In Hollywood, imitation is the sincerest form of noticing somebody’s made money. So Marvel Studios and the movies of its massive-grossing “Marvel Cinematic Universe” have spawned a new fad in corporate filmmaking. “Universe” has become a buzzword, in super-hero movies and otherwise. Studios have announced plans to build universes around all sorts of characters. An outside spectator might well wonder: is this really going to work?
The spectator might also wonder what the word “universe” means in this context. What’s the difference between a universe and a series of sequels, like the long-running Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings sagas? Let’s try this for a definition: a universe presents a number of stories and characters in parallel across a number of films or film series, and those films and series in turn share certain background elements and unite the main characters from time to time. In the Marvel example, Iron Man and the Hulk and Thor and Captain America all have their own movies or series, in each of which things like the spy agency SHIELD or the powerful cosmic items called Infinity Stones may appear; all these characters also come together in the Avengers movies. There’s an overall continuity that links together all these films, which are also each their own stories.
Warner Brothers, which own DC Comics, is naturally following Marvel’s lead. They’ve announced a slate of interlinked films about the DC super-heroes with releases planned out from next year through to 2020. Universal’s said that they’ll be building a universe of their own around their classic horror characters: Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Bride of same, even monster-hunter Abraham Van Helsing. Sony, having failed to build a profitable universe around Spider-Man (whose film rights they’d acquired from Marvel years ago), in October reportedly paid $1 million for a pitch centered on films for Robin Hood and each of his Merry Men, who would be introduced in solo movies and come together in an Avengers-style team-up. Dan Aykroyd’s speculated on the possibility of developing a universe around the Ghostbusters characters. And the beat goes on.
You could argue that film universes have been around for years; Universal’s original horror movies, for example. Quentin Tarantino links his films together with various allusions and minor characters. So does Kevin Smith. And already-existing characters from various movies have crossed over: Freddie vs. Jason. Alien vs. Predator. Coincidentally, Neil Blomkamp’s just signed on to direct Alien 5, while Ridley Scott’s working on Prometheus 2, with the Prometheus movies prequels to the Alien movies. These things are all relatively organic developments. But the new cinematic universes are planned out before the first movie is made. They’re a new model for the “film franchise,” a way to generate multiple series and multiple sequels at once.
Besides the Marvel films, Disney’s working on another high-profile universe with the upcoming Star Wars movies, which will include a main saga in three installments as well as spin-offs focusing on individual characters. Plus TV shows. Plus video games. Plus comics—now being published by the Disney-owned Marvel Comics, but existing outside the decades-old Marvel Universe.
It all goes back to Marvel Comics. Marvel became the best-selling publisher in North American comics in the early 1970s, and with a few blips they’ve stayed that way, while developing their universe over the years. So if the idea of a coherent universe worked in comics, it should work in movies. Right?
Maybe. But another way to look at the question is: how well has the idea of a comics universe worked for anyone who wasn’t Marvel?
Let’s step back and look at what Marvel Comics actually did. The idea of characters from one comic book running into characters from another comic published by the same company wasn’t new. DC’s characters had been doing it since before the US entered World War II—during the 1940s a bunch of DC’s costumed heroes got together every month in the pages of Justice Society, and in 1954 Superman and Batman began teaming up regularly in the pages of World’s Finest (they’d appeared together on covers long before that). The same sort of thing happened at other companies: Captain Marvel and his spin-off characters existed in the same fictional world, while Marvel’s predecessor company Timely had its heroes meet and fight. Nor was this sort of fraternization restricted to super-heroes. Archie Andrews and the Riverdale gang appeared in multiple titles, with new characters that turned up in one book returning as needed in other titles.
You can see the advantage: a line of books would build up a shared set of concepts, settings and minor characters and plot elements, which could all be used to generate stories for any title in the line. Given the speed with which comics were churned out, given the need to hit printers’ deadlines, it must’ve been handy. Plus, crossovers could boost sales on a new or faltering title. When Marvel Comics as we know them today emerged in 1961—the name of the company fluctuated for a few years, but it’s convenient to speak of “Marvel Comics” and “the Marvel Universe” beginning with Fantastic Four #1—it would’ve made sense for writer/editor Stan Lee to let his books co-exist in the same fictional world. So what did Marvel do differently, if anything?
