We're living in the age of the Shared Universe - more and more studios want a snifter of Marvel's money, and we're due for even more Cinematic Universes in our moviegoing future. But over the weekend James Gunn raised an excellent point on Facebook that really highlights the potentially ruinous flaw in this new boom.
The crux of Gunn's eloquent argument - one that he's definitely been getting out there recently given his intended approach to Guardians of the Galaxy 2's own place in the upcoming story of Marvel's movies - is something that it seems many of these new Shared Universes just don't seem to understand: A great universe has to be built on solid foundations. Foundations that actually leave your audience wanting more from the world and characters they create:
Star Wars had the original Star Wars, the Marvel Universe had the original Iron Man, the Dark Knight series had Batman Begins, even movies like Transformers and Twilight - these were movies audiences loved, and the audiences demanded more from these characters.
Iron Man, even without the fanboy-captivating tenterhook of Nick Fury and the Avengers Initiative right at the end, was Marvel's solid foundation movie. It stood on its own, but in Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark it created a character that we wanted to see much more of, and the smallest hint of a wider superheroic world that had people chomping at the bit for more. It's why Marvel's expanded into the insanely, sometimes bafflingly successful, and why we get so many hand-wringing thinkpieces about how they could go on in a post-RDJ future - the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn't start big, it slowly built itself around the small core of a single movie, and branched out from there. And as Gunn says when he goes into the comments on the post, the stepping stones for that Shared universe are a lot looser than most people would have imagined - it was a throwaway stinger that was there to please fans of the wider comic universe, not a meticulously planned event like so many of these others studios are trying to emulate.
That's something that's decidedly not happening with some of these rash new 'Shared Universe' announcements. If we look at some of the bigger pushes for these, Sony's Spider-Man franchise and Universal Studio's push based around their legacy horror characters, the grounds they're coming from are anything but stable. Spider-Man's 'Amazing' series reboot has been average at best, a complete mess at worst in the critical and public eye, and neither film so far has set box offices alight. And yet we've got Sinister Six, Venom, a potential female-lead movie, a third Spidey, more and more thrown at a franchise that is rapidly crumbling under the weight of this shared-universe building that has had nothing to build on. Universal's approach is almost worse - Dracula Untold didn't perform brilliantly in theatres or in reviews, and yet it's somehow meant to kick off a swathe of movies with everything from The Mummy and Wolfman already planning to join Luke Evan's Vlad on the big screen. These aren't the expanding webs of Marvel's universe, the format everyone wants to copy, they're messes with even more stuff being flung at them until they turn into even bigger messes.
(You'll notice I haven't included DC in this - as much as it's the popular thing to savage Man of Steel, it was by no means a failure with the general public. It's the closest any studio has got to so far in terms of building a solid base to a universe that isn't Marvel - even if us nerdy fans like to poke at its many flaws.)
This isn't even straight copycat-ism of Marvel's success, it's people above the movie-making itself making decisions that seem to completely fail at understanding a basic tenet of movies - people want to see more of the things they like. They definitely don't want more of something they disliked or weren't invested in at the get-go. The progression of a franchise or shared universe should be a natural, mutual progression that comes from both the creators - directors like Gunn - and the audience understand each other and what they want. Universal and Sony don't seem to be doing that, they seem to be ignoring that and just going 'But this makes money, do it!'. It's not the shared universe that is making Marvel money - it's the cadre of great movies they've put out. People are coming to them to see those movies, not necessarily to see the connections. It's an added bonus on what is already a solid foundation. These new universes aren't about seeing the forest for the trees, they're looking at someone else's forest, forgetting it's made up of trees, and going 'well I want a forest too!'.
Above all though - and it's something else Gunn ails in his Facebook post when he talks about executives constantly seeking the bigger picture, being prepared for it - is that this approach is coming at the detriment of making good, standalone movies. Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a perfect example of this - it was an alright movie waylaid by layers of nonsense thrown at it to try and get this shared universe kicked off as soon as possible. These studios aren't making good movies, they're trying to make platforms for more movies to bound off of - and then wondering why it's not working and people are saying their movies aren't good. It's an approach that is doomed to fail before it even gets of the ground, and in the process its destroying these movies, the characters they're based on, and the creative teams behind them. It's damaging them, and sooner rather than later it's going to start damaging audience's faith in this emergent cinematic universe of storytelling. And weirdly enough, all this is happening while Shared Universes aren't even that big yet - it's only really one studio, maybe two if we wait and see if Warner Bros. gets DC off the ground, that's making it work. The desperate chase of emulation is going to kill the Shared Universe before it's even really had the chance to shine.
James Gunn has already proved in GOTG you can largely keep away from Shared Universe hooks and still have a great movie that stands on its own. More studios need to start taking that approach before they build their mega-franchise blockbusters, or it's all going to fall down around them really quickly.
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