This article originally published on Viking Social Agency on May 1, 2019
Last week Marvel Studios released Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of an unprecedented 22 movie arc that paid off with the largest opening weekend box office gross of all time. By the end of the films first five days, it had grossed $1.2 billion world wide and, as of the end of April, is the tenth highest grossing film of all time. This franchise has seen unparalleled success, in no small part due to how the films have touched audiences around the world.
Arguably, Marvel is at the peak of its popularity and it remains to be seen what the next few years are going to look like, but it’s clear that this time is one for the history books. When films succeed, studios try to capitalize on that success by trying to recreate it. Superhero films are often referred to as the westerns of this generation, since when the westerns were doing well, every studio was putting one out.
There have been a number of attempts to create another shared cinematic franchise from Sony, Universal Studios, Fox and Warner Bros, but they tend to miss a key equation in the Marvel formula. Since just after the release of The Avengers, there have been talks of studios like Sony developing a “Robin Hood shared universe” which would focus on developing movies based on each of Robin Hood’s Merry Men. This eventually became last years Robin Hood film. There were talks of King Arthur shared universes, which eventually became Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword.
Universal Studios tried twice to launch a shared franchise of monster films, once with Dracula: Untold and then again with Tom Cruise The Mummy. Both of these films failed to resonate with critics and audiences and were scrapped. Guillermo Del Toro talked about how he was approached to start a shared franchise for Universal but they couldn’t see eye to eye. That project ended up turning into The Shape of Water for Fox Searchlight. Now, Universal is poised to try again with next year’s, The Invisible Man from Blumhouse. Third time’s the charm, right?
The biggest competition for Marvel comes with Warner Bros. attempts. Since the end of Christopher Nolan’s’ Batman trilogy, they have been pursuing a comic book franchise with a lineup of films based on DC Comics. This started with Man of Steel and continues today. While financially successful, the films failed to resonate with audiences like the Marvel films did. Ever since the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros. was in some form of restructuring. After Justice League failed to perform at the box office, Warners decided to refocus on creative driven projects like Aquaman and Shazam. Something that seems to have worked in their favor.
Sony and Fox both attempted to recreate the Marvel formula with their own Marvel properties but they ended up disastrous for each company. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was supposed to launch a large amount of villain centered spin-offs but the failure of that film, and the, now famous, “Sony Leaks” ended up forcing the company to make a deal with Disney to share the character of Spider-Man. The box office failure of Josh Tranks Fantastic Four film scrapped plans to include the characters in future X-Men films. Sony is still going forward with something they’re calling “Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters” which seems to just be focused on Spider-Man villains such as Venom and Mobius The Living Vampire (which is currently filming with Jared Leto as the lead).
The common denominator for all the failed shared franchises seems to be studio mandate. James Dyer of the Empire Podcast, said in his discussion of The Mummy that “audiences know that films are made for money. But they don’t like being reminded of it.” he was speaking of the idea that The Mummy was a clear attempt by the studio to launch, what they hoped to be, a billion dollar franchise. James Gunn, director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films chimed in on the influx of shared universes by saying that you need to lay the groundwork before you start building these franchises, if you don’t then they’ll collapse.
Audiences resonate with creator driven products. It’s why Marvel did so well. Before 2012, The Avengers was a pipe dream for Marvel Studios’ president Kevin Feige. He focused on one film at a time in the hopes to someday make a film that crossed over the characters like Captain America and Iron Man with Thor. There was no studio mandate to make a billion dollar franchise by including other characters and loose threads to be picked up in future films. The Mummy and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 both include plot threads that were meant to set up future spin off films.
The Conjuring has done so well because they didn’t plan on creating spin-offs, they just focused on making one good film. Aquaman made $1 billion because because it felt like a James Wan film. Conversely Justice League did so poorly because it felt like a studio mandated film and not a film with a singular voice.
Marvel is not the only template to create a franchise like this, but the key ingredient that everyone else was missing was a creator’s voice.