Concerning Cinematic Universes
Hollywood has a story problem. Sure, the studios regurgitate concepts, sequelize to the point of destroying brand integrity, and insist on centering the bulk of their narratives from a white male perspective. But beyond that, Hollywood seemingly doesn't get Story, or rather the purpose of story, the "why" of it all. "How" is simpler to grasp, the rudimentary steps of plot mechanisms and deus ex machina. As such, summer movies have become more and more plot-driven with thinly-developed characters being driven on rails. Get the MacGuffin, then Do the Thing and Jump in the Skybeam and Grab the Girl and Save the Thing.
What is difficult is Character, for to understand character is to understand and distill that which makes us human. It is the "who" that illustrates to the audience the thematic "why." The stronger the character, the more notable the personality and the clearer the agency. Think back to Michael Corleone and his love of family eroding his reluctance towards a life of crime. It is the thought processes and the decision-making that make a character more three-dimensional and empathetic.
So in theory, a shared universe is a perfect, I repeat a perfect breeding ground for character. Different people from different realms interacting with one another, counteracting each other in opposition or integrating with one another in solidarity. Characters strong enough to anchor an entire narrative on their own, now sharing scenes and having profound conversations. Comic books have done this for decades (to the point of convolution but more on that later).
What we the audience have seen lately is a disturbing trend to ape the Marvel Studios model in order to grab some quick bucks and churn out interlinked narratives like chains of sausage. And it ain’t workin’. The following is an exploration/explanation as to why and what studios and production companies could do to avoid cinematic bungling at the box office .
Limitation is the sincerest form of flattery
The Marvel Cinematic Universe began with 2008's Iron Man, opening the doors to enticing possibilities of character interaction, complexity in continuity and matching the depth of lore only seen on the comic book page. This is the model that other Hollywood studios seek to emulate, the most natural example being The DC Extended Universe at Warner Bros. Never mind that they've had since the late 70s to do this; the mindset to make their heroes interconnected didn't arrive until someone else did it first.
Superman: The Movie is arguably the first superhero film of the modern era. From director Richard Donner, the movie crystallized and distilled the pulp spirit of its main character and his origins, hearkening back to a wistful nostalgia while pointing the way forward with clever performances and verisimilitude, as screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz referred to it. The film and its sequel gave Hollywood the template for comic book cinema, still followed to this very day.
As Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige noted, “[I]n particular, Superman: The Movie is still, to this day, the archetype of the perfect superhero film origin story, and we watch it before we make almost any one of our films and that’s been the case for the past 17 years since I left the fold to go work for Marvel.” 
Indeed, it wasn't until Tim Burton's Batman eleven years later that a new template of superhero filmmaking could be emulated and even then, if you look closely, you can see how the 1989 film owes a debt to its elder brethren, making Gotham City tactile and grounding the four-color characters in emotional reality. But even with the darker shift in tone and presentation, aped by contemporaries like Dick Tracy and The Shadow, DC Comics was running the show.
Marvel wouldn't make a cinematic dent in the zeitgeist until 1998's Blade and more definitively with 2000's X-Men, both films dark in tone and texture. The twin successes of these films, using more mature sensibilities and cutting-edge special effects, paved the way for more Marvel heroes to hit the big screen. DC films by this point had fallen prey to chasing merchandising dollars and brand partnerships, cheapening the Batman franchise and disabling it from a dramatic standpoint.
From director Joel Schumacher: "...on Batman and Robin. There was simply too much pressure, and that breeds fear and conservatism. I was in merchandise meetings with Walmart and K-Mart and McDonald's, and you're being told to make the film more 'toyetic', which means you can sell toys off the back of it. That was the only time when I felt that the box office was more important than the story." [3a] [3b]
The Caped Crusader wouldn't find redemption until Christopher Nolan's turn at bat (wink). Keep in mind that Bryan Singer, director of the same X-Men films which brought Marvel some credence at the box office, jumped ship to make Superman Returns, which hit theaters a year after Nolan’s Batman Begins.
If there was a time to begin a cinematic universe for DC Comics, now would have been pretty good.
Nolan had no interest in cross-mingling the two universes of Gotham and Metropolis, choosing to focusing purely on the quality of the Dark Knight Trilogy. And judging by the failings of Superman Returns, it was a good call.
Meanwhile, Marvel Studios, then a licensing entity that oversaw other major studios’ adaptations of their properties, was struggling to figuring out how to become a player in their own right and self-finance their own films. It's old news that Marvel sold its franchises separately in a shortsighted dash for dollars.
Perhaps it's karmic that the core of the Marvel Universe remained untouched, chock full of material thought too dorky and convoluted for general audiences who preferred more popular touchstones like the spectacular Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk or even the vanguard Fantastic Four. It allowed one of the Donners' former assistants, Kevin Feige, to devise a plan to gather all the remaining heroes up and do something unprecedented.
After the success of The Avengers, every post-Avengers solo film has seen an uptick in box office receipts, a sign of increased, deepened involvement from the audience. Filmgoers learned to love the oddball characters that stood alongside their favorites (which was basically just Robert Downey Jr at this point), and the Marvel Studios brand became synonymous with trust.
