Studios race to build cinematic universes


We’re all familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe which so far has given rise to several highly successful and mostly well-regarded movies, not just from Marvel’s parent company Disney but also from other studios like Fox and Sony which own the franchise rights for the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man respectively.

The interconnectedness of their titles allows Marvel to launch movies based on new and sometimes little-known characters with the knowledge that they can reduce the financial risk by introducing the character in a related (and already successful) movie series. Some members of the Avengers like Hawkeye and Black Widow were introduced in the Iron Man films and Black Panther was recently introduced in Captain America: Civil War.

Rival comic book powerhouse DC Comics (which is owned by Warner Bros.), actually has the more iconic superheroes by far and has successfully brought both Superman and Batman to the big screen, but had previously been unable to use either film series to launch other characters from their staple. They finally put a roadmap together a few years ago to build a series of films around the Justice League (DC’s version of the Avengers). This started off with Man of Steel in 2013 and followed up with this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both directed by Zack Snyder and both somewhat disappointing. In the past few months, a senior task force has been assembled to sort out scripting and creative issues. Today’s release of the first trailers for Wonder Woman and Justice League (both due in 2017) indicate that they may have got their act together. As a bonus, Suicide Squad, an R-rated anti-hero movie which was once considered a ‘side-show’ in the DC Cinematic Universe is now among the most anticipated releases of the year and may fuel public interest in the movies to come, possibly even forcing Warner Bros. to include Suicide Squad characters in the other films.

So it’s clear that studios are now looking not just to create franchises but cinematic universes. As per the Marvel formula, a universe can be created by starting with a series featuring one character (e.g. Iron Man) and then by launching new series featuring other lead characters, who were introduced in the original series. Another way to milk an established franchise is by creating spin-off films starring supporting characters or by going backwards or forwards in time within the franchise timeline to tell the story of an earlier or later generation of characters.

The latter approach is exactly what Warner Bros. is trying with the forthcoming release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is the first in a new trilogy set nearly a hundred years before the events of the Harry Potter films. It narrates the adventures of ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander whose book on magical beasts was one of the required school textbooks at Hogwarts. Talk about inventive thinking! I’m sure the folks at Warner Bros. must be looking through all the Harry Potter stories to figure out how many other characters or references can be spun off to further expand the Potter Cinematic Universe.

Disney is employing a combination of both strategies to rejuvenate and extend the 40-year-old Star Wars franchise. Faced with the reality that the original cast are ageing, they introduced a new generation of  characters in last December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens to whom the torch is passed to continue the good fight against the evil empire. But that’s not all. Disney is also doing a ‘Newt Scamander’ by creating a series of spin-off ‘anthology’ films, which expand on characters and situations from the original trilogy. The first of these is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story releasing at the end of this year. This will be followed two years later by an origin story for Han Solo.

A new universe in the making that I am very excited about is the one coming from Universal Studios. This one will bring together the classic horror monsters which brought the studio great success from the 1930s to the early ’50s. If all goes according to plan, we will get to see Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Gill-man (from 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Dr. Jekyll all occupy the same cinematic space over the next few years. The first movie in the series was a bit of a misfire – Dracula Untold from 2014. Presumably the studio already knew they had a dud on their hands and therefore refrained from publicly marketing this film as part of a future franchise. Instead, they will launch the franchise with a far surer bet – a new remake of The Mummy set in modern times, starring Tom Cruise scheduled for release in 2017. Russell Crowe will appear in the movie as Dr. Jekyll, perhaps testing waters for a stand-alone Jekyll & Hyde feature. Earlier this year, it was announced that Johnny Depp would star in The Invisible Man for a 2018 release.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. with production partner Legendary Pictures is attempting to create a universe which brings together King Kong and Godzilla. The 2014 remake of Godzilla is being treated as the first film in the ‘giant super-species cinematic universe’ to be followed by Kong: Skull Island in 2017 and Godzilla 2 in 2018.The first trailer for the former was released yesterday and showcases the powerhouse cast of Tom Hiddleston, this year’s Oscar winner Brie Larson and veteran actors Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman. As can be expected, the trailer gives only brief and incomplete glimpses of King Kong. The Godzilla reboot cast the giant reptile as mankind’s savior against two other monsters. Fanboys refer to these monsters by their Japanese appellation kaiju, but in the film they are referred to as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Obviously, we will see more MUTOs in Godzilla 2 in 2019, possibly from original rights holder Toho’s collection of baddies such as King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. And so, when Godzilla and Kong meet on-screen in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong, one can expect city-levelling mayhem that would put even Zack Snyder’s DC films to shame. An intriguing possibility is that Legendary Pictures may find a way to fuse this universe with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim series which it also produces. This seems highly unlikely though it would be the ultimate kaiju wet dream!

For fans of epic/ big effects films, the next few years promises to be very exciting with superheroes, monsters, aliens and giant creatures invading our theaters. Just make sure you can keep track of how they are all related to each other!

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