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…

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Marvel: Phase Two – Look to the Stars

Avengers Age of Ultron and the end of Marvel Phase 2

Jokerside’s second major look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it nears the end of Phase Two. Spoilers abound like Ultron drones – if you’re not up to speed with events on the small and large screens as of May 2015 then Code Green.

MARVEL’S PHASE TWO HAS REACHED ITS PEAK. IT’S NOT OVER, THE CURIOUS ANT MAN HAS THE HONOUR OF CLOSING THE PHASE LATER THIS YEAR. BUT THAT FILM WOULD HAVE TO PREPOSTEROUSLY EXCEED ITS DIMINUTIVE NAME TO REACH THE HEIGHTS OF GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY OR THE SECOND AVENGERS FILM. So let’s call Age of Ultron the peak – the one film that would not only buck the trend but also set off some mild warning bells should it fail to top the box office list this year. Sitting atop a phase that’s destin­ed to rake in considerably more than $4 billion, it’s clear that the Avengers fuelled Marvel machine is marching on, although not on the same tank tracks it used to.

All Change

What was extraordinary about Phase One was the dominance of military strength

At the half-way point of Phase Two, Jokerside took a sly glimpse at the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) at what was a significant turning point. Starting with the imperious Iron Man 3 (and only dropping slightly with a follow-up trip to Asgard) the newly imbued and properly Disneyfied Phase Two did exactly what it should: raise the game in every film and on every level. The MCU was expanding and consolidating with barely a glance back at the narrower scope of its 2008 beginnings. What was extraordinary about Phase One was the dominance of military strength, starting with Tony Stark’s life-changing trials in Afghanistan and culminating in the full reveal of SHIELD’s far-reaching machine. That build up overwhelmed the unfortunate Iron Man 2, but by the time the Avengers initiative had reached its fruition at the end of Phase One there was little doubt that we were watching the SHIELD show.

So it was only natural that SHIELD would spin off into an actual television show, and presumably why, in-spite of that small screen expansion, Phase Two set about ripping SHIELD up. With Stark going solo at the start of Phase Two, it was up to Captain America’s fight against the Winter Soldier to prove how much Phase One’s build-up could be forgotten. It was the right film for it, splintering SHIELD under the shield of a man who was never an easy fit into that organisation. That film proved monumental for the MCU, setting the agenda for the future of Marvel properties on the big and small screens.

Missing Mutants

Mutation was packed off to Fox

Beyond SHIELD’s fate, there was a giant mutant elephant standing in Stark Tower. A year ago Jokerside explored the clear agenda that Winter Soldier’s post-title sequence set out:

“The Winter Soldier’s biggest contribution may not be the dissolution of SHIELD but its clear design on the 21st century. Here was its own Iron Man 2 moment – after all, which Marvel film can risk standing still? In a scene a little too tell not show, the real pattern for future films was laid down. It’s a hook with a nicely sinister overtone, whether HYDRA succeeded or not (they couldn’t have wiped out all the potential…). Von Strucker’s closing cameo shows that the next century had been unlocked by their prophecy of potential. It was almost distracting to hear Stephen Strange get a mention, not that Cap blinked at it. If Strange already exists, he may well not be ‘active’ (met the Ancient One…) and yet still destined to become the Sorcerer Supreme. Similarly the twins look to dodge the mutant bullet. There are potentially no mutants in this Marvel universes, simply accelerated or expected ‘twists’ of potential.”

Marvel: Phase Two – One of our Tanks is Missing

Mutation had been packed off with the X-Men to Fox, with the two legendary Mutant members of the Avengers now a product of experimentation. And that meant the phase that properly launched into the universe (after Thor’s tentative first steps ) also had to take long hard looks at the human condition. Just two films later, Avengers: Age of Ultron would complete the set by destroying Hydra and unlocking two famous twins. Read more…

Marvel: Disney and the Age of Marvel

Disney Age of Marvel

The Walt Disney Company’s costly acquisition strategy looks increasingly shrewd as Avengers: Age of Ultron pushes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to being the world’s highest grossing film franchise.

First published by Molewood Consulting on 29th April 2015.

THE NUMBERS ARE IN AND QUITE UNLIKE THE EVENTS THAT OFTEN ASSEMBLE EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES, THEY’RE EMINENTLY PREDICTABLE. The latest installment in the unstoppable march of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU) looks set to break records all round. At home, highly aggressive estimates suggest Avengers: Age of Ultronmay make up to $230million and in actual terms is likely to smash $200.3 million taken by its 2012 predecessor in the United States. Opening across 44 international territories, it’s confirmed as setting a Hulk-like record of $200.2 million, despite alleged boycotts caused by rental fee disagreements in the German market.

Under the unrelenting march of Marvel’s new heroes, the UK showed the changing of the guard more than most. Ultron’s £20.18 million debut beat the opening set by James Bond with 2012’s Skyfall.

Not Just a Phase

Phase 2 will conclude this July

It’s safe to say that the second Avengers film has comfortably surpassed its estimated $280 million budget and is well on track to beat the $1.518 billion grossed by its predecessor. It also continues the phenomenal performance of the Marvel movies as their structured development process reaches the end of its second phase. Phase 2 will conclude this July with a new and lesser known Marvel IP Ant-Man. Even if that film matches the lowest grossing MCU film so far (2008’s Incredible Hulk took $263.4) Phase 2 will likely exceed $5.12 billion. Not bad, when you already have Phase 3 lined up…

Read more…

Star Wars: From the Empire to an Ankle Far, Far Away

Chewbacca Star Wars

A few mishaps, from broken bones to awkward Chancellors, showcase how well the Star Wars resurgence is actually going…

UPDATE [21/06/2014]: Since publication, it’s been revealed by none other than Harrison Ford’s publicist that the Hollywood icon actually broke his leg colliding with a door.  The plot thickens, although the Milennium Falcon is likely to remain a key part of this speculation despite its culpability looking increasingly unlikely.  Please feel free to read/re-read replacing the word ‘ankle’ with ‘leg’ where appropriate.  Get well soon Harri!

