Most Important Year Ever: Testing the SHARED MOVIE UNIVERSE


Comic book movies are nothing new, but this year, film audiences will get a huge dose of something that will dominate the genre in the future: the shared universe.

Iron Man has lunch with Nick Fury

With the release of "Thor" and "Captain America" this year, Marvel Studios is banking on the success of those movies to excite audiences for next year's big-budget film "The Avengers." With these films and the already-released "Iron Man" and "Incredible Hulk," Marvel is building something that hasn't been seen much in movies: A shared universe.

"That's the next step for superhero movies," predicted Brian Michael Bendis two years ago, speaking from knowledge as a creative consultant for Marvel's films. "We've been introduced to almost every flavor of superhero.... Now it's time to get into the group dynamics.

"It's really exciting," said "Green Lantern" co-screenwriter Marc Guggenheim. "I definitely think Avengers is going to stand as the grand experiment, and we'll start to see the pieces pulling together this year after the first bit placed into the 'Iron Man' movie. I hope it all works out. I'm very optimistic. I think it's all really exciting."

Marvel, which is now owned by media giant Disney, isn't the only superhero powerhouse considering a shared movie universe for its properties. Even DC Comics and its parent company Warner Bros., which has characters like Superman and Batman, have explored the possibility of a Justice League movie, something that could hinge on the success of this summer's "Green Lantern" movie.

"'Green Lantern' is important for what DC is doing, but they're still going to do 'Superman,' and they're still going to release 'Batman 3,' so I don't think it's something that's going to make or break the studio's superhero plans, although it might provide some direction," said Jeff Katz, the movie producer and comic book writer who worked on films like "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." "I mean, they're looking to the DC franchises as a replacement for the money they made off 'Harry Potter.' So it's a big part of their plans going forward. Even with a complete catastrophe on 'Green Lantern,' which I don't see happening, there's no way you won't have more of DC movies coming.

"But the idea of a 'Justice League' film will be much more palatable to Warner Bros. if they have more than just Superman and Batman to build on," Katz said.. "The success of 'Green Lantern' and maybe another B-list character would open the door for more serious consideration of something like 'Justice League.' And who knows? You may see evidence of a shared universe even before that."

According to DC Entertainment executives, there are currently no plans for a single Justice League movie uniting their properties, and former concepts for a Justice League film have been scrapped. But no one at DC has ruled out the possibility of cameo appearances or hints of a shared universe among their various superhero films.

In fact, Guggenheim revealed that the original script for "Green Lantern" included a cameo appearance by Superman, although he said it was cut from the final version. But the writer said there's always hope. "You never know," he later teased. "It can still happen."

While most comic book fans are hoping it does happen — particularly now that an actor for "Superman" has been cast — the fact is that Hollywood has formerly avoided the idea of a shared universe between characters, and DC appears to be content with that for now.

Even Marvel barely dipped a toe into the shared universe concept when the studio dropped some hints in "Iron Man," putting a Captain America shield in the background and following the film's credits with another hint. But the studio dove in head first when it greenlighted "The Avengers." And this summer, the water gets a bit deeper.

So why now?

Educating Audiences

"I think part of it is audience sophistication, and this notion of transmedia," Guggenheim told Newsarama about his thoughts on why the shared universe is being explored in superhero movies now, after being avoided for years. "I think part of it is that audiences have been more conditioned to accept it, and they're more used to following their favorite characters across multiple stories and even into different media, or across the same medium into difference movies."

Guggenheim said "Star Wars" is one of the more recent examples of a franchise that incorporated the stories of more than one group of characters, even across multiple media. "The idea of a shared universe has been around a long time. It goes back to Dickensian literature, really," Guggenheim said. "So 'Star Wars' didn't invent transmedia, but it certainly perfected it."

"We've had 'Star Wars' for almost 40 years now, so this generation of movie watchers knows what a franchise is, and knows that it can have lots of spin-offs," Guggenheim added.

Tony Stark Meets General Ross

Katz said the idea really started to take off with the success of "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." "What they did was take serialized storytelling and make it something audiences understood," Katz said. "Every year in that release spot was one of those movies. And even though the audience has just paid to see the movie, and had sat through three hours of story, at the end of the first 'Lord of the Rings,' that the story wasn't even halfway done. Audiences accepted that. They wanted more. They accepted that there would be more characters and a bigger story the next time, and that you were just going to get bits and pieces now."