To start with, they had creators, notably Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, who were interested in developing characters over time (the question of who gets credit for what in the early Marvel comics is a vexed one, but both Ditko and Kirby, primarily known as artists, at the least had strong influence over the plot and structure of the stories they drew). Their characters’ histories grew increasingly complex, meaning the wider continuity became more complex accordingly. There was tightness to that continuity. Particularly under fans-turned-pro writers like Roy Thomas, the books often offered detailed explanations for how a given change or idea fit into the broader continuity of the universe.
These things might have been incremental changes, but they did create a distinctive reading experience. Any given Marvel title felt like it was a piece of a larger puzzle, a story in itself but also a part of a greater story you could grasp—if you bought enough other Marvel comics. By the late-80s Marvel had published a series of Official Handbooks that defined Marvel’s history and rules, and developed a customer base known as “Marvel zombies” who routinely bought everything that Marvel published.
But a flood of new titles in the early 1990s killed off the Marvel zombie; there were too many books, costing too much, for most fans to keep up. Recent counts of Marvel’s publishing output have found the company currently publishes around 80 individual comics per month. Not all of those are set in the Marvel universe, but there are still too many individual stories for most fans to read, and too many characters and creators for any editorial staff to keep tightly co-ordinated. Marvel’s editorial policy has changed slightly as a result. Writing on his Tumblr page in response to a fan question just over a year ago, Marvel Senior Vice-President of Publishing Tom Brevoort said: “Eventually, as time moved on, more and more people [at Marvel] became comfortable with the fact that it wasn’t always going to be possible to maintain absolutely every fact that was being dragged around behind the Marvel Universe for fifty years… Maintaining the essentials, the essence of the characters, became much more the focus than hanging on to every bit of the minutiae.” The Marvel Universe, which started as a loose concept in the early 1960s, has again become a looser thing than it used to be.
That’s not a difficult concept to grasp. The continuity’s a tool to be used as a creator, and more broadly, a publisher needs it. In whatever iteration, Marvel’s universe has served well over the years. What is surprising is how poorly the concept of a comics universe seems to travel beyond Marvel.
Exhibit A is Marvel’s cross-town rival, DC. Where the Marvel universe could be said to have evolved naturally, the DC universe came to be shaped by attempts to mimic Marvel. From the late-60s, even before Marvel passed it in the marketplace, DC chased Marvel’s sales. In 1985 DC tried to streamline the complicated mechanics of its universe in order to compete with Marvel’s. The DC characters would all be given new histories. The result was mixed at best—rather than re-launch its entire line, DC simply retroactively decreed that its characters now had new pasts.
The mini-series that established the new universe, Crisis on Infinite Earths, sold quite well and gave some other titles a sales boost, as fan-favorite creators re-imagined the early days of Superman and Batman. But Crisis also created long-term problems as different creators reworked the same character in different ways. At least one character became effectively unusable for a few years due to continuity conflicts; one popular series, The Legion of Super-Heroes, ended up having to constantly rewrite its own backstory to fit in with the updated DC universe.
Which itself was none too consistent. After eight years DC published a crossover (Zero Hour) meant to fix the contradictions the original fix had unintentionally introduced. Then a dozen years later it published another crossover fixing many of those fixes, along with other problems that had crept in along the way (this was Infinite Crisis, in which Superboy punched the world really hard until everything made sense). Then, in 2011, DC decided to just reboot everything, scrapped its continuity, and started a new line of 52 titles, all beginning with issue number one.
So the conscious attempt to create a coherent DC Universe was a mixed success, at best, creatively and commercially. And that was a universe that already had well-known characters; to my eye, the track record of multi-title universes created from scratch looks worse.
