FICTIONSIDE 103: Who needs a shared cinematic universe?

Fictionside 003 Shared Universes

 

To mark Jokerside’s fourth birthday, another Fictionside. This time exploring the one thing that everybody in Hollywood wants: A shared universe.

Framed in 10 questions…

 

SOME THINGS START WITH SUPERMAN AND END WITH SUPERMAN. AND THAT’S HOW THIS ANNIVERSARY POST WILL PAN OUT. That legend of the alien child, dispatched to Earth as the last son of his dying planet is one of the great pop culture stories of the 20th century. While Big Blue’s character took shape over a number of years, gaining powers of flight and heat vision until he became the cultural pinnacle of those abilities, it took a mere two for him to bump into a fellow comic character. That would be young pretender, by one year, Batman. The two first stood next to each other on the cover of 1940 New York World’s Fair comic book with only a Robin in-between.

That was the first time any two comic characters had appeared together, and of course it was the light and dark, then in happier guises and brighter colours. Although they’d fail to interact inside, it set a precedent for the extended Super-Family and the growing Bat-family join other parts of the burgeoning and acquiring publishing universe that would become known as DC.

The Teen Titans, the Suicide Squad, the Justice League. The latter would later inspire the envious eyes a stone throw’s away in Midtown Manhattan. As just one of the highlights of his extraordinary mid-1960s productivity, Stan Lee assembled his own super team from fresh and veteran characters in the marvel fold because DC had done the same. So why not him? And 50 years on, it’s those assembled Avengers who lead the charge in a different media.

Where did it start?

On paper – straight from the pen

Many universes have been expanded from a creator’s original sprawling world by other willing hands… And that’s the point

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The RulesOf course, shared universes didn’t start with comics, that’s just a nice four-colour example. Expanded universes are so innate to the prose world that their late appropriation by new-fangled art-forms of the 19th and 20th centuries could be page-curlingly embarrassing. And that’s within genre and without. Expanded universes stretch as far as the might of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Richard Scarry’s Busytown, Edgar Rice Burroughs fantastic and rip-roaring adventures… Many of these universes have been expanded from a creator’s original sprawling world by other willing hands eager to explore the potential, often posthumously. And that’s the point.

What’s a shared universe?

Choose your collaboration carefully

This is shared, not expanded or expanding…

An overarching work where more than one creator independently contributes segments that stands alone while complying with the joint development of a greater storyline or world. That’s the definition of a shared universe. Distinct from a collaboration, a cross-over or string of sequels, spin-offs or the interlinking work of one auteur: it’s a definition ready-made for the ambitions of Hollywood’s studio model.

Hannibal meets Penny DreadfulOn the big screen Quentin Tarantino has built a loose connectivity between his films, through throwaway references and characters, as has Kevin Smith. Bryan Fuller has had great success doing the same thing on the small screen, through often cruelly curtailed series. The same is true of Joss Whedon. But the Whedonverse, Fullerverse and Tarantinoverse don’t count, no matter the involvement of other creators, as theirs are slotting into a singular vision. The involvement of separate properties and distinct creative forces is crucial. This is shared, not expanded or expanding.

It’s no new idea, but while the first major developments came on the page, it wasn’t from the great weight of published genre that shared universes became a public commodity. Hollywood didn’t shirk on seizing the potential.

What’s the Monster in the Room?

The days of Universal Studios

The ensemble that kick-started Hollywood’s original gigantic shared universe

In September 1923, 93 years ago, Universal Studios produced an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a lavish film that became their highest grossing silent movie. It elevated Lon Chaney to star status in the lead role and set the template for their horror films to follow. Classics soon followed that decade, including The Cat and the Canary, The Phantom of the Opera and The Man who Laughs. But it was in the 1930s that the series hit its stride with the introduction of Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, this time taking point in independent talking films in February and November 1931 respectively. These iconic spins on the giants of gothic horror begat a number of sequels and were soon joined by complementary films starring the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man and a haunting of other ghoulish creations.

