The biggest trend in film these days is the desire to build “cinematic universes”. What does that mean exactly? Simply put, it’s where a number of stand-alone movies are somehow linked together and take place in the same existence, so a character in one movie can appear in another that would otherwise be unrelated, or the films share similar events.
This is not a new phenomenon. Even though it was a comedy, 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein established that Universal’s monster movies (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and their various sequels) all exist in the same universe (the studio’s name being a sheer coincidence).
Television has been building their own universes since at least the ’60s, usually in the form of spin-offs or similarly-themed shows by the same producers. For instance, upon the success of The Beverly Hillbillies, producer Paul Henning created Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, all of which were connected to the fictional town of Hooterville (Frank Cady appeared in all three shows as Mr. Drucker). Norman Lear made a career out of spinning off characters from one sitcom into their own shows, which often would never reference its source material again (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maud, and so forth).
NBC was really bad about having their shows crossover with each other, even if there wasn’t a common root source. For instance, characters from Hello, Larry appeared on Diff’rent Strokes and one episode of St. Elsewhere took place in the bar setting of Cheers. In fact, so many fictional characters appeared in other shows (with the winner going to Richard Belzer’s Detective John Munch appearing in eight shows including The X-Files and Arrested Development) that there is what’s known as the Tommy Westphall Universe. This is named after the autistic boy in St. Elsewhere who—as it’s revealed at the end of the series finale—has made up the entire show in his imagination. Of course, since this series was linked to others, then there is a domino effect where most of television is one large shared universe that exists only in his mind.
Star Trek continues to grow its (in this case literal) universe. So far, it’s had five live action television series with a new one on its way, an animated series, and soon to be thirteen feature films. Granted, there are now two existing timelines, but even the JJ Abrams timeline is still in continuity thanks to a time-traveling Spock.
Shared universes are well-known in literature as well. Many of Tom Clancy’s novels are connected, whether the protagonist is Jack Ryan or John Clark, or even Jack Ryan, Jr. The bulk of Stephen King’s fiction all link together with the core being The Dark Tower series. He even features a version of himself as a character, implying that the real world is actually a part of his fictional one.
The recent interest in share cinematic universes in feature films is attributed to the success of the Marvel films—more precisely the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU), as opposed to films produced by Sony, Fox, and other studios using Marvel characters without that company’s direct creative involvement. Phase 1 incorporated Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: First Avenger and culminated with The Avengers. The MCU will be kicking off Phase 3 with Captain America: Civil War this year, and has expanded to television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and the upcoming Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Marvel’s Most Wanted. The films in the MCU have to date grossed over $3.5 billion in just the United States alone.
With that kind of money, it’s no wonder that others want to jump on the bandwagon. Warner Bros./DC Comics is trying their own cinematic universe with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to be followed by Justice League and stand-alone films for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and others (maybe even Green Lantern, though the unrelated 2011 Ryan Reynolds version left a bad taste for many people), not to mention the upcoming Suicide Squad.
Sony attempted the same within a Spider-man universe, specifically using The Amazing Spider-man 2 as a set-up for the proposed Sinister Six and for some reason an Aunt May origin film. The disastrous critical and box office reception of ASM2 not only killed the prospects of a third film in that series, but also all the off-shoots they had planned—and Sony ended up sharing the rights to the characters with Marvel, who is introducing a revamped Spidey into the MCU. Sony is apparently still planning a movie starring Spider-man villain Venom that will have no connection to any known universe.
Similarly, 2015’s Fantastic Four flopping caused Fox to cease plans to merge those characters into its X-Men universe, which as of this year will have had six actual X-Men films plus two Wolverine movies (a third is in the works). It seems that Deadpool also exists in the same universe, though it contradicts the continuity already established (though to be fair, continuity is not a strong suit of the X-Men universe). With this series going strong, it’s unlikely that Fox will return the rights to these characters to Marvel any time soon, with the possible exception of the Fantastic Four.
Superhero films aren’t the only ones studios use to build cinematic universes. Universal tried to resurrect their old horror monsters in an updated universe starting with Dracula Untold and continuing with next year’s The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. Dracula Untold sputtered at the box office, so the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe hinges on The Mummy. Cruise’s film usually do well, but we’ll see if it’ll be strong enough for the studio to continue with this plan. Also, Sony is prepping a 21 Jump Street/Men in Black crossover with MiB 23, a universe no one asked for. Disney is expanding the Star Wars universe not only with more sequels, but with anthology films that take place at various points along established timelines. Even the world of Harry Potter is being expanded at Warner Bros. with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Cinematic Universes can be fun to watch, especially as they build one onto another. The MCU has been fun to watch because, at least in the early films, characters like Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America all had their own unique stories, but there were hints at bigger things to come. It drew an excitement to see what was going to happen next. Essentially, each movie was an episode of a larger storyline, and even if some movies were not as good as others, audiences responded because they loved the idea of the series more than, in some cases, the individual films themselves.
The problem comes when producers try to force the issue. When they announce the grand plan of a half a dozen or so inter-connected movies, then it almost feels like work rather than entertainment. Marvel is guilty of this, too, in scheduling out its films for the foreseeable future. It takes away the excitement of discovery when we know that a certain character is going to have another sequel. We know, for instance, that Iron Man is not going to be killed or quit being a superhero in Captain America: Civil War, where he’s the antagonist, because he’s been announced as being in Marvel’s Spider-man: Homecoming as well as in Avengers: Infinity War.
Audiences like crossovers. They enjoy seeing familiar characters and situations in multiple pieces of entertainment. This is why we like sequels, spinoffs, adaptations, and (to a lesser degree) remakes. We want to experience the joy of reliving a fictional piece that we love, so we’re willing to endure followup, even though most of the time they pale to the original. Cinematic Universes go one further in that they create multiple possible origin stories or other adventures that may entertain us, but still be linked together. We can get a movie about a young Han Solo, but still look forward to the next official episode in the Star Wars saga. However, when studios bank on their entire slate of films existing on the hopes that audiences will like that shared universe, then they take the chance of it all collapsing when one film bombs.
Of course, there’s a lot to be said for one-shot stories. After all, ET the Extraterrestrial worked best all by itself.