It became clear that Warner Bros had to do something to catch up, now that Nolan’s Batman film cycle had completed. It was time to bring the DC Extended Universe to life, the dawn of a new cinematic realm of heroes and villains based on the longest-running canon in comic books, beloved by readers young and old. And that first film, their opening salvo, that vaunted portal to another dimension of sound, color and glory would be Green Lantern.
I mean, Man of Steel. We won’t talk about Green Lantern.
You say potato, and I say cinematic universe.
Man of Steel could be seen as many things. It could be an attempt to adrenaline and turbocharge a potentially stale icon, no matter how beloved. It could be seen as a miscalculation from an auteur whose sensibilities may have been too dark for a primary-hued hero (the catastrophic end battle, something the comic-book version of Superman would never even allow to happen, comes to mind). It could be seen as an apology from the film’s producer Christopher Nolan, whose Bat-films while successful left no room for expansion of an interwoven tapestry.
Whatever the case may be, it was successful enough to lead to the critically maligned box office hit Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the even more critically maligned box office Suicide Squad. The DC Extended Universe had arrived, and it was grim, gritty and more than a little gross.
See, Warner Bros. didn’t create their comic book universe until they no longer had a choice. The Dark Knight films had grossed billions of dollars but were now over, as were the Harry Potter films and the Lord of the Rings movies. Each one of these properties had to be revived somehow, even at the expense of their legacies. More on the Hobbit films and Fantastic Beasts later.
Marvel on the other hand needed interconnectivity to make their C-list characters stand apart from the rest. Sure, an Iron Man can work but there was no guarantee that Thor or Captain America would. The promise of broadening a new universe was enough of an enticement, and and truly novel at the time, to bring audiences to seats. But it wouldn’t have mattered if each stand-alone film wasn’t good, or at the very least good enough, by itself. Say what you will about Thor, but it doesn’t make the mountainous amount of mistakes that Dawn of Justice did.
Note: I actually liked Dawn of Justice, but in a perverse I-can’t-believe-they-actually-did-that/this-film-does-not-care-about-pleasing-its-audience-and-I-kinda-admire-that sort of way.
Back to Marvel, the genius stroke of the MCU isn’t its interconnectivity but how the first round of films and each subsequent origin film (Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: Homecoming) stands apart, an enjoyable experience in its own right. These films had to stand apart in order to validate their own existence before coming together.
There were, however, fits and struggles. Iron Man 2 suffered from focusing on world-building instead of furthering the development of Tony Stark's journey, and the other Phase One films had a villain/ 3rd act problem (hero fights bigger, evil version of self). Indeed, Iron Man 2 is Marvel’s Dawn of Justice, an overstuffed half-baked entry that is more concerned with cameos and built-in trailers for future films than a simple follow-up to a successful origin story. Both of those movies are narrative accelerants, not actual stories with actual characters.
Don’t get me wrong; interconnectivity is a cool piece of the puzzle, but the films still have to be good. Let’s switch gears to last year’s Ghostbusters. Uh, actually, let’s not. What about this summer’s The Mummy? Or even The Dark Tower? Yeesh, this is a depressing article.
Bad Films, Bad Films, Whatcha Gonna Do?
This summer was good and bad for moviegoers, and mostly bad for the box office. More on that later. We had some good ones: Baby Driver, Logan Lucky, The Big Sick, Wonder Woman, Good Time. If you wanted an enjoyable time at the theater, it was to be had. But we had some monumental stinkers too, and all in the name of the almighty dollar.
Universal Pictures desperately tried to resurrect its monsters stable with the launch of Dark Universe and the reboot of The Mummy. If Marvel Studios could do it with once C-list characters, why not do it with some of the most recognizable characters in all of cinema?
Well, there’s this thing called “want-to-see” in the industry. You make films that people actually want to see. The flip side is you don’t make films people don’t want to see. In the 90s, syndicated reruns of old sitcoms were becoming very popular with the Generation X crowd, whose ironic detachment lent another level of enjoyment to the earnest corny programming of yesteryear. This is where The Addams Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch Movie, and The Little Rascals come from: nostalgia.
To be fair, these comic book movies are in theory coming from the same nostalgic place. But most audiences who watch these movies are being introduced to these heroes for the first time, with the admissions eclipsing the loyal readership of the actual titles. Nostalgia is not a factor here for most of the MCU roster, not like it is for Spider-Man or the X-Men. So, a Marvel Studios movie six or seven years ago had to try much harder, knowing that this would be the version of the hero that would exist in the current zeitgeist.
But yo, who asked for a new reboot of the Mummy, eight years after the last Brendon Fraser/Jet Li starrer (Tomb of the
Imperial Dragon Something? Who cares?)? Who asked for Dracula Untold or Bride of Frankenstein or The Invisible Man or a new Creature from the Black Lagoon?? Yeah, I wanna see that! #sarcasm
The problem with DC Films is that audiences have been waiting for a Batman/Superman team-up or a Wonder Woman movie for so long that we just accepted we weren’t getting it. There was no way to mesh the gothic tactility of Batman with the fanciful magic of Superman, at least not on the big screen. And studios simply would not bet on a big-budget superheroine leading her own movie.
