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Forget “Superhero Fatigue.” What About Interconnected Universe Fatigue?

Movie posters for Marvel's Avengers: Endgame, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and Godzilla vs. Kong.

Recently, I came across a tweet that got me thinking about how Hollywood works these days:

Franchises with long lines of sequels and remakes are nothing new, nor is discussion of what is “canon” to a given story or fictional world, but this tweet is obviously referring to a trend started by Marvel Studios. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is still going strong well over a decade since its first installment in 2008’s Iron Man, and its unparalleled success of complex interconnectivity is naturally something all TV and movie studios want to replicate.

The Marvel formula already isn’t working for everyone

After The Avengers became such a huge cinematic phenomenon in 2012, studios saw what Disney had on their hands and became determined to create their own interconnected universes for the big (and small) screen. Unfortunately, most were more focused on the long-game of creating a huge franchise that they didn’t build a solid foundation for them.

Universal put a logo in front of 2017’s The Mummy claiming the movie to be part of the “Dark Universe” … and promptly shelved that universe after the film (along with 2014’s Dracula Untold) did poorly. The studio had planned to make two more movies for the franchise in Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, which ultimately never happened.

Even the aforementioned DCEU, which is probably the second-most well-known example of this phenomenon right now, did the same as the other studios and is known for having a lot of difficulties in keeping continuity and building brand loyalty in audiences. Look how wide the range between DCEU movies’ box office returns is; it’s wildly inconsistent compared to most other major film franchises.

With more recent installments, their focus has shifted to making each movie stand on its own (even though most of them still take place within the DCEU), rather than emphasize the shared universe—a smart move given that the movies which have focused on the shared universe the most (namely, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League) have been some of the least well-received in the franchise.

What’s the secret to shared universe success?

The difference between all of these and the MCU is that the goal (at least not the main goal) of Iron Man was to make a successful standalone movie; while the idea of making more films featuring other Marvel characters was certainly there, the complex interconnectivity the brand is known for today was not—yet.

A lot was riding on Iron Man’s success, but the worry wasn’t that it wouldn’t get to execute an intricately planned cinematic universe if the movie didn’t do well, but that Marvel Studios itself would potentially shut down if it flopped. Yes, there was the Nick Fury moment at the end of the movie, but there’s no way even those who worked on that scene knew just how big the teased “bigger universe” would become.

It’s notable that the other current big franchise that has managed to successfully lead up to a crossover in a similar way, Warner Bros.’ Monsterverse (the most recent installment, Godzilla vs. Kong, being said crossover), constructed itself in a similar fashion to the MCU. The studio started with Godzilla in 2014—a standalone movie which proved to be successful. It wasn’t until Kong: Skull Island three years later that the movies started coming out more frequently, building towards the big match-up.

It’s ironic that Warner Bros. has done relatively well with this franchise but is the same studio that has had so many issues keeping the aforementioned DCEU on track.

The Suicide Squad poster.

(Warner Bros.)

Marvel’s success comes with its own pitfalls

Don’t get me wrong; the MCU’s interconnectivity is certainly a barrier to entry for many people, and that’s likely to become more and more of a problem as the franchise continues on with about a dozen projects set to come out each year for the foreseeable future. The Monsterverse movies don’t have this problem yet, as each installment has been pretty accessible to newcomers, something the MCU does with one or two projects per year now.

But it seems to be more than just one franchise that has people tired. Somewhere along the way, the interconnected universe model went from a novelty to a chore, at least for some viewers. Those who have been fans of comic books since long before the MCU and DCEU—or “nerd media” fans in general—are largely still gung-ho for vast onscreen universes and more than willing to put the time in to keep up with them. But that enthusiasm can cause superfans—not to mention studios—to become oblivious to the fact that this level and increasing presence of interconnectivity can be a turn-off to a casual, widespread audience.

Crossovers used to be a rarity on television and almost unheard of in movies. When it came to spinoffs, there usually wasn’t any “required viewing” of the original thing in order to understand and enjoy the new one. But in the past decade or so, that has changed, and now entertainment as a whole is much more serialized. TV episodes used to play once and never air again. If you missed them, you missed them, and before home video (and now streaming services) movies would play in theaters and disappear unless they were rereleased or you managed to catch them on television.

While this increased accessibility of media is one factor in all the interconnection, one thing that hasn’t increased is the amount of time people have in a day to watch things. Last time I checked, there are still only 24 hours in a day, and only seven days in a week. People want to use their leisure time to relax, and if watching a show or movie during that time feels more like homework than entertainment, it’s no longer a “leisurely” experience.

Since it appears that the shared universe may be a trend that people are souring on, it’s possible that the window of opportunity for new franchises on such a large scale is closing. There’s already an added level of difficulty for franchises that don’t have the existing foundation of decades of interconnected comics like Marvel and DC. I suspect, though, that if someone comes along and makes something that has quality storytelling and the potential for an expanded universe, many viewers might be willing to “put in the work” to join the conversation and enjoy it, so this is here to stay.

(image: Marvel Entertainment, Disney/Lucasfilm, Warner Bros.)

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