Cinematic Universes: the divisive wave of cinema’s future

With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.

In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.

Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.

We had the trilogy dawn first, however, which pre-empted the concept of a franchise. For years, a trilogy was deemed the apex achievement for an ongoing series. The 80’s and 90’s are littered with them – Back to the Future (ahead of its time slightly by crafting a two-part story once the first film was such a success), Lethal Weapon, and of course the original Star Wars. Oddly enough, superhero movies seemed to buck that trend in many respects, which is why their evolution ended up blossoming into the first true cinematic franchise; Superman and Batman both unintentionally ended up structured beyond a trilogy, running into four movies and undoubtedly more would have been made were it not for critical and commercial concerns, such as Joel Schumacher’s intended Batman & Robin follow-up ‘Batman Triumphant’.

Trilogies, nonetheless, felt like the goal, unless you were a pre-existing franchise of deeper proportions – an established comic-book legend, as stated, or Star Trek, James Bond or even Rocky. That started to change as we reached the end of the 90’s and entered the 2000’s, when the influence of television steadily began making the impact on cinema which would directly lead to the Cinematic Universe to come. Television was beginning to enter a new Golden Age – genre shows in the 90’s such as The X-Files, Babylon-5, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which had garnered significant critical acclaim, helped usher in the dawn of acclaimed serialised cable drama such as The Sopranos, The Wire, or later Breaking Bad. Many began to feel the best continuing storytelling was happening on the small rather than big screen.

Kevin Feige undoubtedly took a significant cue from the strength of television as he formed, conceptually, the idea of a connected Cinematic Universe for Marvel Comics. What he produced, and spearheaded, was really quite unprecedented. He mapped out a plan, starting with 2008’s Iron Man, which would steadily intertextually weave comic book characters and storylines across a four year period, building to 2012’s The Avengers/Avengers Assemble. Feige adopted the loosely serialised television season model for the cinema, acting essentially as show runner to guide teams of writers and directors who would try and place their own stamp on the broader universe while getting the characters and narratives to a point of convergence, and crucially payoff.

That’s not how franchises, as the sequel had evolved into, traditionally tended to work. Star Wars and Back to the Future are examples of an ongoing story told over several films, but they had a conclusive end point come the conclusion of part three. Many sequels created their follow-up stories once the pictures themselves had been a success; this is how the Star Trek movie franchise worked for two decades, almost stumbling into levels of serialised narrative after the reactionary way it dealt with the death of Spock at the end of The Wrath of Khan. Sequels, trilogies and franchises were never looking five or six or even ten movies ahead. They were concerned, largely for fiscal reasons, with making money on their current picture and, God willing, they would get to make another one.

The approach taken by Feige and his creative team worked precisely because they didn’t front load everything at once. The MCU concept had room to naturally evolve and grow, changing and course-correcting as time went on. Just look at the critical mauling doled out to The Incredible Hulk, which subsequently led to Edward Norton abandoning the coveted role of Dr. Bruce Banner, and in part has made Marvel wary of developing a major, solo Hulk movie since; indeed there’s a strong argument they folded the most natural Hulk comic book story for cinema, ‘Planet Hulk’, into Thor Ragnarok this year. Similarly, after the critical disappointment that was Iron Man 2 following the much beloved original, director Jon Favreau–who to many would have been a shoo-in to direct a third film–was dispensed with behind the camera, though he maintained enough of a good relationship with Feige & Marvel to continue appearing on screen as Happy Hogan. The point is that Marvel have been unafraid to alter the game plan based not just on commercial concerns but critical and fan response.

This is not to say Feige and Team Marvel don’t have an endgame, or haven’t been working toward one. Right from Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury asking Tony Stark in the post-credits sequence of Iron Man (another cinematic innovation quickly adopted by other franchises) to join his ‘Avenger Initiative’, Marvel Studios have been working toward a conclusion we’re very likely to get in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. That’s a story that has taken ten years to unfurl, bringing in a myriad assortment of comic book characters, through which Marvel have developed half a dozen genre-specific strings to their bow; escapist action adventures (Captain America: The First Avenger), pure-blood galactic science-fiction (Guardians of the Galaxy), dark conspiracy thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), trippy magical fantasy (Doctor Strange) and more. Remarkably, they have managed under the same overarching umbrella to create a universe made up of a varied mix of storytelling styles which have attracted different kinds of viewers.

Marvel haven’t always got the mixture right. The MCU has its share of duds, indeed it wasn’t until 2011’s The First Avenger they delivered a picture with the same skilful resonance as the first Iron Man. Had Avengers Assemble not been received with a $1.5 billion haul and critical adoration, the so-called ‘Phase 2’ of Marvel’s cinematic plan may have lacked the longevity it’s maintained over the last decade. Yet despite the occasional Thor: The Dark World, fans on the whole have stuck with the MCU. Naysayers decry how similar elements are as they carry over from film to film, citing repetitive, weak villains and climaxes which essentially copy the last movie. These are warranted criticisms in plenty of places, yet they sometimes forget one crucial element: the television inspiration.

