Not so super: why Hollywood’s cinematic universes are on the way out

Marvels interlinked superhero movies transformed industry thinking, but now rival studios are increasingly reverting to simpler, old-school storytelling

It’s never easy to change the habits of a lifetime. We spend much of our existence watching the more outwardly successful each member of our society and trying to shift our outlook subtly in order to be only a bit more like them. To exert more; to eat less. To expend more period reading works of fine literature and watching cult movies; to spend less time on Facebook and reading the gossip pages or football transfer news. Yet we often find ourselves reverting to type, because these are the tiny vices that get us through the day.

Something similar seems to be happening in Hollywood right now when it comes to comic-book movies. Rival studios such as Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox have noted the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe( MCU) model and would quite like their own piece of the pie. But try as they might, they cannot help but revert to older film-making models that have served them well in the past- and involve rather less joined-up thinking.

The big geek news of the past week is that Warner, the studio behind the DC Extended Universe( DCEU)- launched in 2014 with the presumed objective of competing with Marvel’s MCU- has decided it might also be quite nice to begin building superhero movies that have absolutely nothing to do with the aforementioned series of interlinked cinemas. Hence, we are hearing talk of a Joker origins movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio( and produced by Martin Scorsese ), which will be entirely separate from the DCEU movies featuring Jared Leto( who must be absolutely chuffed to bits at the news) as the clown prince of Gotham.

In its latest piece on the studio’s schemes, the Hollywood Reporteralso quietly mentions that the upcoming Matt Reeves-directed outing The Batman may no longer superstar Ben Affleck as the caped reformer, and may also operate outside the DCEU with a different performer as the dark knight.

Let’s reflect on that bombshell for a second. You’ve just spent hundreds of millions of dollars setting up a shared cosmo for your much-heralded superheroes to occupy, and your next move is to start make-up movies about the same characters that have nothing to do with the main tale. What explanation could there possibly be for such apparently muddled reasoning? Will audiences not be enormously confused at the sight of Affleck playing Batman in the main DCEU, while another actor solely pulls on the cape and cowl for solo jaunts?

Fast-track formula … Gal Gadot in Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman. Photograph: Clay Enos/ Warner Bros/ AP

Warner clearly feels far more comfortable making a standalone comic-book movie with an -Alister in the lead than it does with the considerably more troublesome Marvel format of a series of interlinked episodes featuring lesser-known starrings. The studio has presumably noted the success of its recent cinema Wonder Woman, which was loosely linked to the main DC universe but took place in a different era wholly, and therefore did not have to worry itself overly about continuity with other cinemas. The outcome was a much better picture than either of its previous DCEU episodes, Batman v Superman: Sunrise of Justice and Suicide Squad, whose directors both detect themselves bogged down in a moras of clumsy episodic world-building.

Where Marvel somehow turns the need to remind us its properties are always part of a bigger painting into a story-cultivating part- the presence of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming always felt like an essential part of that movie’s coming-of-age topic, rather than an excuse to shoe-horn in the MCU’s biggest hitter- Warner struggles to achieve similar levels of synergy. It’s not the only rival studio with this problem. Fox’s little corner of the Marvel universe, containing the X-Men movies, Deadpool and the Fantastic Four, has never been linked to the MCU. But the studio has furthermore been strangely wary of building bridges between the properties it does own exclusive rights to: hence, we saw Professor X’s mansion in Deadpool, but there was no sign of the bald clairvoyant himself in either his James McAvoy or Patrick Stewart mode. Moreover, those X-Men who did appear, Deadpool and Colossus, manifested in very different forms to those seen in the main tale.

Standalone success … Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman in 20 th Century Fox’s Logan. Photo: Allstar/ 20 th Century Fox

Fox seems likely to begin constructing more synergy into its cinemas with the advent of next year’s Deadpool 2, which will introduce the X-Force team from the comics. But the studio couldn’t defy dedicating Hugh Jackman his swan song as Wolverine in the almost completely standalone attempt Logan, a movie that might just- at a major stretch- have taken place in the same world as the main X-Men movies, but let’s face it, likely did not. Faced with the choice of a Wolverine movie linked to its ongoing efforts in the 1980 s, or one based on director James Mangold’s desire for a sombre, dystopian comic-book take over Unforgiven, the studio simply couldn’t defy the latter.

Few would argue that this particular creative decision paid dividends. And the idea of an 80 s-set, DiCaprio-led, Scorsese-produced origins tale for the Joker sounds just as tantalising. Likewise, a Batman freed from the alpha male, bully-boy nastiness tacked on to the caped reformer- purely because Warner needed us to believe in the idea of him trying to take down Superman in order to watch those box-office greenbacks rolling in- sounds like a breath of fresh air. Yet it’s also the easy option, rather than the one that might pay the richest long-term dividends for Hollywood in terms of radical self-improvement.

Moreover, I can’t help thinking that the more studios succumb to the desire to revert to form, to take the easy option of the short-term dopamine hurry of old-school, single-movie film-making, the less likely they are to make a success of the multiple-episode format that has proven so lucrative to Marvel. At a time when Hollywood is struggling to persuade us to switch off our TVs and head out to catch a movie, we surely require film-makers who really care about the big-screen visions they are presenting us with. If there is no genuine desire to build a working cinematic universe for any of these rival superhero properties, then the issues to implores itself: why bother?

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