The new benchmark for a movie studio’s success is whether they can build an “extended universe” of connected films that meshes with television and other properties. The pinnacle of this is, of course, Marvel Studios, which is credited with beginning the “MCU” (Marvel Connected Universe) and inspiring rivals to do the same. Marvel has taken it to game-changing levels, but they weren’t really the first to do this “shared universe” thing.
Until the juggernaut of Wonder Woman, Warner Brothers had been roundly lambasted for its ham-handed efforts under director Zack Snyder to create a continuous universe among its countless heroes and villains. Now, it’s Universal’s turn for a drubbing after two failed attempts to force-feed its classic monster legacy to a skeptical public. The result? The village of viewers has torches lit and are burning down the castle. This summer’s The Mummy got critically unwrapped, and 2014’s Dracula Untold had no bite. 0-2, Universal.
Thing is, Universal already had a “connected” universe. Back in the 40s, they practically created the idea by pairing Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man in various films together, part serious and part camp. They even reprised the characters with Abbott & Costello for a slapstick romp or two. Disney, owner of the Marvel behemoth, also had a very connected universe for decades, combining its flagship characters in comics, animated series, video games and other media. Heck, if you really want to dig deep, the gods and monsters of old Greek, Roman and Norse mythology were mashing up their heroes all the time.
Now comes word that producers of the James Bond films want to create a Bond universe. Bring it on! I won’t rest until we see the ultimate smackdown between Bond, Batman, Captain America, Sherlock Holmes, and Godzilla. ‘Zilla gets his own “shared universe” with King Kong in 2019, one of the reasons Kong was so righteously up-sized in his last outing, Kong of Skull Island, which ended with the teaser of Godzilla and his frenemies Mothra, Rodan and King Gidorah. Hey, if Donald Duck and Daffy Duck can play together on screen in a shared universe (Who Framed Roger Rabbit), then anything goes.
If we truly love this notion of a connected universe—seeing our favorite characters working together, teasing stories that cross between the mediums of film and television and gaming—then why limit it to heroes, gods and monsters? Can’t we mash up the movie worlds of, say, Jane Austen characters (didn’t Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy do a mash-up with zombies already?) and the Transformers—maybe vs. Tyler Perry’s Madea? We’ve mashed up the genres of Gen-X emo angsty/arty film with kaiju, as seen in the brilliantly bonkers Colossus, with Anne Hathaway (well worth the VOD rental). Can’t the cast of TV’s The Big Bang Theory go head-to-head with the cast of Galaxy Quest?
In a world (said with deep baritone and lots of reverb, just like in the trailers!) where movies must be events rather than individually satisfying stories, we must move toward constant connectivity among brands, a synergy that rarely works critically (um, remember Alien vs. Predator?) but is good for a decent return on investment, considering the international market.
Captain Jack Sparrow and La La Land meet up next summer in Pirates of the LA Freeway.
The Wayward Critic reviews movies, television and culture at large; follow new and current reviews on Facebook and Twitter (@waywardcritic).