2008 was a turning point in the film industry; the release of Iron Man was the harbinger of a foundational shift in the way studios thought about how major blockbusters were put together and released, though no one knew it at the time. I'd argue that the shift really crystallized in 2012 with the release of The Avengers, a pristine coagulation of four years of measured and deliberate planning by Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios. What began as a pipe dream became a gold standard (literally; the film grossed $1.52 billion), as Marvel's heretofore disparate, cinematic heroes came together in moment of pure, unadulterated geek-ecstasy:
In a post-Avengers world, every major studio has begun clamoring for a way to replicate the success of that approach, a Herculean (or borderline Sisyphean) task, the execution of which has been more or less botched by everyone outside of Marvel Studios. Unfortunately, we're now living in an age where blockbusters that don't tease a larger universe or have the potential for spinoffs are the exceptions not the rule.
Warner Bros. is attempting to launch its DCEU in reverse order (if that doesn't scream money grab I don't know what does), Paramount Pictures has put together a veritable writer's room to assemble a Transformers Cinematic Universe featuring up to 12 films according to Forbes, and even completely unrelated franchises like Men In Black and the Jumpstreet franchise are combining forces to achieve some semblance of what Marvel Studios has and continues to accomplish. I mean we're apparently getting a Hanna-Barbera Cinematic Universe, launched off the back of a new Scooby Doo movie for God's sake. Excuse me while I choke on the sulfurous scent of vainglorious pretension. Throughout the industry, words like "upcoming slate" and "interconnected universe" are all the rage, but 4 years later, no has come close to achieving the success of that first Avengers film, critically or financially. Why, you might ask? Take a seat in your mental recliner, pop out your cognitive foot rest and let me drop some wisdom on you.
What everyone fails to understand about the concept of the cinematic universe is that it ironically hinges on the isolation and separation of each standalone film from the rest of the universe, at least in its nascent stages (the MCU has a well-established track record at this point and can throw the rest of the Avengers into a Cap standalone or throw Hulk into a Thor standalone). The Marvel Cinematic Universe isn't massively successful because the first Iron Man film included Thor and Captain America in small roles right away to launch them into solo films. It's successful because the first Iron Man film exists as a completely separate entity that stands alone as it was meant to. It doesn't pepper in unnecessary and gratuitous allusions to future films that may or may not come to fruition (looking at you The Amazing Spider-Man 2). It exists on its own terms and allows for its character to have a fully formed, satisfactory arc. The only tease of a wider universe came with the exceptionally brief appearance of Phil Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. at the end, and Nick Fury in the post-credits scene.
Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger exist in much same way; self-contained arcs that establish the central characters in their own right, only teasing at the connection to the larger universe via the brief presence of ancillary characters (Phil Coulson in Thor and Howard Stark and Nick Fury in Captain America: The First Avenger). But by no means are those supplemental characters a selling point of the movie. Therein lies the issue with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Featuring Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and Flash in cameo capacities is not an inherently flawed idea, but making them a well-publicized selling point most definitely is. So much focus was placed on teasing these characters that the rest of the story suffered as a result. No one went to see Captain America because Howard Stark was going to be making his first appearance, or Thor because Phil Coulson was going to be in it. Those characters existed to serve the story, not the other way around.
Ironically, the true way to develop a successful Cinematic Universe, if such a thing is even warranted for a particular franchise (*cough cough* Hanna-Barbera *cough cough*), is by more or less throwing out the very notion that you're trying to develop a Cinematic Universe. Films need to stand on their own, not be reliant on future installments to answer questions or retroactively fix issues. For example, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn't even a kernel of an idea when Man of Steel was developed, so we know for a fact that all the time spent acknowledging the repercussions of Superman's destruction of Metropolis stemmed from a need to address the negative backlash to the disaster-porn ending of Man of Steel, not because it was an organic part of the story. As a result, Man of Steel is no longer a complete film, and instead is dependent on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to make it whole. In diametric opposition are films like Iron Man or A New Hope; if you throw out everything that came after, they are whole and complete entities in their own right.
Furthermore, there's another element that is central to the success of Marvel's Universe that has yet to be replicated: the guidance of a "Godfather" of sorts who is well versed in the source material from which these films are adapted. Kevin Feige is a sterling example of someone who has loved comics all his life and has an almost omniscient knowledge of each character and what makes them tick, something that Marvel is the most adept at transitioning to the big screen. Look around at any of the other major studios and none of them have a similar figure installed to carry out their vision. The most obvious comparison is Warner Bros., whose DCEU is ostensibly helmed by Zack Snyder but that feels more and more accidental than by choice, not to mention his vision is subject to the input of Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder. They may be excellent movie producers, but it's highly dubious they've ever picked up more than a few comic books or have a deep understanding of the characters they are charged with bringing to the big screen, a supposition that was more or less cemented by the mishandling of all but Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Geoff Johns' appointment to the station of Godfather of the DCEU is long overdue, and it's frankly baffling that the man who has succeeded more than most in revitalizing the DC Comics brand in recent years is not in charge of their cinematic offerings as well. Oh well, a geek can dream.
Now contrary to what you may be thinking based on my not-altogether-cordial vivisection above, I actually love the idea of a Cinematic Universe. I think it affords filmmakers and actors the opportunity to really develop characters on their own while also allowing them to play in a wider world and bounce off other well-established characters. That said, I think the key is in allowing these characters to exist on their own first, to be birthed in a world that belongs exclusively to them, and most importantly give them a complete film that exists on its own merits and doesn't rely on sequels to complete its central arc. Who better to oversee that than someone who, as a child, loved the comics, played with the toys, or watched every episode of the cartoon on Saturday mornings. In other words, let's put the money-grabbing aside for a second and put the "fan" back in the "franchise" (I know that wasn't perfect bit of wordplay but just roll with it).