The Case Against Shared Cinematic Universes

Marvel paved the way, but everyone’s doing it. Universal is creating, or at least trying to create, a shared cinematic universe with all its classic horror properties, which starts tomorrow with Dracula Untold. DC’s doing it with Batman Vs. Superman. Disney’s trying to recapture that Marvel magic with Star Wars, with spinoffs, cartoons, and main episodes galore. But is it really that great of an idea?

The Circle Of Commerce

One of the first things you learn about Hollywood is the truth of the old joke about it being called show business. These expanded cinematic universes are coming about not because of a deep love of the properties involved, necessarily, but for two very simple business reasons.

The first is that The Avengers made a boatload of money, obviously. But the second is the “Avengers Bump” we’ve talked about before. It’s pretty simple, really: Just look at how each individual franchise that makes up the Avengers did at the worldwide box office before the movie came out, and then see how it did after. It’s a system where each individual movie is an ad for all the others, and then you rake in home video revenue forever.

Let’s be really clear about something: This is the only thing, at all, any movie studio learned from the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it doesn’t help that the way Marvel runs things creates problems of its own.

Product, Not Art

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but there is a rather glaring problem with it in that there’s a ceiling of quality deliberately laid down by Disney. Let’s take a moment to consider the other massive superhero success in the last decade, The Dark Knight.

It’s worth noting here that The Avengers and The Dark Knight are both in their own little rarified box office atmosphere, and they’re both great movies, but artistically speaking, they could not be more different. One is a filmmaker at the top of his game tapping into a widespread social anxiety on a scale that’s rare for even the greatest filmmaker to capture… and the other is, well, a pretty fun movie. One’s a well-grilled filet mignon and the other’s a delightful piece of candy.

There’s room for both, don’t get me wrong, but you’re never going to see a movie like The Dark Knight out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not just because Disney would never allow anything remotely substantial to escape their movie studio, although studio culture is undeniably a part of it. It’s because there’s just too much money at stake; if a filmmaker takes a risk and it doesn’t pay off, he not only drags down his movie, he breaks the cycle of perpetual marketing that sells the other movies, and the jammies, and the cartoons, and the live-action TV shows.

We’ve already seen Disney pushing down that ceiling because they might lose some cash. Witness Edgar Wright’s messy departure from Ant-Man, a movie he’d been developing for years. Marvel wants studio guys, people willing to take notes, people who bring the product in on time and on budget; they don’t want artists.

It’s worth noting that Iron Man 3 is, artistically speaking, easily the best film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s got a theme it doesn’t belabor, it takes the character out of his usual surroundings, and it has fun with goofy superhero tropes. So it’s possible, even within a shared universe. But it gets harder with every movie, as the Jenga game gets taller and more elaborate.

I do want some shared universes around: They have their fun points and my inner nerd loves seeing heroes team up. But I’d like to see some studios step away from the concept as well. It’s worth noting that Iron Man was, on paper, an enormous risk, a concept with a star that had a shaky reputation, a director mostly notable for his indie movies, and a company that hadn’t yet proven more than nerds would show up to their movies. Studios should start there, not with The Avengers.