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Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere Could Be Fantasy's MCU (But There's Only One Way To Make It Work)

In a world where the entertainment industry is forever hungry to discover new intellectual properties to adapt, it's surprising that Brandon Sanderson's Cosmere is still untouched by Hollywood. Sanderson is easily among the most prolific and successful active fantasy authors out there, and in his recent interview with Wired, he noted that pretty much all of his works have been optioned. So, it's clear that at least someone out there is thinking about making Cosmere the next big live-action fantasy thing. However, the very nature of Cosmere might make this seem daunting.

See, Cosmere isn't the kind of thing you can just adapt into an easy TV series or a couple of movies. To make the most of it, Cosmere needs to go big — think Marvel Cinematic Universe big. Part of this is because of the sheer scale Sanderson operates on. In very rough terms, Cosmere is a mini-galaxy that contains several habitable planets, most of which are radically different from each other. Do you like dual worlds where one half is radically different from the other, or ones where the bad guy already won? Worlds constantly ravaged by the kind of nonsense weather you had during your last day off, or perhaps ones that are a bit more advanced than your average fantasy setting? Cosmere has it all, and more.

Sanderson's vast success is proof enough that Cosmere has plenty of untapped live-action potential. Yet, to make the most of it, any semi-serious adaptation needs to operate on a massive scale by following multiple throughlines, in stories that are often radically different from each other. This might seem difficult, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. Let's take a look at Cosmere, and how Sanderson's prolific fantasy universe could become the fantasy equivalent of the MCU. 

Cosmere's scale must be immediately apparent to the viewer (though not necessarily the characters)

Before we proceed into the finer details of adapting Sanderson's works, a quick crash course to the general nature of Cosmere is probably necessary. In-universe, Cosmere as we know it started when a god entity known as Adonalsium burst into 16 shards, which were divided between 16 folks. The ensuing Shards of Adonalsium all had different properties and started taking over the minds of their living vessels, getting up to all sorts of cosmic shenanigans and essentially becoming deities and demigods. 

The worlds in this reality are all divided into three different realms: The physical one, the Cognitive Realm that's shaped by ideas and thoughts, and the Spiritual Realm where soul and essence reign. There are rumors of a divine entity that may be even more powerful than Adonalsium. There are all sorts of mysterious and unknown forces (including one that's literally just called Evil), and powerful players who seem to be making their moves not just outside the chessboard, but in a different room altogether. There's a lot to draw from, is what we're saying — and it's all interconnected. 

There is, of course, far more to all of this, and as you can probably imagine, the concepts of these various realms -– as well as the idea of the interconnected Cosmere itself –- are largely alien to many folks who just focus on what's going on in their tiny corner of the world. Incidentally, this is also something that can easily happen to the audience, if the live-action adaptation fails to communicate the ongoing adventure's connection to the Cosmere at large. As such, the adaptation absolutely must find a way to communicate the grandness that lies beyond the story at hand.

Faithful and entertaining adaptation of the magic systems in the Cosmere is crucial

The basic build-up of Cosmere doesn't only allow for a complex, diverse, and interconnected playground. It also features one of the most intriguing and well-realized magic systems you'll ever see, and adapting these is a key part of the franchise's allure — if only because many major characters tend to have powers derived from these systems.

Again, a quick explanation of how things work in Sanderson's yard. Cosmere is home to an energy type known as Investiture, which can be harnessed to create effects that are this universe's version of magic. However, this tends to have far more limitations than most generic magic systems, and due to the way specific Shards affect the worlds they haunt, the way Investiture is applied on each planet tends to change dramatically. Because of the fact that overarching terminology is only known to Cosmere-aware people, each world also tends to have its own terminology. 

In effect, the magic in one world may be connected to metal, through which it's utilized in numerous, often surprising ways — such as creating certain effects by eating certain types of metal. Another world might have its magicians form a bond with mythical beings to tap into base forces of the universe, or perhaps feature complex, collectible animation commands known as "breaths." This gives Cosmere a huge array of wildly different magic systems that nevertheless follow an overarching set of laws. So, once the reader (or, as it happens, a character) is aware of the general Investiture rules, all of the wildly different world-specific variations are a bit easier to connect and understand. 

All of this — and far, far more — could make for one seriously confusing rule set if they were force-fed to audiences in one go, instead of slowly unfolding across numerous lengthy novels. As such, the adaptations should avoid big infodumps and expository scenes, and instead tie the learning process into the character's journey in much the same way a movie would depict a superhero's origin story. That way, learning what each magic system can and can't do will be a fun ride instead of an arduous learning process. 

