Marvel was the model. Star Wars will continue the practice.
Since sequels are becoming something of a punchline, the summer movie season coming to be known as sequel season, studios are beginning to organize there tent pole properties in a much different way than before. Disney gets it. Warner Bros. gets it. 20th Century Fox gets it.
It’s the “universe.” And why not? Comic books have been doing it for decades. Group your heroes under one umbrella, have them meet at certain times to overcome their problems, and then profit. Civil War, Avengers vs. X-Men, Crisis on Infinite Earths. There’s even a DC vs. Marvel where the outcomes were voted on by fans.
Source material that lives across multiple story lines (and timelines) like comic books are ripe for mining in an age where film audiences are shirking original cinema and doubling down on familiar formulas. Audiences don’t respond to fresh material like they do large franchises, which in turn makes studio’s weary of investing large sums of money into unproven ventures without established fan bases. But the sequel chain model is getting tired. Universal’s big cash cow, The Fast and the Furious series, will debut it’s seventh film next year. Which, while films are certainly growing more and more serialized as of late, is a bit ridiculous. And there are countless others. How many franchises can you name that were perceived to go on too long? Pirates of the Caribbean, Die Hard, Home Alone, Bourne, Saw, X-Men; there’s your starter kit.
What the universe model does is allow for an expanded range of related properties. Each film doesn’t necessarily have to follow the one previous. Supporting characters can be explored and fleshed out. What’s more you don’t have to attach a number to the end of your title. You’ve even given yourself the ability to wipe your hands clean of any miss steps. Think the Eric Bana Hulk movie and the original DOA franchise-starter X-Men Origins: Wolverine. These efforts can be tied off and ignored as “non-canon” or “in a different universe” now.
The big example is of course Marvel. If Disney were numbering these movies, the next one, Guardians of the Galaxy, would be No. 10. But instead, Marvel’s carved out for itself a scheme by which it can develop its franchise (and in turn sub-franchises) without the perception of overstaying it’s welcome. Iron Man 1-3 can exists alongside Avengers 1-2, Captain America 1-2 and Thor 1-2 because they aren’t presented as necessarily sequential. They’re no doubt interrelated, but it allows for greater flexibility in storytelling and deeper explorations of characters that might not otherwise get their day. And it’s allowing for more variety, all told. Studios are figuring out that they can release films outside the main story line, The Wolverine, for example. It’s a one-off, simply an adventure the character will have at some point in his future. But while it exists simply to tell a self-contained story, its protagonist lives within a much larger cast and who’s worldview is framed by events that occur elsewhere. Audiences are happy because they can experience another adventure with their favorite superhero. Studios are happy because their brand comes with a built-in customer base.
And Disney knows it’s a winning formula. It should be no surprise that the Holy Trilogy -Star Wars- itself will eventually get the universe treatment. And while I think it has the potential for over saturation, it’s a no-brainer. Think about it, the deepest expanded fictional universe of all time is now completely open-ended and at the hands of a company who has had tremendous success juggling a rogues gallery of heroes, villains, and story lines. It’s in the best hands it could be.
I would even bet that Disney is now looking at the Avengers and eyeing some kind of end game. Not the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, but the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, mash-up parties these movies will become. That the first Avengers actually turned out to be an expertly crafted film is a tenuous thread to dangle your multi-billion dollar business model on. They’ve got the right guy in Joss Whedon, but ensemble movies like in the X-Men franchise tend to suffer from group fatigue eventually; they become weighed down by too many characters. The potential for subsequent Avengers outings simply not working farther along the road is high. They’re pushing the logic of the universe as it is. And you can tell. Thor’s second solo adventure took place on a different planet to not interfere with Earth happenings. Iron Man’s struggle was internal and contained. And Captain America barely left D.C. for the entire movie. But it’s becoming apparent that sooner or later these guys will have to cross paths more frequently than in the Avengers tie-in movies to make sense.
I would bet that the Avengers as a team are half over. Follow-up Age of Ultron will signal the beginning of Phase 3, which will see many of the original characters’ threads begin to get tied off. The death of Tony Stark seems likely. It’s not far-fetched to imagine then that Star Wars will be Disney’s real focus going forward. Comics are as popular as they’ve ever been these days, but nothing compares to the raw emotional connection generations have with Star Wars. It’s just no contest. Easily, Star Wars VII will be the biggest hit of all time]. Because it’s not just ticket sales. It’s merchandising, it’s an historic legacy that the films will live in forever. It’s just the nature of the brand. George Lucas knew it back in the 70’s, taking a pay cut in lieu of merchandising rights. Disney would be fools not to focus all their energies into Star Wars.
Which means you’ll see more of this type of film making in the future. The Hobbit is doing it. Harry Potter will doubtless be back in some form or another. Spin-off television shows will start becoming more prevalent. Which is fine. Say what you want about the dumbing-down of audiences today, they’re smarter now than they were 30 years ago. Audiences understand the concept of the universe, and “get” the reasoning behind reboots and one-offs. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has many threads running through it, and it’s still stupefying how well it’s so far come together. And it’s a large investment a studio is betting an audience member will continue to pay into, sticking around for a web of interconnected stories. Their hope is that that person remembers all the way back to the first Iron Man movie to understand his motivations today, or whatever.
It’s a big thing, this. It’s a paradigm shift in the way film is presented. Many say cinema is dead. I tent to think that it’s as exciting as ever.