Revisiting the Blog: Declaring the Death of the Cinematic Universe and I Hope the Cliffhanger is On Its Last Breath

(CS: My original plan was a movie review today, but like most Saturdays, the pull of family fun was stronger than the Death Star tractor beam. So then, I was going to repost a piece that I wrote for Collective Publishing where I explored why Marvel had to quit the 'fake-out deaths', because that was in 2014 and recent movies have proven that is still an annoying MCU crutch. But it appears this is one of the pieces that got lost to time, due to needing to restart a computer that contained articles that I wrongfully assumed to have saved on a cloud.

Instead, I thought I'd repost an article from 2019 where I wrongfully assumed another annoying trend, the cinematic universe, was coming to an end, but instead, appears to have just infected the bloodstream further where now we need to watch countless TV series on top of movies to have a clue of what is going on. Time to check out how well my 2019 thoughts have aged, and if any predictions came true.) 

Over on Hollywood Reporter, there was a piece about how cinematic universes did not end up being the magic genie in a bottle that kept granting billions of dollars for a movie series and the article predicts that the MCU concept may change drastically with Avengers: Endgame. (CS: It did change, but not really for the better. There are still mid and post credit scenes teasing a grander story, but there is almost no follow-up with the proceeding movies and as for a grander story-arcs, all we have is 'something to do with the multiverse. . . maybe.') Scott and I have frequently talked about how Marvel Studios were one of the only ones able to master the cinematic universe. (CS: And now we've been criticizing it with their being too much entertainment with the movies and the Disney Plus series for a casual fan to keep up and know what is going on.) They were so successful at it with huge box office hits and people hotly anticipating almost anything that comes from the studio that every other major studio wanted a piece of the action. (CS: Marvel Studios is far from flopping, and they still had the enormous Spider-Man: No Way Home as a hit, but the fact Top Gun: Maverick will likely beat Marvel movies as the highest grossing of 2022 and there has been a steep drop off in Marvel grosses after opening weekend, show there may finally be some rust appearing.) 

I think Warner Brothers and DC Comics had a shot at it working, but they got impatient and jumped to Justice League way too soon. (CS: It still baffles me how they thought they would get Avengers money without doing any of the several years and movies build that Marvel did.) It took Marvel four years of groundwork before unleashing the massive hit that was the original Avengers. Half the heroes in Justice League had only been seen in a brief advertisement-like clip in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. (CS: This rivals Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 for laziest attempt at building a cinematic universe.)  It also doesn't help that the only good movie before their big team-up was Wonder Woman. (CS: I must concede there are many movie fans and critics that disagree with me and were big fans of Man of Steel. A movie I revisited with Everett, and it still doesn't work for me entirely.) 

Dark Universe will go down in history as one of the funniest big studio misfires. It also is the only universe to get its own trailer and the studio had a lot of faith it would be a massive box office juggernaut. Then The Mummy flopped and now, they are rebranding their monster movies with Blumhouse and going in an entire new direction (going back to horror rather than action adventures). (CS: It also appears all the movies will be stand-alone, even then we've only got The Invisible Man that despite being good, the only other definite being released that I know of is Renfield where Nicholas Hoult plays the title character who is the henchmen to Nicholas Cage's Dracula. As the first big studio movie for Cage in a long-time, I am more excited for this than any upcoming Marvel movie.) I also hope you screen grabbed the logo, because references to that universe are done. 

Remember Sony's attempts in The Amazing Spider-Man 2? (CS: Yes, I mentioned that already. Keep up!) A blatant attempt at creating spin-offs and sequels that did so much damage they ended up selling Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios to try to rehab things. Venom was awful but at least it shows they were more focused on a standalone movie rather than a major tie-in. (CS: Then Sony still tried building their own cinematic universe with that mess of mid and post credit scenes in Morbius.) There has been a Hasbro-verse threatened for the last several years that I think was supposed to include Transformers, GI Joe, Visionaries, Micronauts and other toys from the 1980s that I barely remember. It now works better as a running joke. I am pretty sure the Paramount studios is now less confident that connecting all these movies will mean anything in the box office. (CS: There is definitely a Transformers movie on the way, but I don't even know if it has ties to previous Transformers pictures, so no clue if it will set-up any other Hasbro based movies.) 

Actually, the last few years proves connecting several properties into a shared universe means nothing in the box office unless your Marvel Studios. The thing that most studios have missed is that most Marvel movies have been mostly standalone with the connection usually saved to the stinger. (CS: I know we have derided Doctor Stranger relying on movie goers having seen the terrific WandeVision series, but Marvel Studios mostly have stuck with this strategy for the rest of their Phase 4 movies.) 

