Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On Shared Universes

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Shared universes are all the rage right now. Generally, as you might expect, this is a thing I like. But are we going too far? For the purposes of this discussion, we'll call a shared universe any mixed media that doesn't follow a single narrative, but follows multiple characters and/or narratives across at least one for of media. We'll also focus on the big names, not one-off tie-in books, etc. Off the top of my head, we have:
  • The MCU
  • The, uh, DCU
  • Star Wars
  • Harry Potter
  • MiB/21 Jump Street ha ha I'm kidding.
  • Star Trek
  • The Walking Dead
And then there are ones that just miss the cut, like Game of Thrones. But you get the idea. For the most part, however, these are good things. Everyone loves the MCU. DC is trying to right the ship after the BvS debacle. And who doesn't want more Star Wars?!?!? Wait, do we want more Star Wars? Of course we do, Dean, you say. You, of all people, want more Star Wars, right, Dean? Hey, I love Star Wars as much as the next person, as long as the next person freaking loves Star Wars, but let's look at what we have on the docket:
  • Rogue One
  • Han Solo
  • Boba Fett
  • Someone else
  • Oh and I think some movies following episode VII?
That's for now! Plus a ton of new books, comics and video. Basically, Star Wars overload, which sounds great until you really start to think about, oh, say, Han Solo getting a movie about Han Solo pre-Episode IV, and what the directors have said:
“He’s a maverick, he’s a scoundrel, he’s clever but he’s not smart and he wants to present himself as this cool, tough guy but in the end he always does the right thing and that’s why you love him so much and why he’s one of the most iconic characters of all time”
WHAT. NO. That is not Han Solo. He had NO heart of gold coming INTO Episode IV; that's what makes his arc so compelling. And then Boba Fett! Imagine what they're going to do with him. Turns out, he's not such a bad dude and has a puppy. What makes Boba Fett great is we DON'T know him. But, hey, maybe some people really want this.

Oh, RIGHT, you already HAVE it all
And that's basically the great and terrible thing about these sorts of franchises - you can explore all these backstories and details, and as long as they are well done, it'll probably work.

Except it doesn't technically have to be good. We're all suckers for this, because once it has a certain  momentum, it's is a guaranteed hit, good or not. Are we all going to turn up for every movie listed up there? YUP. Am I stupidly excited for Suicide Squad, even though BvS was hot garbage? You know I am.

We clamor and clamor for original movies, original franchises, and something different, but then we go see Thor: the Dark World, despite the fact that you didn't even remember that movie existed until I mentioned it just now. So when Hollywood execs look at what movie to greenlight, they say "Thor is a guaranteed blockbuster, and we just recycled the script from the first one" instead of "Holy crap, maybe we should make a good original movie", because we all went out and handed it a $85m opening weekend*.

But what's the alternative? Another 30 years of no Star Wars? Or the last times anyone tried to adapt Marvel to the big screen? Or the time before that? Or are these franchises starting to bog themselves down? Look what making Age of Ultron did to Joss Whedon- he had to balance so many agendas and stories that he was handed an impossible tax, and we were handed an overstuffed mediocre movie. But then we got Civil War, which was fantastic, so maybe it is all fine, in the amalgamation.

Perhaps looking at them as shared universes is the wrong way to approach it, then - is the MCU good? The DC whatever? - but on a case-by-case basis. BvS sucked; maybe Suicide Squad will be good (edited to ad: Not lookin' good). Age of Ultron was meh, Civil War was spectacular. We've actually been doing it for years with Star Wars- we all basically pretend the prequels never happened, while loving the Clone Wars show and Episode VII.

So while we can do that; enjoy each piece on its own merits, there's still the voice in the back of my mind questioning if all this** money should be going into so few buckets. The Funko Pops, the Sideshow figures, the LEGO sets, all are branded with the above-listed franchises. How does a creator (cough cough) elbow their way into the midst of such massive brands? Does new, original content that we all say we want stand a chance of standing out?

I don't have a grand conclusion; I've had notes for this post for months, and I have no answers to any of those questions. I could, of course, make a call to pump the breaks - hey, maybe let's not give movies like BvS a $150m opening weekend - except I saw Civil War, Star Wars and Deadpool*** opening weekend, and celebrated those box office numbers.

I could say, go see small-studio and indie films, but that's like saying read indie books: A lot of them suck, and they aren't always widely available.  So, no grand conclusions, just the hope that the Han Solo movie isn't the Star Wars equivalent of Thor: The Dark World.


*Granted, it's only competition that weekend was The Book Thief. But that's also kind of the point.


***Does Deadpool even count for this post? That just makes Deadpool cooler.

****I am 100% available to write any movies or shows in any of the universes, if any producers are reading this