2015: The Year Nerd Culture Gave Pop Culture Never-Ending Stories

Endings have always been the most difficult part of a story to get right. Landing the proverbial plane smoothly, in a way that is satisfying and feels natural, takes foresight and planning, and it’s also undermined by questions like: Why can’t the story keep going? Why can’t we feel this way forever? The answer — as anyone who’s tried to write a book, record a video or even tell a joke can tell you — is that our stories are traditionally defined by a beginning, middle and end.

But these days, that’s not always the case. The evolution in the way we relate stories has been mirrored by a constant evolution in the media we use to tell those stories — and it’s interesting to note that generally, the newer the narrative form, the less it conforms to traditional storytelling norms. As such, then, the desire to create infinite stories has manifested most strongly in video games (where individual narratives often take a back seat to the “lore” that builds a compelling world in which many stories can exist) and superhero comic books (which establish a “canon,” a fable-like set of narrative talking points that serve as the rules for all subsequent stories, including reboots, remakes and dream-like “what if” scenarios.)

The greater question, of course, is why. Why are fans less content to let stories end than in the past? Obviously there’s a financial incentive to keep the golden geese laying eggs, but corporations wouldn’t keep finding new ways to grow franchises if fans weren’t interested.

The answer lies in the way that in 2015, our pop culture consumption plays a pivotal role in defining who we are. In the past, the most popular fictions — fables, fairy tales, and so on — were entertainment, but they’ve become more and more a way we define ourselves. In doing so, they’ve also become a source of community, augmenting our lives with shared memories more interesting, insightful, or exciting than our own. Sometimes, when a person loves a story very much, they aren’t content to simply augment their lives. They want the stories to become a part of who they are.

In the age of social media, sharing stories — sometimes about news topics, but often about pop culture phenomena like Star Wars, Hamilton or Adele’s new album — has become one the easiest and most emblematic ways of expressing our identity in public. Our favorite stories are no longer shared interests; they are badges of honor.

At the same time, the language media outlets use to promote content related to entertainment has fostered an increasingly blurred line between reading about fictional worlds and reality. We treat weekly TV narratives the same way we treat news events, and publications speculate about the lives of characters the same we do celebrities.

Characters are the new celebrities.

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It’s never been less crazy to get angry because someone hates something you like. When a friend you haven’t seen in six years posts a negative comment on the Master of None recap you just shared, you can’t help but take it a little personally.

If preference is identity, than it makes sense that pop culture stories rely on what you love to coax you into trying new things. TV shows increasingly rely on long, serialized adaptations of films and other stories increasingly to propel our interest in new shows, and these shows rely on the lore of established fiction to turn a two-hour feature into a ten-hour season.

Similarly, popular narrative-driven video games in 2015 continued to follow the current generational trend of creating games set in large sprawling worlds that are entirely open for players to explore. Games like The Witcher III and Fallout 4, two of the year’s best, are anchored by their respective main plots, but they don’t truly hit their stride until players diverge from those arcs to find other stories sprinkled throughout their expansive, live-in worlds.

Fallout 4
Fallout 4

These stories achieve their sense of place through “lore,” information superfluous to the narrative that colors and explains some “rules” of a fictional world that players might not encounter from their character’s perspective. And as stories become ever more important to us, this same idea is permeating popular culture beyond the world of games.

Marvel’s Jessica Jones, for example — the newest piece of Marvel’s cinematic universe from Netflix — enjoys all the benefits of having an expansive world. The show tells the story of a superhero fallen from grace who becomes a private detective, and it has the time and freedom to develop its characters to tell a nuanced story of a woman suffering from PTSD because movies like The Avengers have done some of the heavy lifting for the viewer. Slapping the word “Marvel” on the front of the name means that everyone knows the score. Fans don’t look for all the answers in the show, because they know they can find them elsewhere.

The downside of this idea became apparent, though, in this year’s wave of poorly written shows that relied on lore to replace storytelling rather than add to it. Take Fox’s failed adaptation of Minority Report. Instead of working within the rules of the world created by Philip K. Dick and popularized by Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, the show tacked on the highlights — people who can see the future, police who solve crimes before they happen — as an overarching b-plot for a by-the-numbers procedural. No matter how shallow or clichéd, a fictional world exists to serve the story or stories it was created to carry.

