Why Your Cinematic Universe Is Doomed To Fail

first_imgIf there’s one thing we know about Hollywood, it’s that no good idea goes unpunished. When a film becomes a hit, you’ll see copycats and rip-offs on theater screens faster than you can say “extra butter.” We’ve lived through an eternity of found footage horror flicks, Hangover-inspired gross-out comedies and teen survival dystopias.And now it seems like the industry has found its latest chew toy: “cinematic universes.”Secret OriginsIt all started with Marvel. Tony Stark showed up at the end of the Hulk movie. Thor’s hammer in Iron Man 2. All leading up to Avengers, then flowering back out to solo films over three “phases” so far. Just about every one of these movies has been a massive hit, leveraging geek-friendly directors like Joss Whedon, star power from Robert Downey Jr, and the well-established world of Marvel superheroes.Let’s clarify for a second: we’re not talking about sequels and franchises. The Fast and the Furious is not a “cinematic universe.” The definition here is a group of films that have independent storylines and casts but reference and influence each other by taking place in a fictional space with shared continuity – what happens in one film affects the others.One could argue that Disney has pretty much caught lightning in a bottle here. What are the odds of another successful franchise encompassing fifteen films and counting, with another nine on the way plus broadcast and Netflix TV series? Here’s the answer: the odds are not good.Where Marvel goes, DC will follow. But Warner Brothers has seriously botched the rollout of their “cinematic universe.” Instead of delivering warm, family-friendly takes on their iconic heroes, they drilled audiences with Zack Snyder’s murderous Batman and moody Superman. Suicide Squad introduced a little levity into the formula, but their attempts to hint at and introduce other heroes have been clumsy at best and painful at worst. It’s looking like Wonder Woman finally gets it right, but it’s set some 80 years in the past.The funny thing is that DC has already made a live-action universe work on TV with multiple shows on the CW. The problem is, they’ve already made the choice to not have that successful set of properties intersect with the movie versions. That leaves fans with two competing fictional worlds to keep track of, hamstringing both.A Ruined WorldThis illustrates the central danger of the “universe” model of filmmaking: it has to feel natural. Marvel was smart: they dripped out connections in slight cameos and post-credits scenes. DC introduced a pile of heroes for the upcoming Justice League in Batman vs Superman all at once in the middle of the movie and then shuffled them off to Buffalo. The Marvel movies work as stand-alone films first and foremost, while other studios seem to think that the “universe” will do the heavy lifting for them.It’s not surprising that superhero properties have done well here because the core concept of a shared universe originates from there. It’s called “continuity,” the idea that every story is true and can have repercussions in the future. That’s how Marvel created “Marvel zombies,” who had to pick up every issue of every series so they knew what was happening in the fictional world.But Jim Shooter, the editor who presided over Marvel during their massive success in the 1980s, had a maxim: every comic book is somebody’s first. Even though the storylines of their comics could be intricately woven together, each and every 24-page issue needed to provide enough information and value that it would be worthwhile for a new reader to pick up.That philosophy has carried forward to the Marvel movies. Nearly all of them are fun and engaging on their own merits, with the deep continuity cuts backgrounded for hardcore fans.It’s easy to see how superhero universes can go wrong. All we have to do is look across the aisle at Fox, which has built an X-Men universe that is frankly incoherent. Time skips, alternate futures, Oscar Isaac painted like Ivan Ooze – the X-Men movies are wildly repellent. James Mangold’s Logan made it work by stripping away nearly everything but a handful of core characters, but the franchise is already pretty poisoned.Welcome To The MultiverseAnother case: the fact that a “Hasbro Cinematic Universe” even exists is a terrifying indictment of our culture. Michael Bay’s incoherent CGI robotfests make plenty of money, and the G.I. Joe films have been solid if unspectacular actioners. But now Paramount is working on a movie to tie the two properties together, to be followed by big-screen adaptations of late 80s toy lines M.A.S.K., Micronauts, Rom and Visionaries. How many of those do you remember, let alone have fond feelings for?The announcement of Universal Pictures’ “Dark Universe,” connecting all of their classic monster franchises together, hit the Internet like a wet thud last week. The latest remake of The Mummy with Tom Cruise is painfully lacking in buzz, so why did the studio think that making it the cornerstone of a “cinematic universe” would help matters any?Even Guy Ritchie’s flop King Arthur was originally conceived as part of an “Arthurian cinematic universe” that would roll out individual films for each of the Knights of the Round Table before bringing them together, Avengers-style.Final CrisisAll of these failed and pre-failed universes share some things in common. They all came hot on the heels of Marvel’s success without recognizing what made those movies work. I realize that in 2017 it’s kind of a waste of time to tell Hollywood to “just make good movies,” but that’s really the case here. If a Marvel movie ends up being a dud, it’s not going to sink the franchise because they’ve already built enough momentum to get over it. All of these other “universes” don’t have that momentum. They’re trying to burst out of the gate as fully-formed cultural phenomena, and if there’s one thing geeks really don’t like, it’s being told we’re supposed to like something.The one other “cinematic universe” that seems to be doing well, both creatively and financially, is Star Wars. But, like Marvel, that’s a franchise with a tremendous amount of both fan affection and lore. There are hundreds of paperback novels, video games and comic books painting every corner of George Lucas’s galaxy far away. And while the mainline movies are one continuous narrative, Rogue One proves that there’s plenty of room to explore.I didn’t even touch on every “cinematic universe” in the works right now – Legendary’s King Kong/Godzilla “monsterverse,” Sony’s ridiculous Robin Hood franchise, Lionsgate proposing a Power Rangers one… we’re in the dozens at this point, straining both studio budgets and moviegoer patience.Marvel’s movies work because each one of them is a good film. They’ve brought in new directors like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler to carry the movies forward in interesting directions, and slowly and steadily build the universe. But if you went in and stripped out the “shared universe” from most of them, they’d still work just fine. It’s a garnish, not an entree.People didn’t like Paranormal Activity because of the found footage gimmick – they liked it for the tension it racked up and its unique atmosphere. The Sixth Sense was more than the twist at the end, but M. Night Shyamalan obviously learned the wrong lesson. All of these proposed “cinematic universes” are putting the cart before the horse, counting on the gimmick to sell tickets when nothing else works.Good luck with that, guys.last_img

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