As discussed above, the MCU essentially brought the season-long storytelling model to cinema. When you examine the first three ‘Phases’ of the Marvel project after the untiled fourth Avengers movie in 2019, you will find twenty two films. Twenty two or twenty-four for many years was the traditional TV season length model, before the days of cable and eventually streaming services began putting paid to the need for shows to be developed with one eye on the 100 episode syndication prize. Twenty two films which, despite many of them having standalone stories, all to some degree connect with each other to tell the story of Thanos, the Mad Titan, bringing together the Infinity Stones to destroy the universe. Iron Man was the season premiere, Avengers 4 will be the finale, or perhaps more appropriately an epilogue after the galaxy-shattering events of Infinity War.

Kevin Feige has discussed how Marvel Studios are planning upwards of ten years into the future, meaning they have a rough idea of how Phases 4, 5 and 6 are going to play out. Chances are, many of the characters we have followed over the last ten years will be (pun intended) phased out as contracts for players such as Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth etc… become prohibitively expensive to renew. Bear in mind, a successful cinematic universe doesn’t just make money, it makes *stars*. Downey Jr’s career was saved by Tony Stark, while Evans & Hemsworth’s were made through their characters. This is in marked contrast to the days when trilogies were built on star names; Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, for example, or Bruce Willis in the first three Die Hard films. Their names were emblazoned across the poster. These days the first name you see is Marvel’s.

Ironically, the MCU also wrote the nature of the existing trilogy into its own DNA. When you consider the major characters who have dominated the storytelling of the first three Phases, each of their character arcs are built around three movies; Stark’s journey from becoming Iron Man to letting it go in Shane Black’s third film, Steve Rogers moving from wartime propaganda hero to broken leader of the modern day Avengers in Civil War, or Thor’s voyage from boorish, entitled God of Thunder to a warmer, comedic protector of Earth as much as his own Asgardian people. The trilogy remains in evidence even inside the broader franchise operation of an extended, continuing universe, it’s appeal as a storytelling mechanism undimmed. Marvel, in many respects, is digesting and repurposing the very nature of ongoing cinematic storytelling by adopting styles past.

The consumption of media doesn’t stop there with the MCU, extending outward to how they incorporated television itself. Despite using the season-model to construct its cinematic journey, Marvel saw fit to extend the broader narrative out to small screen tales, whether continuing the story of Clark Gregg’s fan favourite Phil Coulson after his ‘death’ in Avengers Assemble through ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or alongside Netflix—the other major player over the last decade who forever changed and impacted television & cinema—developing the retinue of TV shows in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, starting with Daredevil, building to its own mini-Avengers series in The Defenders this year, which concluded its own ‘Phase 1’. The Punisher just arrived, beginning Netflix’s Phase 2, meaning Marvel’s production has truly cycled back on itself; they adapted TV models for cinema, then used their adapted model to replicate the same process back on TV.

These achievements cannot be underestimated, as they’ve changed cinema forever. Studios no longer look at a script or a property with sequel or trilogy potential, they don’t even look as far as franchise potential. Now they look further, for ‘universe’ potential. Can this property or adaptation become the next MCU? The next Star Wars? The next Game of Thrones? One eye is placed on the potential of an extended, expanded, intertextual universe the like of which has never been attempted in cinema. TV has of course been doing this for a while; the crossover of the Star Trek franchise series, Buffy & Angel, The X-Files and its spin-offs, but these were never quite looked at in universal franchise terms. The most recent endeavour to do that, to copy the cinematic model Marvel created, has been The CW’s ‘Arrowverse’, now four-shows strong in adapting popular DC Comics characters and with no suggestion the end is in sight.

Why, then, has the cinematic universe been such a struggle for DC Comics when it comes to the big screen? On paper, it should have been an unqualified success. DC arguably has more well-known heroes and villains; sure Marvel has Spider-Man & the Hulk who became household names globally, but DC have Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Joker, Lex Luthor, Catwoman, the Riddler, the list goes on. The kitsch, lovable 1960’s Batman series has to take a lot of credit for embedding these characters in pop-culture consciousness through the power of re-runs, and over the last 40 years DC beat Marvel to the punch with cinematic box office hits for Superman and then Batman. They are as synonymous with cinema as Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones or James Bond. The DC version of the MCU should have been an immediate smash.

Now it’s very easy to pile on the ‘DCEU’, which many frequently do. Critically, for many, the quality of the few films in the DCEU compared to Marvel, doesn’t match Marvel’s output. Debating that isn’t the point. The approach DC Comics took is more interesting because, to their credit, they tried backing into a universe model differently to Marvel. After retrofitting, in many respects, Man of Steel as the first entry of the DCEU (when it was planned as the first of more of a traditional superhero series), they created Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice as both an adaptation of a classic, legendary DC comics story and essentially their ‘Avengers’, or maybe their Civil War, as a lead in to Justice League. They put, figuratively, the cart before the horse.

