The strengths and weaknesses of the shared universe

Illustration by Elaine Yang 
Associate Design Editor

With the arrival of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has put out 18 interconnected movies alongside ten television shows, and there still seems to be no end in sight. Although the release of Avengers: Infinity War in May will bring together every hero that the series has developed so far, the franchise has already planned to introduce fan-favorite superhero Captain Marvel into the fold, as well as providing sequels for Ant-Man, Spider Man: Homecoming, and a third Guardians of the Galaxy movie. After Disney’s deal with 20th Century Fox, it is likely that soon we will be up to our ears in X-Men and Avengers crossovers in the near future. Disney and Marvel Studios have essentially made it more likely for the world to suddenly explode for no reason whatsoever than for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to come to an end. But is that a good thing?

Filmmakers have been putting popular movie characters together since the early 1940s with films such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), but it wasn’t until Marvel achieved critical (and financial) success with their shared universe that this form of storytelling truly took Hollywood by storm. Nowadays, it seems that every major studio is trying to cash in on shared universe success whether it is Warner Bros’ mixed bag of DC comic book adaptations or Universal’s abysmal Dark Universe. It is clear that audiences of popular science fiction and action films no longer want singular small-scale stories, which is somehow both exciting and terrifying at the same time.

The greatest strength of a shared universe is also its greatest weakness: its storytelling format. There are very few Marvel movies that are noticeably different from the rest because each film is written like an episode of a television show. There is a reason that some of the most prominent Hollywood directors of the modern era have backgrounds as television screenwriters. After all, J.J. Abrams created Lost and Alias before Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Joss Whedon was already known for his work on the cult series Firefly before Marvel let him anywhere near The Avengers. With a television-style in mind, a shared universe series can plan far in the distance, constantly building towards climactic moments that lead to even more moments later on. Television writing is flexible enough to stretch a storyline on to infinity if need be; so if fans continue to demand more movies, there will be more movies.

The flaw with traditional television writing is that it prevents any discernible variation between individual episodes. This works for television shows such as Stranger Things that tell a narrative in multiple parts but can be destructive to a collection of film series that probably should vary its style between movies. With the exception of the increasingly varied X-Men movies, every shared universe series has a standard look and feel to it and every film in a series more or less looks the same. There will always be an occasional breath of fresh air, such as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but it is irritating how seamlessly the styles of most of these films blend together. Captain America: Civil War might as well be The Avengers, which might as well be Iron Man 3. There is no real way to tell them apart.

It is true that shared universes sacrifice part of their personality for longevity, but it seems that for now this strategy is working. I might complain about how similar each MCU movie is, but I know that I am still going to watch Avengers: Infinity War when it comes out and chances are that I am going to enjoy it. The fact of the matter is that shared universes are here to stay and if they can learn to be more creative and varied with their styles and ideas, they will continue to be a driving force in the film industry for years to come.

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