But it was the decade that followed that proved the game-changer. Two of these icons first met on screen in 1943’s Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, the fifth of Universal’s Frankenstein series and their second Wolf Man film. That’s the ensemble that kick-started Hollywood’s original gigantic shared universe. And while the leading horror actors that originated some of the distinctive roles remained on board, they often appeared in different guises; a benefit of the make-up led franchise. Lon Chaney’s son Lon Chaney Jr had become the studio star when he donned the face fluff of The Wolf Man and later took the lead role in the third Dracula film Son of Dracula, just as his father had been two decades before. While original Dracula Bela Lugosi took on the role of Frankenstein’s monster for Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man.

Despite the shifting roles, audiences knew what they could expect from those Universal Monster films. There was a tone, the distinctive make-up, a set style and a definite if often irrelevant continuity.

Intriguingly some things in Hollywood never changed. As the ensemble series launched, Universal started remaking their early Monster films from two decades before with 1943’s Phantom of the Opera. House of Frankenstein arrived in 1944 and House of Dracula 1945, both packed with monsters from this electric shared universe. And by the end of the decade, the shared universe had expanded even further, crossing the lines of genre. If Sony’s plans to fuse the 21 Jump Street and Men in Black into a shared universe sounds preposterous, Universal were all about high concept ticket sales in the 1940s. They combined their big hitters from the worlds of horror and comedy in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948. To add weight, Bela Lugosi returned to his most iconic role for the first time since the original Dracula, while Lon Chaney Jr once again took to lycanthropy and Glenn Strange stepped into Frankenstein’s monster’s large shoes. To prove that star power was alive and well, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff was released at the same time. That could have been a coffin jumping moment that scuppered the gothic powerbase that Universal Horror was built on, but it didn’t stop the vaudeville comedy duo going on to meet The Invisible Man, Jekyll & Hyde and the Mummy in the following decade. As that spin off sub-franchise continued its ensemble work Universal’s Monster franchise stumbled on to 1960’s The Leech Woman

Hammer Dracula Dead and not putting up with itNothing came close to Universal’s 40 year run. Across the Atlantic, the British studios of Amicus and Hammer competed with their twists on the same horror stories throughout the 1950s to 1970s. But often they had to work against the legacy and void that Universal had left, most famously when sealing a deal with the Americans that let them use Frankenstein but not the iconic Karloff make-up. Hammer in particular crafted a string of successful sequels, again built on distinctive production values and their own cast of eminent actors, but slips into a shared universe were light. The time traversing of the strong genes of the Van Helsing family from the 19th to the 20th century, the loose Karnstein trilogy and odd Shaw Brothers mash-up Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires are weak examples. More interest is in the balanced dynamic, picking up Universal’s lead, that saw name actors move between the franchises. Peter Cushing was the Van Helsing to Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula, just as Lee played monster to Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, in the first reanimating film anyway. When Ralph Bates came onto the scene as Hammer’s new star, he was bolted into both flagship franchises, not altogether successfully.

No, there was no real contender in the West. In the East, Toho stood as a great rival from the 1950s with its battling universe of kaiju (gigantic monsters), including Kong and Godzilla. But while the great lizard of the pack graced 28 Toho films through multiple decades and other smaller studios contributed to the kaiju genre, it doesn’t quite touch the 40 years and 80 horror and science-fiction films that Universal managed, developing their properties into shared films that were more than shock-em-ups, even to the point of concept damaging comedy. And Universal would remain unrivalled until the 21st century.

Who rules supreme?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)

It’s a form of social evolution…

Oron Man The Winter SoldierIn contrast to universal’s incredible run, this October marks the release of the MCU’s fourteenth feature-length entry, in the mystical guise of Doctor Strange. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the undoubted pre-eminent shared universe in popular consciousness, and the first since Universal to feasibly challenge those original monsters. In Hollywood terms, it’s a form of social evolution that’s proved far more influential than any number of technological innovations in retaining and boosting ticket sales in an era where audience’s film consumption is rapidly changing. One glimpse at the budgets that major studios are allocating to blockbuster film production makes a mockery of the idea that the ongoing digital revolution in special effects and film production allows more to be done for less. Budgets continue to rise, marketing costs even more so. And that makes the Marvel story all the more extraordinary.

