Marvel's Cinematic Universe has become the model for episodic blockbuster storytelling in Hollywood - resulting in $6.3 billion in box office revenue (and counting). Of course, those numbers do not include revenue from Blu-ray/DVD sales, licensing, and retail merchandise, which have added millions more to the Disney coffer. There's no doubt that Marvel Studios' recent shared cinematic universe was a game-changer - weaving nine films (so far), the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series, and five one-shots into a single narrative web. In spite of a few hiccups, the ambitious project is paying off, raising interest (and box office profits) for any film bearing the Marvel Studios logo.
Not long after the shared universe approach drove record-breaking ticket sales for the first Avengers team-up, Sony and 20th Century Fox began work on longterm franchise plans of their own, in addition to Warner Bros., who hopes to expand on Man of Steel with Batman vs. Superman, a Justice League team-up, and subsequent spinoffs. However, now that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has become one of 2014's most divisive blockbusters (primarily because of its shared universe stage-setting), it's time to face a question that has lurked in the shadows: Are shared movie universes hurting superhero films?
A History of Shared Universe Hiccups
When it was first announced that Marvel Studios intended to develop a branching film project, centered on assembling of The Avengers, many fans were worried that quality execution would falter in the shadow of branding ambition - worry that became justified when Iron Man 2 hit theaters.
Director Jon Favreau has (reportedly) indicated behind closed doors that Marvel's push to get The Avengers shared universe up and running negatively impacted the filmmaker's original vision for Iron Man 2. Instead of a straightforward continuation of the Tony Stark storyline, Favreau was tasked with introducing key "Phase 1" characters and narrative threads. As a result, without adequate time to develop, despite brief hints at something more distinct, Mickey Rourke's Ivan Vanko/Whiplash was turned into a hollow caricature - a one-note villain bent on revenge.
Often, superhero stories are only as good as their villains, and while Iron Man 2 helped set the stage for Marvel's current success, it did so at the expense of an intriguing narrative about the conflict between two genius sons, from very different backgrounds, attempting to do right by their (deceased) fathers.
Shared Universe Sacrifice
Sony (and director Marc Webb) faced a similar challenge with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - which, interestingly, also features a pair of abandoned sons investigating the legacies of their respective fathers. Unfortunately, the studio did not learn from Iron Man 2 criticisms - short-changing villains and supporting characters in favor of setting up their own Sinister Six "shared universe" plot.
No doubt, plenty of viewers still found value in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, especially in Spider-Action beats as well as the Peter Parker/Gwen Stacy relationship; that said, in our recent interview with Webb, the director admitted that balancing the current story with future set-up was a major challenge - albeit a fun challenge:
It’s tricky but it’s fun. And we have a great team developing, and everybody gets sort of assigned a different thing. There’s some really exciting stuff coming out with the Sinister Six that I’m really enthused about. And Alex [Kurtzman] is working with them. And there are these great ideas from a bunch of people that are really smart, so I can spread the pressure out. But it’s not pressure, it’s fun! Are you kidding me? It’s very cool. (laughter) We sit around a room and we spitball and we talk about ideas. We do try to be careful about how we plan that out. And that is a little but of a puzzle sometimes.
No one is claiming that an intertwined franchise narrative should be easy to shape and that some sacrifices won't need to be made, but The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a poignant example of shared universe threads hurting the overall quality of a standalone film experience. Many (not all) viewers that enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man 2 still felt that Electro and Green Goblin were underdeveloped and underserved by the narrative - with only two or three scenes to establish and then catalyze the characters into villainy. They are both interesting and effective antagonists, but they fall short of doing anything more than causing trouble for Spider-Man.
Wasn't There More to this Story?
Many moviegoers still hold Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 in high regard because the film not only upped the action quota, it invested heavily in its villain, showcasing Alfred Molina's Doctor Octopus/Otto Octavius as more than a ruthless evildoer. Octavius was relatable, tragic, and (most importantly) reflected key aspects of his rival, Peter Parker. For all of the times we've heard Amazing Spider-Man series producers describe their villains as "complex," the latest film rarely allows those complexities to be put on display.
