There are a lot of ways to go about storytelling and world building, and a lot of comic universes have recently made changes to make their fictional universes more streamlined and easier to jump onto, it’s the reason for the likes of the Marvel Now! line and the New 52 reboot. Marvel and DC are the obvious examples here, but they’re not the only universes that needed some “lore smoothing,” since confusing fictional universes are all over pop culture.
This isn’t to say these universes are bad, in fact, the convulsion and all-over-the-place bonkers storytelling is sometimes that we love most about them. Maybe this is because these stories are just so free? We love these convoluted and confusing universes because it’s clear the creators have a lot of passion for what there doing. Heck, maybe it’s even because it brings the fans together, discussing theories, trying to figure out loose ends or confusing bits. Take it even further and it’s a lot of fun to bring friends and family into the fandom, so we can all be confused and entertained together. With all that said, here’s CBR’s pick of the 15 Most headache-inducing fictional universes (that we love).
16. X-MEN MOVIE-VERSE
In the ’90s, Marvel began selling film rights to studios in order to avoid bankruptcy. The first resulting film was Fox’s X-Men. Many credit the film for paving the way for other modern superhero films like Spider-Man and eventually the MCU.
After The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which were critical failures, the X-Men films seemed like they would end there. But as the MCU found success, Fox released X-Men: First Class to rejuvenate the franchise. It wasn’t quite a reboot though, as it ended up being part of the original trilogy’s continuity. This is where things got confusing, as First Class and subsequent sequels jumped around timelines and flat-out ignored continuity errors and plot holes. Further, shows like The Gifted and Legion seem to be part of the same continuity. It’s all gotten very cluttered, which, fortunately, hasn’t stopped the quality of the franchise for the most part.
15. THE TERMINATOR
The Terminator universe (or should we say multiverse?) started out innocently enough, two well received and rather beloved first films, which were quoted non-stop during their time, and a popular Universal Studios ride. But then Terminator 3 happened, followed by The Sarah Conner Chronicles and Terminator: Salvation. Then, to wrap it all up, there’s the critical and box office failure that was Terminator: Genisys. That’s not even how you spell “Genesis,” man.
Those don’t even include the comics which introduce even more timelines to the Terminator multiverse. Seriously, were do we even begin with explaining this one? There’s so much time travel involved and why did a robot go to school and why is Sarah Conner young now while the Terminator is old? It’s all very confusing, but its a good thing the convolution of the long-going series doesn’t deplete the fun and action of the earlier films.
Smallville was really the first show if it’s kind, as it followed a superhero before they put on the costume to show what happened to Clark Kent that turned him into the man that he would one day become. On the show, Clark struggled with morality and obligation over his own desires, presenting a fascinating looking into the history of Superman.
While these themes remained throughout the whole show, it got a little, shall we say, zany towards the end. This isn’t to say the show wasn’t a lot of fun, and it definitely ended with a bang, but the deaths, resurrections, time travel, clones and comas all ended up making the show more of a long-running soap opera than a superhero origin. Still, Smallville stands as a pinnacle of superhero television and, despite it’s confusing timeline, it single-handedly made way for modern superhero TV hits like Arrow and The Flash.
13. MORTAL KOMBAT
Oh jeez, where do we even begin with this one? Aside from the confusion that comes with Mortal Kombat VS. DC Universe (yes you read that right), there’s a lot to unfold in the crazy, lasting world of the Mortal Kombat franchise. In the MK lore, there are multiple dimensions known as realms, and each realm is looked after by the gods. When a realm wishes to invade and absorb another to combine the two landscapes, they must invoke, wait for it, Mortal Kombat, a fighting tournament to decide the fate of the two realms.
Still with us? Okay, good, because the fighters involved in these tournaments have some of the craziest backstories ever. Everything from rival ninja clans and robot replacements to escaping from hell and half-dragon hybrids, Mortal Kombat offers a, shall we say, colorful cast of characters and they’re definitely what keep fans coming back for more.
The basic setup of Gotham is interesting: Bruce Wayne’s parents are dead and young detective Jim Gordon is out to find the killer. Sounds simple enough: a little cop drama in the backdrop of what would eventually become Batman’s domain. But of course, it didn’t really stay that way, and the show has since gone completely off-the-rails bonkers.
