With the growing studio demand for world-building, Alexander Glover explores the trade-offs that come with focusing on interconnected cinematic universes.
Thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), every studio wants to imitate Disney’s approach with their own shared universe. Each new Marvel release receives unrivalled fanfare and goes on to garner hefty sums at the box office. In fact, after 16 movies it has become the highest grossing film series of all time, surpassing the likes of Harry Potter, Star Wars and James Bond.
Thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), every studio wants to imitate Disney’s approach with their own shared universe.
With this in mind, why wouldn’t rival studios want to take a piece of the action? Can all film properties capitalise on universe building? Or, should they focus on making a good movie above all else? Is it a case of money versus art?
Marvel’s obvious rival, DC, has been attempting to create its own interconnected universe by fast-tracking characters onto the big screen ahead of November’s Justice League. Many fans and critics have argued that this desire for its own universe, dubbed by many as the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), has led to characters not being fully developed before being thrown into the upcoming ensemble film. Can there be an ensemble if there hasn’t been a solo outing yet? Looking at you Aquaman, Cyborg and Flash.
For many, trying to squeeze too many characters into both Batman Vs Superman and Suicide Squad spelt destruction for those films and neither was well-received critically. The stories of both had plot holes and characters weren’t fully developed. Warner Bros understandably felt the need for speed as it attempted to catch up with Disney. However, to the casual moviegoer, it may look like DC is copying Marvel even though the Justice League and a lot of DC characters have been around for longer than their Marvel counterparts. That in itself is an injustice to the characters.
Neither Disney nor Warner Bros kicked this off in comic book films. 20th Century Fox started the trend in 2000 with X-Men and have gone on to release ten movies in that shared universe. These movies have included sequels (X2), prequels (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and spin-offs (Deadpool). There are at least a further five films on the way in this universe.
Long before comic book movies, though, there was another cinematic universe on the big screen. The Universal Monsters universe released movies during the 1920s through to the 1950s featuring the likes of Count Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man. The characters would often appear in movies starring other monsters and many of the same actors played roles in each.
Either following the MCU’s lead or playing up to the adage that everything is cyclical, Universal has decided to reboot this monster world under the name Dark Universe. The first movie in this universe was 2017’s the Mummy and audiences were expecting Bride of Frankenstein next before other monster flicks such as the Invisible Man and the Hunchback of Notre-Dame. However, Universal may be learning that it’s not as easy as Disney make it look because they have just announced that Bride of Frankenstein is being pushed back. The studio says, “this special movie needs more time to come together”. Angelina Jolie is reportedly still attached to star though.
Other franchises are searching for ways to establish their own universes. Godzilla and King Kong have crossed over and now toy-maker Hasbro is trying to get a shared universe up and running. Hasbro is the maker of Transformers and the Hasbro Universe is set to include the transforming vehicles as well as G.I. Joe and Jem and the Holograms. No word yet on Action Man’s possible inclusion.
The whole concept of shared universes is not new, starting in books and comic books decades ago. However, the extent of the interconnectedness has grown. Now stories that start of in a film can be continued on a tv show, in a video game or in a tie-in comic book series. The options are endless.
Marvel does this in that all of its stories, across all platforms, coexist within the MCU. This has been one point of differentiation for DC in that its tv shows exist in a separate universe to its films. The Arrowverse (because Arrow was the first show released in it) has its own continuity which means some characters such as the Flash and Deadshot have appeared in both the tv shows and the movies but played by different actors.
Now it seems DC may be about to further differentiate itself from the MCU. Recent rumblings from camp Warner Bros suggest that the studio is going to move away from the emphasis on the shared universe. In August it was reported that Martin Scorsese was being lined up to produce a Joker origin movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio as the clown prince of crime. This presumably won’t come to fruition but signals the direction DC may be heading.
Jared Leto is signed up to be the DCEU’s Joker so a movie with a new actor in that role suggests the studio are interested in making standalone movies away from the continuity of the shared universe. This is a good thing. Standalones allow big name actors, writers and directors to get involved with the franchise. These filmmakers are unlikely to sign up to long-term deals, such as the ones signed by Chris Pratt and Robert Downey Jr. These big stars prefer flexibility and the ability to work on whatever they like the most at any given time. Standalones would allow Warner Bros to get the best filmmakers to work on their films, like they did with Christopher Nolan on his Dark Knight trilogy.
Other franchises are searching for ways to establish their own universes. Godzilla and King Kong have crossed over and now toy-maker Hasbro is trying to get a shared universe up and running.
Wonder Woman is the most critically successful DCEU film so far. What separates it from the other three releases is that it is practically a standalone film. Apart from the Bruce Wayne bookends, the movie is set in the past (during WW1), before the events of the other movies. This allows the creative team to make a film not influenced by the rest of the universe. Ultimately, the film benefits from this freedom to create a good story and not worry about much else.
The studios may not like the idea of moving away from the shared universe because audiences may feel like they don’t have to see every film. Moviegoers could skip the films they are not interested in and it won’t affect their understanding of future releases.
This means DC/WB could potentially lose money by going this route. However, a well-made movie will garner far greater positive word-of-mouth. This has been an issue for the DCEU which has seen big drop-offs in second-week totals. With this in mind, maybe the studio should focus on pleasing fans and reviewers and the box office success will follow.
The Arrowverse has its own continuity which means some characters such as the Flash and Deadshot have appeared in both the tv shows and the movies but played by different actors.
Shared universes are fun and it’s great to find links and Easter Eggs in each movie. However, at the end of the day, most moviegoers want to leave the theatre feeling like they’ve seen a good film. With this in mind, filmmakers should perhaps put the shared universe on the back burner and prioritise good filmmaking. Subtle nods and occasional crossovers may work better. It is also nice to allow the audience to imagine for themselves. For example, is every Pixar movie in the same universe?