The Stormlight Archive is the first step toward the Cosmere Cinematic Universe

So, how to start bringing all this to live action? The most likely choice for the first adaptation might seem to be a matter of taste. After all, who'd have thought that Iron Man, of all Marvel characters, would launch the biggest live-action mega-franchise in history? With this, though, there's only one logical place to start ... and, strangely enough, it's not the beginning.

The ongoing "The Stormlight Archive" series is the perfect place to get the Cosmere Cinematic Universe ball rolling. This would allow the live-action Cosmere works to start on the weather-ravaged, extremely extra planet of Roshar, which comes with a perfect combination of Sanderson's unique elements and traditional sword-and-sorcery stuff to serve as an introduction to the author's universe. This would also allow using one of his more cinematic protagonists — brooding "The Way of Kings" hero Kaladin — as the first main character, and make sure that there are several more equally intriguing figures waiting to step in the spotlight. As it happens, "The Stormlight Archive" is also important to the series at large because it heavily features the most likely overarching Cosmere Big Bad — Odium, the Shard of divine hate.

Another series that'll absolutely need to feature — either concurrently with "The Stormlight Archive" or immediately after it — is the "Mistborn" series, which complements "The Stormlight Archives" with a dystopian fantasy heist story that introduces Sanderson's metal-based magic system, allomancy. If the ball's still rolling at that point, the people in charge of the live-action Cosmere aren't exactly risking a "Game of Thrones" situation of running out of material. After all, there's still "Elantris," "Warbreaker," and the many upcoming Cosmere works the prolific Sanderson is working on.

Worldhoppers are the key to Cosmere's expansion

Before the first Cosmere movie concludes, we'll need to be familiar with at least one Worldhopper character. These are mighty and often ancient Cosmere-aware people who have found a way to move between the worlds, for one purpose or another. Since most other characters are locked in their own worlds and sagas, they're also absolutely key to communicating the true scale of this narrative universe.

For this reason, we need a specific Worldhopper to act in a role similar to Nick Fury in the MCU — that is, an instantly recognizable character who can move freely between stories, affecting and subtly influencing them while imprinting their own personality in the mix.

The most obvious candidate is Hoid, a powerful and mysterious player with deep and personal connections to the Shards of Adonalsium. A complex semi-mentor figure who pops up at key moments all across the Cosmere books, Hoid is a curious and often helpful figure who nevertheless pursues an agenda of his own. As yet another argument for starting the adaptations with "The Stormlight Archive," he plays a particularly prominent role in the series, where he turns up as an insult-hurling anti-jester known as King's Wit, and goes on to take a far more active role than his usual "mysterious stranger" schtick.

Though the character would need to be tinkered with in order to make him the sort of constant a large-scale adaptation of Cosmere works would need — he needs to get a little worse at disguises to stay recognizable to the audience, for one — his presence would be absolutely vital in the "Phase One" of the Cosmere Cinematic Universe, where the connections between the worlds are otherwise virtually nonexistent.

Crossovers and a proper endgame are what makes or breaks the Cosmere Cinematic Universe

The biggest problem about adapting Cosmere in live action is, ironically enough, its biggest literary strength. Though all individual Cosmere epics contain references to the bigger story at play and characters that appear in multiple series, a cinematic universe will need its "Avengers"-style team-ups and overarching antagonists. The villain part is already more or less in order, courtesy of the aforementioned Odium, who's already exerted its terrifying influence over numerous worlds. As for the team-up aspect, that's a bit trickier. Worldhoppers can probably take care of the interconnected aspect of Cosmere for the first few films and TV series, but eventually, moviegoers will want to see big-name team-ups.

This might not be as big of an issue as you'd think, though. Cosmere is still very much in development, methods of traveling between worlds and realms are constantly increasing, and it's pretty clear that Sanderson is building something even bigger as the various plots develop. Major "Mistborn" protagonist Kelsier, for instance, has been making moves in "The Stormlight Archive" as a cognitive shadow (think Force ghosts from "Star Wars," but with a few twists) known as Thaidakar, and there's no telling how many similar plays are going on in secret.

While it's unlikely that Sanderson is about to start breaking his general rule that his various series can be read without pre-existing familiarity with the others, it's entirely possible that he already has a big banger of an endgame in mind — and if he doesn't, he might very well make sure there's one in line for the adaptations.