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…

FICTIONSIDE 102: Jokerside’s 10 Rules of Engagement

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The Rules

To mark Jokerside’s third and a half birthday, another Fictionside. This time exploring the central tenets that Jokerside loves to stick by / completely ignore.

Here are nine of Jokerside’s rules of engaging with pop culture (full explanations below):

  1. Anything deserves credit
  2. A writer should want (need) to write themselves into a hole
  3. Change is a luxury
  4. Never count on renewal because, bluntly, Networks aren’t often wrong
  5. Works of fiction can’t have plot holes
  6. A creator cannot rely on an audience to fill in plot holes
  7. Remakes, sequels and prequel cannot diminish the original
  8. Enemies must be used sparingly
  9. Narrative knows no bounds, everything has its medium
  10. Canon is there to help fans, not deny them

 

Let’s jump in…

  1. Everything deserves credit

If it took people time and effort…

Hellraiser Pinhead and the Lament ConfigurationAnything that makes it to the small or big screen has taken time, effort and thought. No matter how tempting it is, no matter how flawed the end product, no matter how much you disagree with it, there’s more chance of Batman V Superman crashing at the box office than a group of people dedicating months to producing something that deliberately failed against their goals. Yes, even rush jobs like Hellraiser Revelations, which a Pandemonium’s worth of evidence might suggest was a cynical attempt to retain franchise rights, deserves some credit because aside from any studio or legal issues people persevered to make it happen. Clive Barker has every right to dismiss it, Doug Bradley too, and many others. But anyone who’s handed the keys to the franchise, even with a sharp production schedule and light budget is unlikely to resist opening that puzzle box.

From top to bottom, there are big credits that reflect every collaboration and rewards them. So, it’s unfair, bordering cruel, to disparage that work. And after all, everything is an acquired taste…

Jokerside seldom slips at the negative, even considering half the Hellraiser franchise on an equal plane, but it’s tricky. Take a trip to Victor Frankenstein last year. That was Jokerside’s first, long-awaited trip to see a Frankenstein adaptation on the big screen (you know, we love Frankenstein) and while the end result was a disappointment it just shows how behind the scenes nonsense can get in the way of incredible talent working in front of and behind the camera. That kind of mess can be impossible to decipher, it might be aspersion and it’s doubtful the behind the scenes tales will ever spill out. But really, what needed to be said about a film that crashed at the box office, was poorly treated by British cinema chains and was surely not what the creators envisaged.

Always remember the glasshouses. No matter which demon, scientist, captain or bunch of pixels built them.

  1. A writer should want (need) to write themselves into a hole

With a quill you are fearless…

It’s one thing to set a cliff-hanger at the end of film, book, comic, television series… And another to use it to pitch the direction an intent of a whole second stab. As arc shows have fast become the accepted norm, that’s all the trickier to navigate when a huge weight of concept shows appear year after year, propelled by hubris and concept and are… Promptly cut off after one season. Step forward Flash Forward. It’s the kind of thing that makes people utter inane comments like “Oh, if I’d have known it was only going to last one season, I’d never have bothered…” Really? It comes to something when a full US season of over 20 hours requires years of promised story yet to be written to warrant investment. After all, why bother with the second year when it could just as easily be cut off before the third…

For all the success (and contemporary criticism) The X-Files found by asking constant questions, giving few answers and hedging bets, there was an early warning shot when the ambitious five year plan of Dark Skies was cut short.

Television is both serial and finite, it’s Schrödinger’s Idiot Tube and you don’t get to both turn on your cathode ray and turn it off.

The Leftovers - A JokersliceA flip-side comes with renewals that are taken for granted or when there’s an occasional guarantee of multiple seasons. Lost was a prime example of the latter, with later truncated runs balanced against a fixed six season commission. Wonderful, but could it have been to the detriment of the show’s story? Recently, one of the sublime break-outs of the past two years, The Leftovers, had the mixed blessing of a confirmed but final third year. In that case it is very good news, and feels exactly right. But only as that show has bold, risky storytelling at its heart. And that’s rare.

