The Case for Shared Cinematic Universes

Late last night, a game-changing shock wave was sent through the internet when Beyoncé dropped a brand new album when no one was looking!

Also, Sony Pictures revealed it was expanding its Amazing Spider-Man cinematic universe with separate movies focusing on Venom and the Sinister Six. And while the Spidey announcement is not quite the game changer that Queen Bey’s new album is (in fact, it’s more of a game-follower, but more on that later), it’s definitely a smart move on Sony’s part. How well Marc Webb and Avi Arad (and the nerd rage-inducing duo that is Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) execute this move, however, remains to be seen.

Most of the internet is shitting on the idea already, but a Venom movie can’t be as bad as Spider-Man 3, can it?

As someone who rather enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man (mostly) and didn’t quite care for the Raimi trilogy (my nerd card is being returned as we speak), I am intrigued by the direction Sony is taking their lone superhero franchise. It only makes sense to extend these movies out to their logical conclusion. So why not get the most out of the actors already cast and the tone already established by the existing films? Because let’s face it, these characters will last in perpetuity. And the superhero film, as a genre, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

For better or worse, those mad scientists at Marvel Studios get a lot of credit (blame?) for the idea of shared cinematic universes. I mean, it’s hard to deny that Samuel L. Jackson’s appearance as Nick Fury after the credits of Iron Man signified a new era for the superhero genre. Not to mention Disney/Marvel’s efforts to bring their big screen universe to the small(er) screens of network television and Netflix.

But while Marvel deserves credit for upping the ante and folding what would have otherwise been separate properties in any other era into a singular cinematic vision, multi-part film franchises have always been a staple of the movie-going experience. Returning to the movie theaters again and again to revel inside a familiar universe with characters you’ve watched develop over multiple films is nothing new. Take Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings, for example. The appeal of The Hobbit films — and why Warner Bros. split up a pretty thin kids’ book into three overly long, bloated movies (by the way, The Desolation of Smaug opens today) — is because viewers love revisiting New Zealand Middle-Earth.

“Middle-Earth is awesome.” — Lorde’s boyfriend, James Lowe

The same is true for the success of the eight-movie deep Harry Potter franchise (which is getting its own spinoff soon), or the 23 movies in the 007 oeuvre (also a Sony property, by the way). Hell, the NOC-beloved Star Trek franchise features 12 movies and six television series existing within a shared continuity (for the most part).

Now, your mileage may vary on how well Marvel has executed their cinematic universes creatively (I’m a fan, personally), but it’s undeniable that their approach has fundamentally changed the way Hollywood approaches the superhero genre. Now other studios are scrambling to copy their template, with Fox also Marvelizing their own Marvel properties.

Though, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure how Fox plans to fit the Fantastic Four and the X-Men together.

I even argued a few weeks back that Warner Bros. should’ve taken a page out of Marvel’s playbook and combined their Man of Steel and Dark Knight franchises into a singular Nolanverse expansion. Instead, it seems the folks at DC/WB have decided on a hybrid reboot/universe expansion model to their franchise building. We’ll see how WB fares when Justice League — aka the Man of Steel sequel — opens in the summer of 2015 (the same summer The Avengers: Age of Ultron opens, natch). If anything, I always assumed Warner would have the advantage since all of their DC characters exist within the same studio structure.

Because to me, the most fascinating aspect of the Spider-Man announcement is the fact that there will now exist three different Marvel Cinematic Universes: Disney’s, Fox’s, and now Sony’s. It’s interesting that Avi Arad, the man responsible for bringing Marvel to the movies in the first place, is now playing catch-up in the game he set up to begin with.

The other irony is that the whole idea of sharing universes was Marvel Comics’ to begin with. Back in the 1960s, with Stan Lee at the helm, Marvel revolutionized the comics medium by planting all of its characters firmly within the same shared universe. Sure, Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman occasionally crossed over into each other’s books, but Marvel’s approach was markedly different. Now because of various licensing deals and studio negotiations — and unlike DC’s Holy Trinity — Marvel’s top dogs will never be able to appear in the same movie together, though they might be in theaters at the same time.

But what if El Mayimbe’s #MarvelWars hashtag isn’t a reference to the upcoming Kevin Feige/Avi Arad (and whoever’s driving Fox’s Marvel Universe) grudge match? What if Sony, Fox, and Disney were actually in cahoots all along, and all these “shared universe” announcements were just setting us all up for the granddaddy of comic book movie crossovers? What if all of this was just a prelude to…

If that happened, I’m pretty sure the internet would shit itself.