Tuesday, 11 September 2018

The "Other" Cinematic Universes

When it comes to cinematic universes, we all know the story: Marvel's only getting better as they go, DC has struggled to get any sort of consistent quality going, etc. However, with as much attention as these franchises get, it's easy to forget that they're not the only ones making their mark on the cinematic universe trend. There are actually quite a few current cinematic universes out there now, some several films deep, that have continued to grow without the attention and scrutiny that Marvel and DC seem to inspire. There are also many more on the way (keep an eye out for Hasbro, they seem to be pushing the hardest), but even after 10 years of Marvel dominance, most have failed to actually get underway. With that in mind, let's look at the less-appreciated landscape of cinematic universes.

Note: I'm only going to be looking at franchises which are still ongoing. To determine if it constitutes a cinematic universe, I'm only looking at major releases (for all I know, The Asylum has a Mega Shark cinematic universe, but I'm sure as hell not going to go digging for turds like that). I'm also looking for franchises which aren't just following a normal, linear progression from film to film. Spin-offs don't necessarily constitute a cinematic universe either, although if there are multiple spin-off films in a franchise then it could apply. Oh, and goofy cameos and tongue-in-cheek jokes don't count either (so no, Transformers and Friday the 13th aren't in the same universe). Ultimately, it's all down to my discretion. Got it? Great, let's buckle in.

Honourable Mentions:
Star Wars (image source): Again, this is down to my discretion, but I don't feel like Star Wars is quite at "cinematic universe" level yet, at least in the way that that label gets applied anyway. For the most part, Star Wars in the cinematic landscape consists of films which follow on from one another (whether as prequels or sequels). Even the spin-offs we've had in Rogue One and Solo were just prequels to the events of the main stories and given less prominence, so I'm struggling to really count these on the same level as, say, your average Marvel or DC solo film in their respective universes. Now, with the groundwork laid by The Last Jedi and Disney's desire to milk this franchise forever (...those are mutually exclusive ideas, I swear), we might actually be getting to a point in the next couple of years when Star Wars is an interconnected universe of various divergent characters and storylines, but until then I have a hard time viewing it as more than a very epic saga.

Alien vs Predator (...vs Blade Runner???) - I'm only not counting this one because there has been basically no official word on whether these franchises still are, or ever were, truly linked in the first place. Basically every Alien and Predator film since has ignored the continuity established by the AVP movies, although they have never completely separated. To make matters even more confusing, the Alien prequels went and made it official that Blade Runner takes place in this universe as well. Considering that all of these separate franchises take place nearly 100 years apart from one another, it makes the continuity pliable, but it would be awesome if we could give AVP another shot at greatness.

The Tarantinoverse(s) - Yes, these films all technically take place in the same universe (click the image on the side to see the entire, complicated breakdown as to how), whether as actual events (Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, etc) or as films within that universe (Kill Bill, From Dusk Till Dawn, Death Proof, etc). There are also a number of characters who are related (most notably, Vic Vega aka Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs and Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction). Here's the thing though: none of these connections really matter. I mean, is Vincent affected in Pulp Fiction by Vic's death? No, it's just an easter egg for fans, and that's what everything in the Tarantinoverse is - there's no actual crossover or overarching plot (especially when you can just say "eh, it's a movie in that universe!"), so I'm not counting it. Like I said, my discretion.

And so, let's move onto the actual cinematic universes, shall we?

5) The Dark Universe - Is there any surprise that this is the worst of the current crop of cinematic universes? I mean, let's look at the situation: Universal had the first successful cinematic universe back when they were releasing their classic monster films. For almost 20 years now they have been trying to recapture that success with failure after failure. The Mummy laid a decent groundwork for this, but then Van Helsing failed and scuppered that idea. Then they tried once again to set up this universe with The Wolfman, but it was a commercial and critical failure (although I love it personally and feel like its reception will improve over time).

After so many false starts, suddenly Marvel's cinematic universe model began getting successful and Universal decided that they wanted a piece of that pie. As a result, Dracula: Untold was produced with the explicit intention of aping Marvel's formula to finally get the Universal monsters on screen again. The resulting film was just plain dull - the source material didn't fit a PG-13 summer action tentpole treatment and the resulting universe it was selling (PG-13 grimdark anti-heroes facing some nebulous ancient evil) was unappealing, so once again Universal was left in a lurch with a stillborn franchise.

