The Stumbling Block of Shared Universes

By Carter Glace, Staff Writer

Of the three major attempted ‘cinematic universes’ in modern film making—Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, Warner Bros DC Extended Universe, and Universals The Dark Universe—the only critically and financially successful endeavor has been Marvel’s. The DCEU has found itself in a crisis with the underperforming “Justice League” while Universal seems to be ready to pull the plug after one film, as “The Mummy” has become one of the worst and most ridiculed films of the decade.

Now, there are a lot of specific reasons these two individual endeavors are failing. For Universal, the choice to take a horror franchise and break its bone into a generic action film with generic action protagonist #34333 turned the potentially interesting idea of interconnected monster movies into a slog. Meanwhile, Warner Bros has  had no clear vision of what they’ve wanted, and instead just swerved and course corrected after the reviews for every film have come in.  But looking over both of these situations, along side the successes of Marvel, there is one common factor in the success or failure of these universes: how prominent the actual ‘universe’ is.

Marvel receives a lot of criticism making Cinematic Universes ‘fashionable,’ and in the process serializing their films. But in reality, the actual ‘Cinematic Universe’ part of their films has been rather down played. Most of the big continuity moments, the Easter Eggs, the reveals of new characters, are saved for the after credit scenes of each film, making them non-intrusive. And while later films like “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Captain America: Civil War” have indulged in more crossovers and references to previous films, I’d argue they never intrude on the narrative of the film. Thor’s Third film is squarely a story about the God of Thunder trying to fend off the destruction of his home, and in looking for more firepower, he just happens to recruit the Hulk (not to mention, no audience member is going to be confused as to who the Hulk is, because the Hulk is one of the most iconic characters in pop canon). Meanwhile, “Captain America: Civil War” is wholly about Captain America’s identity being challenged by having the government endanger his best friend. And it makes sense to have various other costumed heroes show up to fight him, because that’s how the government would handle a situation like this. These references and cross cameos only enhance the film, never distracting or slowing it down.

Neither Universal or Warner Bros seems to understand this, instead slamming the breaks on each individual film to crow bar references and teasers into the main plot of the film. Half way through “The Mummy,” Tom Cruise is abducted by Russell Crowe and brought to Prodigium, a secret agency tasked with tackling supernatural anomalies. Any tension or fear gets completely drained as we are drowned in exposition meaningless to the story of Cruise and “The Mummy,” setting up ideas and concepts that will not be important for several films. It also leads to a meaningless action scene with Mr. Hyde.

Warner Bros has the best example of these problems with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” A running subplot in that film is a mysterious woman—later revealed to be Wonder Woman—is obsessed with stealing a flash drive from Lex Luthor. When she accomplishes this, just as the fight between Batman and Superman is about to break out, and it is revealed that the flash drive features evidence of herself and other super heroes like the Flash and Aquaman. The film stops dead in its tracks to show us four minute long clips of characters who will not actually appear in this film. It is so obtuse and obstructive to the film that even if the rest of the film were brilliant, I would still consider it a bad film.

There is no exact science to making cinematic universes, but the most important aspect thus far has been to focus on the individual films before the bigger picture. But in their rush to catch up, Universal and Warner Bros have both collapsed at the starting block.

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