Comics on Film: The Five Keys to Building a Successful Shared Universe on the Big Screen

Comics on Film: The Five Keys to Building a Successful Shared Universe on the Big Screen

Mar 20, 2014

Even though we didn't really recognize it at the time, 2008's Iron Man changed the game when it came to the narrative structure of superhero films. The end credits of that film opened up Tony Stark's world to include other beloved Marvel Comics characters, all culminating in the grand experiment that was 2012's The Avengers. From that point, of course, we know that the Marvel cinematic universe is a powerhouse narrative entity, spreading beyond the films that spawned it and moving into network television, and even new media like Netflix in 2015.
It should be of little-to-no surprise that other movie studios see the success of the Marvel formula and want to emulate it in some fashion. Disney, Marvel's owner, even wants to emulate that kind of model into forthcoming Star Wars films. Twentieth Century Fox wants to try and create a shared universe around its Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises, Sony wants to create one solely around the supporting and extended characters of Spider-Man, and Warner Bros. looks to be aiming high with its DC Comics characters in the upcoming sequel to Man of Steel. Is this a new dawn for cinematic storytelling, or is this simply an attempt to cash in on something that seemed to work well elsewhere?
The concept of a shared universe in live action isn't new, as successful television franchises have been doing it for years. There are lessons to be learned from that medium, but there are also some important ones to take from the source material that's spawning most of these shared universes in the first place: comics.
5) Shared Universes Don't Always Mean Shared Narratives
Iron ManOne mistake that would be easy to make, especially in the modern studio system that seems susceptible to groupthink, is that individual characters need to be sacrificed in order to try and shoehorn in a cohesive and unified narrative, serving the universe at the expense of the individual characters within it. This is definitely not the case. Both DC and Marvel Comics operate within their own shared universes, and have for most of the last century, but the characters within them still have their own stories to be told.
The fact that character A exists in the same world as character B doesn't always mean they should be crossed over. A concept as complicated and difficult to execute as a shared universe cannot and should not be seen by the decision makers at studios in the same fashion as 3D was seen after the success of Avatar: it's not something you can "postconvert" to try and bring droves of people in. Wait until you have a good story to tell that makes sense in bringing your characters together, and until then be free to explore a specific character on his/her own.
4) Please Don't Bombard Us with Easter Eggs
Easter eggs are sometimes fun hints at what the future may hold for a particular character or franchise. For the slightly more aware fans, they can even be a nice payoff to our investment in the characters in other mediums. What they can also be is a blunt instrument that hits audiences over the head with obvious concepts and superficial "hints," but with so much buzz generated by them via word of mouth, a studio may be tempted to stuff more of them into a movie to ensure people are talking about a film for days, months and years after a release.
It's one thing to show your audience that a universe is shared for the first time, because those kinds of revelatory Easter eggs are awesome. It's quite another to bombard us with hints that serve solely as fan service, especially when those possible Easter eggs are served in the stead of meaningful plot and/or character development. I imagine it's pretty safe to assume that fans want meaningful hints, not superficial ones that don't have us thinking beyond that particular moment. With enough creative material to sustain over 75 years in constant publication, that likely shouldn't be too much to ask.
3) Doing a Crossover? Tell Us Why We Should Care
Jurassic WorldAlthough not discussing a shared universe, director Colin Trevorrow recently talked to IGN about original Jurassic Park film characters appearing in his upcoming sequel, 2015's Jurassic World. "I know a lot of fans want to see the original characters back. They’re iconic. But I respect those actors too much to shoehorn them into this story for my own sentimental reasons," he said. "Jurassic Park isn’t about the bad luck of three people who keep getting thrown into the same situation. The only reason they’d go back to that island is if the screenwriters contrived a reason for them to go."
The same principle applies to any beloved character thrown into an ongoing narrative: show us why it's important these people are getting together, besides the simple novelty of just seeing them together for the first time.
2) Unless There's NO Other Choice, Don't Recast
Whether or not a new actor is a "better fit" for a role is a completely subjective viewpoint, and the fact is there's some inconsistency when jumping from Iron Man to its two sequels, and from The Incredible Hulk to The Avengers. Inconsistency that likely didn't have to be there, since both Edward Norton and Terrence Howard only had one film under their belt in their respective roles.
Anyone can understand the fact that the highly complex legal and financial realities of making movies often necessitates recasting, but I sincerely hope that other studios try and maintain as much consistency as possible, especially with major roles, as they go forward with their film series and their respective shared universes. 
1) Respect the Material
The most successful comic book movies of the last decade and a half have been the ones that are truest to the original source material. Whether it's The Avengers, Christopher Nolan's Batman films, the original two Spider-Man films, or the first couple of X-Men films, the source material's best examples are often a roadmap to some success. You'd have to be a fool not to try and cultivate the best of what comics have had to offer to some of the most timeless characters in fiction. 
Thanks for reading this week, and be sure to come back in seven days for an all-new edition of Comics on Film!

Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.comThe Huffington Post, and You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.





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