With yet another failure under their belts, Universal almost immediately jettisoned Dracula: Untold from memory and then got to work on what was arguably the most seriously committed effort to reboot their monsters properties: The Dark Universe. Universal clearly went all-in this time, snatching up some major star power with Russell Crowe as Dr. Jeckell and Mr. Hyde, Javier Bardem as Frankenstien's Monster, Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man and Tom Cruise as (ultimately) this universe's version of The Mummy. Since The Mummy was the only reboot Universal had any success with, perhaps it is natural that they'd try to launch their universe with it, along with the consistent quality that comes along with Tom Cruise. Unfortunately, despite the huge marketing push and the big talk about how this was going to be Universal's big shared universe, The Mummy proved to be a rare Tom Cruise misfire which single-handedly put the future of the entire franchise into question. Things have been quiet on The Dark Universe front, with many assuming it is dead since its two main producers have departed the project, but there have been some occasional rumblings to suggest we haven't seen the last of it.

I feel like the issues with The Dark Universe were twofold. First of all, I don't think that aping Marvel's formula and attempting to reboot the Universal monsters as quasi-superheroes is ever going to work, nor is attempting to shoehorn all of these movies into the PG-13 summer action blockbuster template a good idea. I understand that a smaller, more traditional horror series would not make as much money if The Dark Universe had met its ambitions, but at least it would not be competing with the juggernauts, would be carving its own niche in the cinematic landscape and would be a considerably safer investment. Dracula: Untold had already failed in part because of this. It doesn't matter how much money and star-power you throw at a project, if the concept is rotten at its core, then it is going to have a very hard time gaining traction.

Secondly, I feel like The Dark Universe was hamstrung from the start by its two main producers, Alex Kurtzman (also director of The Mummy) and Chris Morgan. Both are blockbuster scriptwriters and producers, with Kurtzman being known for the modern Star Trek films, the first two Transformers, Cowboys & Aliens and the Now You See Me franchise, and Chris Morgan being known for the Fast & Furious franchise, Wanted and 47 Ronin. They're both involved in big, successful action franchises, but none of those franchises are really known for their great scripts. To make matters even worse, Guillermo del Toro was originally asked to helm The Dark Universe, which could have been incredible if Universal would allow him to lean into these characters' horror origins. There is some hope for The Dark Universe still: it's being rumoured that renowned horror-producer Jason Blum is being given the reins of the franchise. However, as it stands currently, The Dark Universe is little more than a cautionary tale in franchise building.

4) The Monsterverse - This is the universe that inspired this list, because while Legendary hasn't been subtle about the fact that they want to bring Godzilla and King Kong together once again, they haven't been hammering audiences with their world-building (unlike, say, The Mummy or Batman vs Superman). In fact, you could easily be forgiven for not realizing that Kong: Skull Island was a part of the same universe as Godzilla, outside of the subtle references to Monarch and the post-credits scene. I feel like this will probably be emphasized more by the end of the upcoming Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but at least it's refreshing that Legendary isn't counting their chickens before they've hatched.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Monsterverse is that, like the Universal monsters, it's building on a foundation that originated the shared universe concept in film in the first place. The Toho Godzilla films had their own colourful cast of monsters that would feature in each others' films and the original Godzilla vs King Kong was one of the earliest and most notable major franchise crossover films (also, while I may not prefer the direction of this incarnation of Kong, I can't deny that it's a part of the character's roots). Unlike the Universal Monsters, Legendary is succeeding by keeping the Monsterverse true to the roots which made them successful in the first place. Also, Legendary has been killing it in terms of direction and cinematography thus far - Kong: Skull Island is downright beautiful at times and Godzilla has some of my favourite direction of all time (seriously).

The Monsterverse has also had some pretty decent quality thus far, with both entries being quite fun, if disposable, entertainment. Granted, giant monsters are much easier to fit into a dumb action blockbuster mould, and neither Godzilla or Kong: Skull Island had much ambition to be anything other than that. Considering that they're giant monster movies, they don't really need to do much more, but some more interesting human characters would go a long way. Godzilla: King of the Monsters could theoretically improve this one aspect, but we'll see. If Legendary can keep the quality up, the Monsterverse could easily move up a slot in this list.

3) Cloverfield Universe - This universe could have easily topped the list if not for the release of the absolutely putrid The Coverfield Paradox, which has soured the franchise's name overnight and turned it into a punchline. That said, the quality of Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane can't be denied, and the chance for more cool genre films with genuine surprise to them is too much of an allure to pass up after one misfire (even one as disastrous as Paradox).