While its easy to criticise DC Comics and spearheading force Zack Snyder for this, their approach makes a degree of sense. Not just to distinguish themselves from the pre-existing Marvel model, but also to capitalise on the current cinematic zeitgeist. Marvel, bear in mind, *created* this very approach without any kind of knowledge or certainty it would work or be nearly as successful as it was. DC spending a decade building in movies with characters like Batman or Superman we’re already very familiar with, copying the same Marvel approach, could well have drawn criticisms amounting to “get on with it!”; indeed many complained BvS depicted Bruce Wayne’s tragic origin story even in the credits, convinced previous pictures had more than adequately covered it. The tide has turned against the origin story for characters who have had previous films, even if they’re in separate continuity – the DCEU to a degree was damned if it did, damned if it didn’t in how it kickstarted the universe.

Justice League’s critical mauling, limp opening weekend performance and poor word of mouth thus far seems to suggest that, overall, people have grave reservations about starting a cinematic universe so openly and with such brazen intention. But is that the case? The recent collapse of Universal’s so-called ‘Dark Universe’, which spearheaded by producer Alex Kurtzman and writer Chris Morgan intended to create a modern-day cinematic universe based around classic 19th century monsters Universal have the rights to, adds fuel to the fire; do people want a cinematic universe to organically develop and grow, rather than creatives standing up and pledging they are going to weave everything together in an overarching story, whether you like it or not?

The argument against this thinking is Star Wars. Easily the most lucrative and beloved cinematic pop-culture property in movie history, George Lucas’ sale of LucasFilm and the rights to his creation to Disney in 2012 immediately saw overseeing producer Kathleen Kennedy announce not just a new Star Wars trilogy but a whole, expanded universe telling new and unseen Star Wars anthology stories around the main ‘Episodes’ which we saw Lucas develop with his Original Trilogy and the much-maligned Prequel Trilogy. Kennedy was open about this from the get-go, Disney putting their cards on the table – cancel Christmas, its ours for probably the next decade at least. Last year, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—telling a tale which led directly into A New Hope—met with critical and commercial success, despite hammering home how Star Wars was no longer a set of trilogies or a franchise, it was now a cinematic universe.

Why then has Star Wars met with such success, and the DCEU hasn’t? Why did people not like the thought of the Dark Universe? Viewers have been eating up movies about Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman et al practically since cinema began – if Batman, Superman, Spider-Man etc… are the super powered heroes of the late 20th century in popular culture, the overspilling supernatural Victorian creations of literature arguably filled that bracket in the first half of the century, and have endured across media ever since. Much like the DCEU, was the Dark Universe not a beloved cash cow in the making? Star Wars openly has kicked off their own expanded vein of storytelling, why can’t these potentially equally beloved and lucrative properties?

If we’re being brutally honest, it comes down to quality and diminishing returns. Batman vs Superman was considered by many to be a noisy, humourless, overlong film directed by a filmmaker who values CGI spectacle over heartfelt character work. Kurtzman’s The Mummy, meant to kickstart the Dark Universe, was derided by critics and met with a lacklustre box office, perhaps not helped by the marmite presence of Tom Cruise in the lead role. Each of these franchises taps into movie stars to help sell their worlds and bring in extra fans along the way, but Cruise by this point has an equal amount of people who loathe his on screen presence as they do love it. Couple him headlining with what many considered to be a poor script with thudding, badly made visuals, and again you have a film that stalls on the starting grid.

That could well be the lesson here. A successful cinematic universe needs that special, critically and commercially loved film to engender people to the journey they’re being taken on. Iron Man had it for Marvel, The Force Awakens had it for Star Wars and Disney, but the DCEU and the Dark Universe failed to develop that picture which resonated with audiences in the same way. Batman vs Superman and now Justice League have done little bar add to the growing online toxicity of a protective layer of fandom ready to shout down anyone who takes against their franchise. It happens on both sides and it happens most acutely these days around the dominant cinematic universe, a model of storytelling which shows no sign of abating.

Next year, the Fast and Furious franchise—worth writing in depth about alone because its such a glorious aberration—launches a spin-off for its two most popular characters, Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs and Jason Statham’s Shaw. There has even been talk and suggestion that James Bond could well expand into a cinematic universe in the future, a development that will most likely be assiduously fought against by many in that powerfully protective fandom. Cinematic universes remain part of the current cinematic zeitgeist but many have wondered how long until the bubble bursts. How long until the MCU loses traction? Can the DCEU survive another failure?

These are questions that will remain forefront to those who love, and those who hate, what cinema has become thanks to the advent of the cinematic universe. Sadly, it feels like everyone is being made to pick a side.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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