It’s Their Universe, Not Ours

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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59 Responses

  1. Burt Likko says:

    I don’t think this is nearly so bad a thing as the OP and the underlying article make it sound.

    For instance, seeing the photograph of Wonder Woman with Steve Trevor and the rest of her WWI friends in both Batman v. Superman and the new Wonder Woman movie added to the continuity and immersiveness. I would rather that in the newer movie, the handling of that photograph as a link between the films had been less heavy-handed, but the continuity (which took more work than one might have thought) felt right to me. The new WW movie is an origin story where BvS was very much a sequel, with all of the heroes fully-developed and interacting with one another.

    What I wish, especially in the superhero movies, is for the writers and visual directors to find a way to convey verisimilitude without making everything seeming so damn grim all the time. Iron Man did this a bit with the banter between the title character and Pepper Potts, done well enough that I could occasionally overlook that level-headed Pepper Potts was really moonbat Gwynneth Paltrow. But too many scenes of even those movies lose sight of whimsy in favor of offering us a look at grit.Report

  2. Jesse says:

    “Marvel was actively preventing Marvel from making good movies:”

    *Looks at Marvel’s Box Office*

    It seems Marvel is making the movies people want to see, even if they’re not “good.”Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Jesse says:

      Everyone hates McDonald’s.

      Everyone goes to McDonald’s.

      Because everyone knows that while they might hate McDonald’s, they’ll hate it exactly the same amount every time. They won’t get a Big Mac that is, unexpectedly, more revolting than all the Big Macs they’ve had in the past.

      So if you’re looking for something to do with the kids other than “play Minecraft for six hours and then throw a fit before going to bed”, then you can be pretty sure that a Marvel movie will be that thing. Maybe it’s not a good thing, but they’re not gonna not like it.Report

      • Pinky in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Low mean, very low variance.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Pinky says:

          Yes. And I have a feeling that “low variance” is at least as important, when someone describes quality, as absolute performance.Report

          • Pinky in reply to DensityDuck says:

            It’s true for food (at least for me). I can’t tell you anything about the best Chinese food I ever had, but I can tell you a long story about the worst. I’d rather go to Panda Express and have neither experience.

            As for movies, there are only a few “chains”. Marvel is definitely one of them. I guess the new thing about movies isn’t the size of the chains, but the disappearance of the mom-and-pops.Report

        • Brent F in reply to Pinky says:

          I wouldn’t characterize Marvel as low mean. If we’re comparing them to the genre and type of film they are playing in, they put out a consistently good product. Their man fault would be following their own formula too much and not taking risks to put out a great product.

          If we’re looking why they are successful though, I’d point to an excellent marketing department and a superb casting process that seems to consistently put the right acting talent in the right roles and have them carry the projects. Those are probably much harder things to copy than the shared universe gimmick that works best for their own IP but Hollywood tends to copy the easy and superficial over the more difficult to replicate bits.Report

          • North in reply to Brent F says:

            The writing is also really good. It ain’t deep philosophy but it’s really well done and their use of humor lets them paper over a LOT of deficiencies. Look at the DCU and how badly it shambles by falling short of the MCU on just a few things comedy chief among them.Report

            • Brent F in reply to North says:

              Yep, when you get down to it they have a lot of in house strengths. I’d add being really good at managing tone as well as an excellent grasp of character-based rather than plot based film-making as things they are good at. Casting and marketing is just what they are arguably the best in their business at doing.

              What it usually gets down to though is Marvel Studios pretty much always puts out a movie audiences generally enjoyed and made money. Which appears to be really, freaking hard in their business. Its understandable competitors would rather copy the apparently easy “shared universe” idea (which is much harder to execute than they seem to realize) rather than the more challanging prospect of putting out a consistently acceptable product.Report

          • Will H. in reply to Brent F says:

            That’s if you look at “superhero films” as distinct from “action films,” which they are not.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Jesse says:

      Her main point was that they’re creating a model that optimizes revenue at the expense of film quality. Pointing out revenue is like that “fact check” that Meryl Streep wasn’t overrated by virtue of her being so highly regarded.Report

  3. Kimmi says:

    You let the Television Writers make the movie.
    You get Skyfall, probably the best James Bond movie ever.
    Yes, it was self-referential, and even a dash mocking of its own premises.

    But no, it wasn’t a “Let’s make a long story” show.Report

  4. Jesse says:

    Ignore This – Wrong WIndowReport

  5. Saul Degraw says:

    I would say this is a kind of fan debate.

    You have people who seem to be the “high fans” who complain about all this stuff and think it is confusing and turns people from comic books.

