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Two Strategies for Successful Shared Cinematic Universes

Two Strategies for Successful Shared Cinematic Universes

Note: this essay was prompted by how well Avengers: Endgame concluded the first major saga in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and my desire to see a satisfying Justice League/DC Cinematic Universe movie. There are no spoilers here.

Avengers: Endgame is a singular achievement, and I mean that literally—I can’t think of any other example of a 22-movie saga with a beginning, middle, and end like this one has. We will have a podcast about the movie soon—after we’ve seen it a second time—but suffice to say, if you’ve been following this saga, especially if you’ve seen Avengers: Infinity War which is part I of a two-part conclusion, you should see this movie.

After seeing the movie, I checked out social media for the first time in days, to see what people have been saying. As expected, the consensus is that Endgame was great. Also as expected, those who like to pick fights and be negative were pointing out how much better and more fulfilling Infinity War and Endgame was than Justice League, with their point being that DC can’t do shared cinematic universe movies.

I would argue DC has done very well with three shared cinematic universe movies: Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam. (I personally love Man of Steel; you’ll read below why I don’t include it above). There’s more than one way to successfully create a shared universe, and I think that DC can do a great job if they continue with the strategy that Marvel hasn’t chosen.

From a story construction point-of-view, there are two main strategies for creating shared cinematic universes. I’ll name the first one “saga-based shared cinematic universes” (SBSCU for short) and the second “character-based shared cinematic universes” (CBSCU).

Clearly, Marvel has been doing a spectacular job with a saga-based shared universe. In an SBSCU like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), each movie directly relates to every other movie in the saga. This is tricky and time consuming, because each movie in the saga must fit comfortably into both continuity and the timeline of the previous movie in the saga, regardless of which characters are featured in any particular episode, and each movie must set up (or at least fit in with) the next movie in the saga. Not only this, but the majority of the movies in the saga must be good movies on their own, or audiences will not be interested in following the saga, even if each movie fits into the saga well.

There is no “short cut” to building an SBSCU. Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame worked because by the time we got to those movies, all of the major heroes and villains had been introduced previously, most of them in their own movies. We had already learned about each character, and more importantly, learned to care about them. We had seen them interact, and understood the relationship between them. This allowed the last two Avengers movies to focus completely on the conflict and its aftermath.

Another example of a successful SBSCU is the Star Wars universe. Each movie builds on the main saga, or has investigated a peripheral story that still related to the main story.

DC’s “Snyderverse” movies (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Justice League) attempted to build an SBSCU and failed. I’m not going to go into quality issues with the films; the Snyderverse failed to build a SBSCU because it tried to take short cuts, and that doesn’t work. Trying to rush character introductions risks the audience not connecting with that character. The MCU succeeded in part because the lead Avengers: Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America all had separate films in the saga before the first Avengers movie. In the Snyderverse, only Superman was given an in-saga introduction movie (Wonder Woman was introduced in a movie, but it fits more into the second strategy). Batman got half of a movie, Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg even less. By not doing the leg-work to build the saga, it never felt coherent, with characters that we are drawn to. In fact, Snyder had originally planned a multi-part Justice League epic in the vein of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, which would have introduced even more characters for the first time; as a longtime DC fan, I know who all those characters are, but would anyone else? And would they care?

But as I’ve said above, there is another way to build a shared cinematic universe, the character-based shared cinematic universe. In a CBSCU, the movies are not necessarily related to each other, but the characters all live in the same universe. In some ways, this is “easier” in that each movie can stand alone and doesn’t have to tie into continuity with any film before or after it, and bad movies in the CBSCU won’t affect any of the other movies in the shared universe.

A perfect example of a movie in a CBSCU is Shazam. The movie clearly takes place in the same world as Batman, Superman, Aquaman, and so on. But the events of Shazam do not have anything to do with any of those characters. Moreover, Shazam is an excellent film (listen to our Shazam panel podcast for our full opinion, and the rotten tomatoes aggregate critic score is 93%). The fact that some other films in the DC Cinematic Universe (DCCU) haven’t been very good in no way brought down or had any impact on Shazam.

And yes, team movies can be successfully part of a CBSCU. One tried and true method to introduce a team in a CBSCU is for one character to be new, and then as that character is introduced to the team, so are we. A perfect example of this is 2000’s X-Men. None of the X-Men characters were introduced before that movie. Nevertheless, the movie focused on Wolverine, and as he learned about who the X-Men were, so did we, until he ultimately joined the team. The X-Men created a vibrant CBSCU, with some great movies (X-Men II, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Logan, and the Deadpool movies) with characters coming and going, but all part of the same shared world in which “mutants” exist, and are discriminated against. And it did so without needing a 22-movie saga to do it.

The DCCU could very successfully transition to a CBSCU. It already has some great stand-alone movies in which the characters clearly share a world together. While Man of Steel was initially the first in DC’s unsuccessful SBSCU it can easily serve as a standalone movie in a successful DC CBSCU (meaning, DC is free to keep making movies with Henry Cavill as Superman, while still replacing Ben Affleck with a new Batman). They could even make a great standalone CBSCU Justice League movie in the vein of X-Men; start with a new-to-us character, and as that person is introduced to the Justice League, so are we.

Marvel has accomplished something truly outstanding with the 22-movie MCU. I am completely in the pocket for the future of Marvel movies, and excited about what they have in store for the future, and how it will impact its continuing saga (or if they start a new SBSCU including both the X-Men and Fantastic Four). But I have equal optimism for the future of a character-based shared universe for DC; if Aquaman and Shazam, DC’s two most recent movies are an indication, they’re off to a great start.

Published on: April 26, 2019

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Tags: DC  Marvel  Star Wars  X-Men