Indulge me, if you would, on a brief trip through time back to May 2nd 2008 – a simpler time in many ways. You’re some human or another, sitting down in your local cinema-house to watch a little thing called Iron Man. No one really expects a huge amount. It’s one of Marvel’s lesser loved comic-book properties, starring a washed-up actor still clawing his way back from the Hollywood wilderness after a series of drug-related arrests, directed by a guy most famous for being one of Monica’s ex-boyfriends in Friends. And then, what do you know, it ends up being pretty good. So good, in fact, that you sit around in the theatre afterwards chatting to your chums about how good it was, like that scene where they used AC/DC for a minute. Then, right at the arse end of the credits – BOOM, there’s Samuel L Jackson with a fleeting reference to the Avengers.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the whole goddamn world of cinematic storytelling is thrown out of the proverbial window like so many CGI whatevers from the Planet McGuffin. The cinematic universe is born. And lo how we pay for it 11 years later.
I’m going to give it to you straight up – this article is not bashing Marvel. Marvel movies are undeniably entertaining and, like it or not, have completely transformed how we make and consume media. As someone who spends 95 per cent of their life working in film and TV production because the hours are a joke (it ain’t glamorous, kids – but we can rant about that another time) it’s a reality that’s been as fascinating as it’s been infuriating. So, in short, this article is bashing everyone else. Because the new wave of creative stagnation currently blighting the way we tell stories is all Marvel’s fault.
Iron Man (2008), where it all began
Stories being told across multiple forms of media is nothing new – we even have a world for it: multimedia. Or, if you’re feeling wanky, “synergy” and “synergistic storytelling.” The Matrix did it back in the 90s, expanding the mythology and bemusing plotlines of the films through comic books. But the idea of a “cinematic” or “shared” universe of films – effectively a franchise of franchises – as we know it is purely Marvel’s baby. And like any other baby, cinematic universes are loud, obnoxious, seemingly omnipresent, and more than prone to shitting themselves.
Marvel’s influence has been all-encompassing, from how we now market movies, to how and when we release them. It even spans to how we hire key creative roles, as Marvel famously hires little-known indie and TV directors to helm their big tentpole movies. Whether that's an altruistic professional leg-up or shrewd financial decision (your call) it's still being emulated across fellow blockbuster franchises and even major TV series. I don’t begrudge Marvel this success for one second. They had their goals and their targets and hit them all so hard that the entire industry has been left blinking in their dust. I do begrudge the lamentable attitudes that Marvel’s success has ingrained in the industry as a whole, however.
The Cinematic or Shared Universe has become the ultimate golden goose. It has made it too easy to be too lazy – or, at least, Marvel made it seem that way by being too good at it. Rival studios and would-be universes want Avengers numbers without doing the legwork: the three-star intro movies, the semi-dud forgettable sequels that nonetheless build the mythology of the fictional universe. Not to get too “sign of the times” here but… it’s absolutely a sign of our miserable times, wanting everything right here, right now, immediately.
Instead of looking for new ways to tell their own stories, studios keep trying to find a way of climbing into Marvel’s box because they can see how well it’s worked. Formulas lead to stagnation – there are only so many times that an audience can stomach the same story told over and over again. Marvel have continued their unprecedented success by being ahead of their own curve on this – no more origin stories for them, instead let’s throw Thor into space-Gladiator. They wrote the original rules and are now rewriting them, they’re beating their opponents twice over by being better on the initial battleground, which they established, while also building the next.
It’s the same situation in TV, with networks and streamers looking to jump straight to Game of Thrones series eight numbers, ignoring the first seven which organically built the audience base - not to mention the 20+ years of bestselling books. Amazon will be blowing half a billion on their Lord of the Rings series in the expectation of emulating GoT, seemingly ignoring the fact that the landscape of TV is now entirely different precisely because of GoT’s gradual success. Average viewership for the first series was around 2.5 million and they were numbers to cheer about – whereas if a fantasy flagship series these days launches to around the same numbers the warning bells will start ringing immediately.
We’re seeing the same thing with video games too. Look at "live services," for instance. You don’t just a buy a game, you buy the base game which is designed to sell collector's editions, DLC, and microtransactions for years to come. The story, or "gameplay experience," doesn’t exist for its own sake, but for the sake of everything that comes after. And this isn’t an opinion, it’s a proud proclamation of corporate intent from the EAs and Ubisofts of the world. It is, inevitably, a creative sacrifice for a commercial gain, and therefore the same machination as your bog-standard cinematic universe.