IT WAS THURSDAY NIGHT THAT THE SHOCKING NEWS BROKE. HARRISON FORD RUSHED TO HOSPITAL AFTER BEING CRUSHED ON NEW STAR WARS SET. It was alarming at the time, and although further details emerged almost immediately, it was still enough to make front pages the next day. Before it did, colour was added, the threat level reduced. Various people were changing the bulb.

First it was a door that had crushed the septuagenarian, then a hydraulic door, then the door – the hydraulic door of the Millennium Falcon itself! Then it emerged that his ankle had been crushed, then broken. Maybe both. Maybe by the hydraulic door of the Millennium Falcon and not a garage door… And that was where it ended. All the best to Harrison Ford for his recovery.

Return of the Myth

The mystery of Han Solo being crushed by the Millennium Falcon is another part of the curious publicity myth growing around the new Star Wars film. Unlike the prequels, this is being very much considered a film rather than a trilogy. It helps that some fine directors are being tapped up to direct stand-alone films that will slot into JJ Abram and Lawrence Kasdan’s new Star Wars trilogy. The pressures off in some ways, but then again, this first film is the flagship kick starting the largest franchise assault Hollywood has ever seen.

Ford’s ankle incident happened just a couple of days after George Osborne showed his best C3P0 stance next to R2D2, announcing that the new standalone Star Wars film would be shot in the UK alongside the main film. Played as ever, it’s clearly far more of a coup for Disney to secure filming in the UK, a nostalgic association with the first trilogy heightened when the prequels ignored it. It also make great financial sense to film the rolling franchise in one place, with Disney happily setting up a London branch of Industrial Light & Magic for long-haul deployment.

Return of the Phantom

At the end of the 20th century, there was a lot of buzz around the prequel trilogy. With a lengthy gap between the US and UK release of the first film, that continued well beyond The Phantom Menace’s US unveiling. From there, a little unaware of the nadir we were in or perhaps hopeful that it would all make sense, the other two films met with considerable but not stellar anticipation.

This time round it’s running differently. When Disney surprisingly swooped for Lucasfilm, they did it not for Indiana Jones or LucasArts but Star Wars. The House of Mouse was quick to establish that the Star Wars brand was underexploited. As those who wandered through the morass of post trilogy cartoons, videogames, Woolworths and Vodafone adverts knew, it wasn’t so much that the brand was underexploited, just not exploited with enough quality.

Return of the Heaveyweight

Disney’s game plan is reassuringly sensible and follows their shrewd work with the Marvel franchise. With their comic arm, they’ve not changed the film programme too much, just adding weight to draw bigger names, and hopefully the mild unravelling of Ant Man isn’t a sign that this will change. Even better, it’s taken a few years for Marvel animated films to come out – Big Hero 6 is the first this year. By wisely taking their time with both, while simultaneously making a host of announcements, the result is a more anticipated Star Wars made by a wonderful mix of old and new talent. And alongside the heavyweight returns of Hamill, Fisher, Ford, Daniels, Baker, Mayhew – there’s this recent, literal ‘break a leg’. And of course the fact it was Solo on board the Falcon.

This renewed rise and rise of Star Wars is clearly having an impact. That The Empire Strikes Back ranked first in Empire’s recent film poll can only be helped by the mounting promise of this new trilogy against the disappointment of the last.

Return of the Empire

That said, Empire‘s renewed standing also signifies the enduring quality of the film itself. In endless cycles, people praise then lambast the darkness of Episode V. It’s not all dark and certainly some of those darker moments, though effective, are a little incomprehensible. But there are opportunities that come with its position. It was fuelled by the unexpected success of its rather slow prequel, but not too much that commercial concerns could damage the story as they did with Return of the Jedi.

It shows the real strength of the middle film, the lack of a beginning results in the best set-piece in the trilogy, the lack of an ending creates a mysterious cliff-hanger that nobody could even speculate on. Years later, The Two Towers would pick up hints where it could with similar standing.

Following the rulebook, Empire spreads its wings, nicely dividing characters while introducing new ones neatly. There’s misdirection of course, classic themes of betrayal and love but mostly, an unbelievable scope. It moves from snow tundra to cloud city to the swamps of Dagobah. Against this, primal plots are laid, culminating in ‘that’ exchange and Luke’s fall.

Perhaps the best part is the talent. Remarkably consistent onscreen, behind the scenes which director could George Lucas turn to than his film school mentor Irwin Kershner? One of the best anecdotes from the original trilogy production is Lucas not believing screenwriter Leigh Brackett was actually she. Scripter of noir classics and classic adventures, she had a mean background in science fiction and Empire gave her the chance to combine those. The result of her collaboration with Kasdan was sublime dialogue including the “I know” exchange that sums it up. Empire is a rare beast, and easily the best Star Wars film thanks to its confidence and scope. All the while it never loses momentum unlike every other Star Wars film, and manages to set up a domestic tragedy on a galactic stage. The end scene is the family together, nuclear but not complete. And they’re overlooking a galaxy to boot. Brilliant.

When comparing the Star Wars Prequel trilogy with The Hobbit, it became clear that Star Wars had become unnecessarily constricted by Darth Vader’s success. Now we’re back, at least seemingly, with a trilogy that can write itself one at a time. There is no giant of the franchise that can derail it, but there is a clear sense that the right talent is being added in the right areas.

Excitement is building and there’ll be stranger tales told yet than Hans Solo and the Hydraulic Door of the Falcon.

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