    And then you have the fans who judge movies on a rather different scale and seem more concerned with the spectacle, the amount of kick-ass, and a lot of inside-jokes.

    DC movies seem largely bashed by the “high fans” because of their absolute embrace of “grimdark”. I sort of know the head of the Comic Art Museum in San Francisco. He is the kind of “high fan” that really hates the grimdark of the DC movies especially those directed by Snyder. For some reason he has an especially strong love of the 1960s Silver Age DC comics which seem rather silly for me. In the rush to Batman v. Superman coming out, he was posting things on FB about how the only rating he thinks a Batman v. Superman movie should have is “G”. And he would post all these silly covers that DC did in the 1960s like Batman v. Superman what-ifs where they are foster brothers or something where Batman needs to turn himself into a Toddler.

    I suppose he likes these more because he has a young child and wants to be able to share comics as much as possible with his toddler. There also seems to be an ethos in some sections of geek culture that it is for everyone and that the grimdark turns people away.

    But Batman v. Superman still made a lot of money at the Box Office because there are more people who confuse grimdark with seriousness and really like the spectacle of it all. The same is probably true for Marvel movies. Most people are practicing more of a “Wouldn’t it be cool” kind of fandom and their hearts explode with delight at all this stuff even if it troubles the critics.Report

    • James K in reply to Saul Degraw says:


      I’m not a comic fan, but one of the reason I like the lighter movie and TV adaptations is that I demand one of two things from entertainment – it must either be smart or fun. I’m fine with dark themes in intelligent drama, but comic book stuff typically isn’t smart enough for that.

      This why my favourite of the CW DC TV shows is Legends of Tomorrow. It’s not good from a technical standpoint, but its aware of its own ridiculousness, and it runs with it.Report

  6. DensityDuck says:

    It is also interesting that the same things that happened with Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3” were what happened with Whedon’s “Avengers 2” (and “Civil War”, for that matter.)Report

    • North in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Yeah it’ll be interesting to see if they shake it. I agree with the core premise that the callouts might just be the kudzu that kills the phenomena of shared universes.Report

  7. LeeEsq says:

    The Shared Universe phenomenon creates an illusion of depth. By having all these little connections and some big connections in comic book movies, you allow the audience to believe that they are watching something deeper and more artistic than a comic book movie.Report

  8. LeeEsq says:

    The Shared Universe phenomenon creates an illusion of depth. By having all these little connections and some big connections in comic book movies, you allow the audience to believe that they are watching something deeper and more artistic than a comic book movie.Report

  9. Doctor Jay says:

    Yeah, a lot of these complaints kind of hit the “Yes, and?” note. I was aware that the superhero story has a particular form, it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I think what has people’s interest is that it’s starting to expand beyond the superhero realm, into stuff like the Mummy (and wasn’t Transformers going to be Shared Universe with something?)Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to Will Truman says:

        Well, the latest Transformers is clearly a franchise bid for an expanded universe. I just don’t like the established universe or characters. But that’s cool. I don’t get mad that someone made a movie that I don’t like. I don’t have to like it.

        But to me, the Mummy is also fair game for this stuff (though I think it looks terrible). If it’s an alternate-reality idea (fantasy, sf, space fantasy, superheroes, etc), a consistent set of “rules” about how things works is kind of a good idea.Report

        • Will Truman in reply to Doctor Jay says:

          There was apparently an effort to put GI Joe and Transformers into a shared “Hasbro Universe”… which strikes me as more questionable than Mummy meets Dracula.

          I sort of like shared universes, whether superhero or characters from Michael Connelly books meeting one another. I do think Doyle touches on a potential danger with it, though.Report

          • Jesse in reply to Will Truman says:

            Eh, there are actually a few good GI Joe/Transformers comics that came out in the last few years. Now, they’d never actually work as movies, but it is possible to work out.

            I mean, this is also the same “shared’ comic universe with the Ghostbusters and Star Trek because those are the franchises that IDW (the publisher) has the rights too.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to Jesse says:

              I always consider those pocket stories, like the DC/Marvel stories, rather than genuine shared universe. Did they crossover in ongoing GI Joe titles?Report

            • DavidTC in reply to Jesse says:

              Eh, there are actually a few good GI Joe/Transformers comics that came out in the last few years. Now, they’d never actually work as movies, but it is possible to work out.

              If they had made G.I. Joe 3, it would have had a Transformer at the end of it as a cameo, merging the two franchises. Transformers were still secret at that point in the Transformers universe, so no need to explain where they had been.

              It is still entirely possible that if they do ever make another G.I. Joe movie, it will still do that, although now Transformers, being public in their universe, would possibly be more involved than a cameo.

