Not Flying "Solo": How The Cinematic Universe Has Succeeded (Star Wars, Marvel) and Failed (DC)


Greetings one and all! And welcome, once more, to the Trove blog. We appreciate your loyalty and, to reward you, we offer a truly majestic and stunning reward … another blog.

As many, many, MANY of you know (2 billion dollars worth of you), “Avengers: Infinity War” came out a couple weeks ago. The massive superhero extravaganza, featuring almost thirty characters from the previous 18 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short), is the ten year culmination of the franchise and, suffice it to say, is quite the event.

While the film is absolutely rolling in dough, great debate rages about where it ranks in the great pantheon of Marvel’s movies (number one is unquestionable to me -- Wakanda Forever, baby). Is “Infinity War” the best of the bunch, a satisfying and rewarding climax of a decade of build up? Or is it a bloated, chaotic mess, with enough characters and plotlines to make your head explode, “Scanners” style?

My thoughts on it are … who cares? The fact that the movie even exists is a MIRACLE. You’re talking about character arcs and storylines that have been sustained with (mostly) critical success over about 20 movies and a decade of what many deem to be at least fun and entertaining content, if not actually quality movies.

And it’s inspired a new craze, the Sequel on Steroids -- the cinematic universe. Now everybody wants in on the action. Why create one successful sequel when you can create ten successful semi-sequels? Some have succeeded (‘Star Wars” with its various spin-offs), and some have failed spectacularly (King Arthur, the “Dark Universe"), destroying a decade’s worth of studio plans.

So what’s the secret? How does one build a successful cinematic universe? The folks running the “Godzilla,” “Fast and Furious,” “Cloverfield”, and damn, even the “Call Me By Your Name” franchises all want to know.

Well first, it’s probably good to … know what the hell a cinematic universe is.

It’s All Connected: A Cinematic Universe vs A Series

The cinematic universe is a pretty easy concept to understand, and one that’s actually been around since the early/mid 20th century with the Universal monsters franchise (see Dracula, Frankenstein, etc); a bunch of movies take place within the same universe, and form a semblance of a timeline, but aren’t necessarily outright sequels to each other, and don’t necessarily feature the same major character in every film. My young colleague Addisohn possibly put it best; if there’s a spin-off of a story, it’s a cinematic universe.

As dashing as Daniel is, neither him or any Bond is in a cinematic universe #sorrynotsorry

As dashing as Daniel is, neither him or any Bond is in a cinematic universe #sorrynotsorry

Take James Bond. Not a cinematic universe. James is front and center in every film, and the films are told fairly in order. It’s more of a series than a universe. Now if one of the Bond Girls got their own movie (crossing my fingers for Eva Green), then we have a different conversation. Look at the big daddy of them all, Marvel. Yes, we get an Avengers movie every few years, but characters vanish for years, sporadically resurfacing in other movies, while getting their own movies on occasion of course. Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is in three of his own movies, but he’s also in a Captain America and a Spider-Man movie, playing second fiddle to the main characters of those films. If Trove were a cinematic universe, me, Ben, Edi, and Addisohn would all have our own movies, and occasionally show up in each other’s. And what a franchise that would be …

And then you have other cases, where a cinematic universe can spring from an already successful series, like “Star Wars.” George Lucas and Disney could have just chilled and rolled the eternal wave of success the Episodes brought them, but why not make a “Rogue One,” a “Solo,” an upcoming Lando Calrissian movie, a streaming series on their new service, a Boba Fett movie? When you open up a world like “A New Hope” did, the results are endless. Which brings us to the first key component in creating a successful cinematic universe …

It Feels Like the First Time: Having A Great First Movie

Any and all cinematic universes have to start in one, obvious place … with their first movie. If you don’t have a rock solid foundation to build your universe on, why is anyone going to care about learning anything else about that universe? It’d be like preparing to eat a five course meal and the kitchen burns the bread. Not a good start, and you may pump the brakes on dining any further.

Look at “Iron Man.” Still seen as one of the best superhero movies ever, people who don’t even like superhero movies like it. It gave us arguably the universe’s best character in Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Snark, excuse me, Stark, a character we knew we’d want to see in tons more movies. Then, it dropped an ever-so-small hint at the creation of the MCU. One helluva way to kick off the franchise.

Then … there’s “The Mummy.” Oh, you … don’t remember it? You weren’t one of the ten people who went and saw Tom Cruise come back from the dead and fight Madame Mummy last year? I’m sure the 15% on Rotten Tomatoes didn’t inspire you, or the fact that one critic called it a “toxic CGI dump site.” And just like that, the roaring flame that was going to be the “Dark Universe,” the reboot of all the classic Universal monsters with the likes of Javier Bardem as Frankenstein and Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man, became less a flame than a fart in the wind. If you don’t have a good foundation, your building’s got a pretty good shot at falling over faster than a fainting goat (they’re adorable, in a … sad kind of way).