The disconnect became even more obvious when it was revealed that key scenes (shown in trailers) featuring Electro, Harry and Norman Osborne, as well as Gwen Stacy were all cut from the film - stripping away layers of potential character development. Without question, plenty of movies use deleted scenes in pre-release marketing, but in this particular case, fans have become fixated on the missing scenes - since they seem to indicate that a different, and more nuanced, version of the film exists.
At 142 minutes, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is already a lengthy film - suggesting that Webb was, likely, tasked with pairing down the runtime. Based on the final product, it's likely that the filmmaker was forced to reshape story in post-production, removing scenes that helped flesh-out his villains, while ensuring that shared universe threads were in place. For that reason, the "deleted" scenes have become a curiosity for disappointed viewers, leading to an online petition (this is the Internet after all) calling on Sony to release a Director's Cut.
In a grand scheme, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 could just be an awkward but necessary step in shared universe building (like Iron Man 2) - one that might be worthy of the hiccups when The Amazing Spider-Man 3 hits theaters. That said, with three, four, or five Sinister Six members still waiting to be revealed (depending on who you believe), and only two films left before the super villain team-up releases, Webb and his team still have a lot of characters and plot beats to introduce - meaning that new Amazing Spider-Man 3 characters might not be given any more attention than Electro and Green Goblin were allowed in Part 2. If that turns out to be the case, is a Sinister Six team-up really worth all the effort - especially if the alternative would have been straightforward (and self-contained) entries in the "untold story" of Spider-Man?
Days of Self-Contained Storytelling Past
Of course, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn't the only comic book film hoping to take advantage of a shared universe. Fox has been hard at work on the ambitious time-traveling epic, X-Men: Days of Future Past, uniting the First Class reboot cast with the heroes and villains from the original X-Men film trilogy, while also paving the way for an all-new entry in the series, Apocalypse. Reports indicate that Fox is investing heavily in the project - in the hopes of positioning the X-Men series - which typically does acceptable but not remarkable business at the box office - as a legitimate competitor in the superhero shared universe game.
Days of Future Past is rumored to be the most expensive comic book adaptation to date, but will epic visuals and an all-star cast of new and returning faces also result in an impactful film experience? The film is relying on interesting elements (time travel, cross-franchise character pairings, sentinels) but with over twenty main characters and two separate time periods, Fox may be running the risk of overstuffing their X-Men movie with spectacle - leaving little room for actual mutant drama.
After all, the series was rebooted in X-Men: First Class because most viewers found X-Men: The Last Stand to be a hollow production that relied on visual spectacle and vapid mutant cameos rather than developed characters set in an engaging story. Is there enough room to do anything interesting with a character like Quicksilver or Colossus, when Days of Future Past is tasked with exploring themes and fan-favorite mutants from First Class - as well as the original trilogy - all while centering the proceedings (once again) on Hugh Jackman's scene-stealing Wolverine?
Days of Future Past may find a balance between its characters and the franchise-building plot elements; or it may, instead, be another example of over-reaching shared universe ambition.
Characters Before Shared Universes
Later this summer, Marvel Studios will release Guardians of the Galaxy which will branch-out from the core Avengers storyline - while containing key threads that contribute to the ongoing shared universe. At first, the prospect of launching an entire superhero team outside of the established Avengers narrative sounded like a risky endeavor - especially since the Guardians of the Galaxy comic books are a) set on a galactic playing field and b) do not share nearly the same level of brand recognition as A-listers like the Incredible Hulk and Captain America. Not to mention that two out of five Guardians will be entirely CGI creations - a talking raccoon and a tree that only says three words, "I am Groot."
Nevertheless, Guardians of the Galaxy has become one of the most talked about summer films of 2014. Why? The trailer put the characters front and center - highlighting the ragtag group of likable troublemakers. We've still got a few months before the film hits theaters, but there's reason to be optimistic that, in spite of requirements to tie Guardians of the Galaxy into The Avengers' Thanos arc, director James Gunn will do his zany heroes justice. The project allows for the best of both worlds: a film that functions as a self-contained space adventure full of intriguing (and diverse) characters - while also adding a few more bricks in the expansive cross-film narrative.
