You don't have to be a cinephile to know that the shared cinematic universe is all the rage in Hollywood today. Thanks to the overwhelming success of Marvel's The Avengers, franchise building changed, and now studios are constantly looking for ways to combine their various properties into one large overarching narrative. Warner Bros. is moving full steam ahead with their DC Extended Universe. Paramount is developing multiple spinoffs and sequels for Transformers. Universal is bringing back their famous monsters. Even Lucasfilm has turned Star Wars into an annualized event.
The possibilities that these present are certainly exciting for viewers to consider. Because of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man can fight alongside Iron Man. The lifelong dream of seeing the Justice League on the big screen has now been realized. The galaxy far, far away is more expansive than ever, allowing the opportunity for crossovers between mediums to flesh out any key aspect. At the same time, there's something to appreciate in a big studio tentpole that bucks this trend and is more concerned with being an entertaining standalone movie than setting the stage for future installments. Teasing sequels has long been part of the game, but many of the pre-MCU blockbusters definitely stood on their own merits.
From that perspective, Star Trek Beyond is a bit of a retro production. Unlike many of its contemporaries, the Kelvin Timeline is its own entity. It isn't part of a larger interconnected world, and the three films to date all work as singular, cohesive stories with a beginning, middle, and end. Obviously, since Star Trek is a franchise, each one is left open with the possibility of future adventures with the U.S.S. Enterprise crew, but in the event Paramount pulled the plug for some reason, audiences would still have a satisfying conclusion to it all. In short, the latest from director Justin Lin is Exhibit A for why Hollywood should make more standalone films.
Benefit the Casual Audience
It isn't breaking news to suggest that there are certain moviegoers out there who do not follow the developments of big-budget productions as closely as others. Appealing to casual audiences can be the difference between an average box office haul and one that warrants the green lighting of more installments. One of the downsides of the shared universe phenomenon is that the longer they go on, the more complex and interwoven the films can become. For example, the MCU is currently 13 films in, and key members of the studio's creative team have said that they are OK with losing so-called "Marvel virgins," meaning those viewers largely uninitiated with the complete story so far.
The critical and commercial performances of films like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War indicate that there are many on board and keeping up, but for some people, following all of the Marvel (and eventually DC) movies may become too great of a responsibility. Not everyone has the time (or the money) to see each entry, so it's difficult for them to jump in at any point and get hooked. Civil War acts as a followup to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron, and even Ant-Man, requiring viewers to remember plot points and story beats from three different films to completely understand its narrative. Nowadays, several genre pictures are serialized, building off of each other to reach some undetermined end game.
This is what makes the existence of movies like Star Trek Beyond so pleasing. While it does follow Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, knowledge of those two productions isn't exactly required to comprehend what is going on. As long as the viewer possesses some basic grasps on the general premise of Star Trek as a whole (the crew of the Enterprise journey through deep space), they should be able to enjoy it. Beyond is easily accessible for longtime fans, those who appreciate the Kelvin Timeline, and newcomers who want to know what Star Trek is all about. It was crafted with a wide audience in mind, designed to be a crowd-pleaser on multiple levels. That's not to say the MCU films aren't, but even their "solo" films are losing some of their standalone nature. As an example, Guardians of the Galaxy included a cameo from Thanos, establishing the Mad Titan for a film that's still years away.
It's worth pointing out that Star Trek Beyond isn't exactly a novelty in the industry. Just last year, Mad Max: Fury Road captured the zeitgeist and earned a Best Picture nomination. The James Bond series has been using this formula for as long as Star Trek has been around. The studios still understand the importance of green lighting standalone movies, and their continued successes indicate that there's still an audience for them in the era of shared universes. Blockbusters that are truly standalone have become rarer, but it's nice to see that they're still being made. The financial gains of the Avengers model cannot be argued with, but not every brand is built for that. Instead of forcing something, the filmmakers are better off sticking with what feels natural, and it can pay off in the long run for the studios as well.
A Safe Studio Bet
In the years following The Avengers, the pros and cons of the shared movie universe have been debated ad nauseam. One of the most common criticisms is that certain shared universe projects dedicate too much of their running time to setting up things to come at the expense of telling a strong story that works on its own accord. It's great that various studios have a plan in place with slates of movies scheduled over the next handful of years, but it forces the directors to find a tricky balance between all of the responsibilities they are tasked with. As The Amazing Spider-Man 2 illustrates, nailing this element down is easier said than done, and it's still something the studios are trying to figure out.
Despite years of practice, Marvel Studios is still encountering some shared universe blues. Age of Ultron was a tremendous box office hit, but it wasn't as well-received as the first one - in part because some felt it detracted from the main narrative to tease upcoming Phase 3 films. Thor's detour into the pool confused some viewers, and that matter won't be resolved until Thor: Ragnarok. This spring's Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice drew the ire of many for the now infamous "Wonder Woman checks her email" scene that haphazardly introduced other Justice League members just as the third act was revving up. Movies tend to work better when the story flows naturally, and sidetracks like these can ultimately take away from the experience as opposed to adding extra value.
Franchises are the backbone of the film industry, and every studio is hungry for as many tentpoles as they can get to maximize profits and revenue. When they think they've got a hit, the temptation to forge ahead on announcing sequels and spinoffs is understandable. However, as admission prices have risen, and other forms of entertainment have become popular, general audiences are starting to be more selective about what they see in theaters. A splashy name in the title isn't always enough to draw in large crowds. This summer has seen a number of would-be blockbusters stumble commercially, in part because the word-of-mouth wasn't there. Quality of the moviemaking at hand has become a deciding factor for some, and projects that prioritize planting seeds for sequels over great storytelling run the risk of failing to leave an impact. Again, look at Amazing Spider-Man 2, which caused Sony to completely retool everything.
Back before shared universes became the go-to option, many blockbusters were conceived as standalone narratives, and the sequels came after they were proven to be hits. But now, many studios are already well into pre-production on followups before their current movie hits theaters, without knowing how moviegoers will respond to it. This is what made things so uneasy in the aftermath of Batman V Superman's mixed critical reception. It wasn't just a Superman film series at stake, it was an entire library of DC Comics movies that depended on Dawn of Justice being a smash. If Star Trek Beyond doesn't meet Paramount's expectations, they simply don't make a fourth one and move on. Beyond's perceived underperformance at the box office won't drastically impact the studio's longterm plans, as there honestly isn't much to shake up. Sometimes, keeping things simple is the right way to go.
Of course, there are millions of viewers (including those of us at Screen Rant) that love following shared movie universes, and there's nothing wrong with those who have become enamored with the big screen crossovers that only lived in our imaginations for years. At the same token, there is still a place for film series that scale it back a bit and commit themselves to being truly standalone in nature. Depending on the situation, they can be easier for all audiences to digest, and lead to more rewarding projects from a creative and artistic perspective. It may not be a coincidence that Star Trek Beyond is one of the best reviewed movies of the summer.
Until the superhero movie bubble bursts (which may not be for a while), shared universes are here to stay. It's great that both kinds of blockbusters can co-exist in Hollywood, providing moviegoers of any taste with their fair share of options to see. That kind of diversity is what's going to keep the theater going experience alive and well for years to come. Hopefully, the studios do not lose sight of this and keep making movies like Star Trek Beyond, Skyfall, and Mad Max: Fury Road so they don't become overly-dependent on #ItsAllConnected. Sometimes, a person just wants a short and sweet narrative for escapism, and standalone films are the ideal way to provide that for all parties involved.
Star Trek Beyond is now playing in U.S. theaters.