This year will test whether that works in a series of movies with different superheroes, as Iron Man's father shows up in "Captain America," and a rumored cameo by Hawkeye in "Thor" sets up things for "The Avengers."

"People who aren't in the 'know' about shared universes may not get that Hawkeye showing up in 'Thor' means that the two are going to be in another movie next year, but they'll get the idea that they exist in the same universe," Katz said. "It's just part of our world now in a way that isn't questioned anymore."

Practical Corporate Reality

Another reason superhero movies haven't crossed over in the past is that previously, comic book publishers had to find different studios to make their movies.

"For the longest time, Marvel's characters were strewn across multiple studios," Guggenheim said. "You had some people at Fox and some people at Sony and some at Paramount. That meant you couldn't have, for example, Spider-Man, who was at Sony, showing up in an X-Men film at Fox.

"With Marvel branching out a couple years ago, becoming its own studio with the 'Iron Man' movie, you suddenly had more opportunity for consolidation for the characters," Guggenheim said. "Once the characters were all under the same studio banner, they were able to start cross-pollinating with each other."

In fact, Katz said it's close to impossible that Spider-Man or Daredevil will show up with the other Marvel characters in a movie, because the rights to those characters are already owned by different studios, under old contracts. "If there was horse-trading to be done, it might happen. Like, hey, we need this release date, could you move your release, and in exchange we'll give you a cameo by Spider-Man? But in the bigger reality, Fox is not going to let X-Men go, or Fantastic Four, or Daredevil.

"Stranger things have happened," Katz said, "but when you have so many different chefs that own different chunks, it's very hard to get the numbers to work."

Eagle-eyed moviegoers noticed

Captain American's shield in

the background in Iron Man

Those numbers are less of a restriction for DC, which has been under the umbrella of Warner Bros. for decades, meaning the licenses lie with the corporate giant. "It's weird because it used to be seen as a hindrance that DC couldn't license its properties to different studios, but I think now, it might end up being an advantage. It certainly is to Warner Bros., now that they're looking to develop more than just Superman and Batman. They have the rights to the other DC characters."

What's Next

Katz said superhero fans will definitely get more of what they love as the trend toward cross-pollination will only become more of a trend, especially now that Warner and Disney are developing movies and TV shows with DC and Marvel characters.

But Katz said pointed out that it's ironic that the growth in other media might be detrimental to the actual comics that spawned the heroes. "It used to be that if you wanted to get Thor, the only way you were getting him, unless you got lucky and he showed up in a cartoon, was you had to go to the comic store. Now you're going to get Thor in 15 different media," he said. "You'll have an Avengers cartoon, you have a video game, you have the movie, and on and on. The downside is that it makes the comic book less important. That's the odd business after-effect of this. It may mean something bad for the publishing end of these companies. But for the characters and their fans, it's great. You can get Thor all over the place now. And for the studios, they can mine these franchises across a lot of media."

Guggenheim said it's exciting for him as a screenwriter to see this year's superhero movies exploring the shared universe.

"As a fan, it's great for me to see these things happening, but it also opens up opportunities for me as a creator," he said. "It's expanding storytelling opportunities."

SDCC 2010: Marvel Studios: Thor & Cap
SDCC 2010: Marvel Studios: Thor & Cap
Cast of The Avengers at SDDC


Some experts have questioned whether huge franchises won't eventually rule box offices, and the idea of a shared universe could mean some of those franchises will be linked to the point of a handful of properties. But Guggenheim thinks the shared universe concept will actually open the door for more properties.

"I don't think we're going to consolidate to the point where there's only four properties or something," he said. "What we're doing is bringing something that comic books have always had, which is cross-pollination and shared universes, into different media. And I think that's a very cool prospect both for fans and for writers like myself, who want to take advantage of those new opportunities and play around with that cross-pollination.

"I think that once audiences really embrace that idea, you'll see it played out in other media and in other areas outside superheroes," he said. "And that's just a very cool prospect for me, both as a fan and as a writer."


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