In 2012, The Avengers came out and completely reshaped the pop culture landscape in a way that hadn’t happened since 1999, when The Matrix did the same thing. Almost overnight, it felt like every other company was looking at creating their own version of the same thing, wanting to make the Marvel Cinematic Universe magic strike twice.
The idea is relatively simple. Make movies about different characters, then bring them together into a single movie to hopefully combine all the fans you’ve earned for individual films into one single mega fandom that will help you make all the money in the universe. Its the same business model that’s worked so well for comic books over the years. It’s basically a recipe to print money, but without the hyperinflation that destroys an economy.
Seven years later, go look at Wikipedia’s list of highest grossing films and film franchises. If you’re paying attention and not distracted by the obscenely large dollar amounts, you’ll notice something. On the franchise list, the MCU sits at number one. Numbers two through eight are the more traditional franchises, where they make one series of movies at a time. Number nine is the DC extended universe – not bad, given how rocky they were at the start, and undoubtedly buoyed by having all of the best-known superheroes. Then the rest? All traditional franchises.
It’d be easy to think, if you had just looked at this, that Warner Brothers was the only other company to attempt a cinematic universe, and only with the DC. But they weren’t. Fox tried it with the X-Men: Origins series. Universal attempted it with The Dark Universe. Warner Brothers tried it with King Arthur. Sony tried it with Amazing Spider-Man, Robin Hood, and was going to try it with a crossover between 21 Jump Street and Men In Black of all things. The only other studio to not have a massive failure to their name is Legendary Studios with the Monsterverse, and the box office for Godzilla: King of the Monsters is not looking pretty, as much as I loved the movie.
So why is a simple concept so damn hard? Why has almost every other shared universe attempted since 2012 collapsed in under its own weight, and the only survivors were the universes that had Batman, Superman, and Godzilla? As it was put so wonderfully in A History of Violence…
Well, let’s look into that – the three most common reasons cinematic universes fail.
Too much World Building
Hey, remember when the second act of Iron Man ground to a halt to allow Nick Fury to exposit about how SHIELD works? No? How about when the entire middle portion of Thor was taken up by Odin explaining the Infinity Stones? You’re saying that didn’t happen either? Okay, well, how about the section of Guardians of the Galaxy when the movie stopped to explain in great detail Thanos and the Black Order? Oh, that also didn’t happen?
Then why do other cinematic universes keep doing this?
The genesis for this blog post is also the best example of all of these flaws – the 2017 dumpster fire that was The Mummy, intended to be the start of Universals Dark Universe of films. Did you see it? If the numbers are anything to go by, I’d feel safe calling you a liar if you claimed to see it in theaters. This is a good thing – The Mummy is an awful movie, if you haven’t picked up on that yet.
There’s a lot that makes this movie bad, but the absolute nadir occurs in the middle of the movie. The entire second act is spent in the headquarters of…hangon, I just watched this movie and I cannot remember the name of their SHIELD knock off. Monarch? ARGUS? Cobra? I’m not even exaggering here, I had to tab over to Wikipedia to learn the name of this organization.
Prodigium. Say that out loud without laughing, I dare you.
Anyway, the second act of the moive takes place in the headquarters of Prodigium, where Dr. Jekell spends something close to thirty execreable minutes explaining what Prodigium is, where its from, their overarching goal, and what future McGuffins and movie titles live there. I’m not kidding.
This entire time, the titular Mummy is chained up by Prodigium. The things that Tom Cruz’s clueless character learn here are almost entirely going to pay off in another movie (that will now never get made) and nothing of import happens to advance the plot.
By comparison, do you know what the middle parts of Thor, Iron Man, and Wonder Woman were spent on? In order, giving the characters time to grow so the audience can know them better, setting up conflicts that would pay off later in the finale, and the most badass action sequence of its entire runtime.
Save the worldbuilding that doesn’t relate to the current film for the post-credit scenes, or background detail, or brief flashes. Do not pause your movie to exposit to your audience when the cinematic universe is still young – wait until you’ve had your first big crossover to do that.
