Shared Movie Universes: The Modern Serial?



The period of time movies have been around is relatively short, especially compared to their ancestors. No, not the ebook. The original, hardcover book. Books have come in many forms and have been produced in many different formats. Some have been written as one-off stories, while others have been written as multi-story events.

The idea of a serial came about with continuously written stories like Sherlock Holmes.

Then the days of the comic book came about in 1837 with The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck. This format lended itself better to the idea of a serial format than the novel, however both proved successful. Series like Flash Gordon, Captain Marvel, Batman, and others were incredibly popular.

The idea of never ending a story but picking up in the middle and ending in the middle was then an acceptable, popular format. This way, readers could stay with characters they grew attached to and never had to worry about a world that an author had made being ended.

And then came film, and with it movies and television. We see that the serial format has been picked up by nearly every television show, proving that the format is still alive and well. However, recently there’s been a surge in many movie production companies wanting to adapt the format for their franchises, specifically because of the success that is Marvel and its respective properties.

So the question becomes, is this format most appropriate for movie franchises, or should it be reserved for other forms of entertainment?

Let’s dive into a few reasonings behind each way of thinking…


  1. The Format Works for Marvel


There’s no denying that what we’ve seen come from Marvel Studios is pure magic, but is it magic in a bottle? I.e. Can that same magic be created twice, specifically by another movie studio looking to replicate what Marvel has done, only with its own characters and its own world?

Let’s break down what about this format works for Marvel.

When Marvel Studios started its franchise by releasing Iron Man in 2008, they were hoping it would be successful and that it would lead to an opening to release more movies and set up a shared universe.

Now that we, and of course Marvel, know that what they did worked, they have a slate of movies mapped out to 2028, and probably more in store beyond that.

But there was always that back-up plan in case things went south with the first Iron Man movie. There was always the possibility of having to do a one-off movie and scrap the plans for the shared universe bit. Marvel Studios was testing the waters, and tested further when they released the next movie, and the next. It’s not that they weren’t sure if audiences would appreciate the serial format, it’s that they didn’t know if audiences would stick around for a movie universe in a serial format.

Movie studios love their franchises because, once proven successful, they become cash cows and executives know they are safe investments. Marvel Studios movies have become the biggest movie franchise cash cow in history, with about $10 trillion in sales.

So it works. Right?

When comics were the hottest thing to hit the stands, it was Marvel and DC going at it, even all the way back then. Nothing’s changed, except now Marvel Studios has managed to adapt its properties and its proven format to the big screen, while DC and its properties struggle to gain traction. And it’s not through lack of trying. DC has a pantheon of movies planned through the next few years as well, and has the backing of quite a few A-list actors and actresses. Not only that, but DC has subjectively more popular characters at its disposal.

So what’s going wrong?

You could chalk up poor box office returns to poor critical and audience reception, and you’d be right. But does one bad title in a serial movie format derail the train? Does the poor reception to DC’s movies keep it out of the running, or do audiences give them a pass? And if they do, how many passes are they allowed?

These rules aren’t established yet, as whenever a DC film performs under-par, there’s a massive shake-up of executives. They’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars, and they don’t even know what game they’re playing or the rules of the game.

A lot of companies are trying this new thing called “shared universes” based on one case study; granted that case study made the ultra-rich company Disney even richer. But is there a science to this art? Or is the secret just in widely-loved movies, each one building and improving on the last, with only a few exceptions?

WB and DC are in a tight spot; they’re three movies in and the vast majority of moviegoers are either indifferent or downright hostile to their current releases. Is it because they hate the plots, don’t like the new interpretations of characters they love, or is it because people don’t like the dark tone after we’ve enjoyed so many visually and tonally lighter Marvel movies?

WB has literally hundreds of millions of dollars at stake and a huge pipeline of movies in the works, all with the hope that Batman v. Superman would deliver. But since it fell short of expectations, is it reasonable to continue this serial format for this universe? Should they reboot, retcon, or trudge through the thrashing reviews and lower-than-expected box office returns?