              I mean, this is also the same “shared’ comic universe with the Ghostbusters and Star Trek because those are the franchises that IDW (the publisher) has the rights too.

              It’s more than that. IDW has Ghostbusters and Star Trek licenses, yes, so can throw them all in the same universe in the comics. (And Doctor Who, which has crossed over with Star Trek repeatedly.)

              But you’re never going to see a Ghostbusters/Star Trek crossover as a movie, or a Star Trek/G. I. Joe as a movie. Ghostbusters is owned by Sony, and Star Trek is owned by Paramount, and Doctor Who is own by the BBC, etc, etc. Unless there’s some sort of Who Framed Roger Rabbit type cross-agreement.

              But G.I. Joe and Transformers are both owned by Hasbro. And are both licensed to Paramount for making movies.

              Having them in the same movie is no harder, licensing-wise, than having Wonder Woman in a Superman movie.Report

          • North in reply to Will Truman says:

            Yeah before we should panic I think we need to see the shared universe phenomena escape from the comic book hero genre. Right now it hasn’t (and frankly it’s not doing that hot on the DCU side of its own genre either). So it’s probably too soon to break the glass.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to North says:

              The Dark Universe being that escape is why we’re discussing it!

              Also, DC’s television shared universes have done pretty well! For some reason, it’s movies that they have difficult with.

              Which is funny, because at first glance given the characters you’d think it would be DC that would be better at movies and Marvel at television.Report

              • North in reply to Will Truman says:

                Probably is my marvel genes but I think the DC shared TV universe reeks. Then again I have an inbred dislike of parallel dimensions and time travel.

                Dark Universe so far appears to be stinking up the joint. I mean it’s full of undead monsters and wolfman so I suppose a certain amount of stink is to be expected but I didn’t mean literal stink.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to North says:

                They’re successful, at any rate. I wish they would collapse Supergirl and Arrow into one timeline, though. With regard to Earth-1 vs Earth-2 I always preferred the original post-Crisis singular timeline than the multiverse, so we actually sort of agree there.

                The main problem with DC’s films is that the films themselves aren’t great individually, and those that are good individually don’t play as well with others. But on the television side, Batman and Superman worked together in Diniverse, Beware the Batman was also a good building block for a universe even if it didn’t happen. A similar case could probably be made for Young Justice. Less so for Teen Titans or Brave/Bold, though each of those were good in their own right. I’m pretending Jackie Chan Batman never happened.Report

              • North in reply to Will Truman says:

                Yeah for sure. DC is really strong- in animated TV series. But if you take out the Diniverse it’s kindof a bleak landscape.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to North says:

                How about Gotham?Report

              • North in reply to Kimmi says:

                I have given the baby batman series none of my viewing time though what little I’ve seen of my hubby watching it has made my eyes roll so hard my fillings rattled.Report

              • DavidTC in reply to Will Truman says:

                I wish they would collapse Supergirl and Arrow into one timeline, though. With regard to Earth-1 vs Earth-2 I always preferred the original post-Crisis singular timeline than the multiverse, so we actually sort of agree there.

                Just gotta keep The Flash on the air 7 more years, and we can make the Flash’s future newspaper article come true with Crisis on Infinite Earths.

                Actually, we cannot. In that article, the battle is apparently with the Reverse Flash, who currently has not ever existed (That sounds right to me), but also has stopped not existing but being alive and is now also dead (Hrm.), and who also, I believe, has recently been eaten by the Langoliers (No, wait, that can’t be right.). He’s like, super not alive anymore, which probably means he’s going to inexplicably show up any day now.

                So if that’s going to happen differently, I guess it can happen at any time. I was wondering if Flashpoint was going to do it, but nope. They also passed up a chance to do it with the Spear of Destiny. So they don’t seem to be in any hurry.

                Anyway, the real problem with putting Supergirl in that universe is it puts Superman in that universe, and Supergirl is already having a hard enough time keeping him from stealing the show. (I’m of the firm opinion Supergirl would be better off if they temporarily killed, or kidnapped, or depowered Superman.)

                Also, sorta weird, there would be aliens everywhere. That’s a major theme on Supergirl’s earth, but no one knows about them on Legends of Flarrow earth.Report

  10. Jaybird says:

    The main thing I love about the shared universe is that it hasn’t really been done before on anywhere *NEAR* this scale.

    What’s the closest we’ve come? The Universal Monster movies? And those were done in the 50’s?

    This is the first time anything has been done like this for anybody who grew up with color televisions.

    On one level, of *COURSE* this could be done better. It could be handled with more skill.

