Is It Time to Say Goodbye to the Shared Universe?

Aquaman, Captain Marvel and Tom Cruise in The Mummy - Split-Photofest-H 2019
Warner Bros./Photofest; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; Universal Pictures/Photofest
As 'Avengers: Endgame' wraps up an 11-year saga, it's become increasingly apparent that whatever lightning Marvel captured in its onscreen bottle is not a trick that’s easily replicable.

After years of every studio in the business looking at Marvel and asking themselves, "How do we do that?," things are beginning to change. With the first big storyline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wrapping up in a couple of months’ time, is it time to say goodbye to the myth of the Shared Universe Panacea?

While there is palpable hunger surrounding the April 26 release of Avengers: Endgame, bringing a close to the first era of Marvel’s groundbreaking shared universe, it’s become increasingly apparent that whatever lightning Marvel captured in its onscreen bottle is not a trick that’s easily replicable. Countless other shared universes were announced in the wake of Marvel’s continued success, and few have yet to find any level of success even close to Marvel’s; indeed, just the opposite — consider the sad fate of the Dark Universe, dead after one installment, or the apparently stalled Hasbroverse that would have included G.I. Joe, Visionaries and Micronauts projects alongside the Transformers franchise, which never has materialized.

Already, other studios are pivoting away from the shared universe model; most obviously, Warner Bros. has signaled a partial withdrawal from a shared DC cinematic universe with the production of stand-alone projects for The Joker and Matt Reeves’ Batman that disconnect from the world of Man of Steel, Suicide Squad and Justice League, which already has its own, entirely separate, versions of those characters.

It’s a smart move. The predominant flaw with the shared universe idea is also the selling point for a lot of people: that everything is connected. When you’re Marvel, that’s a good thing, because each movie has been successful enough — and is similar enough in terms of tone and execution — that there has never been dead weight to drag along behind the more successful projects. That’s not the case for Warners’ DC shared universe, where the glorious neon spectacle of Aquaman shares space with the none-more-dark Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the depressed deconstructionist tone of Man of Steel and BvS arguably alienated fans and made it harder for Wonder Woman to win them over. How (much more) successful would that movie had been if it hadn’t had to shoulder the weight of the earlier movies in the universe?

It’s not just the DC movies that have had high-profile stumbles in setting up a shared universe based on a beloved property; Marvel’s Disney sibling, Lucasfilm, is focusing on Disney+ series instead of annual Star Wars films after the failure of Solo: A Star Wars Story demonstrated that there might be a limit to just how many trips to a galaxy far, far away audiences were willing to take in a particular period of time. 

The very idea of a shared universe puts undue pressure on each project contained within it — the pressure on filmmakers not to screw it up, to be a success, because other projects already in the works require that to be the case — while also removing creative options from those same filmmakers by its very nature. In a shared universe, not only are some choices off the table because they’ve already been made by other people for another project, there are also options unavailable because they’d contradict what future movies are already scheduled to do years down the line. It’s creatively stifling, with little upside beyond the value of the brand name attached to the project.

Again, that trade-off might make sense when the brand name is Marvel; the lack of any true flop other than Inhumans, which no one even remembers, makes that brand particularly strong. Other studios, less so. Even Marvel is beginning to feel constrained, arguably. In Captain Marvel, the fate of the hero is never in doubt; she has to succeed in her mission and come into her own, because we know she's going to save the day in Avengers: Endgame

The upside of the shared universe, according to traditional logic, is that it creates an inbuilt audience for the project. Yet that might not actually be true; despite the breathless fervor for Avengers: Endgame on social media, only 18 percent of respondents in a recent Morning Consult poll carried out for The Hollywood Reporter said that they’d heard a lot about the movie being the final chapter in the MCU’s current story arc. By comparison, twice that many, 36 percent, said they’d heard “nothing at all” about that. Could it be less the shared universe conceit that mass audiences are responding to than the Marvel name and the familiar characters and actors?

The sizable, undeniable success of Marvel Studios made it a no-brainer that other studios would want to repeat the formula in hopes of achieving some similar level of success. But, as it enters its second decade surrounded by all manner of failures of various copycat attempts, it’s time for everyone to accept that Marvel might simply be a fluke, and that the shared universe is a concept that everyone else should stay away from unless it happens slowly and organically. (I’m looking at you, Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw.)