Marvel has had a lackluster performance in Iron Man 2, a movie most would consider more expository in that it is attempting to set up this shared universe through an established character. So world-building, an essential element of the serial format, is often set up in the background when done successfully, but thrown in your face and dominates the plot when done incorrectly.

So let’s be generous and consider Batman v. Superman DC’s Iron Man 2. Both movies use established characters to build a world around them, both arguably putting a well-formed plot on the back-burner in comparison.

So that means that if Marvel can survive one lackluster movie in Iron Man 2, then DC can survive their current releases, right? Again, there’s too many factors, including what what audiences didn’t like about the movies, or where DC could improve, like tone, visuals, and character interpretations. DC has to fix these things if they want to survive the long haul.

But in general, audiences are forgiving and willing to come back to abandoned properties if they hear rave reviews for a new entry in it.

  1. The Format Makes for a Confusing Order and Might Hurt Longevity

Most people, whether they grew up reading comic books or not, know what one is and how it operates. They know that comic books are generally continuous and some are seemingly never-ending. It’s an old format but far from a tired one.

Aside from the serial format, we have its adaptations in television. Look at longrunning shows The Walking Dead, the epic Simpsons, and Law & Order with all of its many, many spinoffs. So the obvious question “can this format be adapted to film?” is then answered. It’s a resounding “yes.” Of course it can be done. And it should be done for television. It’s a medium that makes sense for television shows. You can sit down and binge a large amount of Fritos and eat a large amount of Stranger Things in one sitting. Wait, that doesn’t sound right.

But my question is, is the serial format appropriate for movies?

A few years from now, will people remember what order the Marvel movies go in? They’re not numbered, aside from the numbered entries in each character’s respective films. But will anyone remember what order Guardians of the Galaxy is in? Does anyone care? I can tell you firsthand that people with OCD not only exist, but they care. They care a lot about order. Specifically, they care about the order of Law & Order.

We’re about thirteen movies into this Marvel universe and I’m becoming increasingly lost as to which films to watch first if I were to revisit the old ones. But again, does it matter? Should I even go back and watch the old ones or just wait complacently for new ones to be released to satiate my appetite? After all, they’re coming out at a pace of more than one a year.

When I watch The Big Bang Theory (I don’t), I know what season and episode I’m in based on certain cues, such as the disc I’m watching the DVD on, the Netflix hints in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and my friends that like The Big Bang Theory telling me.

But when I watch Iron Man 3, I have to either wait for cues in the movie telling me that Tony’s PTSD was caused from the Battle of New York in the first Avengers, and not from the many other murder-bots he fought that left him with no emotional or mental scarring.

There’s really no better way of knowing where you are in the movie universe until you wait for given clues in the movie itself. But again, does it matter? Is the point of a movie the movie itself or what it represents in a shared universe? It has to carry its own weight and be good but still be tethered to the many movies that come before it and the even more movies that will surely come after it.

  1. The Format Might Hinder a Movie’s Ability to Stand on its Own

Can a movie in a shared universe really be transcendent in the way The Godfather or Pulp Fiction are? These are movies that can stand on their own, don’t rely on sequels, end where they’re supposed to, and are overall terrific movies.

So can a movie in a shared universe be anything more than just an entry in an overarching story? Or can it stand on its own and be just a really great movie? Let’s look at two examples: Batman v Superman and Ant-Man.

When we look at Batman v Superman, there is a huge amount of reliance of the audience to not only have seen Man of Steel first, but there’s also a lot of dedication to the idea of setting up this property only to establish the next film in the series.

We have entire scenes dedicated to plot threads that we won’t even touch until a few years down the road in Justice League. Specifically, I’m referring to the Knightmare sequence as it is called, in which Bruce Wayne dreams very elaborately about Superman becoming an evil overlord and a resistance led by Batman coming about to stop him.

This scene is visually stunning, but it left audiences wondering what, from both a continuity and storytelling standpoint, was the point of it. Superman isn’t really evil, so why include this scene? The Flash is shown, telling Bruce that he needs to be careful and that Lois is the key, however that doesn’t need to be said in this movie. I have to stress that: We take time out of this movie to emphasize a plot point that is not part of this movie and may never even be mentioned again.