Cramming too much into a single movie
This is a cousin to the worldbuilding syndrome above, but it manifests in more subtle ways. To start us off with a good one, I’m going to go back to Iron Man. In that film, there was the hero, the main bad guy, a terrorist group the main bad guy was manipulating, and two sets of power armor. That’s it, that’s all. Nice, clean, and simple.
On the other hand take, for example, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It’s often forgotten that this was supposed to kick off a whole wave of X-Men Origins films. In this movie, you have – Hairy claw mutant, other hairy claw mutant, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool take one, a teleporter, a guy who…shoots guns really good? I never was clear on Zero’s movie power. That’s more than enough, but they weren’t done. They also had super strong Fatman, Captain Card tricks, a Native American Stereotype, and an entire clandestine government organization. Now we’re already overstuffed, but they still had to include cameos by the incredible eye-beam boy, diamond girl, and professor baldman.
God, no wonder the movie was terrible. I don’t think the most talented writers in the world could make a good movie with all of that needing to be established. I don’t think the most talented writers in the world could make a good tv series and fit all of that in a season. And they didn’t have the most talent writers in the world, they had…one half of the team that adapted Game of Thrones.
That explains some things.
When you’re building a cinematic universe, you need to make sure the barrier for entry for the first couple movies is low. You’re asking audiences to invest a lot of time and energy into following the continuity of these things, and if you want them to do so, you need to make it as easy as possible. Early on, you should stick to relatively straightforward stories. Again, after the first crossover is when you can go crazy and make an Afro-Futurist Cat Man movie, or a movie that features both a talking raccoon and a talking tree, or “What if Big, but also Superman?”
Otherwise, you’re basically threatening your audience. “Hey, that movie was hard to follow,” you say, “but don’t worry! We’re going to make a bunch more of these, and then we’re going to cram them all together, and won’t that be easy to…where are you going?”
Out the door. We’re going out the door, down the block, and we’re going to watch a movie with a good plot that doesn’t bog us down.
Focus on quality as opposed to the brand.
It doesn’t matter what your cinematic universe is about. You could be making the GI Joe Cinematic Universe, or the Bratz! Cinematic Universe, or building Twilight into a Cinematic Universe (except oh God, please don’t do that.) If you make a good movie, people will be invested. Outside of hardcore nerds, no one knew who Iron Man or Thor were in 2005. Hulk had a pretty popular TV show, Captain American had been big in the 40’s, but Marvel coudn’t bank on name recognitions. They didn’t have the rights to their biggest names – Spider-Man and the X-Men.
So they had to convince people that it was worth watching movies that, at the time, seemed like they’d never include the Marvel characters they knew and loved.
They were left with only one option – make a good movie. So they made Iron Man, and lo, it was good.
This is what killed the first attempt at a DC Cinematic Universe. If you’re lucky, time has removed the memory from your brain like a surgen removing a tumor, but back in 2011, Warner Brothers produced the Green Lantern film. Green Lantern was supposed to kickstart an entire shared universe of DC movies the likes of which would surely crush Marvel – after all, thanks to the excellent Justice League cartoon, Green Lantern was almost as well known as some of the lesser X-Men. What could possibly go wrong?
Apparently, the answer was literally everything. The script was bad. The movie was overstuffed. They jumped straight to Green Lantern’s greatest foe with no build-up. The writing was painful. The actors were doing their best with what they were given, but it was clear they knew they’d been given a steaming pile of garbage. The CGI would have looked dated in the late 90’s. It was a terrible film on almost every concievable level, and it was so bad, it killed the idea of a DC answer to Marvel for…only two years, actually.
Man, Warner Brothers was persistent.
Almost every other failed cinematic universe has the same problem – the first movie sucks, and that kills the franchise. The name power of Green Lantern, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and The Mummy could have been strong enough to build a franchise from those bases…if only the first movie had done well. Now, to be fair, no one sets out to make a bad movie. But it also isn’t hard to make a good movie. At least, it shouldn’t be.
Some basic tips: avoid point one and two of this post. Give the characters a relatable arc. Polish writing. Keep the plot simple, and put the complexity into the characters. And above all else, do not overplan for sequels – just focus on the movie you are making.
Name recognition will get people in the seats, its true. But they’ll make sure to tell everyone how bad what they just saw was, and just like that, your cinematic universe will turn into a financial nightmare.
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