There’s almost an inevitability that the Shared Cinematic Universe (SCU) would become a mainstay of contemporary cinema. But far from the idea being a gimmick or a new fad, SCU’s have been with us for quite some time and it is only now that we are beginning to see the benefits they can harness.
The first genuine occurrence of an SCU was in 1943 when Universal Studios decided to milk their flagging monster movies by combining Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man in the originally entitled Frankenstein Meets Wolf Man. The movie may have been disappointing on nearly all fronts but it birthed the idea that all of Universal’s monster movies had been taking place in the same world, or universe if you will. Five years later, the studio returned to the concept with the Abbott & Costello Meets… movies that reinforced the shared universe of the series by having the vaudeville comedians encounter one of Universal’s monsters in each film in series lasting nearly a decade.
Of course, there was no over-arching plot or post-credit teasers that we’ve grown accustomed to in modern SCU’s but it gave license to the idea that seemingly disparate stories and characters can ultimately be homogenized by the occasional get together on screen. Taking this concept to the next level in the 1960’s -and again, using monsters to do it- was Japan’s Toho Studios of Godzilla fame. The Japanese studio had a regular rotisserie of rubber-suited monsters ready to take on or team up with the radioactive lizard and would regularly mix and match his opponents/teammates. Toho Studios were also the first to pool their resources into one big cross-over movie with 1968’s Destroy All Monsters, which featured a majority of their monster roster.
It’s apt then that this year we see both these SCU’s returning to our theaters with Kong: Skull Island expanding on 2014’s Godzilla and The Mummy -starring Tom Cruise- resurrecting Universal’s Monsters into a brand new SCU (they hope). And with 5 of last year’s top ten grossing films being part of other SCU’s, it’s a guarantee that several more will be emerging in the coming years with many greenlit already. But SCU’s could be much more to cinema than just a way to keep box offices busy, SCU’s may be vital to cinema’s survival against the odds in a world of entertainment where the medium faces nearly insurmountable competition.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Hypothetical time: if you were given $10 and given the choice between being able to see one movie once in a big room with strangers somewhere in town or you could use that $10 to gain access to literally hundreds of movies for a whole month from the comfort of your own home, which would you choose?
When put in terms of pure value like this, your local theater doesn’t even compare with the likes of Netflix or Amazon Prime to the extent where one has to question the entire validity of cinema in modern times. Certainly, cinema uses exclusivity to its advantage by ensuring that theaters are the only places to see the freshest feature-length content but then, after a few weeks, that content disappears for several months before it is available again.
Compare that to Netflix dropping its new blockbuster series like Stranger Things which provides hours upon hours of entertainment at the touch of a button and is permanently available from day one for the foreseeable future. And if you don’t get along with Stranger Things? No problem, there’s plenty of other exclusive titles to try like House of Cards or Daredevil. If you go to a theater and decide the movie you just paid the equivalent of a month’s Netflix subscription for isn’t working out for you, then you’re shit out of luck ’cause you ain’t getting those ten bucks back to appease your incompatible preferences.
Of course, all this is reductive and neglects the appeal of cinema as an event and a shared experience. But it doesn’t change the fact that cinema currently represents the highest cost and risk in digital entertainment to the consumer and it has needed the versatility and accessibility of SCU’s to keep itself front and center instead of drifting behind other mediums.
I’M SUPER SERIAL RIGHT NOW
We’ve delved into the contemporary importance of the serialization in 21st-century cinema on these pages before but it’s worth illustrating how much more versatile an SCU can be over a traditionally serialized franchise, and why some of the latter are “upgrading” to an SCU, as it were. Thanks to primarily the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies setting new box office records with each release, studios quickly realized that serializing a story over several films ensured audiences would -or, at least, should- return for the next installment. Those films also coincided with the emergence of the third Golden Age of American television (The Sopranos, The Wire, Friday Night Lights, etc) and it quickly became apparent that audiences were growing hungrier for their narratives to be stretched further and given greater depth.
The problem is that cinema is -on the whole- a bad fit for episodic content, both from a production and viewing perspective since films are expensive to both make and watch relative to television. Likewise, films tend to rely on having a beginning, middle, and end to their narrative and when they try to abandon this, audiences tire of it quickly (e.g. the now -thankfully- dying trend of splitting concluding films into two parts).
Enter Marvel Studios in 2008, who began “Phase One” of their cinematic universe with Iron Man and culminated 5 films later with the massively successful The Avengers in 2012. While there is some modulating quality between the interceding films, all of them -with the debatable exception of Iron Man 2– function perfectly as stand-alone movies that each introduce a few key aspects and characters to move the series along to its climax.
And with that, a new formula was perfected that allowed big budget movies to relay a story between them while retaining their own identity and form. It allowed viewers to dip in and out of a franchise rather than slavishly having to watch every single entry to grasp the narrative. This is what can make SCU’s more accessible and easier to digest than linear franchises. Also, a traditional film series precariously stacks sequels on top of one with each installment normally requiring knowledge of all that has preceded it, which normally means audience numbers begin to dwindle as the series moves forward. However, an SCU creates a bill of supporting acts for the final headlining movie that you can join in with at point, something the Marvel Studios has become masterful at.
As prosperous as the MCU has been, though, its methods can be difficult to replicate…
WE CAN’T ALL BE MARVEL-OUS, DARLING
Every Yin has its Yan, and there is no clearer example of the MCU’s than the DC Extended Universe. Good manners prevent one from mocking the afflicted too much, so let’s just say that the DCEU started by re-inventing the most iconic of superheroes as a sulking shoe-gazer with a pathological intolerance of intact buildings and things have only gotten worse since. Whether it’s down to incompetence or avarice, Warners attempts to rival the MCU has often been as lacking in conviction as much as it is overflowing with cynicism.
That isn’t to say SCU’s can’t be turned around, though, and this is the advantage of their loosely connected nature. All seemed lost for the X-Men franchise when it moved into SCU territory with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which seemingly achieved the impossible by being even worse than X-Men: The Last Stand. But, in 2011, the franchise sprang back into life by expanding its universe through time rather space with Matthew Vaughn’s superbly entertaining X-Men: First Class. And this year, the franchise fully capitalized on its SCU nature by giving us the melancholic and magnificent Logan that had only the thinnest of threads tying it to its predecessors but only resonates so vibrantly because of them. While Marvel Studios may have set the standard, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive method to building an SCU and, again, their detached disposition can lead to some fascinating experimentation as Logan has proved.
Regardless of how they choose to map out their stars, though, 2017 will see 13 separate entries into nearly as many Shared Cinematic Universes from LEGO Batman spreading his wings to the Cloverfield franchise telling a fresh new tale in its post-alien invasion world. And while it may be becoming overused -or even abused- as a concept, the SCU has not only worked wonders for cinema but has possibly saved it entirely.