Believe it or not, there was once a glorious time when you could go see the newest blockbuster summer movie and have the entire focus be on that film. You could enjoy it from beginning to end, the story would have a beginning, middle and end. An enjoyable two hours of action, comedy and a little romance.
But if you look at the marketing for films these days, it’s less about the film itself and more about what the film is building towards. You’re less likely to see a film sequel be announced today but rather an entire “movie universe”. So what is a movie universe? Basically it’s not a linear line of sequels but a group of interlocking films in a franchise. One may not directly follow the other but they all take place in the same world, and may have some hints towards the others existence every now and then.
I’m probably making this sound very negative but to be fair there are those who have pulled this off gloriously. So far the reigning champion is the studio that started it all, Marvel Studios. Starting in the mid 2000s this studio is an independent self financed start-up, whose aim was to create its own properties, free from the interference of outside studios and producers. Rather it would focus on building its own world that would be entertaining to casual audiences and fans who have followed the superhero brand for years.
A mighty gamble indeed, as Marvel had sold the film rights to some of it’s biggest characters (Spider-man, X-men, Fantastic Four) to other studios in the early 90’s to save itself from bankruptcy. Focusing on the characters it still owned, they set out to build up to a large ensemble film with four core characters, giving each of them their own film first. These were Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America.
Iron Man, the first film in the franchise was so successful a sequel was commissioned immediately after it’s release. Each film was successful enough to begin work on a film that would bring the characters together (The Avengers) and in the end, it became one of the highest grossing films of all time.
Today, that risky independent start-up is one of the biggest powerhouses in Hollywood, releasing two films a year (soon to be three). Their set of films are now divided into phases, and are now moving into phase 3. Back in 2014, they held a small event conference to announce the set of films for Phase 3.
Notice just how crazy fans are going for a few titles coming on screen? That’s how you perfectly build to the hype needed for a universe of films.
Essentially what makes a universe so successful is time and patience. Like all good universes you have to build it first. Unfortunately there are those out there who have not gotten this right. Over on the other side of the superhero pond is DC. In a bid to kick start the new franchise of films, DC opted to jump right in at the deep end with one solo film (Man of Steel) and then moving onto a larger ensemble film (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).
This isn’t a review of the film but just a look at what it does in terms of universe building. Essentially the film introduces two superhero characters (Batman and Wonder Woman) into Superman’s world, but then decide to show the audience three more heroes (Cyborg, Aquaman and The Flash) in the form of short CCTV footage.
It’s too convoluted to be doing this in the second film of the series. Sure the fans out there are going to know these characters but what about the casual viewers? Remember what I said about Marvel aiming to casual viewers and fans? That’s the key to it.
Many people were confused about scenes in the latest DC film, as there is an immediate rush to get as much into the film as possible before it gets around to the big ensemble film with every character (The Justice League).
Films that work in a universe do so because they show constraint. There will only be certain hints and clues to other properties here and there, but the focus will be on the film itself. Unfortunately film universes will only work when all studios figure this out, and not just see them as cash grabs.
After all let’s not forget that Sony (who owns Spider-Man) once wanted to make a film universe, with one film centred on Aunt May.