Whether you have taken notice or not, there is a seismic shift occurring in Hollywoodâ€™s approach to franchise filmmaking. Itâ€™s called the cinematic universe, and itâ€™s responsible for movies as good as â€œCaptain America: Civil Warâ€ and major turdlet â€œSuicide Squad.â€
The concept of a shared setting and story for multiple characters may seem Â straightforward, and not new at all. It is true that movie characters have been crossing over and appearing in each otherâ€™s films for a long time. Marvel didnâ€™t invent that. All that Marvel did was take on multiple high-budget films that climaxed in billion-dollar-grossing ensemble movies.
Itâ€™s Hollywoodâ€™s shiny new toy. â€œThe Avengersâ€ made $1.5 billion worldwide. â€œCaptain America: Civil Warâ€ made $1.1 billion. Even the universally hated â€œBatman VS Supermanâ€ and â€œSuicide Squadâ€ 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 producerâ€™s favorite word.
Prior to the cinematic universe, studios had been cranking out unwanted sequels, which are the safest choices for any studioâ€™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 didnâ€™t see it, it was â€œBen-Hur.â€
Marvel might be a trendsetter today, but ten years ago, nobody could have predicted the comic-makerâ€™s cinematic hegemony. After filing for bankruptcy in 1996, the company sold the rights to several of their characters â€” including Spider-Man (to Sony) and X-Men (to 20th Century Fox) â€” with varying results. Some films were good, some were â€œSpider-Man 3.â€
Marvel eventually took charge of its brandâ€™s destiny by announcing Marvel Studios, a bold enterprise which would independently produce â€œIron Man.â€ 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 Disneyâ€™s $4 billion acquisition, saying â€œMarvel has successfully turned its comic-book franchises â€” such as Spidey and X-men â€” into blockbuster Hollywood films. But many of those storylines may be tapped out.â€ I checked, and that reporter is a drug addict now.
After â€œIron Man,â€ Marvel went on to release â€œThe Incredible Hulk,â€ â€œIron Man 2,â€ â€œThor,â€ â€œCaptain America: The First Avengerâ€ and finally, Marvelâ€™s â€œThe Avengers.â€ 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 Marvelâ€™s Cinematic Universe.
The planning has been crucial, and accounts for the critical failure of â€œSuicide Squadâ€ in DCâ€™s corner. The movie tried to do what â€œThe Avengersâ€ did, except without individual films preceding the ensemble pow-wow. DC seems to be realizing their mistake, and hopefully, â€œJustice Leagueâ€ 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 â€œFantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them.â€ This fall will also bring â€œRogue One,â€ the first of several Star Wars anthology films. Even small-budget films are being incorporated into cinematic universes, such as â€œ10 Cloverfield Lane,â€ which was initially an original script titled â€œThe Cellarâ€ until it was turned into a â€œCloverfieldâ€ movie by producer J.J. Abrams.
This new system is exciting, but it is potentially stifling to creativity. As enjoyable as they may be, Marvelâ€™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: â€œ10 Cloverfield Laneâ€), which could lead to eventual risk taking in high-budget films. And thatâ€™s something worth going to the theater for.