Well, in “Nolan-izing” Superman, Man of Steel may have betrayed its lead character’s pulp roots and his quintessential positivity in order to make him not just cinematically compatible with Batman, but compatible with the angriest, most murderous version of Batman ever. Dawn of Justice was the inevitable doubling down of this aesthetic, as was Suicide Squad. These films don’t represent the best of DC Comics; there are merely an exercise of ripping off another formula that worked for someone else.
So when Sony decides to balloon the remake of Ghostbusters into the foundation of its own cinematic universe (spearheaded by the still operational Ghost Corps production shingle), or when Universal gives us the filmic version of a fruitcake that no one wants, we the audience lose as does the studios. We are no longer getting a story with theme, tone or truth. We are no longer getting an exercise in building character. We are getting a product. And it’s no different than getting a Velveeta loaf and calling it cheese.
The only difference is in this summer’s Wonder Woman, a film that had to be good in and of its own right, a film good enough to honor the 75 years of the character’s existence. It’s a return to classicist superheroism, excelling the spotlight grabbing cameo from Dawn of Justice and almost nullifying it. We the audience wanted and needed to see this film, to prove decades of backwards studio groupthink wrong. Wonder Woman had “want-to-see,” and didn’t squander it in the ways that Dawn of Justice did (which once again makes me admire it somewhat; “You want to see Batman and Superman in the same movie? Screw you!!”).
How to Make a Better Blockbuster
So, what happens when a studio decides to make films that audiences are telling them to make, instead of deciding what’s good for them and that they the studio knows better? What happens when a studio admits it’s out of touch and needs to find their collective inner film nerd? Short answer: you get good movies.
Let’s make a car chase movie set to the coolest music imaginable (Baby Driver). Let’s make Peter Parker an actual high
schooler and put him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Homecoming). Let’s make an early Martin Scorsese film and set it in the modern day (Good Time). Let us put aside the notion of a cinematic universe and focus on making good - no! great films, one at a time. Sometimes, you don’t need a grand scheme and a blueprint spanning the next ten years.
Case in point, and stick with me on this one: The Empire Strikes Back. It’s an open secret that George Lucas didn’t have everything figured out by the time the first Star Wars film was in production and a lot of the backstory was in flux. It was enough just to build on what came before and make an epic that was thrilling, exciting and darker than the genre-defining ’77 movie. But if you wanted to, and I swear this works, you could just watch The Empire Strikes Back by itself.
A lot of what made Star Wars STAR WARS is actually in Empire. The Imperial March. The asteroid belt chase. Darth Vader’s revelation. Empire is so much better than Star Wars that, out of politeness, fans don’t talk about it much. And yet, more than anything else, Empire stands alone in a way that no other entry after it does. If you wanted to be a G, you could stop at the bummer ending and not even watch Return of the Jedi. But come on, you gotta have the Ewoks.
Essentially, the studios need to ignore Marvel. Just ignore them. Let them do their own thing; they worked hard, got there first, and any attempt to copy will only result in lost dollars. Hollywood has to solve its story problem. It all begins and ends with the script, and this summer in particular is a testament to audiences no longer willing to be fooled by Transformers, Pirates, Aliens, or even Dark Towers. They have to tell a good story first and foremost, and have a good reason to tell it. They have to reward their audience instead of tricking or punishing them, because we can punish them back.
The Last Great American Theater: The Living Room
Recently, I had the chance to watch the Game of Thrones Season 7 finale in a home theater with friends, and it was one of the most fun experiences I had in the entire summer. The snarky commentary alone made it worthwhile, which you can do amongst friends. And therein lies the problem with American moviegoing. We have HDTVs. We have Rokus and PS4s and Xboxes and Netflix and Hulu and Redbox. We have a lot of options. We even have Rick and Morty back. We don’t need to go back
So if we forgo all of that, and hop in our car, spend gas money, parking fees, undergo parking safaris, pay astronomical concessions, slog through cramped aisles, suffer through bad projection (if you’re a G, you go and get that corrected immediately), more likely than not we’ve done all of that in the service of watching a bad movie. And that burns.
When studios take a beloved property like Ghostbusters, the Universal Monsters or your favorite DC characters only to end up with a mess, it’s breaking a sacred contract with paying customers. You give us your hard-earned dollars and we’ll put on a show. We’ll even play some of your old favorites. Alas, it’s all lies in the end save for a few rare exceptions.
If the studios want to succeed and break away from the shadows of Marvel, it’s much simpler than they realize: make a good movie. It’s a pat answer, and more than a little condescending, I know. But I grew up watching classic after classic; Westerns, thrillers, crime movies, action, sci-fi, comedy, horror. One fantastic film after another and it stopped! (Whuh?) They did it before and they can do it again.
Make a good movie. If possible, make another one and make it better. And if there’s enough in the tank, make one more. And then go do something else. Because unless the people eat, sleep and breathe this stuff, unless they geniunely love the material and just so happen to be the world’s biggest The Mummy fan, they’re gonna waste a lotta money. And most importantly, they’re gonna waste yours too.