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In recent years, it’s become apparent Hollywood has been placing bets on creating cinematic universes within different film franchises, whether that franchise is deserving of them or not. It’s quite surprising how the ratio of successful to unsuccessful universes are incredibly slim. Out of all the shared universes, in my opinion only three manage to put out quality entertainment and not feel forced. They are the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Monsterverse (Godzilla/Kong), and The Conjuring universe. So what makes these three standout from the rest?
Why the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Works
At this point, it’s pretty cliche to discuss the MCU’s success. Twenty films deep in the franchise, Marvel still manages to create enjoyable content. Not to mention, the MCU is arguably the studio that kicked off the shared universe trend with 2012’s The Avengers. Yes, there were interconnected movies before the MCU, but nothing compared to what Marvel has done. To be honest, no studio has been able to imitate the MCU’s success even until this day. But the movie that demonstrates why the MCU works is the movie that started off it off, Iron Man.
How 'Iron Man' Builds a Universe
Before 2008, no one cared who Iron Man was. In fact, nobody really cared for superheroes movies because they were hit or miss. So Marvel’s biggest issue was getting people to care about this movie, hence they wanted to focus on character and story first and foremost. Kevin Feige, the producer behind these films, was extremely passionate about creating a shared universe, but knew he had to sell the fans on Iron Man before anything else.
Everyone within cast and crew wanted to just tell a story about Tony Stark they were proud of. So the focus here is on the story. The shared universe is mainly illustrated through Agent Coulson, who is investigating Tony on the behalf of S.H.I.E.L.D, which serves the plot because of course news about a man in high tech armor would arouse suspicion to the government.
This indirectly serves as a term called “world building,” which is the process of fleshing out a fictional world. Fans of the franchise know that S.H.I.E.L.D is a prominent aspect of the MCU since that organization deals with the superheroes and villains. In Iron Man, it almost serves as a minor easter egg to the comics that doesn’t compromise the story.
The after credit scene is really the only thing in the movie that establishes that there’s more to come. Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D, tells Tony that he’s a part of a bigger universe, which is mostly a nod to the audience hinting that more is coming. The movie itself is a standalone story that still works because it focuses on Tony’s character arc, so the after credit scene is almost like an added bonus. It’s almost rewarding in a way.
Finally, I would like to point out that all of the movies within the MCU do this. Every movie feels like a standalone adventure focusing on the story’s beginning, middle, and end. Any sort of tease is usually saved for the after credit scenes, which doesn’t affect the overall film.
How the Monsterverse Builds Its Cinematic Universe
The Monsterverse is still relatively new, only having two movies out and two more in development. Legendary Pictures revived the Godzilla franchise with 2014’s Godzilla. At this point, the studio just wanted to make Godzilla movies and focused on making a movie that diehard fans and the general audience could equally enjoy. Overall, they did a great job and in my opinion, as a diehard Godzilla fan myself, I believe they delivered a fantastic Godzilla movie.
The only other movie in this universe is Kong: Skull Island, which also focused on reviving the King Kong franchise. The idea to connect these two movies seemed to come a little bit after the script started to be written. Like the MCU, these movies used a government organization called Monarch to establish world building.
In both Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, the central themes relate to mankind's interference on the natural order of things. Thus, Monarch’s presence fits both plots since it’s not only understandable for them to investigate these giant monsters, but also since they contribute to the grand scheme of the story.
Also seeing markings of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah appear in the after credit scene of Kong: Skull Island has to hands down be one of the best after credit scenes out there. It’s an added bonus to the movie that effectively sets up the future of the universe.
Finally, Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island feel like two completely standalone movies tied together by basically the name of an organzation. The next two movies are Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which looks amazing due to that Comic-Con trailer that just released and also seems to be a proper sequel to the first Godzilla; telling its own story while expanding on the one told in the first movie. Then in 2020, it’s Godzilla vs King Kong, which is slowly being built up to on the official Monarch website. The Monarch website proves the producers are very passionate about setting up this universe and care about the monsters within it since they take the time to drop clues and easter eggs for the fans that want more of this franchise.
How 'The Conjuring' Builds Its Universe
When I heard they were making a Conjuring universe, I thought it was the stupidest thing ever. Horror movies are highly profitable in the box office, and most horror movies nowadays are awful, only selling on the fact that it’s “scary.” On the rare chance the horror movie was actually really good, a sequel would be bound to happen and then that movie would suck.
The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 are exceptions to that, both instantly becoming horror movie classics and staples of the genre. They both tell unique scary stories as we follow the Warren family and their encounters with the supernatural.
This led to a spinoff following the doll Annabelle, the first one being an average movie, and its sequel Annabelle: Creation being significantly better. The Nun releases next week and looks just as scary as The Conjuring. After that there’s plans for a Crooked Man movie and The Conjuring 3.
What makes this universe work is one setting that’s barely even shown, but is an essential aspect of this universe. The Warren’s museum of possessed artifacts. This is world building because although the artifacts aren’t significant or even focused on, mainly serving as creepy background aesthetic in one or two scenes, it also demonstrates hundreds of artifacts with their own story.
Of course you don’t have to make a movie explaining how the artifacts managed to get into the Warren’s hands, but it does offer possibilities that are currently being explored. Seeing The Nun in The Conjuring movies feels well deserved because she’s a huge aspect of Mrs.Warren’s development throughout those two films. Therefore, her appearances have a purpose of being there.
Why Other Universes Fail - The Final Verdict
The common thing I focused on throughout discussing each one of those universes is that the creators tend to focus on creating a standalone story for each film first. They take it one step at a time, saving the easter eggs and hints of future installments to the fans that are invested enough to look into it. If a product starts off good, people will always want more of said product.
The MCU builds up to big crossover events, such as Avengers: Infinity War, which made a lot of money in the box office. I mention this because it’s apparent that studios want to rush a cinematic universe so they can also acquire a big sum of money. Thus, they try to jump in and make movies like Avengers: Infinity War, but without any of the build up or investment. They expect a fanbase to be automatically invested because it’ll be connected with something else, but never try to earn the attention of the same fanbase.
The shared universe is what’s being focused on rather than the story. Look at last summer’s The Mummy. Here, there’s a whole chunk of the movie with Dr. Jekyll that feels forced because it sets up a movie about him and other aspects of universal monsters that will get a movie eventually. The issue is the movie comes to a halt just to set up the universe, which takes away from the movie and makes the audience roll their eyes instead of getting hyped.
There’s tons of examples of movies coming to halts with the sole intent to sell future products rather than selling the product at hand, thus resulting in the exact opposite of what those studios try to replicate. The best cinematic universes focus on the story at hand, while the cinematic universes that fail forget the importance of storytelling.
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(Here you can find posts that’ll link you to more articles I’ve created and it’ll keep you updated on future articles. It’s also a place for you to respond to content, allowing you to also voice your opinion, and even request me to talk about a topic of your interest. It’ll be fun! If you want to read more on cinematic universes, I have an article up on the DCEU that you can find a link for on that Twitter as well.)