Can Anyone Besides Marvel Make a Cinematic Universe Work?
With last week's Pacific Rim Uprising aiming to keep the robots-fighting-monsters franchise alive, the question of what studios have to do to launch a successful cinematic universe is once again prompting conversation.
Few studios can boast the overall pop culture influence and box-office clout of Marvel Studios, but what Kevin Feige and his team have done over the past decade has rightfully piqued Hollywood's interest in universe-building.
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While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (18 films released so far, with two more set to hit theaters later this year) has grossed more than $14 billion worldwide, it is far from the first franchise of films to hit it big at the box office — though it is the standard bearer on crafting a shared cinematic universe.
DC, Marvel's chief competitor in the superhero arena, tried to follow in Feige and company's footsteps with its recent DC Extended Universe, which kicked off in 2013 with Zack Snyder's Man of Steel. The film received middling reviews (55 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), but was successful enough to score Snyder the 2016 sequel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. That film, which introduced Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, was a critical disaster (27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). And while it made nearly $875 million, it was still somewhat of a financial disappointment for Warner Bros. Studios, given the popularity of its lead characters. (A year earlier, Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron pulled in $1.4 billion — and that's down from 2012's Avengers haul of $1.5 billion.)
The DCEU was further hurt later that year when David Ayer's Suicide Squad was met with even worse reviews (26 percent). DC's answer to the MCU was off to a rough start, due in part to its rushed production and overzealous film slate announcements before fans had seen more than one film. Even the success of Wonder Woman, the only film with a positive rating (92 percent), was not enough to bring fans together for last year's Justice League, which, despite featuring many of DC's most recognizable heroes, grossed the least of any film in the DCEU.
DC's woes pale in comparison, however, to Universal's recent failure to launch a planned "Dark Universe" franchise around its classic movie monsters. Boasting such star power as Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp, the series hoped to take flight with last year's The Mummy. Unfortunately for Universal, the film was DOA at the domestic box office, making just $80 million despite its massive budget and proven bankability of its lead. The film's failure sank the proposed Dark Universe before it even had a chance to begin.
The closest analogue to Marvel (in terms of success) is Star Wars. While Star Wars, which up until Marvel's current reign was the top franchise in town, has made more than $8 billion globally and has been a mainstay of pop culture for over four decades, it wasn't until after the MCU kicked into gear and Disney bought Lucasfilm that it began branching out into a shared cinematic universe across multiple stand-alone films. While 2016's Rogue One and the upcoming Solo tell stories directly connected to the series' main trilogy installments, more is on the way. The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson will helm a new trilogy that will further branch out and add to the Star Wars mythos, while Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will write and produce their own trilogy. It's entirely possible that as the galaxy far, far away grows, it could start seeing more crossovers a la Marvel's films (just as Leia and Darth Vader appeared in Rogue One).
One of the key differences between a regular franchise, such as The Fast and the Furious or Pitch Perfect films, and a shared universe is the amount of planning and interweaving that goes into each individual film. Its all too easy to make a film that exists solely for the purpose of setting up future installments and expanding a world, rather than a film that stands on its own merits while deftly hinting or winking at its place in the larger mythos.
In that, the MCU has flourished. Starting with 2008's Iron Man, the universe launched with a simple tag scene at the end of the film, showing that Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark was not alone in the hero-verse. The film itself was aimed at being an enjoyable stand-alone experience, not as an overall advertisement for 17 subsequent movies. That mentality has persisted through most of the MCU films over the past decade, which is all the more impressive as its roster of heroes now exceeds the two-dozen mark.
For Pacific Rim, a film that performed poorly domestically despite being directed by fan-favorite Guillermo del Toro, the viability of an ongoing cinematic universe might seem low, but Uprising director Steven DeKnight has said that he’d love to see an animated series based on the property, as well as future films expanding the universe following a third movie. Furthermore, the first film was a major hit overseas — particularly in China, where, in the five years since Pacific Rim was released, the number of theater screens has increased from 18,195 to well over 40,000, making the country the second largest film market in the world behind only the U.S. The creative team has already started seeding the ground with comics, and Pacific Rim Uprising ends on a note that clearly sets up a third installment.
Legendary, a Chinese company, may be able to bank on overseas reception to the Pacific Rim franchise, coupled with a stronger lead in the new film in John Boyega, to actually get some traction on its planned universe for the series. While the sequel grossed just over $28 million domestically in its opening weekend, it pulled in over $122 million overseas.
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