Hannibal was another bold show that knew full well it was lucky to run three years on prime time network. Bryan Fuller would have had no issue keeping its intoxicating story going longer even though [spoilers] he ended the third year with a superb Reichenbach moment. Though we all lament for Fuller’s take on The Silence of the Lambs (truthfully, already echoed in earlier seasons), that was both a satisfying conclusion and a huge hole to write himself out of. A hole it might be said that Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t bothered to write himself out of over a hundred years ago. Back to the X-Files, the recent limited run poked fun at the outrageous stretching enigma that typified its original nine year run, but ended with a satisfying cliff-hanger that will likely, but possibly never, be resolved.

Jplerside Fictionside #2 The RulesWe’re well past the days when episodes reset every week with a laugh on the Bridge of the Enterprise. Writers should always aim for the boldest and most satisfying conclusion for a story, no matter the difficulty it causes their future selves. They should be confident that no matter how dire or finite the ending, a writer or writing team can pen themselves into a new story the next time round. After all, real life carries on regardless, and it takes writing itself out of ridiculous situations for granted every second. That is life. It doesn’t stop.

So writing to a limit or writing to infinity is a trap to be avoided at all costs. And come the end of a series, no matter how demarcated, no matter how Blake’s 7 it all seems, a writer must be ready to continue that story. That’s what Charles Dickens was doing week to week far before a TV writer hedged their bets. Read more…

Reboot to the future: Losing the Battle but Winning the War of the Planet of the Apes

Battle, Dawn and War of the Apes

The conclusion of Jokerside’s Aperospective in the Year of the Monkey. In 2011 Rise of the Planet Apes seized the ideas of the lesser regarded latter films of the 1970s Apes cycle and took them to critical and box office success. Fox was on the brink of giant dystopian franchise once more and there was no need to rush a franchise that had previously stumbled at the same point…

Looking at Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes

AS FAR AS MISLEADING NAMES GO, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES MANAGES TO STICK OUT IN A FRANCHISE THAT SEEMS INTENT ON BEATING IT WITH THE FORTHCOMING WAR OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. War will be the third of the rebooted Apes saga continuing the compelling story laid out by Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; the early years of the apes’ ascendency over man. Although that next film, due 2017, would break the mould should it portray a full war for supremacy of the Earth between the two sides. That said, there had certainly been battles before, in a franchise that usually set out to put science and intellect side by side with dystopian fantacism.

Walking away from the temporally complicated space fare of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, the reboot saga has drawn heavily on that film’s later sequels, effectively making a strength out of their diminishing returns. Battle for the Planet of the Apes concluded the original cycle with the near completion of a circle that had already seen the destruction of both man and ape a few thousand years into the future. Harsh, considering Pierre Boulle’s original novel allowed apes to venture into space exploration. Those original films forged their own path, and as this retrospective has discovered, one of the most significant elements lost in translation from Boulle’s tome, was his fascinating exploration of the stagnation of ape society. In the film adaptations, when three simian survivors finally made it into orbit and beyond for the second sequel it was only to crash back to the Earth of their past. And in making that escape, those three chimps created a paradox that split the timeline, joining the alternative universes of the short-lived television series of the same name and animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes. And that’s just the official line. There’s no need to wander near the likes of the extraordinary Brazilian ‘remake’, Bungler on the Plateau of the Apes. In 2001, Tim Burton’s reboot of the 1968 film could be argued to have established another timeline, albeit removed from Earth like Boulle’s original novel, and unfortunately much of that books reason and science. And there’s no reason why that pattern hasn’t continued as the franchise has been reborn once again. Rise and Dawn are two strong films that have added yet another timeline of reality to the mix. One of the great virtues of the original film franchise, with its continual twists and turns, is that every iteration can exist in parallel. That is as long as, no matter the cause of man’s fall or the rate of or reason behind the rise of the apes, there remains one inevitable consistency: apes inherit the Earth. Every time.

