The Secret to Making a Movie Shared Universe Work

Shared universes are the new big trend in movies. Every movie company that can create some sort of larger universe encompassing a few of their films is trying to do so. This really is not that surprising. What is surprising is how many of them are failing miserably.

The shared universe trend was really started by Marvel Studios. While there had previously been a few crossovers between movie franchises, such as “Alien Vs. Predator” and “Freddy Vs. Jason,” and even small shared universes such as the Universal Monsters that would cross over on occasion, it was Marvel who made shared universes cool. Marvel Studios, which has the rights to make the movies for the non-X-Men and Fantastic Four Marvel properties, released its first film, “Iron Man,” in 2008. This movie contained an after the credits scene that hinted at a movie uniting one of Marvel’s main superhero teams, which became a reality in 2012’s “The Avengers.” Since then, Marvel Studios has continued to make movies that are all set in the same universe and crossover with each other. The critical reactions to these movies have been mostly positive.

Other shared universes have not been as successful. Universal Studio’s attempt to create a new movie shared universe centered around their various monsters makes sense given the history of crossovers between a few of them. However, their first attempt to do this was adding an after the credits scene to 2014’s “Dracula Untold” at the last minute. Then plans to have the movie universe spin off of “Dracula Untold” were scrapped. It also makes sense that DC Comics would try to compete with Marvel by making a shared movie universe based on their comics, but the three movies they’ve made so far have all received thrashings from critics and fans.

So why has Marvel’s shared universe managed to be so much more successful than all the others? It all comes down to the fact that Marvel had an actual plan for their shared universe. They wanted to introduce the Avengers in separate movies and then have them unite to save the world. That alone would have been a good plan for a movie shared universe, but they had an even larger plan. “The Avengers” introduced the villain Thanos, who has since been built up further in many of Marvel’s other movies. The ultimate goal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to unite The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and other heroes like Dr. Strange in order to save the universe in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” Are there still parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that were not planned when it first began in 2008? Of course. Many directors and writers were hired later, and Marvel Studios obtained the rights to make Spider-Man movies in 2016, thus adding new elements to the universe. But at the end of the day, Marvel Studios had a long term plan for their movies, and this is what sets their shared universe apart from all other.

If other movie universes are going to succeed, then the studios behind them need to come up with actual reasons for their movies to cross over. The after the credits scene in “Dracula Untold” was added on at the last minute to a movie that was not originally planned to be a launching point for a crossover between all of the Universal Studios monsters, and there clearly was not a real plan for how and why these monsters would be brought together. DC has majorly rushed their shared universe in order to catch up to Marvel, meaning that “Justice League” will be their fifth movie despite the fact that most of its main characters will not have had their own movies leading into it. Also, only one of their movies thus far has hinted at using Darkseid as a main villain for their other films, and it is hard to tell how long they even plan on keeping his story going. Other mysteries are introduced  in DC’s movies, but the audience is left with no idea when and in what movie they will be solved. DC is constantly hinting at new film, such as “Gotham City Sirens” and “Nightwing,” without revealing any release dates. This vagueness is clearly not because they want to keep viewers guessing, but because they lack a definitive plan for how to move their movies forward.

So at the end of the day, both the studios behind failing shared movie universes and shared universes that have not started yet, should look at what allowed Marvel Studios to dominate this space and realize that having a plan can really pay off.

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