Cinematic Universes

glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | july 2017

Cinematic universes are a bold experiment in film production that are based on the kind of model their source material of comic books take. They can often be taken as one entirely separate story but they're often designed to fit together with several other running stories (to a greater or lesser degree), and, in the world of comic books, it's something that drives conversation between fans and continuity between separate stories. The problem is films aren't comic books; will the model work?

Marvel and DC are now very deep into this experiment and it's a mixed bag of results with plenty of lows and highs. Lately DC has finally scored a hit with “Wonder Woman" but the risks are still there. On an artistic level there are unique pressures placed upon this kind of model; everything has to be canon, everything has to adhere in look, tone and direction, it all has to nod towards each other and it's spending a lot of time looking in on itself. With DC the obvious problems have been related to Zack Snyder's vision of how the DC universe should look and feel (essentially like an extension of “Watchmen"). It's dark, dour and uncompromisingly cynical view of its heroes simply didn't ring true with many fans, myself included, but the films pressed on with the approach, unapologetically, because they had to. This was the direction it was all planned to go and so a course change was very difficult, especially because of how committed the studio was with the films at this point.

Lest I be accused of picking on DC again, it's worth noting that Marvel has also had problems. From the start there have been references across the movies that mean that some percentage of the story is lost on those who haven't seen the surrounding films, each individual film has its individuality compromised by the network of cross-referencing and I imagine that for a director on one of the side project films, it's a disheartening experience to not have full artistic control of the project you're working on. Edgar Wright, who was slated to direct “Antman" was undoubtedly a casualty to the homogenization that the MCU demanded, he wanted to make his own film and that would have, to quote Evangeline Lilly in “The Hollywood Reporter" (Dec. 3, 2014) “stuck out like a sore thumb, no matter how good it was. It just would have taken you away from this cohesive universe they're trying to create."

The drive for sprawling, multi-movie, multi-thread worlds is an interesting one but it reduces the individual directors to being “sous chefs," second in command to the exec who is steering the overall project. Unfortunately that means if that one person sets a foot wrong or makes a poor directorial decision, then it can be a very big, if not catastrophic, situation for the entire project. When DC's first three films in the DCEU, all bearing the very distinct stamp of Snyder, were poorly received and performed beneath expectations I honestly thought that the DCEU was on an irreversible spiral of self-destruction. “Man of Steel" was questionable even among die-hard Superman fans, “Batman V Superman" was DC's “Iron Man 2" — an extended trailer for upcoming features — and “Suicide Squad" was an utter mess in production with the final film being disappointing despite initial hopes. If “Wonder Woman" hadn't turned up and done her thing with the cinema audiences then DC may well have been looking a very expensive disaster in the face but for now they have a reprieve. Marvel has had their woes and wobbles too. The debacle with the Hulk films, the huge disappointment that was “Iron Man 2," the feeling that some of the films were less films in their own right than they were coming attractions reels (please stand up first “Thor" film). It's all so unwieldy, it's a monolithic grand plan that could come tumbling down and take studios with it and with Spiderman rights holder, Sony Pictures, experiencing difficulties it may even take the fall of a studio to properly complete DC's extended universe.

Between practical, artistic and even legal issues there are a hell of a lot of things that can go wrong and particularly with DC they have flown very close to the sun with this very ambitious piece of movie manufacture and I use that word, manufacture, very deliberately. What cinematic universes are doing is industrializing moviemaking on a grand scale, making movies that are less about individual craft than they are about the homogenization of a brand. As much as these things can be a lot of fun, and I have enjoyed them myself, they are a trend that is very capable of doing serious damage, not only to the studios but also to the artistic individuality of the films themselves. Where in the comic book world it's a lot easier to push the reset button, in the movie world this is a protracted and astonishingly expensive prospect and this fact alone should inform us on why DC/Warner Bros have been in such heavy damage control over the whole mess. To see how badly the process of damage control can go wrong you need look no further than Sony's handling of “Ghostbusters," a prospective franchise that seems to be, and for the time being should be, dead, at least in the movie form.

The familiar franchise format is still a risky enough prospect given the cost of dropping planned sequels and so on, Sony again had a hard enough time with rebooting Spiderman in such a short time, but extended universes are that to the Nth degree. As fascinating as the “Extended Universes" have been, it has to be said there's still a significant chance of a studio-busting crash and if it all succeeds from here on in, the model is one that gives me worries for the artistic compromises it requires. Succeed or fail though, it's going to be an interesting and blockbuster format defining time in cinematic history. In the meantime we must demand the best of this new format and be critical of its failures. If this is to be the future of the blockbuster then to do less would be negligent.


He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.

For more of Glenn's work, visit cynicalcelluloid.com.

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