Sunday 25 June 2017

Deconstructing the Struggles of Cinematic Universes

Cinematic universes are all the rage right now – but some studios aren’t learning the right lessons from the success of their peers. 

Just a quick glance at the posters lining cinema walls this month and you’ll see reams and reams of one sheets for films that no doubt tie-in with or launch an existing franchise, series or cinematic universe, the last of which is the most recent trend every studio is trying to tap into – essentially, if you’re not funnelling $300 million+ into a cinematic universe every 12 months, y’all ain’t shit in Hollywood. 

Everywhere you look nowadays there seems to be another cinematic universe popping into existence; following in the footsteps of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, studios are practically tripping over on another to birth their own version for audiences to lap up. 

It’s not hard to see why – since 2008’s Iron Man, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has spawned 15 feature films (with another nine in production), several network TV shows, an interconnected quintet of Netflix shows and umpteen other short films, digital series’, comic books and other media. 

It’s the ultimate in modern day consumerism – an all-encompassing multimedia offering that taps into an extreme form of brand loyalty and encourages engagement both inside and outside the conventional multiplex. Want to get the definitive MCU experience? You’ll need to dive into hours of additional series, purchase the tie-in LEGO sets and everything in-between. 

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is spread across Netflix (The Defenders, pictured left), film (Doctor Strange, centre)
and network TV (Agents of Shield, right).

Star Wars is going in the same direction; in addition to the mainline episodes that follow the Skywalker family, the franchise is branching out into spin-off films, animated TV shows, comic books, novels and, of course, toys. 

And yet, despite these hugely successful examples, almost every other studio that isn’t Disney (which owns both Marvel and Star Wars) is struggling. Universal Studios is the latest and most prolific example ­– its Dark Universe, which was unveiled along with the arrival of Alex Kurtzmann’s The Mummy, has coughed and spluttered before its even gotten off the ground.

Conceived as a modern revival of the classic black and white monster movies and Hammer Horror films that shot to success in the 1930s and 1940s, Dark Universe intended to mash the Mummy (played by Sofia Boutella) with a range of other classic characters, with Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Dracula all reportedly receiving their own solo outing in the future. It’s an ambitious framework that has almost immediately been thrown into doubt following the critical mauling The Mummy received earlier this month.

Essentially, everything about the formation of the Dark Universe reads like a guide on how not to establish a cohesive interconnected universe of films; not only did Universal fork out for big name actors (Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp among others) who are bigger than the characters they themselves are playing, they failed to lay the groundwork by actually delivering one solid film before launching into franchise mode – the entire middle act of The Mummy is rock solid exposition about the wider universe when it should be focused on…y’know, being good?

They even added a snazzy logo at the start and everything.

Universal have a whole slate of characters lined up before the first film has even hit, suggesting they’re either oblivious to how this works or overestimated how popular its back catalogue of horror characters is – possibly both. 

Talk about putting the cart before the horse. Of course, in this era of critic-proof blockbusters and international markets, The Mummy still turned a tidy profit – $301.2 million globally from a $125 million budget – but its hardly the launch Universal would have hoped for. 

Wonder Woman could be the turning point the
DCEU needed.
Even Warner Brothers and DC, with the phenomenal Wonder Woman under their belt, aren’t out of the woods just yet. One admittedly great film does not guarantee the forthcoming adventures – Justice League this November and Aquaman next year – will be equally as great. 

Their approach to green-lighting projects has been similar to that of Universal – the DCEU currently has a dozen projects in various stages of development, and none of them, save for the two mentioned just now, have release dates. 

Both studios are parachuting characters into a tightly plotted framework that was dreamt up in a think tank to hit all four quadrants and expecting audiences to latch onto…what, exactly? Without a solid bedrock of tone and engaging characters, these new cinematic universes have nothing for audiences to grapple with other than the promise of 20 more likeminded films later down the track – a mandate that most moviegoers audiences are going to tire of or shrug at. That kind of long-form storytelling needs to start small and build up – like Marvel have been doing for nearly a decade. 

Keen for five more of these? Lionsgate seems to think
you are.
I wish the list of examples ended there – but it doesn’t. Lionsgate’s new Power Rangers film (which opened earlier in the year) was intended as the first chapter in a series spanning six movies. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur reboot was also the first of five or six planned sequels. Neither of them did well enough to warrant a second innings – which begs the question, why even bother announcing a slate of future films if the first hasn’t proven itself?

Paramount Studios and Hasbro have compiled a writers’ room to chart the future of the Transformers series, with a range of spin-offs, solo films and crossovers (most notably with the GI Joe films) planned in the years to come. Bumblebee is reportedly going to get his own film as early as next year.

Similarly, Warner Brothers has made plans to elongate the life of its Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them series by churning that particular crank for a grand total of five films – and all of this was announced before the first hit cinemas. 

Legendary has its sights set on pitting Godzilla against King Kong in a crossover punch ‘em up film in 2020 – that’s essentially the only reason why got Kong: Skull Island earlier in the year and why we’ll see a sequel to Godzilla in 2019. The list goes on and on – I haven’t even touched on James Wan’s The Conjuring or the new Spider-man stuff Sony has going on.

It should come as no surprise that some of the most successful and critically acclaimed blockbusters from the last two or three years – Wonder Woman, Logan and Mad Max: Fury Road spring to mind ­ – contained a sense of finality to them. They were standalone and didn’t spend excess screen time setting up the next instalment. They all have places to go in the future, but the filmmakers chose to focus more on the story they were telling in the present, not the future.

Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Logan all worked because they didn't lean too heavily
on the cinematic universe aspect and all told a distinct, standalone story in its entirety.

Marvel, and to a lesser degree Star Wars, remain the only franchises to have got this interconnected universe malarkey down pat. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was relatively standalone – it didn’t tie into the wider Marvel narrative at all, and the film was all the better because of it. Doctor Strange and Ant-Man served a similar purpose. On the other hand, Captain America: Civil War acted as the perfect crossover of characters, all the while advancing the central plot of the series. 

Everyone else – from the DCEU to the Dark Universe and the upcoming Transformers universe (god help us) – is just playing catch up. And if they continue to repeat the same mistakes, they’re just as doomed as one another. Hollywood needs to move past this mind-set of universe building and focus on just making quality standalone films as soon as possible, before audiences burn out and give up on following their progress entirely. That, or actually learn from their mistakes and start looking at this in the long run.

What do you think about cinematic universes? Let me know in the comments section down below! Thanks for reading.

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