Still, Gunn faces similar challenges as Webb's Sinister Six setup - with five Guardians, at least four antagonists, and the Nova Corps to introduce. For that reason, it's certainly possible that the filmmaker will, in the end, have a difficult time balancing elements of his story. That said, despite ties to The Avengers 3, Gunn has indicated that he prioritized the standalone experience over setting up plot threads that will pay-off five years later. Each member of the team, and the villains, have a substantive role to play in the current film plot - intertwined motivations that bring the Guardians together (while allowing room for subtle contributions to the shared universe).
Until the film releases, there's no guarantee that Gunn will deliver, but with claims that Rocket Raccoon is the "heart" of Guardians of the Galaxy, it's hard to imagine the filmmaker sidelining character development in the interest of setting-up Marvel Phase 3 projects.
Will DC do Justice to its Superhero League?
Of course, the biggest question mark in the discussion of superhero shared universes is: can Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment successfully introduce their Justice League team over the course of two films? For months we've know that Batman vs. Superman would include appearances by several Justice League characters - though it remained unclear whether or not they'd be in costume or simply cameo as "human" alter egos. However, with the announcement that Zack Snyder will direct a Justice League film after Batman vs. Superman, fans have become concerned that the filmmakers are rushing their shared universe - in the interest of catching up with Marvel Studios.
Industry insiders have previously indicated that producing standalone films first, before the Justice League team-up, would make the most sense - with others arguing that, given the right story, it would be possible to introduce all of the characters in one (or two) films (then spin them into solo installments). We don't know if Batman vs. Superman will utilize the Justice League roster in a meaningful way but, at this point, we expect the team-up film will arrive before a Wonder Woman (or Cyborg) spin-off.
Will the "backdoor pilot" approach to shared universe building hurt future DC superhero films and their respective central characters? Time will tell. After all, DC heroes are different from those in the Marvel universe, leaving room for different ways of bringing a character like Aquaman, for example, to the big screen.
With two full years before Batman vs. Superman hits theaters, it's too early to say whether or not DC's shared universe will, in the long run, hurt their superhero films. Nevertheless, like the other directors responsible for setting up an entire shared universe, Snyder is facing a tough challenge. Without a doubt, if any iconic Justice League heroes are short-changed in the process, fans will demonize the studio for rushing a team-up at the expense of quality character stories.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility, Right?
While Marvel Studios has managed to increase interest (and box office returns) by incorporating all of their characters into a shared universe, it remains unclear if the same strategy will work for everyone else. In fact, thanks to middle-of-the-road reviews (and possible franchise fatigue), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has underperformed at the domestic box office. In the long run, Webb's film will do fine (and earn Sony a solid profit) but the movie could be an early indicator that viewers might be averse to serialized film story lines (at least in certain cases).
What makes moviegoers accepting of shared universe stories in one franchise and not another? Answer: Not all shared universes are created equal - and only certain characters are even capable of carrying an entire universe. Even though the X-Men film brand has typically been lumped into a single series (with the exception of Wolverine spin-offs), the franchise is composed of a wide range of mutant heroes and villains. The X-Men may be a sub-branch of Marvel Comics but there are still plenty of mutant stories to tell - stories that are completely separate from The Avengers movie universe.
For that reason, if shared superhero universes in film and television are to continue, filmmakers need to find a more coordinated and nuanced way to build them. Cramming several characters into a single film might help the end goal of expanding an otherwise self-contained storyline, but if audiences are turned-off in the process, what's the point?
Maybe was Sony overly ambitious in thinking that The Amazing Spider-Man, and his Sinister villains, are capable of maintaining their own shared universe - especially now that producer Avi Arad is stating that Peter Parker is the only Spider-Man they'll depict onscreen. If characters like Miles Morales are truly off the live-action movie table, it'll be very interesting to see how the studio intends to continue expanding this specific superhero universe - unless they just plan to reboot the franchise (again) after they complete Peter Parker's "untold" story in The Amazing Spider-Man 4.
Maybe we should just prepare now for The Spectacular Spider-Man reboot?
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future editorials as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.
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