It’s a cliche that’s as trite as it is true, movies are a business. The primary goal of almost everything that happens in Hollywood is to make money, that’s just the way it is. Right now, the quickest and most lucrative way to make money is to create a Cinematic Universe. That’s why over the next few years, almost every studio in town will launch, re-launch, re-juvenate, or continue the expansion of a unique universe of films. These ever-expanding worlds have proven to be big business for studios, but are they sustainable? In 20 or 30 years, will we be standing in line to see Avengers: Age Of Retirement, or will the idea of a cinematic universe be something taught in college communications classes as a trend that didn’t really stick? Right now, pretty much everyone in Hollywood is betting on the former, hard. But, are they correct in doing so? I’m not so sure.
Let’s start with the basics, what even is a cinematic universe?
To put it simply, a cinematic universe is a series of films that take place within the same fictional world. These movies don’t necessarily have to share any traits beyond that: They can have completely different characters, genres, time periods, locations, etc. The only thing that ties them together is that they all coexist in this fictional world. The films can be as interconnected as the producers want them to be.
On one end of the spectrum is a studio like PIXAR, who has been toying with this concept for years. For example, because the famous Pizza Planet car is seen in numerous PIXAR films, it can be inferred by movie nerds like me that those films technically take place within the same fictional world. These are just fun little easter eggs put in there by mischievous animators over the years. it’s less of an interconnected universe and more of one big inside joke.
What is more interesting is the other end of the spectrum: A series of films, over entire franchises, that take place within the same world that actually tell one big story throughout, so that each film is basically a single chapter in one big metaphorical book. This idea is something that Hollywood has become obsessed with over the past decade.
Though this trend could be traced back to many places, the scene that I always come back to is this one from the original Iron Man, when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about The Avengers initiative.
“Mr. Stark, you’ve become a part of bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet” With those 15 words, Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was born!
Since that iconic moment, the MCU has become a pop-culture juggernaut unlike anything the movie-world has ever seen. It is far and away the highest grossing movie franchise of all time, and is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down anytime soon. There are already 12 films released that take place within the fictional world, with another 10 coming within the next five years, and no one at MARVEL has even hinted at the idea of bringing the saga to a close at any point. They apparently believe that this business model is sustainable forever, but more on that in a bit.
That extraordinary success has prompted others to copy this new approach to movie making. Warner Brothers is getting ready to kick the DC Comics Universe into high gear with Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the Transformers franchise recently brought in upwards of 10 screenwriters to hash out a detailed shared universe plan, Universal is setting up a Monsters universe (Featuring The Mummy, Dracula, Wolfman, etc), Godzilla is apparently going to fight King Kong at some point, FOX wants X-Men and Fantastic Four to team up (Yes, this is apparently still the plan), Sony is inexplicably trying to create a Ghostbusters universe, the list goes on and on.
Is this a bad thing? At first glance, of course not! This is an awesome thing! There has literally never been a better time in history to be a pop culture nerd. These universes are expansive worlds for people like me to dissect and analyze, and with the internet, we now have the perfect tool to do it!
The problem is that as much fun as these complex, ever-evolving worlds are for people like me, ultimately, they are damaging to the individual movies within them, and the long-term value of the overall brand.
Let me explain what I mean, towards the end of 2014 MARVEL took a page out of Apple’s book and held a big press conference at the El Capitan theater in Los Angeles. They invited press and the most hardcore of comics fans to attend. At the event, Kevin Feige (The Head Of MARVEL Studios and the architect behind the MCU) announced the studio’s full release calendar through 2020.
Collectively, the online community exploded with excitement, this was the day we’d been waiting for. But, after the thrill of the announcement died down, I began to look at the list more closely. I don’t really care about Thor 3, or The Inhumans, or Captain MARVEL, or the new Spider-Man (Which was added to the calendar after the event). But, I really, really care about Avengers: Infinity War, so I’m gonna have to see all of those movies, despite the fact that I’d be perfectly happy never to watch another Thor film for the rest of my life. That moment was when the list stopped looking like an exciting future, and more like a list of chores.
The MCU has done countless incredible things, but one of the most astonishing ones was that they found a way to make the quality of each individual movie almost a non-factor. To continue the book metaphor from earlier, each film in the MCU is essentially a chapter in this giant book. Some chapters are absolutely amazing (Iron Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers), some are pretty great (Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Captain America: The First Avenger, Ant-Man) and others are pretty mediocre (Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk).