It looks like most studios have figured out that audiences don't care about shared universes. Warner Brothers and DC look to mostly be focused on doing standalone movies now and given up the big Justice League dream. (CS: The new studio head seems to be focused on creating an expanded cinematic universe again, but with some stand-alone movies sprinkled in. It is the movie version of having your cake and eating it too, because as we know, most people just look at cakes.) The attention is now on just making a really good Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Suicide Squad sequel, and doing interesting movies like Joker and Shazam! rather than putting a focus on how they all connect.

Even Marvel seems to have slowed down a bit on connecting a bigger world, and movies like Thor Ragnarok, Black Panther and Guardian of Galaxy mostly work as their own things. I do wonder if after the big pay off in Endgame, if Marvel will focus even more on the movies being standalone. I know there will be another big team up movies, so there will need to be an overarching story (and a big bad) again, but I wonder if it will be even more subtle this time. (CS: Replace subtle with convoluted and confusing. And no obvious big bad yet either.) 

Subtle is the best way to put together a cinematic universe anyway. The only other really successful shared universe that I can think of is from the horror series The Conjuring. I don't think this shared universe was planned from the start like most of the other ones, but rather they stumbled into it. The Conjuring turned out to be a huge summer movie hit, and the Annabelle doll at the start of the movie freaked out the audience, so they decided to make a spin-off. The Nun spin-off was more purposefully set up, but the point is that this entire movie universe felt organic rather than mandated by a studio executive. Maybe it was mandated by a studio executive after they saw all that money, but the important part, it never felt that way. This isn't to say this route has produced all hits from a quality standpoint, because I didn't enjoy the first Annabelle or The Nun, but their issues have nothing to do with forced world-building. (CS: To pick on Sony again, another example of very forced and seems destined to flop cinematic universe building is Ghostbusters. But I realize many fans disagree with me on Afterlife being eye-rolling nostalgia porn.) 

Making a movie feel organic is the important lesson here. As studios move away from the cinematic universe dream, they are still obsessed with creating sequels. While a few years ago, the sequel laying happened within the movie and made for incoherent narratives like Terminator: Genysis, it is now mostly saved for either the stinger or a 'To Be Continued' like finale. I am fine with the stinger approach because you can just leave the theatre without even knowing about it. The cliffhanger end is becoming a real annoyance and leaves you unsatisfied. I probably would have ended up recommending Alita: Battle Angel except the finale is such a blatant set-up to a sequel and means I spent two hours on a story that had no ending. (CS: This is another example of something that seemed to bother me way more than most critics, as I don't remember that ending being a negative in most other reviews that I read or listened to.) That is frustrating and is going to start being a franchise killer. Marvel is probably the only ones that can get away with cliffhangers, because they are so big you know you'll get that follow-up movie, but even when they have done it, I feel like I got a full story and a follow-up isn't mandatory. (CS: It looks now that we will never get the follow-up to Alita, thus no payoff to that cliffhanger.) 

My hope is that what all studios have learned from the great shared universe failure is that audiences don't want teases and unfulfilled story points that force them to have to return in a year. What they want is fully told stories that have a start and an ending that are all satisfied in the movie they are watching. You can have your stingers or your teases for something more, but a movie isn't a TV series. It isn't weekly storytelling. It has been and always should be standalone that gets wrapped up in one sitting. Even Empire Strikes Back with its clear set-up for Return of the Jedi is a movie that works fine if you only watch it and none of the others. (CS: Before the tinkering of the original trilogy, they also did a fantastic job of making me anticipate who this Jabba figure was and what he looked like.) I'd argue Avengers: Infinity War has a real ending and told its whole story, even though we know there will be more to come in April.  

I said it on the podcast and I'll reiterate here. Every movie that fails to have an actual ending and instead feels like a giant ad for the sequel that may never come (that is the other problem, we almost never get the conclusion since these movies don't make enough money), I will automatically deduct half a star. I realize this threat is making filmmakers, screenwriters and executives shake in their boots. I really do hope the focus returns to just making great movies, and then with that success, they can make more when there is a clear audience. (CS: I haven't noticed as many cliffhangers in recent movies, but that may have more to do with massive delays, due to the past two-year disruption.)

(CS: Has the idea of a cinematic universe ever made a movie seem more exciting or do you prefer stand-alone pictures?)