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World Weary: Why Not Every Superhero Franchise Needs a Universe of Its Own

Amazing Spider Man X Men
Sony Pictures/Marvel/20th Century Fox, Illustration by ScreenCrush.com

People love universes.

Or, more precisely: People love fictional universes. At least, I hear much more about the Marvel universe and the ‘Star Wars’ universe these days than our own infinitely fascinating real universe, but I digress. This isn’t inherently a bad thing – it’s not too surprising that serialized stories, which is really what we mean when we talk about universes – are popular. If a person likes a character, why shouldn’t he or she want to see more of that character?

(As a child, I didn’t quite understand the logistics of how this worked. Why, say, I only got to see Han Solo in three movies, yet Officer Carey Mahoney was somehow in four of them.)

And the thing is, it’s not easy to create a character that people love. Not only does the character have to work, but the actor has to work, too. Anyway, my point is that it’s hard to begrudge anyone for wanting to trot out a beloved character over and over – it’s just now we live in a world in which we’re being sold that character’s friends and that character’s enemies, too.

Most likely, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ will be a huge hit. It’s being touted as a “risk,” but it’s not all that risky, thanks to the universe in which it happens to take place. People who might have absolutely zero interest in a movie that involves spaceships will see ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ because one day Star-Lord will probably meet Iron Man. Again, this is for the most part a smart strategy.

"Just make some fun movies."

Look, I’m the type of person that is going to look forward to a movie that has a spaceship in it regardless, but I will admit I do feel a sense of heightened anticipation that ‘Guardians’ takes place in a universe in which I’ve already invested eighteen hours of my time – that’s much longer than a full season of ‘Mad Men.’ Building a universe is an enticing thing to do and in most cases the smart thing to do, if the tools are there to pull it off.

Anyway, this brings us to ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past.’ And, more specifically, how Fox is treating its potential portion of the Marvel universe compared to how Sony is treating its very thin slice. (While all of this is going on, Warner Bros. is building its own cinematic universe from the DC characters with 2016’s ‘Batman vs. Superman‘. It’s too early to pass judgment on the strategy, but it is interesting how quickly everything has escalated from a spy satellite that happened to have Bruce Wayne’s name on it to a movie in which Batman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg all appear.)

Writer-producer of ‘Days of Future Past,’ Simon Kinberg, said that the X-Men movies and the upcoming Fantastic Four movie will live in “distinct” universes. This is interesting because I don’t believe him. I mean, I certainly believe that this first Fantastic Four movie will have nothing to do with the X-Men, but down the road it will be too enticing to ignore the crossover appeal, especially if the Fantastic Four movies become popular. But, it is notable that at least it seems that the idea is to at least establish the Fantastic Four – let us get to know these characters – before jamming them into a movie with Hugh Jackman. (I don’t care what Jackman says publicly, I have little doubt that he’ll still be playing Wolvering when he’s 90.) But at least it appears that from this point forward, Fox is attempting to do things right with the properties that they own – and they actually do have the rights to enough characters to pull something interesting off here.

When I was in music class in grade school, on special days we’d play musical chairs. What I remember most about this, was that every time a classmate was kicked out of the game for not sitting on a chair fast enough, he or she would leave the group and have to take a chair with him or her. Then something weird happened: The children who had already lost would start their own secondary game with the discarded chairs. But it didn’t work because there were always just enough chairs. There was no point, but they kept doing it anyway and they somehow convinced themselves that it was the same thing, even though it clearly was not the same thing. Anyways, this sad secondary game of musical chairs reminds me of what Sony is doing with Spider-Man.

I won’t lament on and on why it makes no sense for Sony to be trying to create a universe out of one main character – others have already called for Sony to back off on its plans for a Sinister Six movie and it’s obvious that smushing all of this extra nonsense into ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ in an effort to set up other movies didn’t really endear itself to the public, at least box office-wise. (A lesson Marvel proper learned with the bloated ‘Iron Man 2.’) Again, it’s telling that Fox – which has hundreds of characters at its disposal – is backing off of this. Yet Sony, which really only has one, is trying to build a universe of movies that don’t include Spider-Man, just people who know Spider-Man. This would be like trying to sell you a Crocodile Dundee movie that was only about Gus, Mick Dundee’s limo driver played by Reginald VelJohnson. (To tell the truth, I might be more excited about a ‘Mick Dundee’s Friend, Gus’ movie than a Sinister Six movie.)

If I were making decisions at Sony (I promise, they are not asking), I’d look at Spider-Man like James Bond. They can’t just keep rebooting Spider-Man every time their star either (A) gets sick of doing them or (B) starts pushing 40. Why not just keep the adventure going indefinitely with different actors? It’s worked in the comic books for 52 years now, and that Peter Parker doesn’t look much like the one in the comics today, but it’s the same guy. Why not take that mindset, versus this whole concept of the trilogy and the shared universe. Just make some fun movies.

Again, the appeal of a universe is understandable – people love them; I love them – but you don’t want to look like those school kids in the corner playing a game that has no chance of working.

Mike Ryan is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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