Battle, for all the promise of its title, may feature a fight and a much trailed rematch between humanity and ape kind, but the stakes barely put the future seen by Charlton Heston’s cynical astronaut in the first film at risk. Indeed, the real battle, encouraged by the threat of what man was and could still prove to be, whether twisting in the desolated remains of their cities or as sheep out on the pastures, is between the apes themselves as they forge their new world. That’s the cue that Dawn took for the first sequel of the rebooted franchise, and a lead War will follow…

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

External factors

“The greatest danger of all is the danger never ends”

Battle for the Planets of the Apes completes the original cycle with suitably mythic intent, even if it fails to round the circle entirely. It’s the American continent of 2670 – over 1,300 years before Taylor’s crash landing – and there’s the slightest hint of the static nature of Ape society that Pierre Boulle explored in the original book. It’s a curious choice to place it at an indeterminate time in the future rather than the dawn of the first film, but come the punchline there’s the suggestion of further sequels that never materialised. Battle is bookended in the future by the very real gravitas of a law giving orang-utan enacting a kind of This is Your Ape Life, especially profound when he’s played by John Huston. Yes, that John Huston. The Lawgiver recounts the story so far, filling in the gaps so that we, apparently his audience, are aware that for all the ape rebellion related in Conquest, mankind was undone by the hell of nuclear conflict which flattened cities soon after Caesar’s revolt, and perhaps going some way to explain the dystopian stylings of the previous film’s future city. Aside from the ape insurgency, surely a localised affair in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes that humans were soon distracted from, there is now a compelling if vaguely defined reason for humanity’s near extinction. Man has abandoned the planet to the apes, as suggested since the archaeological discoveries of the first film. That nuclear self-annihilation is considerably more important than Caesar’s uprising in the scheme of things returns the franchise to the central tenet that man is compelled to be the architect of his own ruin.

 “Go”

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes a jump from the events of Rise, although only a decade following the downfall of man that was clearly signposted in the bleak end credits of the previous instalment. A handy, chilling and sparse recap relates the turmoil that befell humanity in the wake of the engineered virus – and with bigger things on man’s mind, although it’s not as physically destructive as nuclear weaponry, the apes were able to fade away to the Redwood forests of California. Nuclear destruction versus genetic modification, that’s the difference between the late 20th century and early 21st.

Spread across a far broader canvas, with links and logic built from the ground up, Rise and Dawn’s universe presents a wholly more satisfying explanation for the ascendency of the apes. And impressively, that’s managed without the implied threat of a dystopian future. Crafting a serious, epic story steeped in doom is no mean feat when you’ve jettisoned one of the saga’s most memorable and surreal aspects. As the Earth fades to darkness humanity has fallen within minutes of Dawn’s start, leaving space to build on the complicated familial ties of Rise. Not this time with a hectic jungle flight, but the harsh and meditated reality of Caesar’s new colony enacting their own hunt. Read more…

Reboot to the future: The Rise and Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In the month that marks the 48th anniversary of the first Planet of the Apes film and the start of the Year of the MonkeyJokerside’s Aperospective moves on to a new future. Following in the stinkin’ paw prints of its 70s forbear, the recent Apes reboot has proved that there’s big box office in telling the story of man’s fall and ape ascendency. And true to this conflicted and paradoxical franchise, inspiration for this the greatest phase of the Apes comes from the lesser 1970s films of the original saga….

Looking at Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes

“Tonight we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes”

IT HAPPENS A LOT IN SCIENCE FICTION – SOMETIMES YOU’VE JUST GOT TO TAKE THE LONG WAY ROUND. 20th Century Fox, perhaps surprisingly, chose that route for their precious Apes franchise in the 21st century. It helped that the seeds were sown during the prickly blockbuster pre-skirmishes of the 2010s, before Disney Marvel and Warner Brothers fully locked horns in 2012, when Fox was still riding high on the wave of Avatar. In 2015, with the flawed Fantastic Four reboot securing both Fox’s highest ever trailer views and abysmal box office, you might think that things have complicated further.

