It seems every day more companies announce a plan to build a shared universe of films. As of right now, the following shared universes exist or are confirmed to be in development:
- Marvel Studios - Marvel Cinematic Universe
- Warner Bros. - DC Extended Universe
- Universal Studios - Classic Monster Universe
- Legendary Pictures - Godzilla Universe
- Hasbro - Classic Toys (Not including Transformers)
- Hanna-Barbera - Scooby-Doo and More (animated)
- Nintendo - Details TBA
The idea of a shared universe is not new - Warner Bros. did it a few decades ago with their animated TV series. However, it seems that the number of shared universes in the world of film is ever increasing, so we must consider the impact this will have on the film industry. We must determine if this is just a fad or a permanent change for the industry and we must also look into the repercussions of this shift.
Shared Universes: Fad or Permanent Change?
Depending on your view of the film industry, it may seem that this is how studios will be pitching major ideas for the near future. What began as a formula for superhero films is rapidly shifting towards genres beyond comic adaptations. However, it can also be said that this is simply a trend that will last for the next few decades as these universes are fleshed out and we will eventually see a return to studios focusing more on stand alone projects with occasional sequels.
The argument for it being a permanent change comes from the understanding that this idea has gone into several genres. What started as Marvel Studios and eventually became Warner Bros has now spawned new ambitious projects from a host of other companies from monster movies to animated series. Even on a smaller scale, Sony has plans to cross Men in Black with their 21 Jump Street franchise. That could give way to something larger if they so chose and yet another shared universe will exist. Sony's hybridization of old franchises with new ones shows the potential necessary to keep the concept of shared universes around in the film universe once the established franchises and their respective universes are exhausted.
The argument for shared universes being a fad can be found in several places. Most notably, Steven Spielberg commented sometime ago that comic book films will be going "the way of the Western" in that the films will have their popularity but will be replaced by a new dominating genre after a few decades. This does not mean superhero films will disappear completely, just that we'll see more films like Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy pop up every so often in the same way a western film like Wild Wild West or The Hateful Eight have appeared in the past decade. It's also important to note that the universes being established are confined to properties that already exist and have brand recognition. That severely limits the amount of stories that can be told, though, because the audience's recognition of the brand means they've already been exposed to it. Forcing too much universe building at once can cause people to be less interested in the brand especially when one genre of shared universes starts to get choked by an abundance of those films (i.e. the superhero genre).
Ultimately, I see this as a fad and agree with the words of Mr. Spielberg. While I am not a fan of Westerns and love the stories that the superhero genre has to offer, I also understand that this abundance of comic adaptations will not last in the same way that book adaptions hit their prime with the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games franchises then started to retreat significantly. I don't see this as a bad thing, though. Instead, I look forward to the new trend which is saying a lot for someone as cynical as yours truly.
The Impact of Shared Universes
The impact of shared universes on the film industry and more notably fan culture will be felt for decades to come. It will be difficult for some of us to forget all of the flame wars riddled with controversy and fan theories getting launched from all directions. In fact, it was a fan theory on the Marvel Cinematic Universe that got me started as a Creator and a fan theory on the DC Extended Universe proved to be almost as popular!
A positive impact of this, as I just mentioned, is the increase in a fan base. More people have been introduced to the world of comics and recognize these characters. While the characters are not identical incarnations, the exposure to these properties in one medium can lead to more support in another medium. For example, a game like Marvel Ultimate Alliance would probably have a stronger draw now than it had a decade ago because a game with characters like Spider-man, Iron Man, and Wolverine splashed across the front has more brand recognition beyond the people who know comics. There's also the benefit of projects existing that may not have otherwise. So far we've seen a watered-down version of Civil War, a small piece of The Dark Knight Returns, and there are plenty of other possibilities with these new universes.
A negative result of these shared universes is the sudden, overly ambitious decision for companies to expand upon what Marvel Studios started. Now, to me it makes sense for Legendary and Warner Bros to pursue this endeavor. However, Universal attempting something similar to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Hasbro trying to make properties like G. I. Joe get a foothold feels unnecessary. Add to it Nintendo announced plans for their own universe on top of the NX and rides at the Universal Studios theme park sounds exactly like a PR stunt. There's also an externality that may come to light soon: choking the audience with release after release of films and expecting to maintain some semblance of continuity. Between Marvel Studios jumping to three films a year and DC outlining more than ten films over the next four years, that's a lot for audiences to take in. Add to it Fox has its X-Men films running with at least one film per year along with all of the other universes that are starting up within that time. That's a lot of films for audiences to take in even if they're just focusing in on one or two universes. That also makes it more difficult for other competition because comedies and standalone horror or science fiction films won't just stop to make way for these universes. I know this is not intentional, thus it's an externality, but it's still something to make note of as an extreme repercussion.
Ultimately, I do think shared universes help the film industry by spreading new ideas and innovation. However, much like my thoughts on studio intervention, I feel that these universes should be fleshed out in moderation instead of jumping in full of ambition with a hundred projects at the ready. The difference between a monster film universe and a comic book film universe is that monster movies have always had a niche in the world of film. The same goes for animated movies with children as the target audience. These projects could easily wait a few years before starting up, but maybe their time is now. I guess we won't know until the foundation gets set up more properly.