The scene is incredibly jarring and threatens to take the viewer out of the main plot threads. Is setting up the next movie in the series important enough to take away time from the current plot?

So this brings us to my question for this point: Can a movie in a shared universe stand on its own as a movie is generally supposed to, or does it need to rely on the movies coming both before it and after it to justify it even getting to exist?

Let’s look at Ant-Man next to help answer this question. From the opening scene to the end credits, we only have a few mentions of and cameos from the Avengers. This movie in no way relies on the viewer’s knowledge of this movie universe and stands on its own as a superhero story, origin story, and an overall solid, funny film, and that’s impressive coming from like the 9th movie in the franchise.

If you tried doing that in any other previously made film franchise, like Harry Potter, it wouldn’t work. To watch the 8th movie, you would have to know who Voldemort is and why Harry is trying to fight him. There’s seven other films worth of build up, tension, and history between all of these characters, and that is what makes the final showdown that much more devastating when we lose characters we love and what makes it gratifying when the heroes finally triumph.

So, that means this is a point for the shared universe in terms of being able to stand on its own as opposed to other franchises?

Maybe. It all depends.

When you take a movie like Captain America: Civil War, it also requires that build up, suspense, and history between its characters to be fully realized and felt by the viewer. The fight at the end between Captain and Iron Man is that much more brutal, and that much more tragic when we’ve known these characters for as long as we have. We’ve seen every triumph and tribulation these characters have been through and to see them fight, with Iron Man’s intentions clear, the viewer feels something that is transcendent.

The viewer feels something almost real.

  1. It’s a More Familiar Format Than We Realize

When we talk about the serial format in modern movies, the misconception is that it’s a new one. And I’m not just referring to movie franchises; I’m talking about the movie that seemingly has no end and the end of the movie isn’t really the end, but only the middle of it’s own movie and the middle of the next movie. For the most part, that is what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has created.

But it’s not a new creation.

During the 1940’s, it wasn’t uncommon for movie serials to run in cinemas. You would, as a kid or possibly adult, go to the movies whenever a new entry would be released to follow up and find out what would happen to your favorite characters next, since every single one ended on a cliffhanger. This was essentially the precursor to the Marvel Universe.

And the amazing thing?

It was Marvel that started it back then too, with The Adventures of Captain Marvel in 1941. Of course DC followed soon after with its– you guessed it– Batman serial, one running in 1943 and another in 1949. Once a cash cow, always a cash cow.

So, when looking back at the mid-20th century, we can see that the serial format in film is not only not new, but was already a proven strategy.

The only difference?

The movies have gotten exponentially longer since then and our attention spans have gotten exponentially shorter. And I’m not just talking about a fifteen-minute attention span. I’m saying with all the noise happening around us, all of the advertisements pushing products we passively watch, all of the entertainment we actively consume, means it can be hard to focus on and recall things in the long-term.

Week-to-week it can be difficult to remember what happened on your favorite show, perhaps explaining why binge watching has become so popular.

One study found that binge watching produces better escape gratification for the viewer, maybe leading to better retention and more focus toward the subject in the show.

This is important. It means binge watching may be a more effective way to consume television shows; the content is fresh in our head and we can more easily remember what happened on the last episode and better relate it to what is currently happening. There becomes a stronger association toward the current events on the show.

However, one more important piece of information can be seen from this. When asked who had watched the show either binging it or by appointment, the ones who had watched the show by appointment noted that they could talk about it with others, while the ones who binged it could not, effectively hurting the fan base of a show.

One of the most important things about entertainment is the ability to talk about it with others, building a community, not just a fan base.

However, one of the benefits of a movie serial is that the next addition may be another year or two off, giving the fans plenty of time to want more, meaning they are forced to talk to other fans of the property.

This is how communities are built. Common ground and a want for more.

Let me know what you think below. Do movie franchises work better when they lend themselves to serial formats, or are movie studios getting carried away when, over the next few years, we’ll be getting serial formats of The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street, Call of Duty, Godzilla, Star Wars, a Monsters universe, and many, many more?


2 thoughts on “Shared Movie Universes: The Modern Serial?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s