But then 2008 happened. Iron Man came out and walloped audiences at the end with an appearance by Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury and the introduction of the Avengers initiative. Rapid announcements of a series of Marvel movies came, and the concept of the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to take shape.
It was a strong opening for the MCU. Each film grew the mythos of the world in various ways, sometimes only in retrospect: Captain America’s super soldier serum was the goal of the program that created The Incredible Hulk (2008), but that wouldn’t make sense until Captain America (2011) was released three years later.
These weren’t Marvel’s only box office successes. They had seen success with films about Spider-Man (2002), Blade (1998), and the X-Men (2000), although these were all co-produced by various studios who had the licensed rights to these characters. The rights to these films had been sold off when Marvel was at its nadir in the early 90s, after the company nearly imploded. Due to these legal constraints, the films were not able to interact with each other on any level. The MCU films, on the other hand, were able to send ripples from one to the other, teasing audiences about what would happen in the next one. Tony Stark could approach General Ross at the end of one film, while Agent Coulson would appear next to Thor’s hammer at the end of another.
The films were broken down in phases for ease of marketing and to help schedule production. Phase 1 began with Iron Man (2008) and completed with The Avengers (2012). Phase 2 started with Iron Man 3 (2013) and will conclude with Ant Man (2015). Phase 3 will begin with Captain America: Civil War (2016) and conclude with the expected Inhumans (2019).
Each of the MCU films has been a blockbuster of various sorts, as you can see in this BBP article by Luke Sneyd. The capstone of the first phase, The Avengers, is one of the all-time box office champions. Even the film based on relative obscurity, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), vastly outperformed its expectations.
Naturally, everyone else wants in on that action. In addition to the strong brand that can be built out of a series of connected films, combining the pre-production costs for several films into one joint effort can help save money in the production of the film, making the bottom line even better.
Warner Brothers had spent the prior 20 years as the Superhero box office champions, purely on the strength of two characters: Batman and Superman. Warner had full control over the entire DC universe, but chose to keep the majority of their properties in animated TV shows.
The success of the MCU led Warner to consider their own interconnected universe. Unfortunately, they were still in the middle of the blockbuster Batman series by Christopher Nolan, which didn’t have space for aliens, Amazons, or Atlanteans. Their first stab at building their comics universe into a larger cinematic universe happened in Green Lantern (2011). It did not catch fire, breaking barely one hundred million dollars at the box office and receiving only a lukewarm reception.
They were slightly more successful with Man of Steel (2013), which grossed almost three hundred million dollars despite a poor reception from fans. Warners announced that Man of Steel would be followed by a sequel featuring Superman fighting Batman. They then began announcing plans to expand their new, darker universe to include a variety of other DC heroes such as Wonder Woman and Aquaman.
MCU Phase Two’s penultimate film, Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014), is beginning to show stress in the format. Scenes in the film seemed to exist only to set up future films, a task that previously was left to post-credits sequences or background shots in prior films.
This has led a number of other studios to plant their flags in the fertile soil of cinematic universes. After its popular Mummy films, which were almost a proto CU with a trilogy of films and the Scorpion King (2002) spinoff starring Dwayne Johnson, Universal Pictures has announced plans to create a Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe based on its iconic series of monsters, including such iconic, public domain, characters as Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolfman.
The inherent problem with this is that these characters are all pretty generic and, as stated, public domain. Will the existence of the underperforming Lionsgate produced film I, Frankenstein (2014) prove an impediment to adding the eponymous scientist and his monster to the Universal Pictures series? Dracula can appear practically anywhere, and has appeared in one of Marvel’s Blade films. Making their Dracula into the iconic version for this generation will be a challenge, although the first film in their series, Dracula Untold (2014), was a box office success.
The original Universal monsters were themselves something of the original cinematic universe, crossing over between franchises and meeting Abbott and Costello.
The CU most likely to succeed on a financial level is the proposed Transformers universe. The adventures of alien robots who can change into other things have been chronicled in four horrible yet very successful films. Paramount Pictures has organized a brain trust to develop a universe of Transformers films which may possibly add a story of some kind to that universe.
Another comic book publisher, Valiant Entertainment, has also launched a movie division to found a Cinematic Universe. Although Valiant was a well-known publisher in the 90s and has returned in recent years, they don’t have any characters who are as well-known as Spider-Man or Superman. Theoretically, if the Valiant CU has a strong hand on the tiller who can create a strong vision for their product and hire good screenwriters and directors, they could have a chance of making a splash.
The importance of a strong creative vision can’t be understated. The MCU benefits greatly from the presence of Kevin Feige. Feige began his career as a production assistant on the first X-Men film, and was made an associate producer due to his knowledge of the Marvel universe. The Marvel Studios CEO hired him as his second in command shortly afterwards. Feige’s entire career has been converting Marvel’s stories to films. Since Disney’s purchase of Marvel, he’s only worked on the Marvel studios films, with the exception of an Executive Producer credit on the first Amazing Spider-Man film.
There doesn’t seem to be a corresponding figure guiding the other Cinematic Universes. Akiva Goldsman seems to be taking a lead role for the Transformers property, but without any plans or a schedule being discussed by them, it’s hard to see if he’ll be listed in a production capacity for them. DC doesn’t seem to have a lead figure in their production. Although Charles Roven is listed as a producer for each film, he is more a standard producer than an impresario such as Feige.
DC also seems to be having a strange habit of putting screenwriters in competition with each other. Two screenwriters were hired to write competing Aquaman scripts, while up to five screenwriters were selected to write treatments and first acts for the upcoming Wonder Woman film. It seems odd that one of the legs of the DC trinity of superhero characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) should be written in such a “throw it against the wall” format.
It’s possible that Feige’s control over the MCU is proving to be a drawback. As mentioned earlier, the films are beginning to groan under the weight of the strings that connect them all. Ant-Man production suffered turmoil when its popular director, Edgar Wright, stepped away citing “creative differences”. It’s speculated those differences were with Feige and that they revolved around adding elements of the interconnected MCU to the film.
That doesn’t indicate a lead figure is a bad idea for such a strategy. It could indicate, at the least, that the role needs to be adjusted or tidied up. Marvel has not shown themselves to be an auteur-friendly establishment, but with billions of dollars on the line for their overall strategy, it’s not surprising that the producers feel their visions must be followed.
It does also bear mentioning that Disney has been playing pretty close to the chest with their plans for Star Wars. It does appear that the galaxy faraway will be expanding into a cinematic universe of its own, but it’s had two decades of expanded universe to practice in. Kathleen Kennedy is the Star Wars brand manager and has decades of experience working with genre films, so her ability to guide the most iconic franchise is not in doubt.
It’s inevitable that when one business has a successful strategy others will attempt to ape it. The transfer of the Marvel universe to the screen has progressed almost flawlessly, and has been a box office bonanza. Can that lightning be caught in a jar twice (or five times)? Who can say? Can the box office sustain that many genre films being churned out with that much regularity, weaving together into commercial tapestries?
Add annual Star Wars films to the roster and we could see a genre film overload, with too much entertainment – and not enough box office to sustain it all.