Whether you have taken notice or not, there is a seismic shift occurring in Hollywood’s approach to franchise filmmaking. It’s called the cinematic universe, and it’s responsible for movies as good as “Captain America: Civil War” and major turdlet “Suicide Squad.”
The concept of a shared setting and story for multiple characters may seem straightforward, and not new at all. It is true that movie characters have been crossing over and appearing in each other’s films for a long time. Marvel didn’t invent that. All that Marvel did was take on multiple high-budget films that climaxed in billion-dollar-grossing ensemble movies.
It’s Hollywood’s shiny new toy. “The Avengers” made $1.5 billion worldwide. “Captain America: Civil War” made $1.1 billion. Even the universally hated “Batman VS Superman” and “Suicide Squad” made $872 million and $640 million, respectively. Despite scathing reviews, fans have flocked to theaters to see franchises they recognize, and studios are absolutely thrilled by the news. In a business where failed ventures can lead to quick bankruptcy, safety is a movie producer’s favorite word.
Prior to the cinematic universe, studios had been cranking out unwanted sequels, which are the safest choices for any studio’s business, but terrible for the perception of the industry overall. To be clear, we will still have unwanted remakes, and even they are not totally fool-proof. Just this summer, a rehash of one of the most profitable films of all time lost $120 million at the box office. Since you probably didn’t see it, it was “Ben-Hur.”
Marvel might be a trendsetter today, but ten years ago, nobody could have predicted the comic-maker’s cinematic hegemony. After filing for bankruptcy in 1996, the company sold the rights to several of their characters “” including Spider-Man (to Sony) and X-Men (to 20th Century Fox) “” with varying results. Some films were good, some were “Spider-Man 3.”
Marvel eventually took charge of its brand’s destiny by announcing Marvel Studios, a bold enterprise which would independently produce “Iron Man.” The 2008 release made $585 million worldwide, an astounding amount for a lesser-known hero played by Hollywood-had-been Robert Downey Jr. Even after that, the Wall Street Journal questioned Disney’s $4 billion acquisition, saying “Marvel has successfully turned its comic-book franchises “” such as Spidey and X-men “” into blockbuster Hollywood films. But many of those storylines may be tapped out.” I checked, and that reporter is a drug addict now.
After “Iron Man,” Marvel went on to release “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man 2,” “Thor,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and finally, Marvel’s “The Avengers.” Note the slow roll-out of individual superheroes, followed by the ensemble piece. This block of films, ominously referred to as Phase One, was captained by Kevin Feige, who has become the masterplanner of everything in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
The planning has been crucial, and accounts for the critical failure of “Suicide Squad” in DC’s corner. The movie tried to do what “The Avengers” did, except without individual films preceding the ensemble pow-wow. DC seems to be realizing their mistake, and hopefully, “Justice League” will allow for some course correction.
The cinematic universe is making waves beyond superhero films, with the upcoming expansion of the Harry Potter universe in “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.” This fall will also bring “Rogue One,” the first of several Star Wars anthology films. Even small-budget films are being incorporated into cinematic universes, such as “10 Cloverfield Lane,” which was initially an original script titled “The Cellar” until it was turned into a “Cloverfield” movie by producer J.J. Abrams.
This new system is exciting, but it is potentially stifling to creativity. As enjoyable as they may be, Marvel’s movies are all similar in style and narrative structure. We have also seen beloved characters written into desperate cash-grabs, as was the Joker into Suicide Squad. However, slapping a franchise name on a script lets studios feel comfortable producing risky new ideas (see: “10 Cloverfield Lane”), which could lead to eventual risk taking in high-budget films. And that’s something worth going to the theater for.