    I can’t wait to see what shared universes 2040 will be able to create.

    Before we get there, we have to go through this, though. Because it’s never been done before.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Jaybird says:

      Well, there was “Aliens versus Predator”. That kind of…didn’t take off the way everyone wanted it to.

      And it’s important to remember, in these discussions, how much of this rides on Robert Downey Junior being so great in the first Iron Man movie. Like, if that movie had been a bomb then nobody would have even considered an Avengers movie (let alone extensively reworking the planned Thor and Captain America films to suit it).Report

      • Kolohe in reply to DensityDuck says:

        They made at least two AvP movies, right? I never saw them, but I remember the review of the first one was something like ‘it was pretty good when all the stupid humans were dead and we finally got to AvP’Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Kolohe says:

          Aliens vs. Predator spent all their money on intellectual property and they didn’t have anything left over for scriptwriters.

          Sure, I can appreciate the initial inclination to say “it writes itself!” but if you don’t actually have aliens fighting predators for 95% of the movie, you’d be well-served to have a smarter plan than “we just need to make it better than Aliens 4.”Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Jaybird says:

      Along the same line of thought as Density Duck, the first Lego Movie was the mother of all shared universes, with literally the entire toy box to play with.

      There was a very high risk of it going very poorly, (I want to say i remember a great deal of skepticism at the premise). But it did not go poorly, just the opposite – because they made the shared universe a thing but not the *main* thing.Report

      • Brent F in reply to Kolohe says:

        To be clear about The Lego Movie, the creative team of Lord and Miller have made a career out of being fed a stupid high concept premise and pulling of something both funny and human. See also, Clone High and Jump Street.Report

    • Will H. in reply to Jaybird says:

      I came upon Erekosë in The Silver Warriors before finding Corum and the Chronicles many years later. Then to Dorian Hawkmoon in The Mad God’s Amulet before hearing the Elric series is supposedly his greatest work, which I now dispute.

      Ripe for the picking though.
      Not sure who holds the rights.
      Seems inevitable.Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      I think it’s going to end, probably sooner than later. Marvel and DC are almost like extractive industries. They have all this stored up story stuff that holds a cachet with the public but they’re burning through it far faster than it can be made. I expect it’s going to be depleted.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to North says:

        Not so long as there are flow charts.
        And simplified Flow Charts.
        And Flow Charts for the Flow Charts…
        … and finally, an electronic Personal Assistant called Ticky to explain to the other writers just what in the sam hell is going on.

        Old Man Henderson was 300 handwritten pages of backstory for a “I’ma Break Your Game” character that rocked the Cthulu Universe.

        So long as that one guy is writing, there will always be more stuff than there’s time to put on air.Report

  11. Michael Cain says:

    Speaking as someone who jumped from DC to Marvel in the early to mid 1960s (and who has forgiven my mother long ago for disposing of my single-digit issue number Spider-Man and Daredevil mags)…

    One of the things the early comics did, and the movies have carried over, is to put fairly strict limits on the super powers that any one character has. DC was stuck with Superman, and the constant need to find ways to limit his powers — kryptonite, magic, lead, etc — in order to have semi-reasonable plots. In the MCU we have Thor getting his comeuppance from daddy in his first movie, Iron Man’s regular overconfidence in his engineering, and so on. I admit to a fondness for some of the little touches: all of the Avengers have had a bit too much to drink, Thor has them trying to lift Mjolnir, and has that little bit of concern that Cap might be worthy.Report

    • All of this is sort of why I would guess – if I didn’t know any better – that if DC and Marvel each had a particular strength it would be movies for DC and television for Marvel. It’s really hard to come up with something for Superman to do on a regular basis, but a single set of movies? Zod for one, Darkseid for another, Doomsday, Braniac… you only need a handful of rivals. And television for Marvel because its characters tend to be more relatable and less iconic/archetypal, which makes for better viewing week in and week out.

      Instead, it’s the other way around (in my view, I know Marvelites think Marvel is better at both).

      I should theoretically prefer Marvel over DC in that if I were to describe the general things I prefer they definitely line up more with Marvel. But just could never really get into it as much. DC has kind of alienated me, but I don’t really look at Marvel as an alternative. And it’s not something to do with those specific things because I’ll take Impact/Archie Crusaders over the old Ultraverse, where many of the same dynamics applied.Report

      • Brent F in reply to Will Truman says:

        It seems Marvel solved that issue by making their film series structured like it was the most expensive TV season of all time.

