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. Read more…

1966: Batman the Movie at 50

1966 Batman at 50

“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb”

It was the television series that leapt to the big screen after its first season, providing the first slice of feature length Caped Crusader. And five decades on, somehow that white eyebrowed facet of Batman persists. Not only was its multi-colour legacy recently felt in the comic spin off Batman ’66 which ended earlier this year, but this October sees the release of animated sequel Return of the Caped Crusaders.

Shunning countless efforts to derail the camper side of Batman, a look at a crucial part of the Caped Crusader franchise: Batman: The Movie, released 50 years ago today.

Batman’s never been more about life…

THE SHADOW OF THOSE LEGGINGS, THAT DELIVERY, THAT BAT-PHONE, THOSE PUNS, THOSE CLIFF-HANGERS, THOSE WALL CRAWLS, THOSE FIGHT SCENES… It persists, despite the combined big screen, big budget efforts of Burton, Schumacher, Nolan and Snyder to set a different Batman over the last 30 years. Yes, even Schumacher, who aped much but somehow failed to recapture the show’s subtle breadth and laugh out loud comedy. In fact, the television series started a domino effect of reaction and negation. Nominally, Joel Schumacher’s duo of Batman films nodded furiously to the series that was then three decades removed as a response to the darkening gothic stylings Tim Burton brought to the character with 1991’s sublime Batman Returns.  But for every line of parody (“Holy rusted metal!), sharp strings or happy broadening of the Bat-family Schumacher attempted, just showed how sophisticated the source material was in comparison. That in turn triggered a realistic reboot in the mid-200s, starting a trilogy rooted in comic plotlines and characters that emerged in the 1970s as a direct response to the campness of Batman’s 1960s television incarnation (Ra’s and Talia al Ghul, Bane), just as the current cinematic Batman is strongly rooted in the Dark Knight of the mid-1980s. But through it all, the flame of the 1960s Batman has kept burning. In its way a response to the darker, more realistic Nolan films of the 21st century and the difficult legacy of the ground-breaking Burton-inspired Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011) was a confident, brash cartoon tribute to comics’ silver age which paid huge tribute to the ‘60s show.

Perhaps there’s no better indication that the not-so dark facet of Gotham’s masked guardian simply won’t disappear than Batman ’66. A web and printed comic set in the 1960’s universe that ran for 73 issues, concluding just in time for the show’s 50th anniversary. More of that later… Because 1960s’ Batman is so much more than a persistent ambassador of a lighter age.

Batman: The Television Series (1966 – 1968)

“Tune in tomorrow—same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!”

Batman arrived on ABC in January 1966. A phenomenon in waiting, it carried an inevitability the show’s endless death traps could never match. Originally developed as a kids’ TV adventure romp heading to mornings on CBS, it took a brief turn towards serious drama when it turned to ABC before some arbitrary decisions set the tone it became famous for. When it fell on William Dozier’s desk, his few casual glances at a few Batman comic books convinced the producer that the series should aim for camp comedy. It may have been a broad reading of the source material, but what emerged was bottled lightning. One of that period’s highest rated series it managed to run twice a week during its first two seasons and tot up and astonishing run of 120 episodes over three series and two years. On the way, it cast an eye on mid-60s culture and counter-culture and sent its own brand of perceived campery back into the pop art zeitgeist. When it ended, the distinctive version of the Dynamic Duo portrayed by Adam West and Burt Ward broke into the short-lived animated series the New Adventures of Batman at the end of the 1970s, and aside from semi-spin-off show The Green Hornet, the camp it brought to comic book was felt for decades to come in the likes of Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey and Lois and Clark.

But Batman wasn’t just thrown together. The influence of old adventure serials was clear felt in its multi-part episodes and cliff-hangers, while its broad mix of comedy, caricature and moralising sat perfectly, and iconically, in the flowering mid-1960s. While the dodged certain harrowing parts of the Batman mythos, many well established in popular consciousness three decades after the comics arrival, the show settled on the jolly, well-heeled lives of bachelor Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson. Thanks to rapid change switches and some fireman poles, the majority of their appearances were as their alter-egos, not the vigilante night terrors well known today, but sanctioned Gotham City crime-fighters. Despite what appear to be radical changes by current standards, the show managed to incorporate swathes of well-known elements from the comic books, including villains (although sadly, neither side Two-Face never made the transition, denting his popular awareness for quite some time) but also introduced a roster of original, and not-so original, rogues who worked their way back onto the page.

