How Do You Build The Next Big Cinematic Universe?

Guardians of the Galaxy, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, Logan – with all the heroes up-up-and-awaying across our screens this summer, you’d be forgiven for feeling a bit confused about how they all fit together in their respective cinematic universes.

Now, the announcement that Tom Hardy will be donning the black, symbiotic suit of Venom marks the commencement of another universe – this time for the Marvel superheroes licensed to Sony. Although superhero movies are now ten-a-penny, this announcement has caused a buzz throughout the comic book world.

So what is so special about this move? And what might this mean for the development of cinematic universes going forward?

Making Marvel: The Growth of the Cinematic Universe

Since Marvel released its first solo, big screen venture with Iron Man in 2008, their superhero stable has grown tremendously: there have now been 15 marvel films, with 11 more in various stages of production.

Together, the films have raked in over $11 billion across the globe. The latest offering – Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 – is looking to clear $800 million at the worldwide box office. Unsurprisingly then, other production companies are eager to get a piece of this spandex-covered pie and build up cinematic universes of their own.

Exploring the Cinematic Multiverse

To date, Marvel’s biggest rival in terms of success has not been not DC (although they have had some notable successes) but Star Wars. The power of the Star Wars franchise has led to an increasing desire to populate this Universe with spin-offs (like Rogue One) and origin films.

These powerful universes indicate to content creators that consumers like to get more access to their favourite brands – especially when content has appeal to a broad family audience. A good example of this is Lego, which has leveraged the power of its product by making smash films such as The Lego Movie ($470m), Lego Batman ($311m), and an upcoming Ninjago film.

The belief that consumers are willing to invest when a trusted brand (such as Lego) extends itself into new areas is a reason more and more brands are building universes around their key products. For instance, Universal is launching its Movie Monsters universe with this summer’s re-launch of the The Mummy. At the same time, brands like Hasbro, Call of Duty, and even Hanna-Barbera are all speculating about how they might build distinct universes of their own.

Creating Space for Character Development

Of course, there are many benefits to creating cinematic universes, most particularly the attractiveness and profitability of creating films connected with a well-known brand name.

In terms of content, however, these cinematic universes also give filmmakers a unique opportunity to create deep, intertwined portraits of individual characters. Marvel’s The Avengers, for instance, brought together a lineup of characters that fans cared about: the stand-alone origin films preceding The Avengers gave audiences the space to develop an attachment to each of the main characters, imbuing the superheroes with a three-dimensionality that would have been difficult to achieve in a single 120 minute film.

However, as these stories become more complex the number of characters being explored in marquee films increases as well. While this is great for merchandising (at Hook, we regularly have conversations with our young respondents about their favourite Marvel toy or character), it is also making it harder to develop character-driven stories.

One of the major criticisms of 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron was that there were too many new superheroes added to the mix (mainly, the Vision, Scarlett Witch, Quicksilver, and Ultron) that diluted the connection that viewers had with the main characters. Two years later, James Gunn explicitly addressed this in his second outing with Guardians of the Galaxy, trimming down the cast because:

“Everything is just getting too sprawling and too crazy for me in these superhero comic book movies… There’s just too many characters so you can’t concentrate on one and really get to know that character.”

Now compare that with the ‘superhero’ movie that has generated the most buzz (and the best critical reception) in the past year: Logan. Beneath the blood and profanity of this R-rated flick lies a profound character study of The Wolverine. Standing out against the bleak backdrop of the American West, Logan’s humanisation is particularly prominent. The film shows us less of a black-and-yellow suited superhero (ala Marvel’s Avengers) and more of a psychologically wounded man coming to the end of his life.

A Bit More Character, a Bit More Venom

It would appear, then, that Sony aspires towards this character-driven model with Venom. Casting A-lister Tom Hardy in the role will of course drive hype around the movie, but the actor is also particularly well known for his nuanced portrayal of physically limited characters – check out his critically-acclaimed portrayal of the taciturn Max in Fury Road or the masked Bane in The Dark Knight Rises to see proof of this.

It is this casting – and the potential character study it offers – that is exciting commentators around the world, and there is hope that this character-driven approach will infiltrate the universe that Sony plans to create.

Instead of a series populated by hoards of cape-clad heroes, metal men, and big green beasts Sony might be well on the way to creating a universe that emphasises depth of character over breadth of characters. Then again, it might just be another vast universe designed to fill our summer film schedule with even more superhero films…

By Nick Fisher, Co-Founder, Hook Research

Hook Research is a media research and content development agency. We are proud to provide consumer insights and brand strategy to some of the biggest organisations across media, youth, and entertainment all over the world. Want to have a chat about how we can help your business? Get in touch at enquiries@hookresearch.co.uk

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