Shared Universes: How Marvel's success has created a new paradigm for blockbuster franchises
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the way studios are approaching their franchise films. The success of the Avengers was the result of a calculated risk. They took stories from four separate film series, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, and combined them into one film, something that had never been done before. We are to believe that Marvel planned the connected universe from the beginning, including the character of Nick Fury and the spy organization SHIELD, using them as the glue to unite the universe together.
The inspiration for the film was the comic books, and the plot from those books matched the situation in which Marvel found themselves. The original Avengers line up contained characters who had weaker sales in their own books. Unlike the popular Spider-man and The Fantastic Four, they were not big sellers. The characters already existed in the same universe and frequently appeared in each other's books. The Hulk, whose own book had been canceled, already appeared in the Fantastic Four comic. Throughout the history of The Avengers, the line up has frequently changed. Most every hero in the Marvel Universe has been an Avenger at one time or another, so it was a natural fit for the Cinematic Universe.
Marvel planned it from the start. A connected universe, just like they have in the comic book, and it worked. Soon after, other studios announced their own shared universes. Warner Brothers, the parent company of DC comics, Marvel's friendly rival, announced a string of films based on their own superheroes, culminating in a film of Justice League, their version of the Avengers. Sony, who have the rights to Marvel's Spider-man, planned a series if films involving Spider-man and his supporting cast, but the lackluster response to The Amazing Spider-man 2 has altered their plans, striking a deal with Marvel to use Spidey in the Avengers.
It's not just comic book films that are getting into the act. Lucasfilm, which like Marvel is owned by Disney, is planning not only sequels to the Star Wars series, but additional films set in the same galaxy far, far away. Universal is planning a shared universe starring their famous classic movie monsters: Dracula, Wolfman, and Frankenstein's Monster. Shared universes are also discussed with the Ghostbusters franchise as well as the Transformers. Warner Brothers is also looking to expand the Harry Potter franchise by making a film out of one of Harry's published texts, "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them."
There is some skepticism about if these shared universes will be viable. One gets the feeling that studios are eyeing Marvel's success and rushing their own universes into production without first establishing the individual components to create that universe. For example, a Justice League film will be released before individual films for several of the JLA's members like Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg will be released. But what is going to make these universes successful?
We have to change our thinking about shared universes. We're thinking of these projects as films, but they're really not, even though they appear in the cinemas. In a film, the creative process belongs to the director. It's his or her vision that drives the film's tone, pace and overall quality. As such, even though films are highly collaborative, it is the director who is responsible for a film's success. However, we've been thinking of these films all wrong. We have to look at the television model.
Most television shows have a show runner, usually the creator, but not always. The show runner is the boss, running the writing team and guiding the show throughout the season. Since serialized drama has become much more prominent and popular, the show runner is responsible for keeping the tone and story consistent. However, with rare exception, they don't direct the individual episodes.
Let's take Game of Thrones for example. The show runners are David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and they're in charge of adapting George R. R. Martin's books into a dramatic form. They're the ones who make the decisions, not the directors who are directing the individual episodes. For example, David Nutter directed the episode "Rains of Castlemere," among others, but he is not the one who decides that the pregnant character of Talisa is murdered, which doesn't happen in the books. That decision came from the show runners. A director of Game of Thrones can't suddenly decide that Jon Snow has a pet tiger, but the show runner could have established that change from the beginning if they so chose.
Much has been said about the Television Renaissance. The popularly of shows in the last twenty years like The Sopranos to Mad Men has changed America's viewing habits. Serialized drama has superceded episodic programming, and film franchises have been attempting to channel these new viewing habits.
This brings us back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has been the most successful in adapting this model. We need to stop thinking of them as individual films, but rather as a prestige television show that happens to be screened in movie theaters. Kevin Feige is the show runner and the directors chosen are like the directors of television. Petyon Reed had more experience in television, directing episodes of Mr. Show and Upright Citizen's Brigade. The Russo brothers directed episodes of Community, Arrested Development and Happy Endings. Alan Taylor has directed episodes of just about every major television show in the last twenty years including The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. Even Joss Whedon was best known as a TV writer before he was the director of The Avengers.
This kind of set up is not built for directors who aren't willing to work within the system. This is why Edgar Wright left Ant-man. When he started the project, he was directing a standalone movie. After delaying for six years, the project had changed. He was essentially directing a two hour television episode. This is why Ava DuVernay chose not to get involved in Black Panther. The television revolution has changed our viewing habits, and Marvel is the only one who has been successful in adapting the prestige television format to the movies.
A shared universe is only going to successful if their show runners are thinking of the long-term story rather than just opportunities to make money. Marvel did it. Can they sustain their success? And will others reap the rewards? It will certainly be an interesting few years at the movies.