While not without its redeeming qualities, Gotham‘s only goal seems to be showing us Batman villains without a Batman to fight them. Heck, recently the show doesn’t even seem to have a problem adapting full Batman comic story arcs without Batman in them, the likes of the Court of Owls and Hugo Strange running around before Bruce Wayne has even hit puberty. When comparing to the comics, the far-off adaptation that is Gotham ends up being rather confusing, but it definitely has its following.
11. FINAL FANTASY VII
We’re gonna be blunt: the plot of Final Fantasy VII is nuts. Seriously, just listen: On a planet called Gaia, the planet’s lifestream gives life to all things. A mega-corporation known as the Shinra Electric Power Company is draining the lifestream, using an elite force called SOLDIER to enforce their world-dominating plans.
Shinra’s actions are threatening all life on Gaia, so an eco-terrorist group called AVALANCHE and a ragtag group of adventurers lead by Cloud Strife, a former SOLDIER, wage war against the corporation. Meanwhile, Sephiroth, another former SOLDIER, works to summon a meteor to injure the planet and absorb the lifestream energy it releases. Confused yet? Yeah, us too, and we’re barely through half the game, so we’re gonna stop there. Final Fantasy VII may be immensely confusing and all-over-the-place, but with so much going on, it’s easy to see why it has such a huge fanbase.
10. AMALGAM UNIVERSE
Amalgam Comics was the temporary merging of the Marvel and DC universes that were published between the third and fourth issues of DC vs. Marvel. Out of this crazy concept came characters like Super Soldier (a combination of Captain America and Superman), Dark Claw (Wolverine and Batman) and Dr. Strangefate (take a wild guess).
The 12 issues released as part of the faux publication company cheekily implied that the comics had been around for decades and the event as a whole was action-packed and lots of fun. The origin of the Amalgam universe even poked some satirical fun at the convoluted nature of multiverses with how the merging was explained. Purposely convoluted, the Amalgam origin centers around two brothers that are the physical/celestial embodiment of the Marvel and DC universes. They fought before being combined and eventually separated by Dr. Strangefate and Access, a character created for Amalgam.
9. KINGDOM HEARTS
Kingdom Hearts is Final Fantasy meets Disney, literally. The Square Enix game lets you run around Disney Movie-based worlds. To make things even crazier, the backstory and plot of the world is insanely complicated.
When someone falls prey to darkness, they become a Heartless, leaving behind a husk called a Nobody. Villains seek to control the Heartless and Nobodies to open the door to Kingdom Hearts and gain immense power. The main protagonist of the series is Sora, chosen wielder of the Keyblade, a weapon that can seal and protect various worlds from the forces of darkness. Sora, along with Donald Duck and Goofy, adventure to protect the worlds from villains like Maleficent and Ansem/Xehanort. Confused? We’re just skimming the surface here. The dense story, along with the Disney movie worlds, is strangely part of the reason why Kingdom Hearts has such a huge following.
8. METAL GEAR
Yet another Japanese video game on this list, Metal Gear has a f***ing insane plot that is played 100% serious, though that seriousness is itself tongue-in-cheek. Seriously, go read the MG wiki for five minutes and see if you can make sense of it. No? Neither can we, cuz this series is absolutely bonkers.
The Metal Gear series was created by Hideo Kojima and mostly follows protagonist Solid Snake. The plot juggles elements like giant robots, nano machines, clones, cyborg ninjas, possessed arms and using “snake” in codenames (seriously, theres like five of them). If you manage to make sense of it all, let us know, because we’re at a loss. The ludicrously dense narrative of the MG games is played off as satirical and over-the-top, making the convulsion one of the reasons the series has such lasting power amongst its fans.
Created by Masashi Kishimoto, hit manga Naruto ran for over a decade in Shonen Jump Magazine. The story followed a young ninja trying to find his way in the world as he aspired to become the hokage of his village (basically, the supreme ninja and one in charge of the town). Like other manga in the genre, a chapter’s story was barely fleshed out before it saw publication, which resulted in the series having story arcs and lore layered on top of each other rather than having a beginning, middle and end planned out from the start.
Due to this popular style of manga writing, there was a lot going on in Naruto. But out of the confusion came some impressive storytelling, the “writing as it goes” method resulting in further and further amped up fights and stories that kept fans hooked. Naruto is a lot of fun in the end, and the density of the plot is part of the reason why.