It was founded as Timely Publications in 1939 by publisher Martin Goodman. Their first publication, October 1939’s Marvel Comics #1 introduced the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner, characters who were later joined by Captain America thanks to the inaugural editor Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the latter a young artist on a fast-track to legendary status. In the 1950s, Timely folded into Atlas Comics, a publication that covered a broader spectrum of genres as the shtick of the superhero faded from its golden age.

Then, ready-made for the Silver Age, the vibrant Marvel Comics brand emerged in June 1961 with the science-fiction anthology Journey into Mystery #69. With Stan Lee at the front of an explosion of creativity alongside Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, within a few years the Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Incredible Hulk, Thor and a host of characters had burst into pop-culture… Before most of them teamed up with the freshly defrosted Captain America after the events of September 1963’s The Avengers #1. Acquisition and consolidation saw Marvel take great advantage of the comics boom of the 1990s before a series of setbacks, most notably the departure big name artists to form Image Comics in 1992, saw the company slide until what was then called Marvel Entertainment Group filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

Two things are important to note in Marvel’s fascinating history. One is the serial existence of its characters. Unlike great rival DC Comics who have sometimes stumbled under the weight of the continuity and let off steam with multiple Crisis events that clear the deck, consolidate events in other media and create jumping on points, to the point they’ve become a fabric of the universe themselves, Marvel’s core line of comics have runs sequentially since their inception. If you take everybody’s favourite wall-slinger, the current comics follow directly from his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 in August 1962. That’s an extraordinary extension of a shared universe, even is the sequels and cross-over events can’t technically take much credit. Above all else, and boding well for Doctor Strange, it proves that there’s something about autumn and Marvel comics.

Secondly, Marvel’s dire financial position in the late 1990s led to desperate rights distribution that has left a Hulk-sized footprint on Hollywood to this day. Spiderman was handed out, eventually finding his way to a successful trilogy in the early 2000s and a rebooted and underrated two-hander a decade later, both under Sony’s management. Probably Marvel’s most famous son, the announcement of Spidey’s Homecoming in 2015 was the end of a lengthy process. Similarly, Fox snapped up rights to The X-Men Universe in the late 1990s (consistently the highest ranked comic at the time) alongside the Fantastic Four while Universal grabbed The Incredible Hulk.

That the rights dissipation affected one of the closest fictional universes of all time is an understatement. Still, the success of New Line’s Blade in 1997, Fox’s X-Men in 1999 and Sony’s Spider-man in 2002 kicked off the big screen comic boom that resolutely continues to dominate the blockbuster season. In the early years of the 21st century Marvel had dug themselves out of their financial woes, but even as co-producers of these films they made little profit from their IPs’ expansion and fairly, had some concern about the quality some studios were bringing to come their productions. So, it was a small leap to the idea that Marvel could launch its own film series in collaboration with a major studio in the mid-2000s. With its own, arguably less well-known properties in house there was some creative weight behind it, but it was still a risk when in 2008 the newly formed Marvel Studios, the first independent Hollywood studio since DreamWorks, launched its inaugural films.

It was Kevin Fiege, then head of Marvel Studios and still their main creative figure, who realised that the rights to the bulk of Avengers characters remained at Marvel at that time. Emulating the giant shared universe that Kirby, Lee and co had pioneered on page in the 1960s was a small leap of conclusion.

Avengers Age of Ultron and the end of Marvel Phase 2Control of the Incredible Hulk was wrestled back. While Universal kept distribution rights, the character was relaunched in June 2008, a month after the lesser known Iron Man had burst onto the scene to significant box office and much relief. The rest is very much Hollywood history, as each year since has seen the launch of two Marvel films. That’s a trend that will come to significant halt in 2017 when the studio starts to deal out three major films a year instead. Spilt into Phases that both chart and hold the unravelling of five plus decades of creativity onto the screen, the only real blip on the road was the continuity-obsessed exposition-full Iron Man 2, in 2010. Very much setting the intent of Phase 1, its fortunate that Tony Stark’s shoulders were broad enough and Iron Man 3 would later come along to so vividly at the start of Phase 2.

