Why “Cinematic Universes” Might be a Horrible Idea

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With the new Star Wars film coming this December, Disney’s looking to add another major “shared-universe” franchise to their fold in addition to the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. This concept, popularized by the juggernaut that is the Marvel movie machine, has made several studios consider the possibility of expanding their movie franchises beyond their core films. In theory this is all well and good, and initially I was completely on board with the concept. After all, many comic books and tie-in novels have proven there’s potential in expanding Movie and TV franchises beyond the “core films”. A good example of this principle in action (beyond the obvious Marvel films) is the upcoming Rogue One movie that focuses on X-Wing pilots in a grittier take on the Star Wars world.

But what about a Ghostbusters shared universe? According to Slashfilm, that’s exactly what we’re getting, starring at least two teams of ectoplasmic handymen (and women!). The franchise ain’t exactly Tolkienesque in scope, considering the fact that both the original films and the canonical video game never stepped out of New York City. At best, you’d be placing different teams of Ghostbusters in different countries, and unless you sent them to space a la Jason X (please God no), the term “Universe” hardly applies. And yes, I know what many of you are about to post in the comments section. “It’s just a marketing phrase, does it really have to be a literal universe?”

The answer to that is both “yes” and “no.” Yes, the term’s just being used by major studios as a catch-all term for spin-offs, prequels and team-ups, but is it really a correct label? In this author’s humble opinion, it really isn’t, especially when you consider the franchise that spawned the term “Cinematic Universe.” A quick glance at the Marvel Universe, cinematic and otherwise, will show that it’s not just a one-note, Earth-based setting. It’s quite literally a massive, living cosmos where space-gods, talking raccoons, Jessica Jones and super spies all coexist along with Hulk, Cap and Iron Man. You can have a show about secret agents, several kids’ cartoons and an R-rated Netflix series all in the same universe as your AAA blockbusters, and thus, endless possibilities for both superhero and non-suphero media.

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In that sense, it’s not only a “universe” story-wise, but also from a genre perspective, as you can make pretty much any sort of movie fit in with the MCU. Assuming the superhero well eventually runs dry, Marvel can easily throw out a Black Knight or 1960’s S.H.I.E.L.D. movie to spice things up. Hell, a Mary Jane/ Peter teen romance film for the YA crowd could easily be a massive moneymaker, and one without massive amounts of CGI or stuntmen. Same goes for Star Wars and DC, all of which feature aliens, cosmic elements, magic (the Force), and a whole plethora of other diverse themes to tackle. A Star Wars movie alone could be literally anything from your standard Jedi story to a Clone Trooper war movie or a Blade Runner-esque take on the seedy underbelly of Coruscant starring a young Boba Fett (I can dream, can’t I?). 

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But Ghostbusters? Godzilla? 24 Jump Street? X-Men? I dare you to look me in the eye and tell me 21 Jump Street is a freaking Shared Cinematic Universe without laughing your ass off. In fact, the whole concept is such sheer lunacy that the franchise sporting a talking raccoon looks sane by comparison. As stated above, you can get a lot of mileage out of Star Wars and Marvel, and the years of Expanded Universe and MCU books, comics and games more than back up that assertion. But even if you add Men in Black to the mix, a “21 Jump Street Universe” still sounds like something a focus group came up with to “appeal to the geek kids,” and not something anyone actually asked for.

And don’t get me wrong, 21 Jump Street is a funny movie, but a universe is something it and most other franchises are definitely not. At the very least, a franchise must have a universe of possibilities for future films of different genres such as comedy, action, etc. But with the exception of X-Men, I don’t see any of these franchises successfully branching out into anything but possible cartoons and spin-off comics, all technically in the same genre. Marvel may have Jessica Jones and Guardians, but Ghostbusters will always be Ghostbusters in the end.

That said, some of these up-and-coming cinematic crossovers are actually quite a good fit for the universe concept, such as the aforementioned DC movie setting and upcoming Sony Pictures Valiant superhero franchise. But overall, the glut of tie-ins, prequels and sequels for franchises without the massive worldbuilding potential of Marvel is generally not a good thing. Directors like Spielberg have already said as much, claiming superhero movies would “go the way of the western,” and while some naysayers disagree, I beg to differ. Left to stew in a never-ending vat of tie-in cinematic prequels, sequels, team-ups and crossovers, not just superheroes, but the entire geek-film juggernaut could eventually lose steam and give way to a new fad or movie craze. It’s sort of a “too-many-cooks” effect, with a bombardment of in-universe genre films effectively killing interest the the whole concept — “spoiling the broth,” if you will.

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Outdated internet references aside, we already have examples of this very thing happening in the past. It happened with monster movies, westerns, and raygun gothic sci-fi, and could very well happen with superhero flicks (and geek films in general). Again, I really want to stress that there’s some stuff I’m very excited about, particularly where Star Wars is concerned. But even in the best-case scenario (all the aforementioned movies are great), too much of a good thing is still too much. The reason Marvel and Star Wars became massive franchises was because they were unique, fresh and stood out among the competition. At the time they were released, there was nothing like Iron Man, the Dark Knight and Empire Strikes Back, but now we’re faced with an impending cinematic future where massive sci-fi and superhero blockbusters are cranked out like clockwork (not unlike the recent Spider-Man films), neither impressing nor offending us, nor offering anything novel. Most are decent enough, well-reviewed, and in their own right, “super.” And while that may seem all well and good now, we’re eventually gonna grow tired of it all. 

Because in the words of one of film’s best supervillains,“When everyone’s super, no one will be.” 

Alex Moya
About Alex Moya (11 Articles)
Horror and Fantasy writer, blogger and chef-in-training, Alex Moya writes about pop culture, pulp fiction, and heavy metal, as well as novels and short stories. Check out his latest projects at www.stonebalrog.wordpress.com
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