How to do a shared universe justice.
Marvel’s decade-long cinematic universe has churned massive numbers at the box office, and movie studios have taken notice.
In truth, Marvel didn’t invent the cinematic universe concept. Far from it, in fact. The idea of loosely connected movies existing in the same universe dates back to the 1930s. But nowadays, modern shared universe franchises are blatantly inspired by Marvel’s success. We have DC naturally doing their best with their own extended universe, and we even have Godzilla pioneering a MonsterVerse.
… And did you know that 2017’s The Mummy was supposed to start a shared universe too? I literally had to explain that to people who saw the movie to help them make more sense of it.
Despite these franchises entering the ring with Marvel, we’ve yet to see a runaway success of the comic book giant’s caliber yet. Is there any hope for these movies, or will shared universes be remembered as a fad? Let’s look at both sides.
Why other shared universes have trouble.
Marvel executed the perfect formula with its cinematic universe.
2008’s Iron Man was a critical and commercial success. Just a year off the coattails of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, general audiences were acquainted with superheroes but not totally engrossed in them yet. Meanwhile, hardcore comic book fans were eager to see new heroes hit the screen. Iron Man probably wasn’t specifically made to start the Cinematic Universe, but it did prove the time was right. Audiences of all levels of nerdom loved the film, and each subsequent movie has succeeded with each target demographic they wanted to hit
It’s this kind of momentum that makes Marvel’s shared universe work. While most audiences would get burnt out after a few years of these movies, Marvel’s kept the hype going by making sure each movie is really good. If anything, we’ve seen more critical acclaim for Marvel’s Phase 3 than we did for Phase 1! Sure, there are plenty of criticisms to throw at how the Cinematic Universe has been handled. I’ve tossed a few jabs their way myself. But there’s no denying that it has earned its success as organically as possible.
This is where competing shared universes stumble. DC has just as much star power in its roster of characters, but its first three movies were huge critical bombs. The Godzilla Monsterverse has admittedly been positive, though it’s hard to tell how it will fully pan out two movies in. I don’t want to come down on these shared universes, but it can feel like they exist as much in response to Marvel as they do in response to audiences. As a result, though individual movies may do well, the universes as a whole are regarded more modestly.
Except for The Mummy, which even Universal immediately stopped caring about.
Marvel has set a ridiculously high bar for shared universes, and those competing directly in its footsteps have huge hurdles to clear to meet that same success. Only time will tell if that’s a challenge that can be met.
Why other shared universes have hope.
Like we covered at the top, Marvel didn’t invent the shared universe. And some of the ones that preceded it were pretty dang good.
Take Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse. You wouldn’t think comedies would make for a good shared universe, but it’s handled in a way that even Marvel could take notes from. Each movie is almost completely stand alone, but the small references to the larger universe develop the characters and point the audience towards the other films. There’s a world of difference between Clerks and Chasing Amy, but knowing they exist in the same canon makes them more fun than they would be stand alone.
This example alone proves that Marvel isn’t the only one that can pull off a shared universe. But even if Marvel was the true originator of the concept, other franchises don’t have to beat Marvel at their own game. As long as the movies in any shared universe are consistently good, audiences will be encouraged to watch them all in one way or another.
Perhaps the Monsterverse isn’t raking in a ton of money beyond breaking even, but they’ve at least proved they are catering to their own audience. And if movie studios are happy with these movies making some money, then it’s safe to say that everyone wins.
The outlook for shared universes
The truth is this: Marvel has defined what a shared universe should be in our minds. If another studio attempts to replicate Marvel’s formula, audiences are just going to prefer watching Marvel movies to get the authentic experience.
To throw a gamer analogy in (because I can’t help myself), shared universes are the MMORPGs of movies. Companies saw World of Warcraft and wanted a piece of that massively lucrative pie, but gamers didn’t want to invest their time in money in other titles that just tried to be World of Warcraft. We’ve since seen many MMORPGs that have succeeded and formed dedicated fanbases, but not a single game has managed to be the “WoW Killer” that some companies advertised.
Similarly, shared universe movies just need to find their own identity if they want audiences to invest their time and energy into them. No matter what that identify might be, a shared universe can only exist if its what the audience wants. Otherwise, no matter how many movies you make, there will be no money to be had and only contempt from the audience to show for it.
So can a shared universe exist without Marvel? Yeah, sure. Just focus on making good movies, not a ton of money off the latest market researched cash cow.