring for a while now. Yes, conflict is the root of all stories, but you don’t have to have a grimdark universe for conflict to exist. The conflict between a loving parent and their teenage child embarassed by them can just as engaging as the one between a self exiled prince and his uncle who usurped his throne and ruined his kingdom in his absence – In fact, because the former is more relatable a situation than the latter – not many of us have uncles who murder our father and then when we run away as a result we get adopted by a closeted gay couple, but we’ve all had fallouts with family members even if they don’t usually lead to road trips from hell – in some ways the conflicts in ‘lighter and fluffier’ universes hit you in the feels more. (…A Goofy Movie and The Lion King. Those are… Not the two Disney films I expected to wind up comparing when I woke up today, but ok…)
So, yeah, more AUs where somehow the Big Bad was circumvented, focusing on character drama rather than from the premise that this would be happily ever after and boring. Or where the hero became the hero via a path that doesn’t suck like some heroic version of the myth that true art is born in suffering (it isn’t – Van Gogh, for example, explicitly stated he was most productive when he was at his best medicated and most mentally stable, and some of his best and most well known works are from that period). An AU where Leomon Lives (…Any season. He dies in all of them.). Any of those would be fab.
I think there’s a difference between reboots and AUs embedded in canon. In reboots, the writers want a big obvious change to differentiate their work. However, in stories that just bring up an AU once or twice, as well as a need to explain why there isn’t people choosing to live in the AU after the AU episodes or further interaction with the AU world, I think some writers feel the need to justify why the original world is better and worth writing about. Tragedy is meant as a hook in reboots and as off-putting in-series.