Still, the benefits of expanded universes are clear, both narratively and commercially. Looking forward, TV and film companies are looking to lore to allow them to keep seemingly exhausted franchises alive. Less than a month after The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 was released, rights-holder Lionsgate Films announced they would be keeping the series alive through a series of prequels. Chronologically, the first novel in the series takes place during the 74th Hunger Games event, which means there are 73 previous tournaments to explore: according to an executive at the company, the expanded Hunger Games universe will feature less Katniss Everdeen, and more teen bloodsport. Whether the new films are tied to secondary but familiar characters from the first films, or to the first tournament that built the tradition, the Hunger Games will suddenly develop an infinitely larger history for readers to obsess over.

The same is true of the exploding Harry Potter universe: the J.K. Rowling machine not only announced a new series of books about Harry’s son, who barely exists in the current text, but also a series of films based on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a prequel trilogy based on an encyclopedia about how magic works in the books.

While some stories can be revived simply by shining a light on as-yet unwritten corners of their universe, sometimes the best course of action to start over — another idea that comes from the worlds of comic books and games. (It’s no accident that “reboot” is a term that originally applied exclusively to computers.) Notably, both Marvel and DC comics underwent universal overhauls in 2015. Marvel’s eight-part Secret Wars mini-series brought the comic book universe to a literal end, as two separate dimensions crashed into each other, creating a sort of big bang effect that activated a completely new world.

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Secret Wars

After Secret Wars, every Marvel superhero comic was effectively rebooted, jumping forward eight months into a completely new variation on every hero story, including the classics: In The Amazing Spider-Man, for example, Peter Parker became a globe-trotting CEO, rather of the down-on-his-luck kid seen in the films. Yet despite blowing up their narrative and starting over two times, Spider-Man’s history hasn’t disappeared. On the contrary, the reboot’s capacity to cite and subvert its history is what makes it exciting.

This continuity “reset” tactic of combining a reboot and a remake to create a sort of “variation on a theme” is old hat in the comic world, but the greater world of pop culture has discovered it as a way to both tap into nostalgia and create a “jumping-on point” for fans who aren’t superfans with an encyclopedic (or any) knowledge of the series.

The tactic has never been employed more completely than in this summer’s blockbuster to end all blockbusters, Jurassic World, whose plot actually walks you through the franchise’s meta-narrative: In the film, a park called “Jurassic World” has been built directly on top of the old “Jurassic Park.” The public knows the original park existed and why it closed, but there’s no mention of it in the new park’s literature, and failing to learn from the original incident leads to the exact same terrifying scenario.

Jurassic World’s formula led to one of the most successful box office runs of the year and modernized Jurassic Park as a franchise, but there are narrative consequences for manufacturing this kind of “new nostalgia.” If a world is forced to re-create every iconic moment from the original, it never really has the space to develop its characters or tell a story of its own. Despite its attempts to make a storied franchise feel baggage-free, Jurassic World would be incomprehensible, or maybe just awful, without knowing Jurassic Park well.

On the other hand, while it employed basically the same tactic as Jurassic World, Mad Max: Fury Road felt like a completely new story. Fury Road succeeds where Jurassic World failed by holding the reins of nostalgia a little looser. Rather than seeking to re-create specific moments, director George Miller distilled the essence of the franchise — the desert, the car chase, the desperation — and allowed a new story to grow out of it. Like Jurassic World, Fury Road also provides the best metaphor for its own narrative: Max, tied to the front of his captor’s car like a trophy, proves the figurehead for a story that’s probably too feminist, too intuitive and too self-contained to have existed without the benefit of a famous name.

But there are arguments against the idea of infinite stories, too. By extending, expanding, regurgitating, repackaging — however you want to describe keeping stories alive — we’re betraying a fear of finality. In a world where content comes streaming through endless feeds — feeds that have no internal narrative and no structure —  fiction remains one of the few places left where we can still reach the far horizon. But when we do, we can see that there’s nothing on the other side. We’re all afraid of endings.

This piece is part of Flavorwire’s series of essays on 2015 in culture. Click here to follow our end-of-year coverage.