The Paradox of Fiction

It’s a moving scene. All of the still-alive Avengers join together at the house for a send-off of their friend.

Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey, Jr., had died. The same Downey who played Sherlock Holmes during his stint with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The same Downey whose Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is the love interest of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is himself a Sherlock Holmes.

Downey’s Watson is played by Jude Law, also famously the baddie from Captain Marvel dispatched by Brie Larson (who is also present at the funeral). Cumberbatch’s Watson (Martin Freeman) is not at the funeral but very present in the MCU as Everett Ross (Captain America: Civil War and Black Panther).

Near the front of the dock is Captain America (Chris Evans), who is also the Human Torch from an early film adaptation of the Fantastic Four – who I’m sure we can expect to see soon in the MCU. Rumours have the role of Mr. Fantastic linked to John Krasinski, who was incidentally an early front-runner for the role of Captain America.

Also there is Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who played Mace Windu in the now-Disney owned Star Wars films that received multiple references from Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Jackson also appears in the third instalment of the Die Hard series, incorrectly identified by Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) as an example of a film with a time travel plot.

Ant-Man and War Machine also reference Hot Tub Time Machine as an example of time travel movies, which is funny because there’s Sebastian Stan in the background.

Die Hard itself takes me back to when I first thought about the paradox of fiction. Mr. Die Hard himself, Bruce Willis, had a brief but recurring role on the television show Friends as the father of a girl Ross was dating and someone romantically linked with Rachel. Willis was there because his Whole Nine Yards co-star, Matthew Perry, wagered him that their film would do well at the box office.

It stuck out to me because, well, the men of Friends are dedicated Die Hard fans. Joey in particular screams “Die Hard!” at any reference to the film and Ross even had a napkin to prove that the idea for the film was originally his.

That made it all the stranger to me that precisely zero of them had anything to say about Bruce Willis appearing in their universe. Sure, he was not John McClane in their universe. He wasn’t even Bruce Willis. He was Paul Stevens, father of Elizabeth. Still though – this man does look an awful lot like Bruce Willis, hero of their absolute favourite movie of all time and that warrants mentioning, doesn’t it?

It got me thinking about the nature of fiction. “I find it fascinating that any work of fiction contains all other works of fiction that exist to that point with the exception of itself,” I once wrote. Within the context of a fictional work we suspend belief to a degree and pretend that it represents reality. When reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” we are not so much reading a fictional story as diving into the “real” world of this detective and his partner.

If you are Sherlock Holmes then, you exist in a world where Jane Austen has written Emma (which would go on to become a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays one of the Holmes’ love interests in the MCU). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even exists (or will exist) to write all of his other works – except for the adventures of Sherlock Holmes because within that universe it is not a fiction, it’s reality as recorded by Dr. Watson.

We aren’t even in the territory of crazy meta references like Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds, who also played Wade Wilson in the unrelated X-Men series by FOX and DC’s Green Lantern) refers to Cable (Josh Brolin) as Thanos (his MCU character) before Marvel and Disney acquired the rights to the FOX properties (and therefore Deadpool).

What is of interest is not the “plot hole” created by these contradictions. It’s fiction and this is how it works. I find it interesting the context of world-building, of creating a fictional world that must simultaneously aware and not aware of the real world in which it exists.

I could, for example, write a screenplay set in modern day America that casts Robert Downey, Jr. in a role while acknowledging everything that happened before (Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes, Downey played Sherlock Holmes, Downey also starred in the MCU) and still have a plot where Andrew Scott (Cumberbatch’s Moriarty) investigates crimes committed by Downey’s character. One could even include a tongue-in-cheek line between the characters about “What if our roles were reversed?” to stoke the amusement of fans (it’s bad writing, but one could).

This is where I love certain stories so aware of this paradox that they take conscious steps to undercut it. Last Action Hero (1993), for example, features a boy travelling into the ‘Jack Slater’ films from the real world where he meets Jack Slater, portrayed by real-world actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie packs itself with meta references, from Jack Slater being unable to remember Arnold’s name (“I’m the famous Arnold Brownschwagger”) to Danny’s reference that fellow cop John Practice (played by F. Murray Abraham) is untrustworthy because “he killed Mozart” (a reference to Amadeus, starring Abraham as Mozart rival Salieri, and which Jack keeps misunderstanding as “Mo Zart”). Practice (who in the in-world story is of course completely unaware of F. Murray Abraham) just assumes he has killed Mo Zart because he’s killed a ton of people he cannot remember.

Young protagonist Danny even comes up with the brilliant idea of taking Slater to a Blockbuster Video to rent The Terminator, only to discover in-world that Sylvester Stallone played the role. “He was great in that,” according to Slater.

In this universe where Schwarzenegger plays Slater but they are now in Slater’s world where Schwarzenegger doesn’t exist, it becomes necessary to completely erase Schwarzenegger. He was never a bodybuilding champ. He never becomes the Governor of California. All of the movie roles that belong to Schwarzenegger were cast to other actors.

If Schwarzenegger were to exist in the Slater universe, this same paradox might actually break the plot to the point of audiences rejecting it. Look at the fine line time travel movies walk. People love to dissect the plot holes and paradoxes created by time travel movies. In the the Last Action Hero universe, both Schwarzenegger and Slater exist – even meeting one another at one point.

The next time you watch television or a movie, or read a book, spare some time to consider how the reality of the fictional world relates to the real world, and how it may have impacted decisions made by the writers.

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