Wednesday, April 24, 2019

In Laman's Terms: Looking Back On A Decade of Cinematic Universes

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

With Avengers: Endgame now just two days away (and even less than that if you plan on attending one of those Thursday night screenings), anticipation couldn't be higher for this widely talked about title, one that serves as a culmination of the first eleven years of the expansive cinematic universe storytelling Marvel Studios pioneered over the last decade of American cinema. Though today the cinematic universe is an expected part of the worldwide pop culture scene, it wasn't so long ago that it was a concept that seemed foolish for Marvel Studios to chase. Much in the same way that tablets like the iPad have quickly become so commonplace that today's babies find magazines to be broken versions of tablets, so too have cinematic universes established their own assured presence in pop culture in a short period of time.

Of course, there were plenty of indications from the past that a cinematic universe could work as well as become something truly successful financially. After all, a shared universe across different pieces of media is not something Marvel Studios created or even something the Marvel comics made up out of the blue. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the individual Universal Monsters would constantly run into each other (and also Abbot & Costello) in assorted movies and generate major box office bucks in the process. Over on the TV side of things, the various Hanna-Barbara characters were always interacting with each other in Laff-a-Lympics or Wacky Races while crossovers between live-action TV sitcoms were commonplaces in the 80s and 90s. Even in more modern eras of film, Kevin Smith created a whole View Askewniverse for his fictional characters to populate.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe was far from the first piece of pop culture to wonder what would happen if various famous fictional characters were able to meet and hang out, but it did turn such a concept into a lucrative notion in the 21st-century American cinema scene. In fact, it succeeded so much in this regard that the gargantuan box office take of 2012's The Avengers had every movie studio scrambling to get itself a high-profile cinematic universe. that could generate reliable annual box office for years to come. God, it already feels like a relic from another time but there was this period in the mid-2010s (a decade that is somehow already coming to a close) where it felt like everybody and their grandmother had some kind of shared universe in the pipeline hoping to replicate the success of the Avengers.

Years later, few of these shared universes have managed to come to fruition and fewer still have managed to actually be all that successful. Remember how Guy Ritchie's King Arthur movie was supposed to spawn a sprawling six-film universe? That prospective Kung Fu George movie will never be. Even more of a cinematic universe debacle was Dark Universe, which kicked off with The Mummy in June 2017 and had cast members for future movies (including Angelina Jolie as the Bride of Frankenstein and Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man) lined up and even had a fancy-schmancy logo complete with a Danny Elfman composed theme. Universal had numerous films in the pipeline ready to flesh out the Dark Universe, but then The Mummy bombed and now it's most lasting legacy is that film critic Lindsay Ellis frequently wears a Dark Universe T-shirt in her YouTube videos.
Meanwhile, Paramount Pictures, as part of its recent initiative to reverse its troubled fortunes, announced in April 2016 that it was working with Hasbro and hiring a writers room to get a cinematic universe based on assorted Hasbro toy properties, including G.I. Joe, Micronauts and ROM, off the ground. Three years later, no real movement has occurred on the property and it's become yet another example of a cinematic universe never getting off the ground. At least The Mummy and King Arthur cinematic universes got one movie made before being sent back home! Many potential cinematic universes, including one based on various Square Enix games, have remained as mere concepts rather than realities. But that doesn't mean the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the only game in town for cinematic universes, goodness no.

Launched a year after The Avengers, the DC Extended Universe got off to a bumpy start with divisive films like Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman before turning things around with higher-quality crowdpleasing fare like Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam! Even the critically derided DCEU films (save for Justice League) were still big enough moneymakers to make it less likely that Warner Bros. would put this universe on ice like Universal did with the Dark Universe, but the success of the most recent DCEU titles ensure that this particular cinematic universe has plenty of life left in it. Interestingly, Warner Bros. has had the most success with creating non-Marvel cinematic universes in recent years, as they're also responsible for the MonsterVerse (whose movies are made in partnership with Legendary Pictures) and the Conjuring Universe.

That latter cinematic universe is particularly fascinating because unlike all of the other cinematic universes mentioned in this piece, the assorted Conjuring movies are not expensive action blockbusters. They're all low-budget horror fare yet consistently score worldwide box office grosses well above $300 million. The Conjuring Universe has delivered three separate franchises (The Conjuring, Annabelle and The Nun) and shows no signs of stopping in the future. Though there have been plenty of struggles to get non-Marvel cinematic universes off the ground in the wake of the Avengers proving such entities can thrive in the modern era, the Conjuring movies show how flexible the model of a cinematic universe can be. Whereas many post-Avengers cinematic universes just tried to replicate the exact model of that series, The Conjuring took the model into a spookier direction that's paid off in dividends. The cinematic universe can apply to any genre or style, it doesn't just have to be done like the sole Dark Universe movie, an entity whose entire existence was done just to ape the success of the MCU features. Use the cinematic universe model for a distinct creative approach rather than a derivative one and the possibilities of this storytelling format are endless.

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