Generally speaking, if there’s only one example of a thing being “good”, and innumerable of it being “bad”, it’s probably not a good thing. Point being – after Alien vs. Predator managed to irrevocably destroy both the Alien and the Predator film franchises, and the DCEU failed so extravagantly it’s already been soft-rebooted, and the “Dark Universe” of monster movies from Universal was killed off before it even bloody started with The Mummy... maybe it’s time to try something else?
The Mummy (2017): a failed shared universe before it even began
I’m not talking about a call-to-arms for original movies here (though more would be nice) but a smarter, fresher approach to franchise filmmaking. Make all the damn sequels you like –prequels too– just for the love of all the gods please prioritise telling full, complete, satisfying stories that audiences actually want to see more of. The industry’s woeful attempts at universe-building have been putting the cart so far ahead of the horse it’s no wonder the poor horse has sacked the whole thing off.
This isn’t to dump on comic book movies in particular. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is testament to how fist-pumpingly good franchise films can be when they’re made with some TLC. That movie nailed every single element of its production, from its characters, its music, design and (most significantly) its story, so that every beautiful frame of it was dripping with love and attention. And, what do you know, audiences reciprocated that love, it earned a tonne of money, won an Oscar, and launched a franchise that people are actually excited about.
How much genuine excitement was there for the DCEU? Or the mooted “Dark Universe”? Or, gods forbid, the burgeoning Godzilla shared universe? Godzilla shares a universe with no man, she’s God-freakin-zilla! A giant nuclear lizard rage-stomping the shit out of everything should be the most satisfying movie-going experience possible and instead we haven’t had a good 'Zilla since the 60s.
Even Star Wars, quite possibly the biggest and most beloved cinematic property of all time, failed majestically at developing its own extended universe outside of the standard Skywalker saga sequels. After the relative success of Rogue One, Lucasfilm couldn’t go five minutes without throwing another film project on the bonfire that no one was remotely invested in yet – Kenobi, Boba Fett, MORE TRILOGIES. We were a quiet Monday away from a gritty Jar Jar Binks reboot announcement when Solo mercifully released to an almighty “meh” from critics, fans, and the box office alike. As quickly as the extended universe project was announced, it was unceremoniously pulled (for now, anyway).
It’s worth noting that Solo’s original directors, Lord and Miller, infamously came down with a potent case of “creative differences” with the Lucasfilm top brass, and I would bet at least £2 that said differences derived from how Solo fit into and propped up the burgeoning movie universe. Instead of prioritising making an actual good film on its own merits that audiences wanted to see and follow, the focus shifted to how this film could be used to support and launch other films that didn’t exist yet. Now the entire project has been put on indefinite hiatus, with the Boba Fett movie seemingly absorbed into the upcoming Mandalorian TV series, and the mooted film trilogies from Rian Johnson and Benioff and Wise (they of Game of Thrones) now about as quiet as most screenings of Solo.
Need another example? Harry Potter does not need a cinematic universe – though at least that one is squarely on the shoulders of JK "everyone's secretly gay, didn't I mention it?" Rowling. The dramatic financial and critical downturn between the first and second Fantastic Beasts films is testament to how little audiences care about Harry Potter without Harry actual Potter.
Not that anyone thought to check because, dontcha know it, Warner Bros. straight up ordered five of these “universe building” films that nobody asked for. Yep, we still have three more entries of vacuous filler to ignore over the coming years before they inevitably reboot the entire Potter series or, more likely, extend the universe in some new nonsense way. Bottom line, we see it again here: studios making films so that they can sell audiences on other films that don’t exist yet. Audiences are not stupid, actually, and they speak very loudly with their wallets when you treat them as such.
The blight of the cinematic universe model is that it has –at least in the eyes of studio heads and decision makers – completely validated a derivative approach to filmmaking and storytelling. There’s a clear guiding ideology across films and video games that if you haven’t made all of the money then you haven’t made enough money. There’s no such thing as caps or ceilings, growth is infinite, and if you aren’t always making more then you’re failing. Of course this is basically capitalism, and no, I don’t have the time or energy to get into that here.