In 1986 Marvel launched a “New Universe,” a line of eight books that would establish a new super-hero universe separate from the regular Marvel Universe. It didn’t catch on, and the last of the original titles were cancelled in 1989. Marvel then tried to create another universe in a set of linked titles collectively known as the Shadowline Saga; it lasted about two years. In 1992 Marvel tried twice more to create lines with its own universes, one based on books published by its British branch (“Marvel UK”) and one based on futuristic interpretations of its characters (“Marvel 2099"). But by this point a cosmological frenzy was underway in the comics field.
A boom in the comics’ speculators market led to a vast number of new companies, lines, and super-hero universes. Defiant, Valiant, Milestone, the Ultraverse, Comics’ Greatest World, the Kirbyverse—all of these were more-or-less high-profile universes launched at this general time. They collectively represented a flood of books into the market. Like most booms, the comics boom was followed by a bust, and most of the titles died off, leaving behind a character here or a struggling book here. Marvel’s universes didn’t fare any better.
Of course all those universes didn’t cause the crash—but the point is that the existence of a “universe” didn’t seem to save many, if any, titles from cancellation. If anything, the vast number of titles in the marketplace aggravated the market contraction. The only relative success I can see is the very loose “Image Universe,” created by superstar artists who left Marvel in 1992 to found their own company, Image Comics. Even that’s a relatively casual linkage; main characters cross over from time to time, but there’s nothing like the detailed shared history and mythology of Marvel. And the existence of the universe doesn’t seem to have been key to the success of the individual Image books that survived the comics crash.
Small families of titles put out by individual studios within Image have maintained relatively tight connections (one of those, Jim Lee’s Wildstorm, was bought out by DC Comics, and its main characters integrated into the DC Universe during one of DC’s crises). Which seems to be how to maintain a comics universe: small numbers of books are better than large numbers. Even at DC and Marvel, you see the universes breaking down into families of titles—the X-Men books, the Batman books, and so on. I think you could also say, looking at the surviving comics universes, that it’s better to start out with one book, and grow slowly and cautiously over time.
The current plans afoot in Hollywood don’t seem to be anything along those lines. Instead they seem to be mimicking the universes of the 1990s. It’s not that those comics were all bad, and not that they were terrible ideas. Some characters, like Milestone’s Static, made it into other media; and, since old IP never dies, some books and lines have been re-launched in the years since their original cancellation. But at the time and since publishers were overly fascinated by the concept of a “universe,” and launched too much material too quickly. At which point the interlinked nature of the titles became a problem: if you’re only interested in one book out of four, will you still buy it if you think you might need to buy the other three in order to get the full story?
It’s quite possible that moviegoers aren’t as compulsive as comics fans, and won’t mind watching stories that are also pieces of other stories. Still, even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had its rocky moments. People don’t talk about it much now, but Iron Man 2 was not viewed as a successful movie, in part because it seemed to be cramming too many unrelated “universe” elements into the story.
Marvel seems to have learned from that. Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, posting to his Facebook page, described a business model based on universes as “flawed.” Said Gunn: “I think filmmakers and studios should be prepared for the big picture, but never, ever let it get in the way of making a single great film.” Asked in a comment about how many elements of Marvel continuity he had to deal with in Guardians, Gunn said there weren’t many: “The ONLY thing in GotG that was connected to the rest of the Marvel Universe is the existence of Thanos and the existence of an infinity stone. Everything else—how Thanos was connected, who he was connected to, what were the properties of the infinity stone, etc, etc, were all basically made up by me. It’s much much looser than people think it is. And it certainly wasn’t planned out when they did Iron Man. They just thought about making a good Iron Man movie—which is exactly my point.”
Looseness and flexibility seem to be virtues in crafting a universe. So does allowing the world to grow organically, rather than going in with a pre-determined blueprint. We’ll see what plays out on movie screens over the next few years. But it’s entirely possible when all’s said and done that we’ll be looking at a successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, a more successful DC Cinematic Universe, and a lot of highly promoted dead universes, and a few low-level universes going on their way and doing their own thing. Which is, oddly, not unlike what I see in comics.
—Follow Matthew Surridge on Twitter: @Fell_Gard