And after one series Batman achieved the unthinkable. It became the first feature-length incarnation of the Caped Crusader. The franchise that’s so far captured over $4.5 billion at the worldwide box office started here.

Batman the Movie (1966)

“Bruce Wayne and Girl Companion Kidnapped!”

Yes, the movie has it all. But inevitably, Batman’s rapid ascension to the big screen wasn’t clear cut. Having set the tone of the piece, Dozier intended a theatrical release to drive up publicity for the fast developing television series. The sticking point proved to be the budget, the risk of which fell squarely on Twentieth Century Fox, who duly balked. Things changed with the phenomenal response of audiences when the show was bumped forward in ABC’s schedule to January 1966. The movie was hurriedly produced at the close of that first series, quickly flipping from promotional tool to cash-in. It opened at cinemas just two months after the final episode of the first series, just in time to beat the second series into the Bat Cave.

The rushed production cost the involvement of Lorenzo Semple Jr, and perhaps shortened the phenomenon’s life. As head writer, Semple’s immediate deft pop-stylings had been evident from the series premiere, and a defining feature of its success. But the ambitious shooting schedule pushed him and other key players back, something cast members including Adam West, suggested left the second year flagging and heaped fuel on the show’s rapid burnout. Still, while the film didn’t perform spectacularly at the box office, its influence alongside the television series that spawned it, not least in putting an Underground United of Batman’s big four villains on the screen, was immense.

The budget boost for the big screen adaptation allowed the production to buy vehicles and props that fed into the second and third years of the television series, while its higher production values brought out the best of the show’s mid-60’s pop. Take that glorious opening, following a three part tongue-in-cheek yet all too appropriate dedication…

“ACKNOWLEDGMENT We wish to express our gratitude to the enemies of crime and crusaders against crime throughout the world for their inspirational example. To them, and to lovers of adventure, lovers of pure escapism, lovers of unadulterated entertainment, lovers of the ridiculous and the bizarre. To fun lovers everywhere- This picture is respectfully dedicated. If we have overlooked any sizable groups of lovers, we apologize.  – THE PRODUCERS”

Bat-opening

“Waugh waugh!”

Four colour spotlights then catch the film’s upcoming criminals straight-off; the audience knows exactly what’s in store within seconds of the opening. Although those titles end in rather pointlessly way with an unknown criminal escaping down an ally, there’s still time for the rather bedazzled Batman and Robin to comically bump into each other in the dark. All in all, the tone is set, and there’s no intention to hang about.  The plot that unravels is pure, nonsense Bond parody, and the script wastes no time propelling the Dynamic Duo into new vehicle, the Batcopter, and high seas a mystery via the instant costume change lever and sped up Batmobile … Read more…

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow: The Surprise Return of the Spaceship Show

Legends of Tomorrow Series 1 

Time for a change…

Difficult, supposedly vastly expensive carrying a weight of second-string comic book characters… DC’s Legends of Tomorrow’s first season embraced comics’ legacy of canned titles, team-ups and continuity re-defining events… But it also managed a significant coup – the return of that old staple of American genre television, the spaceship show!

A gleeful trawl through the Arrowverse and Legends of Tomorrow’s first year, where spoilers abound.

DESPITE ITS HIGH CONCEPT, LEGENDS OF TOMORROW REMAINS THE LEAST CERTAIN OF CW’S TRIUMPHANT RUN OF TELEVISION SHOWS BASED ON DC COMICS PROPERTIES. But that’s not down to any particular or peculiar weakness the show has brought to that growing mix. On one hand, its roots are firmly embedded in the existing Arrowverse, with most of its characters appearing there first. On the other, even in the ever-changing world of comics, the show’s temporal and paradoxical plots mean that a character’s death has an even higher probability of being reversed. But there’s no doubting that Arrow, The Flash and (the soon to be joining her cousins) Supergirl are simpler and purer concepts. Built around families of characters swiped from the comic books or intelligently bolstered, they mix enjoyable villain of the week shows with increasingly complex series arcs, always in the reliable cribs of DC’s fictional but well-established cities. Legends is the pinnacle of the oh-so-comic conceit of ensemble team-up that the other shows have played with, but has jettisoned the larger super-powered egos to pull them through multiple locations and times and become the closest thing The CW and Warner Bros Television can get to putting the Justice League on the small screen.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (Series One, 2016)

