Since the juggernaut that is Marvel's cinematic universe burst into life with 2008s acclaimed Iron Man, every movie studio and franchise out there has been jumping on the interconnected universe bandwagon.
Marvel's flagship "MCU" is in the ominous-sounding "Phase 2" with the already-announced "Phase 3" still to come, while comic rival DC is playing catch-up by shoehorning Batman and Wonder Woman into their Man of Steel sequel to in effect make it a prequel for the first Justice League film. Add to that rumblings of the cinematic universe treatment for Transformers and the newly restarted Jurassic Park and Terminator franchises and it seems like it won't be long before every film we see is connected to a larger overarching narrative.
That might sound great - after all if you're a fan of Marvel or DC, why wouldn't you want to see a slew of films starring your favourite characters, all connected to a larger whole? After all, that's how it works in the comics, right?
But the very nature of the cinematic universe creates its own problems. Problems like...
Death Means Nothing
Most action movies rely on a degree of tension during the final, climatic battle between good and evil. Sure, it's a pretty safe bet the good guy is going to survive, but there can still be a frisson of uncertainty, and that's what makes it exciting - in a stand-alone film, you can never be truly sure how it will end.
In an interconnected universe things are different. Take the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron as an example. Various characters spew expositionary dialogue about how it's unlikely they will all survive the fight with Ultron. And yet, there's no tension. Most of these characters have already been announced as being in upcoming sequels, whether it be the third Avengers movie Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War or Thor: Ragnarok. We don't need to fear for Thor, Tony Stark or Captain America, we absolutely know those guys are going to be fine.
When characters do die they are minor supporting characters, and even the last "big" death in the universe, that of Agent Coulson in Avengers Assemble, didn't last. In the film it was used as the emotional spur which made the Avengers finally work together after interminable exchanges of teenage quips aboard S.H.I.E.L.D.'s flying battleship. But that emotional plot was wiped out soon after by the one of the TV shows in the universe, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which saw Coulson alive and well without any explanation.
You can see the latest Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, for another example of this. The "death" of Nick Fury is supposed to be the film's emotional centre piece, and yet for all the character's sad faces and monologues, it has no impact as everyone knows that Samuel L. Jackson is contracted to play Nick Fury in the next 17,000 Marvel films. Sure enough, he's alive and well by the end of the film.
So where's the drama on something like Age of Ultron when we know that not only will Ultron lose, but all of our main characters will survive intact? Should a minor or newly-introduced character snuff it, there's every chance they will show up resurrected in a future film or spin-off TV show.
Actors & Directors Don't Enjoy It
Mad Men's John Hamm may not have appeared in any superhero movies, but claims to have turned down "multiple" roles in the past. In an interview with the Radio Times last year, Hamm said:
"For me to sign on now to do a superhero movie would mean I would be working until I am fifty as that particular superhero. It's a lot of work at one thing which is not necessarily the reason I got into the business."
There are continual rumours that Captain America's Chris Evans is due to quit the role, unhappy with the continual treadmill of film after film in the same role, and he has said in interviews previously that once has completed the films he is contracturally obliged to do with Marvel he could quit acting altogether. Indeed, he turned Marvel down twice before, once when he was offered a mammoth 9-movie deal.
Idris Elba, who plays Heimdall in the Thor films, has described filming the Marvel movies as "torture", while rumours abound about Marvel's interference in Joss Whedon's Avengers sequel Age of Ultron and writer/director Edgar Wright left Ant-Man due to disagreements with Marvel over the tone of his script.
With lengthy, multiple film contracts a necessity, and Marvel's tight creative control over their product(s), is it any wonder why plenty of actors and directors would have no interest in joining the MCU? This doubtless goes for any other cinematic universes in the works. It might be fun to do one Transformers movie, but as an actor would you want to sign on for, say, 3 or 4 and then another 2 spin-off style movies in the same universe? If this continues, feasibly the movies could struggle to attract the kind of big names that can get people into cinemas.
There's Too Much to Keep Track Of
Again, I'm using Marvel as the main example here, but the idea is that cinematic universes interconnect not just in terms of films but across other media too, and indeed the MCU has already crossed over onto terrestrial TV and streaming services like Netflix.
If you've been following the Marvel universe religiously since it began in 2008, you'll have seen (deep breath):
Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Avengers Assemble, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man.
As if that's not enough, to keep track of the continuity you'll also have had to keep up to date with various TV series; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter and Daredevil.
In the forthcoming "Phase 3", cinematic offerings will include Captain America: Civil War, an as-yet-untiled Spiderman reboot, Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Inhumans and a two-part Avengers offering, Infinity War. On TV, we can expect at least another series of Daredevil and the other television offerings, not to mention TV outings for Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron First and The Defenders.
So since 2008 you'll have to have seen 12 films and 3 TV series (totalling 74 episodes and counting so far). By the end of "Phase 3", probably sometime in 2019, there will have been another 10 films and lord knows how many TV episodes!
What about DC's fledging cinematic universe? If we count the film universe as having began with 2013's Superman reboot Man of Steel, you'll have to shell out to see: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Justice League Part 1 & Part 2, The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, and another crack at a Batman standalone film. And those are only the announced films! There are still currently unconfirmed plans for a proper Man of Steel sequel, a Green Arrow film and outings for Lobo and the Justice League Dark team.
I can't be the only one to wonder: who exactly has the time to watch all of that, just to keep up with Marvel and DC's internal chronology? Should other cinematic universes take off in the same way, fans of pretty much any other successful franchise will suffer the same kind of "universe fatigue". Who has the time to see all these films, who has the money?
What do you think? Are you a huge fan of Marvel's universe, or is it going downhill? Will DC's be better? Or are you, like me, growing a little tired of the cinematic universe concept? Please let me know what you think in the comments below.