With the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War now being mere weeks away, it got me thinking about the rise of the shared universe in film over the last decade. Today, it definitely feels like the MCU has, in many ways, changed the very way a lot of movies are made and perceived, with almost every other studio in Hollywood looking to capitalise on this trend; ranging from DC’s own attempt at launching their DC Extended Universe, Universal’s attempts to revive their classic monster movies with their Dark Universe, to even Sony’s proposed Jump Street/Men in Black crossover-universe.
However, the concept of a shared universe actually dates back a lot further than 2008, the year Marvel began their new cinematic continuity, with the releases of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, and by exploring the history of this notion, I think we can learn a lot about the future of the cinematic universe, and what makes Marvel’s so noteworthy.
While Marvel was definitely at the forefront for the modern shared universe craze, setting the precedent for how to build an interconnected continuity of films, it would be erroneous to overlook the long history of the serialised method of storytelling in film, and the decades of films which served a larger continuity. In fact, the origins of the Shared Universe can be found in serialised fiction; dating back to the work of Charles Dickens and his Pickwick Papers (1836), but the idea of serialised storytelling became prevalent in the emerging medium of cinema in the 1920's, with the rise of the Film Serials.
These low-budget, action packed adventures told their story in multiple instalments, using shocking-cliffhanger endings to entice viewers back for the next chapter, usually aired the following week. The film serial was a way of telling a story on screen, but in a format more similar to that of a novel; a story told in chapters, and found success in a variety of different genres, such as science fiction, western, crime-noir, and even superheroes. While many of these serials were self-contained, they demonstrated an important element found in the DNA of the shared universe, the idea of a larger story, and the desire to know ‘what comes next’.
The first real shared universe, in the modern sense of the word, came in the form of Universal Studios’ classic monster movies of the 1930's; with films such as 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein, followed by The Mummy, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, before releasing their first crossover film, with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a film that originated as a joke over lunch between studio executives, and went on to form the very nucleus of the cinematic universe.
However, while crossovers between two popular film series isn’t exactly something new, we’ve seen plenty, be it Freddy vs. Jason, King Kong vs. Godzilla, or Alien vs. Predator, there is something unique and intrinsically different about what Marvel has accomplished. While the aforementioned films managed to bring together two existing franchises, Marvel instead chose to build their universe from the ground up, each individual film like a building block to a much larger story, the culmination of which was 2012’s The Avengers, but even after that, the Marvel Cinematic Universe continued to grow exponentially, now including a variety of television series, films set in the far reaches of space, and even ones a lot closer to home; while it’s true that Marvel didn’t invent the cinematic universe, it’s definitely fair to say the studio revolutionised and brought back the idea to the forefront of the medium.
And because of Marvel’s success, it’s understandable that many other studios seek to replicate this formula, but often to a much lesser effect, quality-wise. The problem with many other attempts to build a shared universe, is that rival studios fail to invest the necessary time in order to naturally build their world.
For instance, let’s look at Universal’s 2017 release The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman and starring Tom Cruise, a film planned to kick off their Dark Universe series of connected monster movies. Why the film failed wasn’t necessarily down to the fact it was the start of a cinematic universe, but more about how Universal handled creating said-universe, and how this was done at the expense of The Mummy; it felt as if Universal were simply making this film to launch their new series, already developing remakes of other classic monster films such as Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and a Jekyll & Hyde film, continuing on from Russell Crowe's appearance in The Mummy.
This sort of thinking can be damaging to a series, especially if more thought is put into what happens after the film you’re currently making than into the film you’re making. Just look at how Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man series unfolded; a corporate mandate to build a whole cinematic universe from the success of their 2012 reboot, via a film which spent more time aiming to introduce and set up as many spin-offs as possible than telling an compelling and cohesive story.
Marvel Studios have always been ambitious, but they’ve rarely been caught planning too far ahead, without a careful eye on the present. While their current films are building up to April’s Avengers: Infinity War, it’s clear the studio also takes priority in making the very best film they can, each time they attempt to do so. As Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige puts it:
“We've always remained consistent saying that the movie that we are making comes first. All of the connective tissue, all of that stuff is fun and is going to be very important if you want it to be. If the fans want to look further and find connections, then they're there.. But the reason that all the filmmakers are on board is that their movies need to stand on their own. They need to have a fresh vision, a unique tone, and the fact that they can interconnect if you want to follow those breadcrumbs is a bonus."
I think this demonstrates why Marvel has found such success with their cinematic universe, compared to many other studios' attempts. It's clear (from the mixed receptions to Dark Universe and the DCEU) that over-committing to the idea of building an expansive shared universe can often lead to failure, because in order for the series to work, it has to be built of the success of films which work as films, not as trailers for something coming in a couple of years. While I’m not saying everything Marvel has put out over the last decade has been perfect, where they have succeeded is developing an emotional resonance to their core characters from the beginning, and using this as the building point to grow outwards.
This became clear to me during my first viewing of Thor: Ragnarok last November. While I’m not personally a huge fan of the previous Thor films, I found myself thoroughly loving what I was seeing on screen, mostly because Thor is a character that I have been watching grow and develop since 2011, supported by other characters I’m invested in, such as Loki and the Hulk, but because, before focusing on what the events of this film mean for Infinity War, the film’s primary motivation is to tell a great self-contained story about Thor... which sounds obvious, but I feel as if it’s something that gets lost in the myriad of planning for films five years in the future, and the importance of asking ‘what is happening now’ over ‘what happens next?’
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