Talking strictly from a cinematic sense, of course- branding’s been lording over every other market for generations. It’s not like it was absent from movies all this time either, it’s just that now it has become the single greatest asset for films. This proves difficult, however, if there are no brands.
And so somewhere in the mid-late 00’s the executives and corporate brass began mining the past for brands, for familiar properties that would not require pesky things like “establishing plots” or “character development”. It was harder and harder to create cultural touchstones; in turn the nostalgia market blossomed. Suddenly a load was taken off the backs of Hollywood’s thinktanks as they no longer needed to imagine ideas for blockbusters. They just needed to re-imagine them.
It boiled down to two genres, loosely divided by gender demographics. Comic books for the fellas and the classic fairy tales for ladies. This is by no means a static divider, but from a marketing perspective this is how the trends skewed. Trends that are still healthy to this day, though they’ve required a little augmenting as the decade turned.
Why have one brand when you can have two? Or three? Or ten? All in one property, too! Hollywood was more than happy to oblige and sate the public’s appetite for brands and thus was born the shared universe.
Although crossovers and spin-offs have popped up throughout cinematic and televised history (remember, the Flintstones and the Jetsons live in the same timeline), the roots of the modern incarnation of the shared universe model can be traced to one early millennial franchise: Shrek.
Seven years before Tony Stark got a knock on the door from Nick Fury, the green ogre and his postmodern adventures gave audiences the thrill of seeing Pinocchio interact with the three little pigs, the gingerbread man and the magic mirror in the same room, and all the famous princesses walk down the red carpet together. Not only that, but they were all so sardonic and witty! They referenced modern expressions in fairy tale style! It would set the stage for the fairy tale renaissance towards the latter part of the aughts.
It’s also worth mentioning that the early 00’s also gave us Nintendo’s Smash Bros. franchise and the Kingdom Hearts franchise, with Kingdom Hearts also incorporating classic fairy tale characters (Disney versions of course) into their universe.
Disney would eventually become the king of the shared universe. They bought Marvel Studios one year into their epic undertaking and took the reins of what has become the most lucrative franchise in the cinematic world. The Marvel brand at this point is unassailable; a Midas blessing for whatever it’s attached to. Even without the rights to the X-Men and Spider-Man brands, they have a vast vault of comic book characters to use in their properties and populate their one world.
Although navigating a universe where everything is canon is tricky, the payoffs are very literally worth it. With each franchise that rakes in box office dollars they gain another hype generator for any and all crossovers that will happen. Guardians of the Galaxy were virtually unknown prior to 2014, but thanks to the Marvel brand have become just as valuable as the heaviest hitters. They’re now seen as a property that will increase stock of a future project.
As will Marvel’s rapidly expanding ventures outside of the cinema. TV series like Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter are also incorporated in their universe, along with future Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones. All of these will one day tie into one massive project, presumably the two-part Avengers Infinity War movie- a film that is epic in the truest, most literal sense of the word.
But Disney haven’t forgotten what got them to this point- their fairy tales. Owning the rights to the “definitive”, most culturally accepted variations of fairy tale characters has given them another massive library to cater to those who are less fond of explosions and explosion accessories. Taking a cue from Shrek, Disney created TV series Once Upon a Time and The Descendants with hip new versions of their classic characters. Video game Disney Infinity has access to not only Disney characters, but Marvel and Pixar characters as well. It’s a smorgasbord of familiarity that thrives simply on the fact that people are attracted to all these brands separately, making them even more powerful together in one package.
Disney aren’t the only company privy to public domain properties, however, which has led to films like Into the Woods and television shows like Grimm, both based upon shared universes populated with these same bankable characters. TV series Penny Dreadful attempts to pull off a similar trick with slightly more recent literary icons such as Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray. None of these have reached the same celestial heights as any of Disney’s universes though. In fact, the same can be said about the comic book side of their business as well.
Make no mistake, the Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men movies have been hugely successful in their own right. When it comes to the shared universe gimmick though, Disney is thoroughly thrashing every single competitor due to a variety of reasons.
* Sony’s Spider-Man series is the least effective. A premature reboot of the series lead to another origin movie, and had the studio rushing to make up for lost time. This gave us two below-average movies crippled by the weight of studio mandated references. Sony wants more movies so badly, they’ll cram in plots and characters unnecessarily just for the sake of hinting at a larger franchise. Which they don’t really have, seeing as the only comic book property they own is…Spider-Man. These limits have trapped them in their own web, forcing them to come up with hilariously bad ideas like an Aunt May movie.
* DC comics have bungled it up as well. At the time of writing this, they have exactly one movie in their universe (the subpar Man of Steel) to Marvel’s 10. Green Lantern was a flop, the Nolan Batman movies are now unrelated, all DC based television series are unconnected, and the unreliable Zack Snyder has control of next year’s Dawn of Justice. There are bound to be a few more trainwrecks down the road.
* FOX’s X-Men are the best off. A rebound after the disastrous one-two punch of Last Stand and The Wolverine has led to three decent films. Thanks to time-travel plot devices they can bring the older stars back for a few more rounds while their universe is expanded with the Gambit and Fantastic 4 movies. Although the troubling production tales about the Fantastic 4 film set may mean that world does not get incorporated.
So what’s next? What will bring in audiences once the novelty of shared universes finally wears off?
* After Infinity War Part II Marvel will probably do a comic-logic approved soft reset. Messing with time and space along with inevitable tragically heroic sacrifices will lead to a semi-new timeline starting around 2020. Some new actors, some old, but well-established brands still in play. A “boss bad guy team-up” is probably in the cards in Phase IV of Marvel’s plan.
* Outside the comic book universe, Disney still has a horse in the form of their Star Wars acquisition. Not content with just new sequels, they’ve also begun constructing a Star Wars shared universe with films centred around individual characters that will tie into the main story.
* Warner Bros is doing the same with the Harry Potter books and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a trilogy of movies based upon a tiny sliver of a book. More Harry Potter films would not be unexpected.
* Verging on the slightly ridiculous is the Universal Monsters universe. Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein, and Werewolfman all adding up to…what? How will this even make sense? Expect this idea to collapse.
* Past ridiculous is the “Robin Hood” universe, which is unbelievably stupid. Robin Hood is no longer a viable brand on his own. What makes the studios think people will come out for a Friar Tuck movie?
* Far beyond ridiculous and into sheer conjecture are these ideas: Avengers vs. Star Wars, cereal mascots universe, board game universe, Pixar universe. Though they might seem impossible now, they just might come to fruition.
The shared universe itself also has an inherent problem: what happens once people tire of the old crowd? If all time is spent on the novelty of old characters interacting and none is spent on creating new ones, what legacy is left for the future? What stories will future movie studios mine? It’s what I like to call the Smash Bros Dilemma. Nintendo has had no memorable characters for nearly a decade; the character roster can’t expand if there’s nobody worthy of putting in there. Smash Bros is a franchise that can’t grow without the success of new franchises, which simply aren’t developing in our stagnant cultural void. Disney’s Once Upon a Time gorged excessively upon the introduction of Elsa, one memorable touchstone in a landscape with fewer and fewer of them. This was a clear sign that our generation is starved for new icons in every field. Executives, take heed, if you don’t start developing new properties now, future generations will have no icons to call their own.
And they won’t buy your stuff.