        Otherwise the qualtiy issues seem to largely be down to who got lucky with a creative team that knew what they were doing at which time.Report

  12. George Turner says:

    You youngsters act like this was something new. When I was growing up, it wasn’t DC v Marvel, it was cowboys v WW-II soldiers. All the cowboy shows had cowboys riding around on horses in the cowboy universe, whereas all the WW-II shows had soldiers riding around in WW-II. It was all “Ah. This guy is in Dodge City but he came from Yuma, where he was in that other dust up.” and “So this New Jersey guy must’ve been at D-Day with that Ohio kid from that other movie.”Report

  13. Richard Hershberger says:

    FWIW, I have largely passed on the recent spate of superhero films. This isn’t due to any aversion to the genre. Partly my viewing habits have changed. I go to a theater perhaps once a year, and am most post-DVD, so it depends on what pops up on a streaming service I subscribe to. I could overcome this if I were motivated to, but I’m not. But all the crossover stuff is also a down side so far as I am concerned. Whenever a crossover appears, and I’m not familiar with the character/event/setting, there are two possibilities. Either it matters to the film I am watching, in which case I am forced to play catch up, or it doesn’t, in which case it is wasting my time and attention. I really liked Jessica Jones. About three quarters of the way through the series a new character pops up. I’ve ridden on this turnip cart before, and could tell that this was an established character, but not for me. It was a distraction. The show was good enough that I was wiling to tolerate it, but it was a minus, and didn’t make me more likely to watch other Marvel Universe shows.

    Somewhat related, shared universes were a trend in written SF some decades back. It probably started with Star Trek fanfic in the ’70s, which evolved into an entire shelf of Trek books at Borders. Another was the Wild Card series shepherded by George R. R. Martin back before he won the Epic Fantasy lottery. These were superhero stories (text: not graphic) by different authors in a shared universe. I was intrigued. A few books in, it dawned on me that they simply weren’t very good. They’re still being produced, so my opinion obviously wasn’t universal, but my sense was of a combination of minor authors piggybacking and (comparatively) major authors cashing checks. There is something about working in someone else’s universe that seems to induce mediocrity.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Try Shadow World, which worked until the wheels fell off.

      Shared universes work awesomely well when someone’s at the reins. See Doctor Who, for example. Shared universes are Television — see what Retta did with her character on Parks and Recreation.Report

    • Will H. in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      I watched several of the superhero films when they first came out.
      I never saw most of the movies mentioned in the thread here.
      I actually feel better for having missed them.

      If it’s been awhile since you watched a movie without a fight scene, or one without dialogue, here’s this (? 12 min.).
      More to my tastes these days.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Somewhat related, shared universes were a trend in written SF some decades back. It probably started with Star Trek fanfic in the ’70s, which evolved into an entire shelf of Trek books at Borders. Another was the Wild Card series shepherded by George R. R. Martin back before he won the Epic Fantasy lottery.

      You have confused two different meanings of shared universes.

      The first is a universe that a lot of different writers write in.

      The second, the one we’re talking about here, is one with a lot of different centers. Where there are different sets of protagonists and villains.

      These overlap a lot (If you have the first, you often have the latter.), but are not exactly the same thing. And you can have a shared universe that is written by one person, or at least under the same umbrella. (Buffy and Angel, for example.) Note that what Kimmi said is technically correct, in that almost all TV shows are ‘shared universes’ in the sense that multiple people write them. (And directors have input, as do actors, although never as much as people assume.)

      The second thing, the thing we’re talking about, is basically a spinoff. Except spinoffs start with some deliberate tie to the original source, and then move away, whereas shared universes just…mention stuff. You might not even know it’s the same universe until the end, where Nick Fury shows up and tells you.

      As for Star Trek, Star Trek fiction, both fan and official, tended to, at first, center around the series. And all series tends to make explicit connections to existing series. Star Trek, weirdly, works as a spinoff, not a ‘shared universe’ (Even TNG was introduced with…super-old Doctor McCoy, in the very first scene.)…although you’ll note that Enterprise shifted and did go with ‘shared universe’, maybe. (Although that’s mostly because they didn’t have any way to do a ‘spinoff’.)

      All this ‘shared universe’ hype is basically ‘We are starting things that really are spinoffs in that they are in the same universe, but no longer feel the need to start the series with that fact’.

      And sometimes not even that. The DC TV universe shows, for example, are specifically spinoffs…except Supergirl. (In fact, the start of The Flash was sorta weird, in that they gave him his powers on, and originally wanted to have him wake up and be The Flash, on Arrow, and then run off (Pun intended) into his own show…and then at the last minute they put him in a coma and instead woke him up the first episode of The Flash.)

      And you are correct. The Wild Cards series is complete crap. Just, utter…nothing. I read about four books into that before I realized it.Report