Marvel Studios has done a remarkable thing. Forget big box office and redefining the action movie genre, they’ve somehow brought the powerful geekiness of a shared comic book universe to the big screen. “Find out what happens to Iron Man in Avengers 4, true believers!”
But they weren’t really the first, were they? Star Wars sort of did it. And Alien vs. Predator! What about the Universal Monsters?
Why don’t we give that last one another go? Well, it’s not off to a rollicking start. We thought the DC films should have a shared universe … until they did. Now EVERYONE wants in on the game, with Spider-Man getting his own and even one for James Bond?!
Clearly, they can’t all work and now, with the casting of different actresses for Nightshade in Luke Cage and Black Panther, with no indication that either hand knew what the other was doing, we see the titan starting to crumble under its own weight.
So what’s the deal? When is a shared universe a good thing, and when isn’t it? Who does it right, and who can’t measure up? Should there be more??? July’s Roundtable is all about interconnected blockbusters, for better or worse. Get your popcorn ready.
David Brooke: The interconnected film experience is very intriguing to me, since it basically turns movies into serial storytelling. Another way to look at it is that they’ve taken the trilogy concept and made it so it goes on forever. It appears that Marvel is still making trilogies on some level (the heroes growth and arc is apparent), but then the characters move on from there.
I think it can be a good thing for a variety of reasons, but ultimately the purpose is to make money, and to do that, they continue stories so people feel obligated to go, so as to not miss a chapter. That ends up creating a watered down and sometimes imperfect film.
Michael Rosch: I agree with David. It’s an interesting amalgam of the serialized storytelling we’re used to seeing on television and standard self-contained film structure. The most successful entries tend to be those that straddle that line and find a nice balance between the two, working first and foremost as a standalone entry in, say, the Iron Man franchise, while also not forgetting everything that’s been established in the continuity of the larger cinematic universe.
I rather liked Iron Man 2, but I feel as though most people’s biggest complaint was it laid too much groundwork for The Avengers , or that the larger cinematic universe encroached too much. The Mummy is at the extreme end of that spectrum, doing so much to establish its Dark Universe that it almost doesn’t work at all as a standalone film.
David : Which could be said for Batman v Superman, too. Some of the most obnoxious parts of that film were the time spent building the universe rather than telling a good story (the scene with Wonder Woman viewing all the heroes on Lex’s computer files, for instance).
Michael : Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailer of Amazing Spider-Man 2 just reminded me that writer Alex Kurtzman is a common thread in some of the worst attempts at building a shared universe as he worked on both that film — which constantly tried to set up a Sinister Six spinoff — as well as my new favorite punching bag, The Mummy. And it looks like Universal has possibly made him the Kevin Feige of their entire Dark Universe. Oops.
Cam Petti: Uh-oh. That may have been betting on the wrong horse. But if that’s the case, that’s actually a good example of another crucial component to the equation: having the right person setting the tone. John Favreau kicked off Marvel’s tone with the original Iron Man, Joss Whedon cemented it with Avengers, and Kevin Feige is guiding the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) from those blueprints.
Comparatively, Wonder Woman has been the only DC movie that has been able to at all get away from the tone Zach Snyder set with Man of Steel, and it has been their best received film. The tone of the Dark Universe has now been set by The Mummy, and Universal may come to regret that.
Michael : Good point. Feige is ensuring consistency in tone. Then you’ve got the directors who work well with Feige and know how to tell a good story, first with Favreau, then Whedon, and now the Russo brothers. The directors that get canned from these projects are often great in their own right, but just can’t work within the vision of that producer setting the tone.
David : And then you have the recent Han Solo directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, leaving the film and reporting they thought they were hired to make a comedy. A failure to understand the tone is obviously huge.
Cam: From an artistic standpoint, I think a lot of skepticism is based off of the simple question, “Why?” As in, “Whhhhhhyyyy should we care at all?”
