We can, and no doubt will, debate which film was the proverbial canary in the coalmine, but there’s little arguing that 2017 marked the beginning of the end of the cinematic universe — or at least the often ill-conceived plans by rival studios to replicate Marvel’s blockbuster success. It was as if Hollywood suffered its own Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which one shared universe after another collapsed upon itself, until only the Marvel Cinematic Universe stood on solid ground.
The appeal of such shared worlds to studio executives is obvious, as they help to feed the same commercial hunger for the familiar that’s sated by sequels and remakes. When done “properly,” as in the case of Marvel Studios, a cinematic universe develops into a brand strong enough to provide tent-pole after tent-pole, and weather the occasional modest-performing release with no ill effects.
But a poorly conceived cinematic universe — one whose reach far exceeds its fumbling grasp — can result in disaster, sometimes a slow-motion train crash, and other times a quick, shocking explosion. This year we experienced a bit of both, as studios learned Marvel made creating a cinematic universe look easier than it actually is.
DC Extended Universe
Warner Bros.’ so-called DC Extended Universe stumbled out of the gate, with director Zack Snyder’s divisive Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (or maybe it was with his divisive Man of Steel), and it never really regained its footing. However, it’s not the poor critical and commercial performance of Justice League that may have doomed this shared cinematic universe, but rather the success of Wonder Woman.
Set primarily during World War I, director Patty Jenkins’ acclaimed film wasn’t moored to the continuity established by its predecessors — in fact, it retconned a troublesome detail from Batman v Superman — and it didn’t need to shoehorn in a cameo from the likes of Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight or Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen. Wonder Woman could to tell its own story, and develop Gal Gadot’s heroine, free of the constraints of the studio’s multiyear franchise plans. It’s a lesson DC Entertainment learned quickly, with President Diane Nelson explaining earlier this year, “Our intention, certainly, moving forward is using the continuity to help make sure nothing is diverging in a way that doesn’t make sense, but there’s no insistence upon an overall story line or interconnectivity in that universe.”
Add to that talk of an emerging separate banner for DC Comics-based films, including a 1980s-set Joker origin, and remarks by The Batman Matt Reeves that his project “wouldn’t be filled with cameos servicing other stories,” and what was presented in late 2014 as a “cinematic universe” begins to look more like a loose assembly of superhero features.
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