But in choosing not to follow up on the perfectly fair box office of Tim Burton’s challenging 2001 ‘reimagining’, Fox was content to let the Apes take their own long way round. Perversely, this new franchise rose from the weaker entries of the original saga. It jettisoned the space flight and time travel of the original novel and iconic early films, and looked at the apes and humans we know now, with all the concerns and worries of our time. The apes were no long in a pipe-dream dystopia. Brilliantly, it told the story the right way round for the first time; an intelligent way to dodge the traps that Burton’s effort fell into. Prudently, it set a template that could roll on, at an unrushed rate, for decades. And astonishingly, just two films in, this reborn, refreshed Apes saga has already grossed $1.2 billion – that’s over double the rest of the Apes films combined (even adjusted for inflation, the new cycle is far ahead).

The third part of this retrospective looked at the turning point of the franchise. The masterstroke brought to bear by franchise writer Paul Dehn from the ashes of the Earth’s destruction after just two films. Not only was his solution a refreshing jump (back) into the contemporary, but quite possibly one of the truest, if inverted, adaptations of Pierre Boulle’s original novel. Escape from the Planet of the Apes set the course for two further films exploring, in rather sporadic fashion, the rise of the ape against the rather self-inflicted fall of man.

Having only previously glimpsed the start and the distant end of the ape story there was plenty to mine or originate. And while Escape set in motion a separate timeline, speeded up by the apes’ paradoxical return to the past, this new telling sits in a parallel timeline of its own. As such, the two recent Apes films make very loose remakes of the final two Apes films of the original cycle. To start at the beginning once again…

Escape from the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

A new dystopia

“Plan for the inevitable day of Man’s downfall…”

The penultimate film of the ‘70s cycle quickly moved things away from the contemporary setting of Escape to the Planet of the Apes. Come Conquest of the Planet of the Apes it’s 1991, a good two decades on from Taylor’s initial flight and even further from that cynical astronaut’s (and Charlton Heston’s) mind. A blunt opening of the march of the apes finds simians clad in identical boiler suits. We’re watching history unfold just as Zira had described in the previous film. But typically, as much as the cycle of futility rolls on, things aren’t quite right. Perhaps due to that earlier paradoxical arrival of advanced Apes or perhaps a sign of the fickle yet inescapable hand of destiny, the timeline has accelerated beyond the one Zira related. This was screenwriter Paul Dehn’s third Ape film, and the chance for him to forge forward with a mythology removed from the source book and the established ape civilisation of the first two films.

But like the second film in the cycle, Conquest puts a lot of stock in continuity drawn the preceding film. Ricardo Montalban’s returning Armando provides the necessary recap and introduces us to the now grown Caesar, explaining recent history to the clearly sheltered young ape. Armando has to brief him on how to act like an ape in a world where circuses are things of the past and the timeline has rapidly accelerated into dystopia. Armando may be carrying circus flyers, but it’s a hollow action as he knows circuses are long gone. That disconnect between his actions and words strike him out as a relic in this dark world. And after he was cast as a saviour at the conclusion of the previous film. Armando is the pivot in the film series’ changing allegiance. Not only an ape-sympathiser only cast in a favourable light by a shift to make apes the heroes of the piece, but also the character who protects this ape Moses on his way to destiny. While the religious overtones are clear, civil rights remain the primary source of parody, satire and drama in this exploration of the near future.

“They’ve made slaves of them”

A mysterious virus from space has wiped out all cats and dogs, but there’s little time to mourn under the monuments to lost pets. Humans brought apes in to homes as quick replacements – no wonder the dog barked at Zira in the third film – with their increased skills soon pushing them into menial tasks – although we are quickly shown the implications, like the simians unconditioned to fire in restaurants while the dystopian rattle of tannoy warnings and demonstration curfews rings out in the background. The way apes have taken a foothold in cities is Dehn’s light nod to the fascinating crux of ape’s inherent stagnation in Pierre Boulle’s original novel; their civilisation held back by their dependence on mimicry. Read more…

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