Having its own cinematic universe is the dream of many film studios. And this despite the fact that the concept is not really new (dating back to Universal Classic Monsters from the twenties till fifties). Today this concept of cinematic universe is generally used for Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), for being the most successful. Behind the record-breaking box-office results of MCU, there is a litany of unsuccessful, failed and abandoned attempts at launching cinematic universes. The stories for all these failed cinematic universes seem tragically similar: “There is a recognizable character/property and the studio will turn it into a cinematic universe and then the initial movie is a box-office failure or disappointment”. Apart from MCU, other successful cinematic universes are DCEU (DC Extended Universe), The Conjuring Universe and possibly MonsterVerse. So, let’s take a look on why some cinematic universes fail right from the start and how they can come back.
Race towards Avengers
The Avengers (2012) is quite possibly the most important movie regarding cinematic universes, getting all the beloved characters from one world in one spectacle. That concept itself is really good, but there is a more important element, The Avengers is a culmination of five different movies. The characters and the main villain are well established. Rushing this crucial element leads to rushed characters, rushed set ups and rushed motivations. If Justice League (2017) was released after like five or four movies each introducing every individual hero, maybe the movie would have been more successful. The worst thing about all of that is that this is very noticeable, how many times have you seen a “hallway of references”? You can easily tell what the main goal is: “Getting to the big team as quickly as possible”
Not getting the genre
They should have been horror movies, but they were adventure movies.
Dark Universe (reboot Universal Classic Monsters) is one of the most disastrous attempts at launching a cinematic universe. There even were two unsuccessful movies that were supposedly launched this entire thing, one being Dracula Untold (2014) and the other one The Mummy (2017). What were the problems with these two movies? There were a lot of problems, but the most glaring of them is the missing genre, they should have been horror movies, but they were adventure movies. While there is nothing wrong with being adventure (previous Mummy movies worked well in that regard). Now it seems, that with the successful release of The Invisible Man (2020), Universal is finally understanding that big-spectacle and universal monsters aren’t going well together. The future of Dark Universe is now in the hands of James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who do have a long history with both horror and building cinematic universes.
Starting a new one
In building a cinematic universe time and a strong base material are everything.
One of the most fascinating things about all these “failed” cinematic universes, is that they seem to get a second life. DC is going strong now (with movies like Shazam!, Aquaman or Joker) and there seems to be a new direction for Universal Classic Monsters. For DC it took time and interesting approaches to the material. I think that time in building a cinematic universe is everything and also patience and a strong base material. There always will be attempts at starting a massive franchise, but the road to success can be difficult. Hoping to get on the same level as MCU in just two or even one movie is simply not realistic. There are no fans of cinematic universes, that are just waiting for the next big “shared universe” because it is not a genre. There are fans of comics, horror, adventure, action, spy, science fiction, fantasy and so on.
Next big universe theory
While there are multiple factors influencing the movie or franchise failure or success, there is something that I noticed regarding these cinematic universes and their announcement. Every time I heard something like: “this is the start of the new cinematic universe” or “this movie is the first in six upcoming movies”, I decided not to watch a movie in the cinema. The Mummy (2017), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) and Robin Hood (2018) any of these I haven’t seen in cinema. Because I know that the movie will try more to set up the universe rather than tell a good story. I don’t care how big this upcoming cinematic universe is and how many movies are in pre-production because I know that the first movie will be shallow and predictable.