Why It Might Be Time To Look Beyond Cinematic Universes

Universal’s Dark Universe. Transformers. Are audiences and filmmakers alike starting to grow weary of cinematic universes, we wonder...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

When Marvel made Iron Man in 2007, it didn’t just release a new superhero movie; it also embarked on something quite new in cinema. While we’ve all seen sequels, prequels, spin-offs and remakes before, the notion of a movie universe was different: a series of interlinked films, all building up to the summer blockbuster equivalent of a team-up comic.

With each subsequent entry – well, apart from The Incredible Hulk, which people don’t really talk about much anymore – Marvel’s movies built up anticipation for the main event, so that by the time The Avengers came out in 2012, it brought with it a sense of occasion akin to the World Cup or the Olympic Games. Little wonder, then, that The Avengers wound up making such an enormous amount of money: aside from the entertainment value of the film itself, the years of waiting to see Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, and Black Widow together on the silver screen really captured the public’s imagination. 

We all know what happened next: the rest of Hollywood saw what Marvel was doing and decided they wanted cinematic universes of their own. Consequently, we have Warner-DC doing a similar thing with its DC Extended Universe, which has so far resulted in Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman. The studio’s own team-up extravaganza, the three-hour-ish Justice League, is out later this year. 

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The critical reception to these movies has varied wildly, from the low point of last year’s Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad to the widespread praise lavished on director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Financially, on the other hand, Warner-DC can rest easy; in total, the studio’s four Extended Universe movies have made almost $3 billion worldwide – and Wonder Woman hasn’t even left cinemas yet.

Other studios, meanwhile, have been rather less successful with their own cinematic empire building. Anyone with an eye on these things will know what happened to Sony’s plans for Spider-Man: following the less-than enthusiastic response to The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the studio’s collection of interlinked movies was put on hold. Three years later, and Sony’s made a team-up of its own – with Marvel Studios, in the hope that installing Kevin Feige as producer on Spider-Man: Homecoming will generate a bit of summer blockbuster magic. If the forecasts are correct, the collaboration will pay dividends.

Away from the realm of superheroes, we have Universal Studios and its recently-announced Dark Universe. In the run-up to the release of The Mummy, the studio confidently released a photograph of the stars it had arrayed for a planned slate of big, horror-tinged tentpole adventures, taking in the likes of the Invisible Man, the Bride of Frankenstein, and Jekyll and Hyde. If Universal thought the billion-dollar smile of Tom Cruise could help launch a franchise to rival Marvel and DC, however, it would soon be disappointed: The Mummy was soon knocked off its perch by Wonder Woman. What Universal does next, exactly, isn’t entirely clear. 

Leaving aside the folly of announcing sequels before you’ve even launched the first film in your planned franchise – something Simon wrote about a few days ago – there’s the question of whether audiences have quite the same appetite for shared universes as studio executives appear to. This summer’s Transformers: The Last Knight was initially billed as something of a soft reboot, intended to pave the way for – you guessed it – a bunch of linking sequels and spin-offs, beginning with a movie based on the character Bumblebee. This may indeed still happen, but the signs so far, looking at the box office figures, suggest that The Last Knight hasn’t done much to reinvigorate audience interest in a franchise that’s been on a gentle financial decline for some years now.

Back in 2015, Rob Leane wrote a list of the cinematic universes that were then currently in development, and it paints a telling picture of how things can pan out. Exactly what happens with Ubisoft’s videogame adaptations is currently unclear following the tepid Assassin’s Creed. The status of Sony’s plans for a string of Ghostbusters films – with an all-male entry devised by Channing Tatum and Drew Pearce – is similarly cloudy. Things have been very quiet on the Hasbro front, which was reportedly going to bring us more G.I. Joe sequels and connected films based on M.A.S.K, Visionaries, and other names from the company’s archives.