To that end, considering how pant-shittingly risky filmmaking is as a concept, there’s inevitably a strong urge to lean into anything that’s proven successful. And it's understandable, natural even, for studios to look at something like the MCU where the 22nd film in the series makes $1.2 billion in less than a week (!) and wonder where their slice of that pie is.
"Hollywood" is a fantastically convenient bogeyman for anything someone doesn't like. Why are there so many white men doing literally everything? Hollywood. Why are there so many films about vampires and zombies? Hollywood again. Or, of course, why aren’t there enough films about vampires and zombies? Damn Hollywood all over again. And a lot of these criticisms are wholly valid. However, what often gets lost is that 99 per cent of what we think of as "Hollywood" is just regular humans working an impossible job. The bureaucracy is maddening, the admin never ending, and the stakes monstrously high.
Which is to say, it's only natural to look for easy answers. Risks are, well, risky and are defined broadly enough in the film industry to encompass anything without a franchise framework. Though even in that context there’s still significant risk. It can’t be overstated here: there are no guarantees in filmmaking. There is no “formula” for success and every charlatan who says otherwise has joined a long line of failures (for a recent case study look at Ryan Kavanaugh and Relativity Media). For every “original” movie that works, there are 10 that don’t. And, to paraphrase a popular motto, you’re only as good as your last movie, so the incentive for filmmakers to go out on a limb on anything remotely “risky” is minimal. Several years of your life could be flushed down the drain because the carefully selected weekend your movie is launched on (taking into account the release of other films, time of the year, public holidays, the expected movements of your target audience, and the celestial alignment of the planets) ends up being stormy as all living fuck thanks to a whim of the weather. Nobody turns up, no box office is made, cinemas are cut, and you're coughing up dust in three weeks.
The kicker, however, being that it’s nothing short of lamentably lazy to assume that if you try the exact same thing you’ll get the exact same result. So instead of laying the exhaustive groundwork that Marvel did –finding a voice and style, making an actual plan– the likes of DC and Universal jump straight into the proverbial deep-end, promptly develop a cramp, and drown.
This a very human reaction to pretty much anything (and can be seen in literally everything, from films, to adverts, to political policy) but that doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and accept it. Films are important. Stories are important. And there’s no better instrument for the delivery of a good story than a good film – and that’s what we’re tragically seeing less of in this burgeoning era of cinematic universes. Good stories.
A “universal” story implies something majestic, grand, almost beyond comprehension – but in practice means something that is massive, yes, but devoid of substance, thought, or planning. Devoid of heart or intent. Telling stories isn’t important anymore. Building the “universe” is. It’s a depressing commodification of something ostensibly so pure. Stories are sacrificed for references, creative decisions are made not with this film in the mind but the next one, or the one after that, or the comic book in production, or the video game released next year. It’s crass commercialisation wearing a fancy new mask.
The big question now is: what happens next? Marvel created and gamed the cinematic universe system so well that they were able to sign off with three hours of pure fan service in Endgame. Something that, in any other context and arguably from any other studio, or even in any other medium, would be written off as a derivative cop-out. But what now? The MCU Part 2 is already in the pipeline. So is the next evolution of franchise filmmaking sequels to universes? Will we soon be talking about multiple cinematic universes under the umbrella of one all-powerful meta-universe, the MCMU? Well… with X-Men joining Team Disney through the Fox merger, and Spider-Man swinging around at the edges through the part-related Sony-owned franchises, it’s much more likely than not. Who knows, maybe the MCU is the first step the great unification of blockbuster storytelling… and one day soon, all of us will be small parts of a greater whole, one mind, one voice, one vision…
One thing is for certain, Marvel (and the increasingly monolithic Disney behind them) are now so supremely ahead of the blockbuster curve it’s beyond question that one-time rival studios can’t even begin to compete. History tells us that they will fall into the exact same traps – acquire IP, license gigantic franchises around them, throw everything at the wall of “universal” filmmaking in the desperate hope that something eventually sticks– and all the while fall ever further behind. Stagnation begets stagnation. We’ll always have indie films of course, and the odd mid-budget success stories (Jordan Peele’s Monkey Paw Productions for example, or the blessed continued existence of Fox Searchlight) give us all hope, but unless the Universals of the world stop thinking in, well, universals, the idea of a “blockbuster” will increasingly homogenise. And that’s a damn shame because, love them or hate them, blockbusters represent a shared storytelling experience that’s hard to replicate, on an emotional scale.
Hell, at least we have TV… right?