Shared Universes: How Much is Too Much?

In today’s article we will look at the question of the moment in Hollywood and nerd-dom alike: Shared Universes, how much is too much?

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Before we start I just want you to have a look at the picture above. It’s a still from the latest trailer for “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” that is due out at the end of April. In it we can see the six main Avengers doing their heroic thing, as they leap in to presumably lay the smack down on a group of unfortunate soldiers. Aside from the coolness inherent in that statement, and the picture itself, I want you to take a second and think about exactly what it represents in terms of story-telling, logistics, ambition, time and not least, cash. To get to the point where this picture is even possible we have been presented with the following since 2008; ten Marvel movies (“Iron Man”, “The Incredible Hulk”, “Iron Man 2”, “Thor”, “Captain America: The First Avenger”, “The Avengers”, “Iron Man 3”, “Thor: The Dark World”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”), two TV series of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D”, an eight part TV mini-series of “Agent Carter” (which is sadly yet to be released in the UK) and the upcoming ten part “Daredevil” mini-series that will air on Netflix in early April, and every single part of each one of those projects is set in the same continuity. That is now what us nerds reverently refer to as The Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU.

This behemoth of multi-platform entertainment is only set to grow from this point onwards. Marvel announced last year that they are going to be stepping up their production schedule by releasing three films a year up to 2019, as well as promising another four mini-series on Netflix, that will come out on a yearly basis, and the assumption is that “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” will continue to air throughout this time. What I’m trying to point out with this massive overview of the MCU’s past and future is that from its fairly uncertain beginnings with “Iron Man” Marvel Studios have built themselves into a juggernaut that has smashed its way into Hollywood and done things its own way. Now that Disney have bought Marvel Studios and produced two movies that took well over a billion dollars each at the box office (“The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3”) they have even more money behind them and the freedom to do pretty much whatever they want. At the moment Marvel are Hollywood’s golden calf, and, of course, now everyone else wants to try and recreate the magic, and the box office takings.

The main problem with this idea is that everyone seems to think that the reason for Marvel Studio’s success is their film’s shared universe, which I think is missing the point by quite a lot. Marvel have managed to get to where they are now by making movies that, on the whole, are entertaining and of a high quality. The clever thing about their shared universe is that, not only does it pander to the comic-book geek market by giving them overlapping stories that are inspired by what they have been reading for the last sixty years, it now spreads their risk for any one movie that they put out. Back at the start of this endeavour if “Iron Man” or “The Incredible Hulk” had tanked at the box office the whole studio would have gone under. They then took a further risk with “Thor”, which was much more outlandish than what had gone before. Once “Captain America: The First Avenger” came out to financial success they finally reached the point where their universe could support itself. Since “The Avengers” then sealed the deal by becoming the studio’s first movie to take a billion dollars, Marvel have been relatively safe from anything but a continuing run of terrible movies. Now the MCU can support a bad movie by surrounding it with good films, which require the bad movie to give a complete picture. This is not to say that they are forcing the public to watch every film or TV show they make, but the carrot of being a completist is there for everyone who wants to chase it. This is what Marvel were aiming for when they dreamed up the MCU and this is why it is now a relatively stable powerhouse. The point I’m trying to make is that the success they’ve had is not a product of the shared universe they’ve created, but completely the other way around; without success in the first place they would never have been able to create a shared universe.

This leads nicely into the second concern that this situation raises. The rest of Hollywood have been taking note of Marvel’s plans, and those who own superhero franchises have already been attempting to make shared universes for themselves to print money with at the box office. The prime examples are Fox Studio’s “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” franchises and Sony’s repeated attempts at making the “Spiderman” franchise take off, but while neither of them have managed to reach the dizzying heights as the MCU as of yet, they are still trying and have plans for several movies each in the next few years. However, the main contender for Marvel’s crown is Warner Brothers who own the rights to all the properties currently owned by DC Comics. This may not mean a lot to some, but the names that they have access to will do: Superman, Batman, Wonderwoman, The Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman to reel off a few of the ones who are expected to be the top earners. Warners have been slow off the mark, with a Justice League (see all the characters above, plus a few more, in an Avengers-style team up) movie in development hell for many years, before they finally kicked off their own shared universe with “Man of Steel”. Although Warners were slow to start we are now looking at a slate of DC movies that rivals even Marvel’s huge plans for the next five years. We will be getting at least two DC films a year and possibly three depending on what they can manage. This means that soon The Avengers will be facing competition from DC’s own premier superhero team in the form of The Justice League. All of their main characters will soon apparently get their own films as well as regularly teaming up for our entertainment and, hopefully for the studio, cash. This means that between now and 2020 we could be looking at up to six superhero movies a year from the two main comic book studios, Marvel and DC, and that is before we add in the regular “X-Men”, “Spiderman” and “Fantastic Four” movies that will crop up along the way. Why, as a self-confessed comic-book nerd, am I concerned about this? Well, it’s a question of quality versus quantity. I love the idea that we are getting so many beloved comic book characters coming to the screen in the next few years, but the pragmatic part of me also knows that the more of them they make the more chance there is for people to make bad movies. I also know that the majority of the public are not as concerned as I am about who makes which film, or which continuity a particular superhero belongs to. I am worried that if enough bad movies get made, they tar the genre as a whole, which could conceivably bring an end to the popularity of the superhero movie. Sad times for nerds everywhere lie ahead if this comes to pass. And that is just in the superhero genre. Outside of that we are now looking at shared universes springing up everywhere as everyone leaps on the band-wagon. Disney are planning one “Star Wars” movie a year for as long as they can keep the production running, and it has recently been announced that Sony will be doubling-down on their shared universe plans with attempt to continue the “Ghostbusters” franchise into a set of interconnected movies. Also, Fox is giving the reigns of the latest “Alien” movie to Neil Blomkamp at the same time as continuing production of Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus 2” in the same cinematic universe. It would appear that, even outside of the superhero oeuvre, the words “shared universe” are here to stay.

I apologise to those of you who are feeling a little exhausted after reading all of that its a lot of information to take in. The point of this was to show exactly how much of Hollywood is caught up in the wake of trying to mimic Marvel’s success. Of course, all this lead up takes us back to the original question; how much is too much? If we only take the superhero genre by itself, even the most stalwart of geeks, such as myself, have to start to wonder how long the market can support this level of production before the interest starts to wane? And what about outside of the superhero bubble? What will happen to the mainstream film industry if all movie execs decide that everything needs to be interlinked to succeed? And before you laugh at that idea you should know that there are also currently strange ideas being floated of making the next “Jump Street” movie a cross-over with the “Men in Black” franchise. If this, slightly outlandish, plan is in the public domain, who knows what else is going on behind the scenes? As Mark Kermode rightly pointed out in his recent BBC radio series, “The Business of Film”, it all comes down to the fact that Hollywood is a money-making exercise. The people at the top of these studios are investors and they want to see a return on their money for minimum risk and that means that if something is selling well then everyone is going try and repurpose it for their own profit. Sadly they are missing the point, which is that good quality, entertaining movies with interesting plots sell. Not shared universes for shared universes sake. Luckily there are people in Hollywood like Kevin Feige, the man at the head of Marvel Studios who has so far managed to use his love of the source material to guide the MCU from success to entertaining success, making quality films without bowing to the overwhelming need for profit. Long may his sort reign!

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