The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success is impossible to question. For years, different sects of comic book fandom debated whether or not the shared-universe storytelling of comics was something that could be translated successfully to the silver screen, and most fans in specialty stores across the country pretty consistently believed that it was too broad to work on film, with too many talent contracts, writers, directors and studio executives needing to collude to keep everything consistent across multiple movies. Needless to say, a shared cinematic universe would be a massive project.
Marvel’s Cinematic Universe: A Grand Experiment That Worked
Then 2008 brought us Iron Man, and promised us that Mr. Stark was part of a “larger universe.” Our imaginations were set afire, and when word came that both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger would be taking place in the same universe as Iron Man, then all became clear: by God, they were going to do it.
The rest is history: the solo films led up to the massive cinematic event known as The Avengers, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been galvanized as a grand experiment that worked. With the right people in place -- from actors (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, etc.), directors (Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon), and most especially the head of Marvel Studios (longtime comics fan Kevin Feige) -- we now get to enjoy a quality example of shared storytelling in movie houses every season of the year.
Setting aside the narrative achievement, though, studio executives are well-known for seeing one thing above all else: dollar signs. The Marvel Cinematic Universe with the Avengers in the lead has generated a worldwide, unadjusted revenue of over $5.6 billion. Marvel is pretty much the standard bearer when it comes to the summer blockbuster, and there’s no sign of that slowing down in the years to come as we get ever closer to the next massive crossover film, Avengers: Age of Ultron. With the amount of money generated, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that some of the other major movie studios are looking to create their own shared universes, too.
Warner Bros., Fox and Sony Want in, Too
When Man of Steel was released earlier this year, the makings were certainly there for the foundation of a DC Cinematic Universe of some kind. References to other DC characters like Cyborg, Star Sapphire, Booster Gold and a few others in addition to blatant Wayne Enterprises and LexCorp banners seemed to signify that Superman would also be a part of a larger world.
Now we know for certain that characters like Batman and Wonder Woman (and maybe a few others) will show up in the next film. With DC characters purportedly in the works on both film and television, it looks as though a DC Cinematic Universe is already in the planning stages.
Within the last few weeks, though, word has come down of two other potential cinematic universes: one focusing on the comics properties currently licensed by 20th Century Fox (being the X-Men and the Fantastic Four), and one more squarely focused on the expanded world of Spider-Man at Sony.
Could we be diving into too much, too fast?
Superhero Cinematic Universe Overload?
To be completely honest, I have always hoped for a shared DC Universe that could culminate into a Justice League film of some kind, and many DC fans feel the same way. We all basically thought it to be impossible, though, because historically the studio which owns DC Comics has always had a chronic case of cold feet when it comes to any potential exploitation of DC Comics properties.
The one time that they expanded outward beyond the scope of the “safety” characters of Batman and Superman
(2011’s Green Lantern) it flopped pretty hard with most fans, and seemed like all we could really get from these DC movies would be Batman and Superman stories. Man of Steel seems to have restored their confidence in the superhero realm, though, and if reports are to be believed, then a lot of DC-centric material is in the production pipeline.
The other two potential universes, though, have a little else to offer, especially in the character-diversity department. Part of the problem with Fox and Sony’s efforts is that the characters they’ll be able to use in their own universe-building efforts are Marvel Comics characters. So, not only will the Marvel logo show up in front of all of the Marvel Studios films and all of the comics efforts from Sony and Fox, but there’s also some precariousness with the potential quality of the films.
Kevin Feige: The Difference Between Success and Failure
While Fox has done a respectable job repairing the X-Men franchise after the missteps of 2006’s The Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, its track record for comics films is not nearly as positive as that of Marvel Studios' efforts, and in the case of the Fantastic Four, is still relatively unproven. Sony has had a better track record with Spider-Man (not counting 2007’s Spider-Man 3), but its collective-universe effort is only focusing on one character’s extended supporting cast, with far less material to draw from to seriously call its effort a “universe,” at least in the truest sense of the word.
Really, at the end of the day, a DC Universe is conceptually more promising, since it draws from a more diverse character pool, all unified under the Warner Bros. banner instead of being segmented like some of Marvel’s characters. It doesn’t exactly seem possible that we’ll be seeing a World War II flashback featuring Captain America fighting alongside Wolverine anytime soon, and it’s a shame that some of Marvel’s most beloved characters can’t legally show up on-screen next to the Avengers anytime soon.
But what none of these other efforts have is a consistent quality controller and lover of the material in Kevin Feige. DC has some promising talent, and that’s also true of Fox and Sony, but the major difference between success and failure of the modern comic book film (and universe) is the visionary who sees it through. The reason so many comic book fans thought a shared universe could never work is because Hollywood didn't have a Kevin Feige, who not only loved and grew up with comics and their characters, but who has also had the business and studio savvy to see that vision through practically and get it done.
Feige is one in a million, and really deserves a lion’s share of the credit in having the creative and business strength to see the creation of a storytelling method that has changed the landscape of blockbuster moviemaking. Until Warner Bros., Fox and Sony find a way to clone this one man, then we’ll just have to wait on pins and needles to see if these other cinematic universe efforts really can succeed.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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