Yes, that first phase finished on a high in 2012 with The Avengers. Five years on, the new epitome of the shared universe still ranks as the fifth highest film of all time. Kerching.

Marvel was swallowed in a shrewd acquisition by Disney in 2009, a hasty but clever move. Rather than dissolve the burgeoning property, Marvel retained its clear vision while leveraging the might of the House of Mouse to attract major Hollywood actors (Redford, Douglas) and facilitate the kind of risk-taking that introduced most of the world to The Guardians of the Galaxy and over $700 million worldwide.

What’s the attraction anyway?

Dollar days

The MCU is the most successful franchise in film history

Disney Age of MarvelWell, the attraction is clear. In Marvels’ case, so far 13 films in, it’s an attraction measured in $10.2 billion. That figure makes the MCU the most successful franchise in film history, pulling well ahead of old hand and new pretender sequel characters like James Bond and Harry Potter. It’s an undoubted phenomenon. Indeed, it makes the whole concept look easy, so far showing no sign of exercising one of the shared universe’s clearest benefits. While one underperforming film might derail a franchise, damage is minimised in a shared universe that can conceal, relaunch and provide a different direction for a struggling character. In fact, the legion approach lifts the whole. And even let James Gunn add a preposterous Howard the Duck cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy

What happened to trilogies?

The beginning, the middle and the end

Escaping the unmitigated horror of pressure that rests on a trilogy’s closing instalment…

At the beginning of the 21st century it was difficult to turn for talk of trilogies. There used to be a great and finite challenge in naming two actors who had appeared in two separate franchises of three films or more. Harrison Ford, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen… That game isn’t as much fun anymore… The number has sharply risen and trilogies now seem an overly auteur, quaint or naively basic aspiration.

The Dark Knight Rises and RobinWhile Lord of the Rings showed the merits of making a trilogy back-to- back, admittedly still at vast expense, along with the critically regarded and high grossing Dark Knight trilogy that kept DC Comics and Warner Bros in the comic book game, both showed the unmitigated horror of pressure that rests on a trilogy’s closing instalment. The less said about The Hobbit or the Star Wars prequel the better. Because, a trilogy can only work if it’s properly sewn up and frankly, that means no more moolah. A key factor in the demise of the trilogy was Harry Potter film franchise, a vast and highly successful series that not only invented the idea of split finales but probably marked the last great stand of blockbuster sequels. In the summer of 2016, one where sequels have noticeably performed abominably, that kind of tent-pole multi-partite franchise rests with the likes of Fast & Furious.

A mid-point return to Superman, it’s worth noting that the original Christopher Reeves films remain classics in the genre, well the first two. And those two were filmed back-to-back in the bravura film production process pioneered by Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind, also extend to their big budget Musketeer films. Even then, the process couldn’t stop the first and second Superman films having different directors.

While the support and ease of reference and cameo that minimises risks in a shared universe, another key factor is the log-buy in. Overheads are kept down, and any money rolled out at the front will surely represent value down the line. There are contracts and sequel options for actors. And then there are the huge multi-film deals that Marvel rolls out to its core players. They’re crucial for the success of a project the size of Marvel’s and effectively eliminate contract issues that have sabotaged trilogies, misplaced fourth entries or larger franchises before now. Even Chris Evans who was famously reticent to tie himself into such a huge contract as Steve Rogers at the beginning of Phase 1 has recently come round to the idea of extending his time in the franchise. He puts that down to Marvel’s enviable feat of maintaining quality on the big screen.

As Marvel’s plans emerged smoothly and quickly, backed by Disney’s swoop and scoop, the novelty of studios attempting and usually failing to pull together characters to cash in on fan’s expectations like Freddy vs Jason in 2003 or Alien vs Predator in 2004, gave way to this new, broader, aspirational franchise model.