Forming teams

“Apparently, time wants to happen”

Last decade the laudably long-lived Smallville put its own version of the Justice League on screen, featuring a few of the familiar big players, but during a vastly different time for DC and Warner’s ambitions on small and big screen. While DC’s subsequently struggled to assemble that team for cinemas, there’s no doubt that alongside their animated films, the Warner Bros produced television series are their strongest suit. the brave new world began with Arrow in 2012, picking up one of DC’s, and indeed Smallville’s more interesting characters and building a show around him. Nothing was certain four years ago with the Smallville approach notably dating since its cancellation, a Wonder Woman pilot falling just before she met her first Olympian hurdle and Aquaman never making it further than a prolonged Entourage punchline.  Arrow soon established a firm, soap-to action treatment of the source material, that while it may not quite represent the Oliver Queen seen in the comics, rose above the young superhero clichés that had perpetuated since Superboy and Supergirl to do what few expected. It established a stable, compelling world that sucked in and interpreted as much DC Comics lore as it could, and sett the foundations for the introduction of three more DC-based shows over the next four years. Star City’s Oliver Queen has long proven a fine building block in the Comic line. An everyman, lacking the super-powers but without the all-encompassing role and symbolism of Batman, he’s the arrogant spoilt rich kid who suffered a powerful fall down the rungs. That moralistic journey aside, his gruff manner and modern-day Robin Hood persona works as well in an urban environment as the battlements of Nottingham. One of the film universe’s great losses was David Goyer’s Supermax, a low-key unbranded film that would have seen the Emerald Archer take down assorted villains of the DC universe after a super-jail break-out in a kind of meta-meta-Die Hard. With the ‘rise’ of Dredd and The Raid since that was pitched, DC have cleared its desk and embarked on one of the least clear, direct assaults at big name franchise Hollywood’s ever seen.

A Flashpoint

On television, Arrow’s now readying its fifth season. While there’s a sentiment that the wealth of irresistible crossovers that dominate what’s now called the Arrowverse around mid-season has debilitated that original show, their power during sweeps period remains undeniable. They’re not going anywhere. And this being DC, there’s always a crisis round the corner ready to shake the status quo of shows that currently exist across multiple time zones and even different Earths (Zoom took Flash to Earth2 during his second season; Supergirl currently lives on another one altogether). That could all change as the third outing of The Flash confronts the comics’ Flashpoint storyline and the multiverse makes its presence felt. In the DC universe, the Flashpoint Paradox merged multiple worlds into the new multiverse of the New 52. On TV, with all four Arrowverse shows joining The CW network for the first time later this year, that’s just one gift this immense Source Wall of a property provides.

But that potential has also been allowed by a few deft decisions. The real strength of these shows is their continual growth and momentum. If there are any criticisms in the season-end reviews, it’s not that these shows stand still. A major help was Warner and DC’s decision that the film and television lines would be kept distinct, a sentiment that’s true to the comics and the multiverse. And although the major players of the DC universe were unlikely to make an appearance, a clash that was once led the adventures of young Bruce Wayne to quickly and oddly develop into Smallville, all the more odd when Superman Returns materialised in 2006, all bets are now off. An inadvertently hilarious Krypto-elephant in Supergirl’s National City this past year was that her more famous cousin appeared in shadow, by SMS or just as a pair of boots. Fortunately, this unintentional silliness has been resolved with the casting of a Superman for the premiere of Supergirl’s second series. Again, this is a multi-verse, so why not? And as soapy as The CW shows may be, there’s a lot that DC’s take on the small screen could feed into the comic’s all too serious short-form adventures on the big screen.