Madame Mummy's reaction when she finished watching her own film.

Madame Mummy's reaction when she finished watching her own film.

Keeping Your Head Above Water: Make Sure a Majority of Your Movies Are … Good

Talk about an obvious one here, but damn, is it easier said than done. Literally every cinematic universe has had its struggles with this; Marvel had “Iron Man 2” and “Thor: The Dark World,” a pair of movies best symbolized in a dumpster set aflame; Star Wars had three travesties in a row, its nearly unwatchable prequels (“I hate sand”); the “The Fast and the Furious,” which is about to qualify as a cinematic universe thanks to Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham’s characters getting their own movies, had quite a few stinkers. (Let’s face it, when Lil Bow Wow is in your movie, you’ve effectively signed its death warrant.)

But the difference with these franchises is that they were actually able to rally. Since a majority of the film in their franchises are good, thanks for execs hanging on to the film makers that know what they're doing, fans were quickly able to forget the lapses in quality. “Thor: The Dark World” was followed by the shockingly great “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”; the new Star Wars trilogy quickly had fans burying the trauma that came from the prequels; and “The Fast and the Furious” rallied from 4 consecutive average movies to 4 straight critical and commercial smash hits. And surprise surprise; the creative forces behind those films have stuck around and continued work in the universe.

The opposite of being consistent would be constantly making the same mistakes over and over and watching your universe suffer from consistent mediocrity, and refusing to adjust and get rid of potential creative dead weight. In other words, being the D.C. universe.

They started on a pretty rough foundation with “Man of Steel,” a self-serious, wannabe Christopher Nolan movie with wanton cheesy CGI destruction. In fact, that pretty much describes the entire franchise; self-serious, wannabe Christopher Nolan movies with wanton cheesy CGI destruction. Their one attempt to lighten up, “Suicide Squad,” was possibly an even larger misfire, despite valiant efforts by Margot Robbie and Will Smith to at least make it watchable. They failed. Virtually every movie DC has made in their universe has been critically panned, and doesn’t make anywhere near as much money as a Marvel movie because of that absence of quality and a lack of change in leadership, (sorry, Zack Snyder). Their only saving grace is “Wonder Woman,” which, despite ending in more CGI ridiculousness, is an overall great movie.

Bottom line, if your universe is going off the rails, course correct. Patty Jenkins directed “Wonder Woman,” maybe she should be getting the keys to the kingdom.

The one saving grace of DC -- you go Gal!

The one saving grace of DC -- you go Gal!

Discomfort Zone: Taking Risks

While having a good jumping off point and maintaining consistency are essential in a cinematic universe, perhaps the biggest key to pulling off a creatively successful one is shirking complacency. There’s that old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but I don’t think that can be applied to a cinematic universe. At one point, people need to see something new. Or else you might as well stay at home and watch an episode of “CSI” (murder, interview three suspects, think it’s one, but it’s actually THE OTHER ONE, aaaand repeat). At one point, the beats of your franchise become too predictable, and ya’ gotta’ mix it up.

Marvel’s original formula? Quippy one liners, pure evil villains, massive fight scene at the end where our heroes are outnumbered but still succeed. That hasn’t been the case lately, and the franchise has improved for it. “Doctor Strange” has no massive fight scene, but a wild sequence where the hero traps the villain in a cosmic time loop. The villain of “Black Panther,” while being a radical character, is that way for totally human reasons. Star Wars followed the same beat with its latest episode, “The Last Jedi,” which totally flipped the franchise on its head, to the ire of some and joy of others, but to overall critical acclaim. Even Mr. M. Night Shymalan, Lord of the Terrible Movie for about ten years, got the idea too, not even letting people know he was creating a cinematic universe, dropping a total plot bomb on everyone with the end of “Split” (I FREAKED out). That’s how you take a risk there baby.

Sometimes, though, this concept can spiral a bit out of control, i.e. the “Cloverfield” universe. Or, pardon me, the shoddy excuse for a universe their attempting to create by loosely connecting a bunch of random films by the thinnest of cinematic membranes. There’s almost too much risk here, too much unpredictability, as they haphazardly try to make their universe happen (“Cloverfield” is to cinematic universe as Gretchen Wieners is to fetch). One movie is a monster attack in NYC; another is randomly a “Cloverfield” movie for its final ten minutes after being a “John Goodman has me trapped in his basement movie” for the first hour and fifty minutes; and the other is an intergalactic travesty some Netflix exec must’ve greenlit ten beers into his evening. While taking risks, you still have to know thyself, and know that something about what you’ve been doing is working. Keep the good, out with the bad, but still make progress. I pray, oh lord do I pray, that DC executives are reading this.

Well that’s the blog for this week folks! Thanks for reading, and I’m sorry if I totally shat on a movie that you have positive feelings for. If that’s the case or not, feel free to check out our other blogs on our website! We’ll see you guys next week!