I have to admit I’m a little bit on the fence when it comes to the phenomenon of the cinematic universe, which peeves me because I usually have strong opinions one way or the other. In not being able to work out whether I approve of this form of filmmaking, I’ve discovered a greater annoyance than any horrible trend in cinema. To be clear, I’m mainly referring to superhero films (although not exclusively so), which create a whole universe in which many other films take place, differing from a conventional series of films (such as James Bond or Pirates of the Caribbean) in that they involve several story arcs, shifting between main characters and even different styles from film to film, and also differing from typical past crossovers (such as Alien Vs Predator and King Kong Vs Godzilla) in that they are far more complex than merging two pre-existing popular series, in that all the films are considered within continuity by the producers, in that all films are considered to be of equal importance and that it is almost impossible to view any film separately.
I’m referring to both the Marvel cinematic universe and the X-men universe, which despite being originally created by Marvel has established its own separate continuity, mostly due to the rights of who owns which characters. Now you may say that the X-men series doesn’t count as a cinematic universe because with the exception of Deadpool, each film follows the development of the X-men characters, but in fact the story arcs of the young x-men and the modern day group of mutants are entirely separate but interwoven stories also entwining with the stories of Wolverine and Deadpool. And the series works in the same way as the Avengers in that by having an ensemble cast it allows individual films to focus on certain characters, whilst tying the film together with crossover characters, allowing several films to come out rapidly one after another, guaranteeing hits without exhausting any single plot line.
Rogue one is the latest example of transforming a successful franchise, in this case Star Wars, into a cinematic universe concept, again creating a guaranteed box office smash, whilst allowing the other cast of this universe to work on a different film and not exhausting the plot started with The Force Awakens too early. The advantages for money hungry studios are obvious but there’s no denying that the three universes mentioned thus far are producing brilliant films. Has this anything to do with the characteristics of a cinematic universe or are they simply good films in their own right (albeit with one hell of a budget to make sure that’s the case)? Sequels have always been worth big bucks but very few are admired more than their original films and yet each film in a well constructed film universe adds to the overall fandom of the series, allowing super-fans to obsess over a series in place of a single film; it’s almost as if it’s so hard to separate each strain of the franchise that the series becomes one long, super-film with several plots and multiple filmmaking styles. I also find myself enjoying the pleasures of an origin story whilst watching a film that is not limited to an origin story; it has a story arc by itself, and I enjoy the interconnectivity without the repetitive feeling that I’m watching a sequel.
Of course there are many disadvantages to producing films in this way; see the video below by Bobby Burns. I haven’t touched on all the poorly made universes. You should have heard by now but spoiler alert, M. Night Shyamalan based his newest film Split in the same universe as Unbreakable and for me that is toxic to both films. The idea that he might create a third film based around some odd phobia of disabled people and undo the fantastic ambiguity of Unbreakable, transform the superhero film that isn’t a superhero film into an origin story and take the few good points about Split and shatter them to make a super-villain is actually quite upsetting. If you transform any stand alone film or series into a cinematic universe you surely have to be careful not to ruin the original film since the days where you could ignore the crossover continuity, (the non-canon) or write a sequel that completely contradicted the events of whichever film was the weak link, are for better or worse disappearing (even if films are not real and therefore don’t need to make sense at all)
But the reason why I can’t make up my mind about cinematic universes has little to do with the films themselves and more to do with the greater context. Tomorrow is my first chance to see Logan, the newest addition to the X-men universe. The film looks great and going on the last few releases from the franchise I would enjoy it to at least some extent but I still haven’t seen X-men Apocalypse and I have no idea how much this film plays as a sequel. This is the danger with all cinematic universes in that if you watch them out of order you must be leaving yourself open to spoilers even with films that follow an entirely different story arc. We’ve already established that the film producers are using this technique to make lots of money, even to the point of trying to force new instantly popular franchises without laying any ground work, and are currently churning out sequels at a rate of money-swallowing terror. If you can’t afford constant trips to the cinema, you’re likely to miss at least one crucial moment in the history of the universe (yes that universe) and the DVD is only just beating the next instalment to release. X-men films have been released in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009… 2011, 2013, 2014… and two in 2016.
So even if I love many of these new superhero films I can’t help but feel the market is saturated or would be if not for the fact they are all smaller parts of one bigger movie. And I see these big movies squeezing out the independent (in both senses of that word) films and creating monopolies of storytelling. But I can’t help but feel a bit excited when I see the next instalment, especially Star Wars.