But because we don’t judge these chapters as standalone movies, but rather parts of a bigger story, whether a viewer enjoyed watching any individual film is irrelevant as long as they’re still invested the universe as whole. From a purely economic standpoint, all that MARVEL really cares about is that you’ll buy a ticket for the next MCU movie in six months. That is partially why cinematic universes are so lucrative, it’s like releasing a sequel to a movie every six months (Most franchises have, at the very least, a 1 year turnaround time on sequels). It is also why each movie on its own isn’t nearly as good as the sum of its parts.
There is another problem with this business model though, one that less people are talking about.
So if these multi-hundred million dollar movies are nothing more than chapters in one large book, how many chapters are audiences willing to watch before the story ends?
Including Ant-Man, the MCU clocks in at a over 24 hours. After completion of the next phase of films (Using an admittedly gracious stand-in runtime of 2 hours for each upcoming movie) that number will balloon to over 40, at the very least! For those of us keeping up with the MCU in real time, this isn’t an issue. It isn’t that big of a commitment to watch 2 movies a year. But imagine a 3-year-old kid, who will be 7 when the Avengers: Infinity War hits theaters. In order to watch, enjoy, and talk about the movie with his friends, he or she will to have to do basically 40 hours of homework. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun homework, but that’s an insanely long movie marathon just to enjoy one movie.
Will there be kids that do this? Absolutely. But will there be enough kids for MARVEL to keep its place atop the pop culture pantheon? I doubt it.
MARVEL isn’t alone though, this concept applies to almost every cinematic universe. The further a world expands, the harder it is for late adopters to jump on board. You never hear about people starting Lost in the middle Season 5, or Game Of Thrones during Season 4. Even if a person were to start then, they’d never enjoy the story the way someone who started from the beginning would.
The Star Wars Universe is about to put this theory to the test. As of right now, the Star Wars Universe contains 6 films (Dear Star Wars fandom: I know, I know, but this isn’t really the time to discuss the Star Wars canon, okay? Just let me have this one), but in the next 6 years, that figure will double to 12. That Star Wars Marathon you had when you were a kid will be twice as long, and that’s just the beginning. Disney will probably make new Star Wars movies every year until the end of time, because, well, money talks. Right now, jumping on the Star Wars bandwagon would take very little commitment on the part of the audience, but as the universe expands the commitment gets bigger, and more and more potential consumers feel alienated or left out, and never get on board.
Comparing that model to that of a franchise like James Bond, that has been a pop culture juggernaut since it’s inception (And is proven to be sustainable), takes it one step further. James Bond movies can be watched, for the most part, without very much prior knowledge. You don’t need to watch every Bond movie that came beforehand to enjoy Spectre when it hits theaters this fall, but you probably will need be caught up to enjoy Star Wars: Rogue One or Captain America: Civil War next year. That’s why generation after generation falls in love James Bond, and that’s what worries me most about the concept of cinematic universes. They might be lucrative, fun, and all around amazing in the short term, but long term seem to be unsustainable. Are future generations going to be able to fall in love with the MCU or any of the other cinematic universes the way we fell in love with James Bond or Star Wars? Given it’s popularity, that should be an easy question, but the more I think about it, the less sure I am.
Look, I love the MARVEL Universe. It’s a triumphant victory for nerd culture and has produced some of my favorite movies of all time. Someday, in the very distant future, I want to be able to watch all of The Avengers movies with my son. It would be a beautiful moment that I’d probably hold a little too close to my heart. But, if MARVEL keeps making movies at the rate they are now, will he even want to sit through them?
EXTRA BITS: MARVEL’S VILLAIN PROBLEM
Much has been made of the lack of interesting villains within the MCU. Many believe it’s because the antagonist’s objectives are really never more fleshed out than: “I want to enact my revenge” or “I want to take over the world”. I have a different theory.
The MARVEL universe runs like a TV show, rather than a movie. Each film in the world is essentially an episode, and the phases could be thought of as seasons. To go one step further, the MCU is a cop show, one with the best crime fighters ever, but a cop show nonetheless. It’s villains are really not any more interesting than your typical Law & Order or NCIS villain, because in terms of story, that’s all they really can be. They are, with the exception of Loki, unambiguously evil and really don’t seem to threaten the people we care about.
If MARVEL wants a good villain, the character would have to completely consume an episode of the show, or a movie in the universe, the way Slade Wilson dominated Season 2 of Arrow, or The Joker dominated The Dark Knight. Sure, The Dark Knight is technically a Batman movie, but the villain is the star of the show. In all the MARVEL movies, the hero is always the star, and the bad guys never get a chance to shine, because the character’s main function is to be stopped by our glorious heroes. MARVEL’s villain failure is a product of how big of story they’re trying to tell. There’s so much story being packed into each chapter, all any individual movie has the time to do is tell viewers that “This guy wants revenge” or “This guy wants to take over the world”