6. ASSASSIN’S CREED
The idea of following a family line of assassins throughout history is a fantastic premise for a video game, it provides enough motivation to play through the game and it sets up sequels to follow other descendants. While the Assassin’s Creed series starts with this concept, they decided to take it a bit farther.
The games are told from the perspective of Desmond Miles, a descendent of the assassins. Desmond is forced into the animus, a machine that lets him live out the memories of his ancestors in order to train as an assassin.Wait what? How does that even work? And why didn’t they just stick with the line of assassins? Who knows, maybe all the modern day animus drama is what keeps the Assassin’s Creed fans hooked in, but we’re sure confused.
At this point, the world of Dragonball has been going on for over two decades, starting way back in 1984. The series, created by Akira Toriyama is a massively dense epic narrative that has had countless arcs. What started as a Journey to the West inspired manga eventually evolved into its own huge world involving magic, aliens, androids, time travel, gods and, most recently, alternate universes. We’ve watched protagonist Goku grow from a monkey-tailed child to a warrior with the power of a god.
Because of how long it’s been going, the world of Dragonball has gotten pretty complicated, but that’s part of its charm. Toriyama has said of DBZ that he would intentionally write himself into corners so that he would be a better writer by trying to find a way out of them. That’s a pretty baller move and it paid off with a huge worldwide fanbase.
4. SONIC THE HEDGEHOG COMICS
Most people might not know that Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog series actually holds the Guinness record for the longest running American comic book series that hasn’t been rebooted. And, as we’ve learned when things run on for a long time, they tend to get a bit confusing. While part of the comic series’ confusion lies in its long, dense story, most of it actually comes from the somewhat recent lawsuit involving former writer Ken Penders.
Penders created a lot of the Sonic comic lore that built on pieces of the video game story and expanded it into a detailed and immensely unique world. Unfortunately, after Penders left StH, he sued Archie Comics, claiming that all the characters originating from the comics belonged to him. This resulted in a soft reboot that cut out the Penders-created-elements in favor for a more streamlined book that kept its issue count.
3. DC’S MANY REBOOTS
It could be argued that DC comics is the originator of the now oft-used publishing techniques of rebooting and retconning, since they’ve done both pretty frequently throughout their history. This isn’t a bad thing of course, but it has resulted in some confusion. DC’s reboots definitely provide a lot of jumping on point for new readers, but theres still a lot of comics history to recognize and learn.
This isn’t a fault however, since DC’s strength actually lies in their willingness to clean the slate and smooth over the lore of their comics, it means they willingly take risks. Since it was first established that all their superheroes shared a universe, DC has gone through several reboots, most recently their Rebirth series, which combines elements of pre and post New 52 comics. These reboots each have their strengths and weaknesses, but keeping track of them all is definitely headache-inducing.
2. MARVEL’S SECRET WARS
Back in 2015, Marvel made an “announcement to end all announcements” when the revealed that both the Marvel 616 universe and the Ultimate comics universe would be merging into one new universe in the “Battleworld” storyline of the 2015 Secret Wars series. Though Battleworld didn’t last forever, the result of the merging of universes had lasting effects on the Marvel universe.
The Battleworld series that lead to this new Marvel universe was an amalgam of multiple Marvel universes and was actually the third Battleworld in Marvel history. To make matters even more confusing, while the original timeline’s Wolverine is dead, the Old Man Logan version has been brought to this universe alongside the likes of various other alternate versions of superheroes. Man, this is hard to keep track of. Good thing the stories from this new Marvel universe have been thoroughly entertaining.
1. THE ARROWVERSE
When The CW premiered the first season of Arrow in 2012, it seemed like the gritty, updated take on Green Arrow would remain grounded in reality for the most part. That all changed when the show introduced the “mirukuru” serum and eventually Barry Allen. The latter would lead the lone series to evolve into three shows and an animated miniseries. These shows would eventually become known as “The Arrowverse.”
Each of the Arrowverse shows have their ups and downs, but enjoy a large fanbase for the most part, and, while they have had several crossovers, the shows seem pretty distant from each other. In other words, while The Flash is dealing with alternate dimensions and Legends of Tomorrow is having time-traveling adventures, Arrow is shooting arrows at drug dealers. It’s a bit of a disconnect that makes the universe as a whole seem somewhat complicated. Speaking of alternate dimensions, did we mention that the Supergirl television series is one of them? Exactly.
Which fictional universe do you feel is the most complicated? Be sure to tell us in the comments!