The big hitters on that 2015 list are the aforementioned Marvel and DC universes, plus Warner’s growing Lego franchise, which has done extraordinarily well so far, buoyed up as it is by its effervescent humor. Then there’s Star Wars, which through the weight of its fame alone is absolutely gigantic; 2015’s The Force Awakens made plenty of money, and so did last year’s Rogue One, the first of Disney-Lucasfilm’s spin-offs. 

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Then again, even Star Wars provides a revealing insight into what can go wrong within a shared universe potentially worth billions of dollars. The making of Rogue One brought with it stories of extensive reshoots, with word that director Tony Gilroy had been hired to work with original filmmaker Gareth Edwards on the new sequences. The production of next year’s Han Solo origin film has been struck by even more drama: the dismissal of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and the hiring of Ron Howard in their stead. Directors leaving projects isn’t all that unusual; having them fired five months into principal photography is almost unprecedented on a film of this scale.

It’s that scale, we suspect, that is part of the inherent problem with shared universes: the bigger and more complex the machine becomes, the more likely it is for something to go wrong. Far from the driving, creative engine driving that machine, the director becomes a cog: no more or less important than the producers, the investors, the merchandisers, the offices full of writing teams who, as Robbie Collin describes it in his fascinating piece, huddle together, highly caffeinated, drawing up their interlocking stories. Not every filmmaker will take to that assembly line process of making movies, and by the same token, we can’t help but wonder whether audiences will start to grow similarly weary.

It might be instructional to look at what’s been going on over at Fox. Of late, it’s effectively had its comic book movies running along on two tracks. On one, there are the X-Men movies, with last year’s Apocalypse being the most recent entry. On the other track, there are Deadpool and Logan: more adult, less directly tethered to a wider comic book lore, and refreshingly individual. While X-Men: Apocalypse had its defenders, we’d go out on a limb and say that, where Apocalypse feels like a big, loud, slightly muddled and somewhat generic superhero film, Deadpool and Logan feel more self-contained and grounded in one filmmaker’s identity. 

Only the other day, comic writer Mark Millar and Jordan Vogt Roberts engaged in a lively Twitter conversation about a movie based on Millar’s one-shot comic, Superman: Red Son. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the director of Kings Of Summer and Kong: Skull Island, said he’d pitched his idea for a Red Son adaptation to Warner; Millar replied that some director friends of his had engaged in conversations with the studio about the same thing. During that exchange, Millar and Vogt-Roberts said some pertinent thing about the pitfalls of the movie universe:

“The danger with shared universe[s] is the same as nature,” Millar wrote. “without diversification and with everything connected, it just takes one problem for a wipe-out.”

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“100% agree – in the excitement for shared universes I think people forget the fundamental potency of cinema is a beginning, middle and end,” Vogt-Roberts concurred.

None of this is to say that good – even great – films can’t come out of the cinematic universe paradigm. Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier – they’re all big, fun, and smart summer movies. But when we start looking beyond these comic book franchises, and over at the studios contorting themselves into all kinds of weird shapes in an effort to recapture the same lightning in a bottle, and the pitfalls become clear.

Ultimately, movies are about self-contained stories, compellingly told. Yes, they can be part of a bigger story – like the superb Planet Of The Apes franchise which restarted in 2011 – and they can even build to some big event, like The Avengers. Warner’s Toho MonsterVerse films – Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island have been fun so far. But when the worst examples of these movies begin to feel like adverts for other films not yet released – the Quicktime trailers Bruce Wayne watches for Cyborg and The Flash in Batman V Superman, the extraneous villains piled into Amazing Spider-Man 2 – and you can almost feel the whole edifice begin to falter. In the case of Spider-Man, Sony had little choice but to start building again from scratch.

We recently read a rumor that Eon is thinking about making an entire universe of James Bond movies, designed to explore what all those supporting characters get up to while 007’s on his exotic adventures overseas. Based on everything we’ve seen of other studios’ efforts at this modern kind of franchise making, Eon should be careful what they wish for. What might at first feel like building an invincible empire can soon resemble a tottering house of cards.