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Forget Franchises: Why 2014 Will Be Hollywood's Year of the 'Shared Universe'

Marvel's success with "The Avengers" prompts five studios to develop interlocking superhero movies, from Warner Bros.' "Man of Steel" sequel to Sony's "Spider-Man" expansion plan.

Issue REP Shared Universe Illustration - H 2013
Kagan McLeod

This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Hollywood has come down with a bad case of Marvel envy. Having watched how the studio launched Iron Man in 2008 as the first of five linked movies (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) that led to 2012's The Avengers (which grossed $1.5 billion worldwide), suddenly every studio is trying to create a world of characters who can be brought together in a mega movie. Forget franchise, "shared universe" is the hot new buzz phrase of 2014.

Sony in December hired five superstar writers -- Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, Ed Solomon and Drew Goddard -- to come up with more Spider-Man movies beyond May's The Amazing Spider-Man 2. They face a big challenge. While Sony licenses Spider-Man from Marvel, Spidey isn't surrounded by fellow heroes like the Avengers. However, the Spider-Man universe does have a deep pool of villains, such as Venom and Sinister Six, whom Sony hopes are compelling enough to carry their own tentpoles.

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At the same time, Fox is further mining X-Men lore. It has spun off Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman, into a pair of stand-alone films, and May's X-Men: Days of Future Past, ostensibly a sequel to 2011's X-Men: First Class, will introduce that film's young cast, led by Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, to their older counterparts played by Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. There even are plans for X-Men to star in crossover movies with the Fantastic Four, Fox's other property licensed from Marvel. Simon Kinberg, who has worked on X-Men movies with Bryan Singer, will expand X-Men and Fantastic Four into a super-shared universe. "I have a lot of ideas on how to build those brands and do what everybody is thinking of these days: Be like Marvel," Kinberg tells THR.

Universal might not have any superheroes in its library, but it's playing with the idea of a shared universe populated by its classic monsters. The studio is developing a reboot of The Mummy, produced by Kurtzman and Orci, that insiders say could be the first step toward a Universal Monsters Universe, joining the Mummy, Dracula, the Wolf-Man, Frankenstein's Monster, the Invisible Man and the Gill-Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon into one story.

Lucasfilm has created its own shared universe in the TV shows, books and video games surrounding the Star Wars movies. But now that Disney owns Lucasfilm and is in preproduction on Star Wars: Episode VII, the plan is to expand even further, with movies based on spinoff characters, one of which Kinberg is writing.

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Even Warner Bros. is getting into the shared-universe game with its superhero house, DC Entertainment. Back when Warners relaunched its DC heroes with Batman Begins and Superman Returns in 2005 and 2006, respectively, neither movie had a connection to the other. And while Christopher Nolan was making his Batman trilogy, he used his influence to make sure a movie about the Justice League, DC's superhero team, didn't happen. But now Warners plans to follow 2013's Man of Steel with a Batman-Superman film in which Henry Cavill will be joined by Ben Affleck's Batman and Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman. And while details are sketchy, Warners is building to a Justice League movie that could allow for spinoffs and sequels.

"It's as close to a series of sure things as you could really bet on," says Mark Millar, a comic writer whose work for Marvel influenced the movie versions and whose own creations have included Wanted and Kick-Ass. "Marvel's success is there to be emulated. It would be crazy not to."