Cloverfield was a very intriguing Hollywood experiment, forgoing a huge budget and star power in favour of an ingenious and mysterious alternate reality game (ARG) marketing campaign. I got caught up in the Cloverfield hype leading up to its release and had a lot of fun with the ARG, looking for clues and speculating on what the monster was going to be. Cloverfield was also one of the earliest modern found footage films and, I would argue, one of the best utilizations of the concept. Oh, and lest we forget, Cloverfield was also the film which brought us Matt Reeves (far and away one of the most ambitious and consistently good blockbuster directors in Hollywood). The film left plenty of unanswered questions and for years there were rumblings of a sequel, but nothing materialized (even though it looked like Super 8 was going to fulfil that promise).

Then, suddenly, franchise producer J.J. Abrams had an idea to use the Cloverfield name to promote smaller, quality genre films and loosely tie them together. The first film they tried this on was 10 Cloverfield Lane, which was originally a stand-alone film that underwent reshoots to make it fit into the concept of a "Cloverfield movie". The film was announced quietly and with minimal marketing, relying on word of mouth, a couple teasers and a release date 3 months away to build hype. There was some talk about whether this strategy would work, but work it did - 10 Cloverfield Lane was another success for the franchise, in part because the film was so damn good that the cynical nature of its creation didn't really matter. It didn't really connect to the previous film in the franchise, but it didn't need to: if Cloverfield was a signifier for a type of quality genre film that you could expect, then bring on more Cloverfield we all said.

Of course, it's important to understand that this is the sort of goodwill which was paramount to the firestorm of hype that exploded upon announcement that the third Cloverfield film had secretly dropped on Netflix during the Super Bowl... and the resulting disappointment when it turned out that that film was utter shit. Like I said, when your shared universe is only loosely connected between films, Cloverfield becomes a mark of quality. Releasing a bad film taints that reputation. Worse, releasing an awful film throws all confidence in that franchise into the wind. Who knows, another Cloverfield film could be good, but it might take years of good films to get the bad taste of Paradox out of our mouths.

2) The Conjuring - The Conjuring universe is remarkable for a few reasons. One, it's based primarily on the stories of one real-life family (although the veracity of those stories is suspect, naturally). Two, these are all full-on R-rated horror films, whose considerable success should put Universal's attempts to reboot their monsters to shame. Three, this franchise's shared universe it at a point where it's becoming comparable to the MCU. Seriously, The Conjuring is the beating heart of this franchise, but Annabelle is almost on par in terms of box office success, and The Nun has just released with the franchise's biggest opening yet, purely off the success of the character in The Conjuring 2.

In terms of quality, the films are generally solid. The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are both classic horror films in the vein of The Exorcist (I personally preferred The Conjuring 2), which do a good job of making the supernatural seem plausible and which are buoyed tremendously by solid direction from James Wan and the performances of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga. The spin-offs have been more of a mixed bag, with Annabelle: Creation being generally considered quite good, while Annabelle and The Nun have been met with a negative reception. That said, as spin-offs in an explicitly niche shared universe, they seem to still have an audience who are interested in them. With smaller budgets and this built-in audience, The Conjuring universe manages to find success by marketing to its own niche, rather than going for the mass audience and viewing $800 million as a failure, such as Justice League. If more studios would realize this and try to find other genre niches, we might have more successful shared universes out there.

1) X-Men - And finally we have the other, other superhero shared universe, the long-running X-Men universe. In fact, thanks to the Disney-20th Century Fox acquisition, this universe is almost certainly reaching its death-knell with upcoming release of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, after 19 years of ups and downs.

Back before the MCU took the world by storm, X-Men was the superhero franchise of most consistent quality (next to Spider-man, anyway), and for a long time it was just that - a franchise, not a shared universe. But then the Wolverine spin-offs happened, which turned into a trilogy of its own with Origins, The Wolverine and Logan. And then Deadpool and Deadpool 2 were released, and suddenly X-Men had become the full-on cinematic universe it was so well-suited to become. Hell, you could even argue that the franchise's main timeline fits in the shared universe idea, with two different eras of X-Men interacting in Days of Future Past (the best X-Men movie, in my opinion).

X-Men has had some major lows (The Last Stand and Origins), but it has also had considerable heights (X2DoFP, Logan, Deadpool) which have allowed it to succeed for so long, and it was always good to have a serious competitor to the MCU. Lest we forget that this shared universe has also gifted us with one of the best superhero castings of all time in Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, not to mention the Ryan Renold's Deadpool or Michael Fassbender's Magneto. I don't have high hopes for Dark Phoenix, but I can only hope that it does this franchise justice and allows it to go out on a high note.

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