I feel like the major flaw in this “Dark Universe” of monster movies is, what story needs all of those monsters all together? What does another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen bring to the table other than, “Wouldn’t that be sick?!” Certainly, the economic reason is, “We’re cool with it just being crazy, as long as it gets butts in the seats.” But they haven’t yet demonstrated that they have a vision beyond, “Mush them together! Mush them together!”
David: Although I think it makes sense to establish each character and then combine them. The difference between Marvel and the Dark Universe is that there are no established stories to go off of. If you look at Iron Man, it ended and there was no reason to do another unless you knew Avengers was a thing, Infinity Gauntlet was a thing, etc., etc. At some level, should folks give The Dark Universe a chance and wait and see?
Michael : The vast majority of these shared universes are definitely perceived cynically as ill-conceived corporate strategies, thought up in board rooms without serious consideration given to creative and entertainment quality. I can’t quite put my finger on why the MCU is not also perceived that way, other than that they were the innovators — the first to take all the risk — as well as the sheer fact that most of the MCU films are well-made & well-received with even the worst ones being still very watchable.
Obviously, Disney loves the profit as much as any other company. But is the MCU immune to the stigma of shared universes only because they broke the mold & happened to have a strong track record of movies people actually like? And can other studios & shared universes escape the stigma?
David : The difference might be that Marvel is essentially adapting stories we already know or are familiar with. Whereas the Dark Universe is creating something with characters that are known, but not in a universe scheme. Maybe people are forgiving to Marvel because they trust the source material is good?
Cam: I think it has a lot to do with solid movie-making. People gave them much more of a chance and got much more easily excited for more movies because the first ones were good.
It also seems to be because people could more clearly see the connection. There was already previous cannon in the comics hyping us up for what Avengers could be. It’s why we keep getting excited for DC stuff, because we’ve already seen Batman and Superman on the page, but are so let down because the movies themselves are real bad.
Brian Clements : Comic books are already an accepted “shared” universe. We’ve got 80+ years of comic heroes sharing the pages together. That is an easy take. With IPs like Star Wars, making movies that tie-in to the main story makes sense, since they aren’t forcing them in for no reason. Rogue One was a great bridge to the original trilogy and told a story we hadn’t heard yet.
But I need to care about characters and story before I ever care about a shared universe idea. That feels like what Universal’s pitch is: “Hey, we can do the thing too!” But there’s not a good reason to do it that they’ve shown yet, especially since they announced it before the first film even came out, let alone after it was panned.
David : I think Universal made a big mistake by announcing it would be a shared universe, as if folks would love that it’s shared more than the story mattering, the characters mattering, etc., etc. Does anyone actually get excited by the idea of a shared universe in general?
Ken Petti : How do you guys feel about Lengendary’s MonsterVerse? I think that is kind of along the lines that Cam is talking about. There is a precedent for big monsters fighting each other. I think it still might be too early to tell if they have a story that can only be told with a shared universe. But also, i think those movies have been better received than the Mummy remake.
Cam: I haven’t seen either Godzilla or Kong, but they’re both pretty focused on the humans scurrying around underfoot, right? If that’s the case, then the Monsterverse has the same issue as any of the rest, where you have to ask, “Wait… why do we want to watch people scream at both an ape AND a lizard and a mecha-lizard?”
The only shared universe I want is the one that was in that big Sony leak a bunch of years ago, that apparently said they were considering a 21 Jump Street/Men In Black universe.
David : Yeah, I love that idea partly because it sort of makes fun of shared universes in general. Could be a great way to poke fun at the movie industry.
Cam: I would put an irresponsible amount of money behind the Men In Jump Street-verse.
….21 Jump Men?
….Black Street Jump Men?
…21 Black Men on the Street Jumping-verse
Like what we do here at AIPT? Consider supporting us and independent comics journalism by becoming a patron today! In addition to our sincere thanks, you can gain access to our vibrant Discord community of patrons and staff members, get trade paperbacks sent to your house every month, and a lot more. Click the button below to get started!