Perhaps Marvel’s major strength is its ability to stretch the genre within the safety of the universe. Each Marvel film has taken a different approach, pulling in a larger established genre as a structure for the comic book plot to play out in. Ant Man was a heist flick, Captain America: The First Avenger a period film, its sequel an espionage thriller, Iron Man 3 a wonderful 80s-style buddy movie and Guardians of the Galaxy a space opera. It’s a neat move, with its own risk, that’s lends a freshness to each entry in the saga. Before this Halloween, the fourteenth instalment will arrives in the guise of Marvel’s horror entry.

What’s outside film?

Away from the lunchbox…

Running the most successful multi-media shared universe of all time really isn’t plain sailing.

Of course, Marvel’s success on the big screen is backed up by other media.

A fascinating part of Disney’s recent acquisitions has been the merging of multiple established franchise characters into one unified world. Of course, there were some brilliant memes leaping around as soon as the merger was announced. But can that compare to Mickey Mouse, Spiderman and Yoda teaming up in Disney Infinity?

Spider-Man and Marvel's New YorkThen there’s the small screen. Something that’s proved a mixed bag for Marvel and caused an unprecedented amount of ruction in the smooth take-over of the MCU. With the addition of spin-off short films and multiple television series slotting into the same universe, the risk was always going to be a sudden and unmanageable sprawl. The casting of Alfre Woodard in two separate roles in the Luke Cage Netflix series and Captain America: Civil War was a recent and unfortunate highlight, the stuff of nerd analysis and speculation that can cause a major franchise headaches. That came to a head after three years of Marvel’s flagship television show Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Working across networks proved a mistake in that case. Despite the initial interest that met the series its first year was obtuse, slavishly following the events set by the film universe (after Thor: the Dark World, the team are tellingly seen among the clean-up crew). It took a great deal of time to find its own voice and establish a new balance thanks to the big screen events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and by that time had lost swathes of its audience. It’s extremely doubtful that what’s become one of the twistiest genre shows of recent years will ever recapture the ratings and good will it had in its early months. And much as The Winter Soldier set the show’s agenda, the skilful and significant way it fed into Avengers: Age of Ultron showed how things could flow both ways. The postponement of the planned Inhumans film after Agents of SHIELD’s lengthy exploration of that other facet of the Marvel universe betrays the significant role of the show’s weight in the universe that simply fails to come across on screen. Spin-off show Agent Carter failed to make a third year, while second spin-off Most Wanted never passed the unaired pilot stage. Running the most successful multi-media shared universe of all time really isn’t plain sailing.

Much more successful was the simple idea of translating the big screen approach to the small screen wholesale. Gifted by the inexorable rise of streaming subscriptions, the studio’s deal with Netflix which will soon find Daredevil and Jessica Jones joined by Luke Cage and Iron Fist point towards its own team-up in the Defenders limited series. It’s a far more effective way to preserve cinematic purity while establishing a separate and secluded part of the continuity. The perfect sub-shared universe you might say.

DC has handled the process differently to Marvel, and even breaking its own strict rules of just a few years ago. By clearly partitioning its small screen universe from its big screen world, the issue of a sprawling world becomes much more practical, as does DC’s apparent first motivation: telling great stories first. That hasn’t quite come to pass on the big screen, three films in to their own cinematic universe, but true to the continuing rivalry, DC have not only constructed their big screen developments in an opposite order to marvel’s (pushing the team up to the front), but they’ve also flourished on the small screen while stumbling on the big stage. This season, primetime on the Cw is dominated by Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. It’s a fascinating set of factors and oddities that keep these giant guardians of American 20th century myth at arm’s length despite their often common aims. DC’s secret weapon may yet prove to be built into the editorial decisions of its four-colour past. In a story world built on parallel universes, Convergence and Crisis, the overarching ‘Extended’ universe of DC may yet come to overlap. It’s a trick the small screen storylines are already playing with thanks to the Flash and his predisposition for Flashpoint.

What’s so superheroic about shared universes?

