Although it seems like the MCU has been written to death about, its success can’t be understated. Marvel was on the brink of bankruptcy and decided to take a huge gamble. They took their C-level heroes (C-level is being a tad generous) and built a cinematic empire.
Marvel Studios built the highest-grossing movie franchise in history by doing one simple thing. Making all their films, from Iron Man to Guardians of the Galaxy, connected in a massive universe.
As seen with the recent release of The Mummy, the first official entry into Universal Studios’ Dark Universe franchise, everyone wants what Marvel has. And who can blame them?
A shared universe, in theory, allows for single-story films to play a role in a much larger narrative. There’s an emphasis on the ‘in theory’ part because one of the major failings of a large multi-film universe is the over-emphasis on the larger story and under-emphasizing the self-contained story of a single film.
You need only look to the what Sony planned to do with the Amazing Spider-Man franchise and you can see how focusing on the larger universe instead of a good singular story can derail or even kill a franchise.
Marvel isn’t immune to this phenomenon. Iron Man 2, while a box-office success, was a stumble for fans. The film focused too much on establishing the larger MCU, instead of telling a solid Iron Man story. As a result, Tony Stark felt like a side-character in his own movie.
But the shared universe, for all its faults, has some incredible upsides. Marvel has already seen a few of these benefits, with their incredibly strong brand recognition. With that, they launched movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man, turning all of them into box-office smashes. These heroes had next to zero-recognition in the minds of the general public. Despite that, all the movies had to do was plaster the Marvel logo ahead of the picture and the public were willing to take a chance on it.
A shared universe can also breath new life into a property. When Supergirl first debuted on CBS, it was a failure. Not a spectacular failure by any stretch, but certainly a failure to the big-wigs at CBS. Supergirl started off as separate from the other Greg Berlanti superhero shows. It was an understandable decision. The show was about Kara learning to be a hero in a world where Superman already exists. On the CW shows, there had been no hint anyone like Superman even exists. On top of that, CBS was a separate network. Despite it being a sister-network to the CW, a crossover between Supergirl and the other shows was logistically a nightmare.
So Supergirl stood on her own. As a result, the first half of the season saw a rapid decline in viewership. So the decision was made to make Supergirl a part of the Arrow/Flash/Legends universe. The Flash stopped by a quick crossover and ratings picked up. For her second season, Supergirl was moved from CBS to the CW and now she was officially folded into the larger universe.
The shared universe saved Supergirl from cancellation. Supergirl was a quality show and yet its quality alone wasn’t enough to keep it going. It was only because the show was officially part of a larger universe that it was allowed to stay on the air.
Similarly, building a shared universe saved The Fast and the Furious franchise.
The Fast and the Furious was a quiet success back in 2001. On a budget of only $38 million, the film made over $200 million at the box office. The studio was desperate to do more but the stars weren’t as keen. Vin Diesel was dropped from the sequel and none of the original characters appeared in the third entry. The studio then tried to reboot the franchise with the return of the original characters, to some success.
But it wasn’t until the fifth entry that the producers retroactively created a shared universe. The premise of Fast Five was the gang needed to pull off a heist in order to disappear forever. (despite being successful in their heist, later films would prove a successful franchise can never just disappear.) The film brought together the original crew, as well as side characters from the less successful second, third, and fourth entries. The producers (Vin Diesel being one of them) knew how establishing a shared universe would benefit the franchise as a whole. It legitimized the less-successful entries, while also injecting new life into the latest entries.
Clearly, a shared universe can be incredibly beneficial to a franchise. It can be a way of telling self-contained stories that also play a part in a larger narrative. But it can also save a property from dying out.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the shared universe. Yet more often than not, they don’t succeed. They don’t succeed because they forget to make a movie first, and a universe second. If studios and producers remember to tell a singular story first, then maybe the public would be more willing to accept more movie universes.
Let’s hope future universes can get off to a better start than The Mummy.
What do you think? Are you a fan of shared movie universes or do you want to return to single-film, single-story films? Sound off in the comments down below or contact me on Twitter @CBloodRojas.