16/10/2015 Masters of the (Shared) Universe
The most well-known Shared Universe currently on screens is undoubtedly the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Starting in 2008 with an outing for Iron Man, the Disney-owned studio released a steady stream of solo films for various Marvel characters. These standalone entries were peppered with interconnecting threads (such as Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and the S.H.I.E.L.D. organisation) and even more subtle background cross-referential nods, known as “Easter Eggs”, which would only be noticed through close inspection and repeated watching. This culminated with 2012’s crossover galore, The Avengers, with fans practically squealing in delight at seeing Thor, Hulk, et al., finally united on the silver screen. It was a several year strategy masterfully planned and beautifully executed. The continuity worked, it was widely praised (by critics, devotees and mainstream audiences), and the studio was rewarded with a mighty box office haul of over $1.5 billion worldwide. Marvel successfully continued into Phase 2 of the MCU, with 5 further super solo outings and the second team-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron, dominating cinemas earlier this year. Forget Harry Potter, James Bond (for now) and Star Wars (also for now). With a collective box office of almost $9 billion (roughly Haiti’s GDP) across 12 films, the MCU is now the highest grossing movie franchise of all time.
This success supports the franchise strategy of films effectively acting as adverts for additional revenue streams, such as merchandise and theme parks. And when you have a globally recognised name, it is also easier to expand into other media, as there is a pre-existing fan-base already loyal to the brand. This year has seen Marvel ramp up the expansion of the MCU into various TV series (Agent Carter, Daredevil, etc.), with several more currently in development for Netflix.
But the Shared Universe concept was not created by Marvel (or even The Jetsons). Comic books have a proud tradition of shaking the toy box, regularly placing characters into interesting teams and match-ups. Pipping next year’s Batman V Superman to the post by over 50 years, Batman and Superman first shared a story arc in 1952’s “The Mightiest Team in the World” (in which the two heroes are forced to share a bed on an overbooked cruise ship… seriously). In the late 1800’s, decades before the capes and cowls genre was established, Thomas Hardy devised a Shared Universe of novels set in the fictional “Wessex” area of southern England (including Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles). The crossovers were geographic rather than character based, but the growing fantasy genre embraced the idea of interconnected events and landscapes, as seen later in the elaborate worlds of Oz, Middle Earth and Discworld. The numerous Stephen King novels constantly nod and wink to one another, with dedicated fans creating connection flow charts so complex they put Tokyo’s subway map to shame. (King also creates subtle bridges to other literary worlds, with a character from Under The Dome referring to “a man named Jack Reacher, the toughest goddam Army cop that ever served”.)
On the small screen TV studios have been using the spin-off since the 1950’s, and it’s easy to see why – it can be considerably easier to create an instant success by re-using a character with whom audiences are already familiar, rather than risking an entirely original creation. Soaps and sitcoms in particular have embraced spin-offs and guest characters, meaning that fans can map televisual universes connecting Coronation Street to Hollyoaks and Cheers to Joey (via Frasier, Friends and half a dozen other shows).
The first cinematic shared universe was a veritable monster mash, with the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe featuring the “Big 3” horror stalwarts of the era: Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Wolf-Man. Over 12 films from 1931 to 1948, the genre icons had their own individual outings and several crossovers. Audience reception was mixed, but it triggered a brand of “X versus Y” style subgenre. Typically with little regard for continuity, these films are not true Shared Universes, but draw on the appeal of answering “Who would win in a fight?” playground debates, pitting Godzilla against King Kong, Freddy against Jason, Alien against Predator. This strategy was seen as a way to rekindle interest in a pair of fading properties, with 2 franchise icons theoretically being greater than the sum of their parts. Critics and cinema-goers often disagreed.
But today, in a post-Avengers world, studios have seen that slow and careful building towards a Shared Universe can pay extraordinary dividends:
- Coming full circle, Universal is rebuilding a universe for their most famous horror creations, starting with last year’s Dracula Untold and continuing with The Mummy in 2017, and a 2018 film starring an unspecified ghoul from their extensive back-catalogue.
- Lucasfilm and Disney (not content with the most successful Shared Universe in history) are also expanding the Star Wars galaxy. In between biannual instalments of the new trilogy there will be separate “anthology” films, which focus on characters and events outside the main saga.
- Warner Bros. are looking to capitalise on the bankability of their DC comic book characters, and have announced their superhero schedule up to 2020. Starting with next year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, solo outings and crossovers (including Wonder Woman, Aquaman, etc.) will lead towards an Avengers-style Justice League double bill.
- In September it was announced that Universal passed on Legendary’s King Kong reboot, Kong: Skull Island, with Warner Bros. stepping in with a deal to bring the great ape back to cinemas. On 14th October it was confirmed that the Kong film and the Godzilla sequel (planned for 2017 and 2018 respectively) would build towards a beastly battle royale in 2020. (Internet commentators have pointed out that dimensional issues would need to be solved, as the latest incarnation of Godzilla could use King Kong as a stress ball.)
- Sony were planning to build a Shared Universe around Spiderman (who is a Marvel comic book character, but not owned by Marvel film studios). Perhaps thinking audience appetite for a Spidey-verse may be limited, Sony struck a deal with Disney earlier this year which would allow Spiderman to be used as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which will likely see him appear in next year’s Captain America: Civil War.
- Sony however still have plan to build their own Shared Universes in new and surprising ways, with a potential merging of the Jump Street and Men In Black franchises, and an all-female reboot heralding a Ghostbusters Shared Universe.
Sometimes the inter-film connections are subtle, “King-esque” winks and nods, noticed by uber-fans alone (e.g. the “Tarantino-verse”); sometimes cinematic icons are boastingly united on the same screen, from ham-fisted mash ups to decade-spanning master plans. But like them or not, cinematic Shared Universes are here to stay.