Why Movie Universes Need Standalone Films

It's all very well having interlinked films in a cinematic universe. But some stories deserve a film to themselves...

You don’t need us to tell you that the movie universe is very much a thing now. Universal has its classic monsters in the works, Paramount has Transformers, Warner Bros has DC, LEGO, and possibly King Arthur. Fox is ploughing on with its X-Men universe.

Then, over at Disney, there’s the Marvel cinematic universe and the Star Wars films. Sony appears to have abandoned its Spidey-verse plans, so that’s at least one off the list. Don’t worry, though. Another screen universe can’t be far behind.

But still: whereas once a studio chased a franchise, so it could be sure of a hit movie every two to three years, now the chips are being stacked on movie universes. Movie universes, in fact, that are delivering two films a year, maybe three.

And, for better or worse, it all seems to make good business sense (if not always good films).

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Marvel, for instance, is relatively safe in the knowledge that if it makes one bad film, the goodwill generated by the others leaves the foundations intact. Whereas once upon a time, one bad sequel – Batman & Robin being a prime example – could derail a whole series of films. For Warner Bros, if one of next year’s DC films – Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice or Suicide Squad – is a dud, then no matter, two more will be along the year after, to pick up the slack.

It’s not that simple of course, but still, it’s seemingly the most obvious insurance policy when studios are having to routinely spend at least $200m a film to get their stories into cinemas. As a result, films are linking into one another, and even seemingly unrelated movies seed elements to pay off further down the line. Sell the next film while the current one is playing is the underlying mantra. And heck, in the Marvel cinematic universe, the long game is very much played too, with Thanos’ debut in 2012 not likely to see a proper big screen pay off until 2018 or so.

Even what’s arguably the most standalone Marvel movie to date – Guardians Of The Galaxy – saw one of the infinity stones in play. It’s likely that future Guardianssequels will have closer ties either to the main Marvel cinematic universe too, or a Marvel cosmic universe.

At its best then, the idea of a woven cinematic universe is a treat; that films exist in their own entities, yet have longer threads – a la a good television show – that pay off somewhere down the line. Crucially, not to the detriment of the individual film in question.

Yet I wonder if what Disney is doing with the Star Wars films may be the smartest way forward now.

Going back to the original The Avengers films, there was something quite special about how that felt like the culmination of things. That the films had been building up to an end point of sorts. Combined with the novelty of seeing multiple heroes fighting together in a convincing and balanced way, there are lots of reasons why The Avengers is loved, and that’s one of them. Sure, the stinger in the credits teased something else, but the main film had a story to tell, and just got on with it.

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Avengers: Age Of Ultron, giving no plot points away, doesn’t have that feeling to the same degree. The best analogy I can think of is that it feels like a big railway station stop. You know it’s an important step of the journey, but there’s no doubt at all while you’re watching it that this is far from the end of a longer story.

It’s a film that deals with some threads from the past, and lays down some for the future, yet I can’t help but feel that as a result of that, the main feature – and the story of Age Of Ultron – has become squashed somewhat. To be clear, we’re nowhere near the muddle of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, where in the midst of setting up Rhino and the broader Sinister Six, the film got lost somewhere. But still: the balance between the film in question and the broader universe seems just a little off kilter this time.

Appreciating we’ve not seen a single one of Disney’s new Star Wars movies as of yet, on paper at least it seems to have the right idea. We’re getting a new Star Wars movie every year, but only one in every two is going to be part of a bigger story per se. So, in 2015, 2017 and 2019 we get Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. And then in 2016 and 2018 we’re getting what are supposedly standalone films (which will be called Anthology movies). That means they’ll fit into the existing Star Wars storytelling universe, but hopefully without the obligation to tee up something else, or tease the next big thing.

That’s why Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One – that Gareth Edwards is preparing for 2016 – is perhaps the one I’m personally the most interested in, because it’s going to give the biggest clues as to where Disney sees the future of its Star Wars juggernaut.

The Marvel cinematic universe, by this stage, is too big to fail, and it’s comfortably ridden out its lesser movies – Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 (both of which still have many moments to them) – with sizeable coins still being deposited into its coffers. Phase Three has more films than ever before however, with 10 features announced. In the midst of those are some sequels – Captain America 3Thor 3, Guardians Of The Galaxy 2Avengers: Infinity War Part OneAvengers: Infinity War Part Two – but also characters getting their first standalone movies. Doctor Strange, a new Spider-Man, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Inhumans all offer a golden chance for good, meaty, standalone storytelling.

That said, Captain America: Civil War will still surely be interesting. To the credit of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that felt a fairly contained movie, and with its directors, the Russo brothers, in charge of three more Marvel films (Civil War and the two parts of Avengers: Infinity War), much rests in their hands. It’s way, way too early to judge it, but as an observation, Captain America: Civil War already seems from the outside to be a film with a lot of work to get through. At least two major heroes are being introduced into the Marvel cinematic trilogy, and there’s in theory the closure of the individual Captain America trilogy. That’s going to take something to pull that off.

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That’s nothing on the task Zack Snyder and David Ayer face for DC in 2016, of course. Snyder has to bring back Batman, and introduce at least Wonder Woman, Alfred, Lex Luthor, Aquaman, and potentially more, all in the midst of a Superman sequel, in Batman V Superman: Dawn Of JusticeSuicide Squad, meanwhile, has The Joker and Harley Quinn – two major DC characters – coming to the screen, as well as Rick Flagg, Deadshot, Enchantress, Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc at the very least. Characters that we fully expect to meet again in future DC films.

And therein lies the ultimate downside to a movie universe. That as they develop, a film rarely gets the chance to exist in itself, without having to at least slide a few blocks in place for later down the line. Again, when done properly – and it feels harder to do that, now a cinematic universe isn’t a novelty – it’s gold for fandom. But when it feels like the idea started life in a Powerpoint presentation in somebody’s boardroom – Warner Bros, for one, announced the details of its DC movie universe to investors rather than fans first – then an alarm bell has to ring somewhere along the line.

Disney seems to be playing the smartest game right now, and its work with Star Warswill hopefully prove that directly overlapping films can co-exist with genuinely standalone features. That said, the clamour amongst Hollywood studios for their own movie studios suggests that Sony and Spider-Man will not be the last to tumble…