Kapowed

Using ingredients far less superheroic…

There’s a clear link between an expanded universe on film and the large interlinking stories that popularised comics in their Golden, Silver and Modern ages, just as Kevin Fiege realised when he surveyed the properties over a decade ago. Nominally, there needs to be little difference between Stan Lee and co’s approach, apart from the involvement of far more creatives to highlight the freshness that’s so much more noticeable in the cinema. But while the debate around superheroic dominance of blockbusters is only set to grow as Marvel’s release schedule does, other studios are clamouring to create their rival universes out of ingredients far less superheroic. And it’s reassuring that Universal haven’t forgotten their place as the original Marvel.

What’s the Future?

Onwards. upwards.

“The Red Capes are coming, the red capes are coming”

Batman and Superman - Public EnemiesThere is a pressing need to keep the virus of the blockbuster age, the superheroic kind, in mind. DC’s need to create a shared universe is painfully clear. It’s all the more worse in context. Marvel had to wrestle with countless financial woes, split rights and take countless risks as they forged their place in Hollywood history. In contrast, DC have long had the advantage of clear ownership from skyline to sewer as the comic publisher falls under the Time Warner banner. They spent years keeping things distinct, ensuring that Batman and other big hitters weren’t diminished by appearances on other media. Still, somehow, despite owning the best known superhero in the world, make that two, they’ve struggled to match Marvel so far. That said, having stumbled with Superman Returns and Green Lantern, their foray into the shared universe with 2013’s Man of Steel has yielded the first ever franchise to enjoy $100 million plus opening weekends with its first three instalments. The growth, having not found legs with Suicide Squad (currently sitting just shy of 4750 million), but waiting the historic weight of 2017’s Wonder Woman, may not be a disaster by any stretch but the box office drop-off that’s met each entry and general negativity from critics is pause for thought. Something is clearly not quite right when the combined might of the Last Son of Krypton and Guardian of Gotham City fall to Captain America by over $300 million.

X-Man Wolverine MonalisaElsewhere, there’s the lesser empires. Despite keeping their nails digging into the ones that work, Fox have struggled with their Marvel properties. It’s incredible, almost two decades on from X-Men that they’ve switched on to the idea of a shared universes so brain-numbingly late. Their very chronologically focussed X-franchise is now contradictory and stuck between the 1980s and the near-future while the Silver Surfer and Fantastic Four have fallen foul of the X-gene that allowed Deadpool to steal R-rated records in a no-one quite-knows-if-it’s-a-flash-in-the-pan way.

Having blinked in its attempts to start a shared Spidey-verse, most intriguingly with Sinister Six before well before Suicide Squad moved to pre-production, Sony have retreated from Marvel while keeping one sticky leg on the superhero. It’s a move that can’t be taken as a lack of confidence, but more part of a grand blockbuster plan. Sony have nabbed the rights to smaller publisher Valiant Comics properties, announcing three films that they surely hope will be the third cog on the great Superhero wheel; one that squeezes Fox out of the way.

They really need that after their oddly positioned and failed shot at turning Ghostbusters into a shared universe in Summer 2016. Elsewhere, sometimes merchandising gives back. Having ridden the wave of trilogies and beyond with unspeakable box office, Hasbro’s Transformers is talking up its own shared universe, alongside a separate universe based on 80s toy craze Mask. And then there are videogames. Not there simply to transfer films into terrible third-person cash ins, but like comics a format with a devoted and large in-built audience. The sound logic comes from the billions some videogame franchises have made, far exceeding the greatest Hollywood series. The striking lack of logic comes from appealing to a demographic who are far more likely to download films in-between loading times. Call of Duty is an intriguing proposition from Activision Blizzard, in the wake of World of Warcraft’s inability to muster much interest as a new IP this summer.

Sitting in the middle is perhaps oddest of all: the toy that became a videogame phenomenon that became a shared universe. Few people would wish ill to Warner Bros’ Lego franchise, next seen in Lego Batman. A clear sign that Warner have eased up on their enforced rules of franchise saturation, Lego Batman will emerge within months of the Ben Affleck starring Justice League.

