The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a decade old this year, and Avengers: Infinity War looks to be the most complete example of the unique storytelling model which Marvel Studios have brought to cinema, bringing together characters, storylines and themes from 18 films into one massive orgy of colourful costumes and special effects. Whether you love them or loathe them, it would be hard to argue that Marvel films haven’t been massively successful, or even that the superhero genre is running out of steam. The most recent instalment in the MCU, Black Panther, has grossed over $1.3 billion and counting, and is being lauded as a cultural moment in history. With so many critical and commercial achievements, it might seem like the ‘cinematic universe’ model is the way forward for popular filmmaking.
However, as most other blockbuster attempts at it are showing, the universal approach isn’t necessarily the way forward. The most obvious comparison would be the so-called DC Extended Universe, which had its roster of films most recently bolstered by the exceptionally mediocre Justice League. Filmgoers have been lukewarm to the dour and grim interpretations of Superman, Batman and the rest of their superhuman buddies, crafted primarily by Zack Snyder, and it’s not just because of the barrage of monochromatic hypermasculinity. With the exception of the excellent Wonder Woman, each DC film has felt rushed into production, and featured far too much clunky and deliberate world-building. Rather than allowing individual characters to breathe, Warner Bros have thrown us over-complicated twists and expected us to sympathise with thinly sketched stereotypes like Jason Momoa’s frat bro Aquaman, or Ezra Miller’s Flash, who feels like a Poundland version of Spider-Man. With Justice League making estimated losses of $60 million and the slate of upcoming DC films being plagued with delays and production worries, its obvious that trying to emulate Marvel’s success in less than half the time just isn’t viable.
“Rather than allowing individual characters to breathe, Warner Bros have thrown us over-complicated twists and expected us to sympathise with thinly sketched stereotypes”
Rather ironically, Universal’s shot at creating a Dark Universe has failed spectacularly. Last year’s Tom Cruise-anchored The Mummy was to be the first in a series of films linked by a mysterious organisation, Prodigium, and its leader Dr Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe. The plot of the film was mercilessly savaged by critics and the next film in the planned universe, Bride of Frankenstein, has been put indefinitely on hold. Once again, we have a studio trying to rush out a universe by stuffing their products with links and set-ups from the word go. I also feel compelled to ask, who even wanted this universe? With Marvel and DC, there is at least precedent for connected stories from decades of popular comic books; no-one asked for Mr Hyde and the Mummy teaming up, and so Universal’s transparently capitalist attempt at a universe of their own was doomed to fail from the start.
The only other major franchise that has come close to Marvel’s gargantuan achievement is another Disney-owned property, Star Wars. Since 2015’s record-breaking sequel, The Force Awakens, there has been a new Star Wars film every year. These films have been well-received and have done superbly at the box office, but their future looks concerning. Colin Trevorrow departed from the untitled ninth instalment in the main series due to creative differences, and Phil Lord and Chris Miller left Solo for similar reasons. Reliably studio-friendly directors like JJ Abrams and Ron Howard have stepped in to replace them, and it appears that Lucasfilm are unable to deviate from their rigid vision for the Star Wars universe. One of Marvel’s best decisions has been allowing exciting filmmakers like Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler and their teams to bring individual flavour and aesthetics to their films. With Solo not receiving much hype before its release, Star Wars are running the risk of their fledgling universe crashing and burning as a result of homogenised, characterless films, which can run on name recognition alone for only so long.
“Marvel has a creative vision and drive to construct an overall picture, and an interwoven universe that people are willing to get invested in”
I think a key aspect of Marvel’s success to consider is how it began – 2008’s Iron Man was a risk, placing the then-disgraced Robert Downey Jr. into the spotlight and hoping for the best. The idea of a universe was built relatively organically, and Marvel have learned from less critically successful ventures like Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron to go easy on the exposition and instead let characters grow and directors explore individual tones. Though some of their films may lean on predictable storytelling, it’s taken creative vision and drive to construct an overall picture, and an interwoven universe that people are willing to get invested in. Simply bombarding audiences with hastily created worlds and multiple films to make a quick buck isn’t enough. A cinematic universe has to involve risk, passion and patience, and it’s a balance which most studios just aren’t getting right.