The Flash on Television

Past is the Prologue to the Present

“As the first Time Master was so fond of saying, ‘That was then, this is now’”

Yes, the twist, is a great power source of the Arrowverse. Fast-paced, almost glossed, not hanging around to worry about fully explain things whether in the grit and techno-bubble of Star City or the physics-stretching science of Central City. It sounds unfair, but it’s a blistering pace and scope that hangs together thanks to the goodwill it engenders. There’s barely a bad episode of pelting 40-minute comedy drama among the bunch, even when those old staples of evil doppelgangers and Red Kryptonite pop up. They’re shamelessly referential to pop-culture and other science-fiction; always happy to go for a quick joke before sinking teeth into some deep drama and moral quandry. The shorthand of pizzas in The Flash (every night) or the coffees in Supergirl (every morning) just help to build this four-colour universe.

And behind the scenes, they’ve all had an agenda to steadily explore the wealth of the DC universe. Like Marvel, the decades have produced thousands of characters that can draw in hundreds of genres. From Arrow’s urban roots to the entrance of magic and a certain John Constantine during its fourth season. To the rapid entrance of the Flash two years ago, introducing meta-humans, time travel and the multiverse. And then the pincer movement of Supergirl (over on CBS for its first year) and Legends, that opened up the universe to Kryptonians, Martians and Thanagarians among other alien races. Arriving just four years in, sucking up characters mostly introduced on Arrow, The Flash or through crossovers, Legends took that ball of momentum and ran back, forth and all over with it. In a universe already known for its sly references and team-ups, Legends emerged fully made. Read more…

Marvel: Back in the Fold… Where can it all go right for the new Spider-Man?

Spider-Man and Marvel's New York

Your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man is finally future-proof. The Amazing Spider-Man’s two film haul of $1.5 billion was stopped in its tracks with the wintry news of Sony Pictures’ deal with Marvel Studios. Having looked at those two films, now destined to be written out of history, Jokerside looks to the future of Sony’s top superhero franchise… In the bold new ‘world’ of Marvel Cinematic universe. Spider-Man’s not alone anymore.

FOR EVERYTHING THAT CAN CLAIM TO BE PURE MARVEL COMICS, SPIDER-MAN’S AT THE TOP. Until the Dark Knight and the Avengers leaped the billion barrier he was the dominant force in superhero flicks during the formative days of their 21st century cinematic takeover.

The background web

Bucking the rule of diminishing returns

Let’s jump the 1970s TV movies as affecting as they were. The 80s and 90s saw Spidey film rights jump around Hollywood studios like Cannon and Carolco while Tinseltown Alphas like James Cameron and Tobe Hooper circled. The end result was Sam Raimi effective Spider-Man in 2002, a film that served up an eye-watering $821million to prove that the comic movie was ready to seize the heart of the blockbuster season and that the web crawler was top of the pile. By the time Spider-Man 3 was released to lack-lustre reviews five years later, that trilogy had amassed nearly $2.5 billion. By contrast, Fox’s X-Men trilogy, which concluded a year earlier, grossed just over $1.1 billion. Almost inevitably it was Spider-Man’s weaker final entry that took the top spot in his franchise with nearly £900 million. But despite bucking the rule of diminishing returns, the critical stock of the property had fallen sharply as ‘creative pressures’ between director, producers and the studio were clear to see in the finished product.

After some prevarication over a fourth Raimi instalment, Sony’s decision to reboot the franchise five years later, complete with a fresh origin, raised plenty of eyebrows. Just how would the public take to yet another version of that well known Spider-Man origin?

The answer wasn’t too clean cut. 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man got a lot right. Praised but blockbuster-rookie Marc Webb swung into the director’s seat and produced a confident and stylish film, ably backed by the late James Horner on scoring duties and a fine cast; in particular Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in central roles that conjured up better chemistry than the Raimi films managed. In all, that was just about enough to power past those unsettling re-origin problems. But it seemed strangely unsure of how it should react to those Raimi films. It set a course closer to the comics but hastily established a great deal of baggage on the way.  And the CGI-overload and bland villain’s plot brought to mind some unsettling comparisons with the dark and icy days of the mid 1990’s Batman films.

Read more…

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