Lest anyone forget that Disney’s other major acquisition of the last 10 years is a small production company named Lucasfilm. Brilliantly, considering how under-exploitation of the Star Wars brand was cited as a major consideration in the studio’s $4 billion acquisition, it’s only taken a few years for talk of a shared universe to pull in the Indiana Jones franchise. As everyone who’s seen Yoda on a Vodafone or Darth Vader in a UK branch of Woolworths (RIP) thought, under-exploitation simply wasn’t the problem. But perhaps the House of Mouse they had a point. With their Star Wars Story releases fitting in-between the expected Star Wars trilogies, including young Han Solo and the imminent Rogue One, Hollywood’s greatest science fiction franchise has become the most high profile experiment of imposing a shared universe on an established chronological, sequel orientated saga. They’ve even cleared four decades of muddled extended universe to do it. And in the best case of having space cake and eating it, they’ve kept the benefit of a core trilogy structure for old time’s sake.

Dracula Untold - The Puppet Master VampireCreak. And then there’s the shadow of early Hollywood rising from the crypt. Universal are back with ambitious plans following the miscued Dracula Untold of 2014. That film managed to dull the brand while turning the count into an antihero, a rather odd and undesirable situation. Restyling the original series gothic roots, the new line promises action adventure, kicking off with the Tom Cruise starring Mummy. Making the most of a contemporary tone, Cruise will be joined by Russell Crowe as Henry Jekyll. Another franchise eager to flash its shared credentials from the outset, Universal has the major properties and history at its disposal and is intent on gathering star power at full voltage.

At the other end of the monster scale there’s the intriguing movements of Legendary Pictures. Having concluded their long and profitable deal with Warner Bros, they’re intent on shaping a shared Godzilla series in which a trip to Kong: Skull Island is next in line.

What’s the consequence?

Creating the agenda

Characters and stories are necessarily diluted in a single film so they morph into a long-form experiment…

Could it be the consequence of a blockbuster season, already struggling to push out new IPs, is already being felt?

Dawn of the Planet of the ApesThe Marvel success story is all the more prominent close to a decade on as attempts to create a vast and well-oiled film universe falter around it. And marvel remains the tip of the iceberg, as many more plans for shared universes remain in development than production. And despite the untold benefits of developing an interlinked universe, the risks continue to be great for those crucial opening entries. The positioning of this year’s Ghostbusters on the back of two well-regarded 1980s instalments, spin-off cartoons and media and a proven contemporary comedy team makes the huge stumble of this year’s female orientated reboot a hard thing to contemplate. The context is all important. While longstanding franchises are sticking with a sequel model that’s stumbling (James Bond) or splintering (Harry potter) or growing against expectation and using its constraints wisely (Planet of the Apes), there is a consensus that shared universes are a low-hanging fruit to grab.

There’s no doubt that 2016 stumbled into a difficult blockbuster season, but the studio rush to create their own self-fulfilling franchise universes exposes as many ironies as it poses challenges. When it comes to long contracts that ensure continuity, any benefit of early investment and long-term security are rendered moot when the pace is set by comic books. Lifted from a medium that can happily kill off a character, resurrect them, pass their mantle on to someone else or both, that security against recasting is a little inappropriate.

The growth of a shared universes may be built on the shoulders of a sequel system, but it’s a system they also have to subvert and destroy to succeed. New IPs may stand more of a chance in the safe bubble and supporting arms of connected films, but in doing so Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t the stand-out risk and ultimate success that films like Inception or Star Wars proved to be. It’s all a necessary conglomeration that restricts its constituent parts.

A crucial consequence is the form of drama that audiences are invited to buy into. People need to care, and shared universes introduce new levels and new shorthand to achieve that. It’s not as clean cut as assuming that people will attend multiple parts of an ongoing story just as marketing might drag them back to see a direct sequel itself. There’s already a great deal of evidence of that in this new web-afflicted and box-set obsessed modern world of media consumption.

There’s no chance the superhero film genre, itself a blockbuster sub-genre, will be going anywhere. Long before the big names of the comic page made the big screen their own, action heroes were showcasing similar abilities. From Stallone to Norris to Willis in the 1980s, the whole The Expendables thing? That’s just another, latter-day superhero team-up. And outside the engrained superheroic universe, the difficulties of establishing a shared universe are strikingly steeper despite the weight of history and successful sequels.

