The hot news out of Tinseltown today is that the architects of Universal’s Dark Universe have jumped ship. This is not incredibly surprising given the deluge of bad reviews, middling box office receipts of The Mummy, or the fact that discussions of the overall universe direction were vague at best. But, I mean, why would any of that matter when planning a multi-year, multi-franchise, multi-platform project thingy?
Hollywood really needs to stop with this Cinematic Universe obsession.
Oh, I get it. Everyone is jealous of Disney’s toys, and so they want their own. Marvel transformed the industry with its vast, interlocking universe of smart-ass superheroes and whitewashing. Lucasfilm has a gazillion films about beeping trashcans and CGI dead people in the pipeline. And these make tons and tons and tons of money.
But executing a cinematic universe is no small feat. Disney knew this right out of the gate, DC Films should know this (more on that later), and I know this given the massive Gay Nerds Cinematic Universe currently in production at Nowhere Studios.
It starts with tons of story. Decades worth, in fact.
When Disney launched its universe with Iron Man in 2008, it had already done its homework. Kevin Feige was a massive Marvel fanboy who saw the potential in the cinematic equivalent of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s comic universe. There would be individual superhero stories, a few odd cameos, one massive crossover event, and voila! Nerd dollars everywhere. Even better if they held the rights to these second-tier, largely ignored heroes, and focused on relaunching each with a visionary (but not too visionary) director and a charming (and definitely not difficult) lead actor. And each story had to mean something as an individual part and as part of a larger whole. Quality control and an attention to detail was important, as it would build brand loyalty and aid in launching riskier properties.
(Disney repeated a version of this after acquiring Lucasfilm. Again, they were working with a firmly established universe with tons of story, an established chronology, and characters desperate for a relaunch. All they had to do was reconnect with the tone of the originals and distance themselves from those busted-ass prequels. “Did you love the glorious space opera of Star Wars? Well, you’ll love watching trade embargoes. And want more of our favorite heroes? Well, what about their parents making out?” Oh, George.)
The formula is easy, but executing it is not. It requires a visionary-of-sorts at the top, an innate understanding of what makes each franchise tick, and the aforementioned quality control. And so everyone else in Hollywood thought, “I can do that!” and then didn’t do that.
Like, not only abandoning the formula, but putting questionable creatives in the driver’s seat, not fully understanding characters, and releasing critical dud after dud. I’m mostly talking about DC here, but it could also apply to Hasbro’s failed universe or Universal’s failed goth experiment. Instead of relaunching Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman separately, DC decided to rush ahead after Man of Steel and smash as many heroes as possible into a shakily-conceived universe.
I mean, it didn’t help that Man of Steel was already a deeply conflicted film that veered tonally between Christopher Nolan’s recent Dark Knight Trilogy and the nihilism of many a homoerotic Zack Snyder film. (#FilmDegree) This was the fertile soil from which we got Batman v. Nonsense and Suicide Squats. Characters introduced via short clips on a computer desktop. Will Smith not being charming. Viola Davis utterly wasted. And all of this with the top-tier nature of DC’s heroes. Batman? Superman? Wonder Woman? These are characters with decades of brand identity.
Now DC seems to be backing away from a cinematic universe after the standalone success of Wonder Woman. Or maybe not? They hired Joss Whedon to do a quippy clean-up on Justice League, but they’re also releasing films with different versions of superheroes and villains that apparently aren’t related to the main cinematic universe because that’s not a HORRIBLE IDEA. Let’s have two Jokers and maybe two Batmen and fifteen Wonder Women. Let’s make some of them grounded and realistic, but others super cartoony and quippy. Ugh. What a hot mess.
And of course there’s the Call of Duty-verse. And the Lego-verse. And the Jump Street-verse. And the X-Men-verse. And the Fast&Furious-verse.
Hollywood, make your money. Make tons of it. But reaping the rewards of a cinematic universe requires an investment of time and, again, quality control. You can wring out generations worth of money from consumers off solid brands that were built over years, but you can’t do much with three hours or Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill grimly punching each other in the junk.
Or, like, maybe you can, but you’d need to market it to a different niche. Like of the NSFW variety, if you catch my drift.
Ugh, I’m so tired. Hire me, Joss Whedon.