It’s very hard to see that any audience will give any extra hoots about Legendary’s constructed universe when Kong is pit against Godzilla in the context of two individual entries. Even with those other old kaiju masters Toho on board.

On the other side of the monster spectrum, Universal have rightly paused after their hasty and misjudged leap into their own shared universe. The Mummy will arrive three years after the nominal first film of their bold new universe, Dracula Untold. While there was some appeal in exploring the hitherto much ignored origins of the Transylvanian count… the end result of Luke Evans running around in a contemporary world is a long shout from the definitive Universal Dracula of 1931. Universal’s response to the Marvel monster is to shape a franchise of action rather than horror, its distinct USP being the greys of a monster-packed universe unlike the clear delineation of superhero and super villain.

Characters are all subordinate to the greater story. That’s a major consequence. Returning to the real Marvel chaser, the DC Extended Universe that started with Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel, the difficult balance is starkly revealed. A great example is latest iteration of the Joker, squeezed into 2016’s Suicide Squad in extended cameo. A character who’s grown into the long purple coat of greatest comic book villain, nay greatest fictional villain of all time, hadn’t had to share the big screen to such a degree since 1966’s Batman the Movie.

Batman #1 JokerThe polished Joker of Jared Leto may pick up hints from Bowie and other facets of pop culture, but like Scott Snyder and other creator’s revisioning of the character in the New 52 series that arrived in 2011, he’s ready made to play in a wider universe. He slots into a long line of infamy and director David Ayer is happy to pick up specific iconic moments from comic pages and covers, including the stunning recreation of Alex Ross’ classic waltzing shot of Joker and Harley. The dominance the Joker enjoyed under Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger is gone. Those versions could never have fitted into a world that might take the harlequin of Hate from Gotham to Metropolis to Atlantis to an alien world. This is a Joker who is far closer to the page, far more homogenised. A Joker who can fit into any flexing universe DC develops. It’s a necessary dumbing down that affects every character as they’re immediately held up for comparison to others. And that happens, no matter how big they are. Spiderman won’t have a homecoming without Iron Man, while Captain America couldn’t reach his second sequel without is sub-franchise morphing into the unflattering ‘Avengers 2.5’.

And while characters are necessarily diluted in a single film so they morph into a long-form experiment. The Sad Affleck meme took off during the publicity rounds of Batman V Superman that met almost universal critical panning. Sure, Affleck was astonished at the time and didn’t hold back on his feelings, but six months on he’s appeared in cameo in Suicide Squad, is close to wrapping Justice League and is “really excited” about The Batman film he’s down to write, produce, direct and star in. Although Affleck’s Batman was generally well regarded in the midst of the absurdly negative reaction that met Batman v Superman, it would have taken more than the combined might of Arkham to stop that process in its tracks.

The shared universe has become so much more than the sum of its parts. More than simply critic-proof, more than one character or actor, no matter their additional creative roles. Rather than wrapping us in, there’s a risk that expansive, uncontrollable universes will become passing distractions that leave us increasingly remote.

We’ll just have to hope that the collaborative promise that’s forming in the creative groupings at Disney, Warner and every other studio don’t work out that way. That the film medium is one of the most powerful and successful vampires of other media suggests that other influences might come in to steer the way.

Jokerside howPerhaps this is the year of no surprises. The opening of the era of less shocks, of rolling brands. As the reception to Batman vs Superman proved, a film that unsurprisingly matched the sprawling, messy plotting of many comic events, cinema audiences aren’t quite ready for the onslaught just yet.

If we’re heading to time of the centre ground, the homogenised hero, the challenge of the shared universe, a framework that quite consistently works against surprises, is how it navigate through its Eureka moment. To remember what film can do better than its major influences. To find a way to astound.

Picking up some dialogue from Stan Lee might be a great place to start.

Tune in next anniversary for another Fictionside. If you haven’t already, take a step back to look at FictionSide 101: Five Types of Fictional Reboot!

And don’t miss, FictionSide 102: Jokerside’s 10 Rules of Engagement!

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