Our current buy-’em-up-like-Beanie-Babies cinematic universe craze has officially come full circle. Tonight, Avengers: Age of Ultron will open, and it will demonstrate the absolute peak of what the words “cinematic universe” are supposed to mean. And yesterday, the news broke (to a resounding uh, ok) that Sony is pursuing some kind of 21 Jump Street universe, populated by an all-female Jump Street spin-off, a Jump Street Meets Men in Black crossover, and the actual Jump Street threequel we were already promised.
That brings the cinematic universe count to ten, unless there are any I’ve forgotten. Marvel, DC, X-Men, Transformers, Ghostbusters, LEGO, Valiant Comics, Universal Monsters, Robin Hood, Spider-Man. The foundation around all this studio binge-spending is starting to crack, if just a little. Warner Bros is suffering from creative anarchy with their DC Comics Universe. Universal’s monster-verse just got a year-ish delay across the board. And obviously there’s Spider-Man, who wouldn’t have broken bread with Kevin Feige if he could hold up an entire universe by his lonesome.
This whole mess started with The Avengers, and having seen Age of Ultron, it’s apparent that Marvel is the only player to get what a Cinematic Universe is (at least, of the players who’ve shown their hand somewhat). For one great big obvious reason: movies, as a general rule, shouldn’t have cinematic universes.
This whole “universe” idea didn’t originate in movies. It originated in comics. The MCU is just a big-screen version of the Marvel Universe, something that’s existed in the comic world for decades and is excellent precedent for Captain America popping into Asgard for a hot second or Black Widow switching from Iron Man supporting player to Captain America supporting player when necessary.
Marvel’s been building up to that “everyone up in everyone else’s business” point, little by little. Phase One saw a few skittish little scraps of crossover- quickie post-credit stingers and a hidden Hawkeye in Thor. Phase Two grew bolder and saw Chris Evans don the full red, white and blue in Thor: The Dark World. Plus Black Widow in Winter Soldier, obviously. No surprise that Marvel will probably dip its toe further in during Phase Three (especially when every other unsubstantiated rumor flying at us these days is Scarlet Witch in Doctor Strange! Hulk in Guardians 2!).
Building that kind of universe from a single movie franchise is a false equivalence. Does something like Ghostbusters really have the breadth or the variety of Ghostbustering to support multiple movies in tandem? Likely, we’ll see too many movies barging in and stepping on each other’s toes with too similar a premise- people zapping ghosts with proton beams, robots that turn into stuff, etc. At worst, we’ll get what the Robin Hood-verse is planning: carving off chunks of the movie people actually want to see- Robin Hood– and crafting each chunk into a less than necessary movie, That way, we have to sit through Maid Marian and Friar Tuck and Little John before Sony brings them together for, you know, Robin Hood.
Comic universes (aka universes that already exist in another medium) are the ones we should think about transferring to the screen. And that’s minefield enough, given the recent bad news about DC, and that Sony’s Spider-Verse was in a constant state of imploding since the day it was announced.
Look at Age of Ultron. If your average MCU movie is the equivalent of a comic in Marvel’s comic world, then our triennial Avengers flick is the crossover event (which is a little crooked when Marvel puts out “Avengers” comics every month that most definitely aren’t event-status, but bear with me here). In comics, an overarching crossover effects everyone. Or nearly everyone. When an entirely separate “Age of Ultron” hit comics two years ago, you had an actual “Age of Ultron” comic line, and aftermath-y stuff affecting Spider-Man and the Avengers and the X-Men in their own individual comics.
Avengers movies operate the same way, spreading that aftermath-y stuff across a movie phase that spans years. After The Avengers, every MCU movie that followed had a distinct Avengers tint to it. Everyone went through a prolonged phase of not being able to shut up about the Battle of New York. Hell, the basic premises of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Daredevil (NYC gentrification, remember) are rooted right in The Avengers’ big blow-up finish.
Not to spoil Age of Ultron, but it would not surprise anyone in the least to know that the film will feature a humongous climactic battle sequence. And that it’s not hard to imagine the end results of that battle spilling out of the MCU’s mouths, newspapers and TV broadcasts for the next several years.
In terms of style, Age of Ultron is just as much the arbiter of crossover cool. Even more than The Avengers, if you can believe it. All those cool little moments that scream “crossover,” like multi-Avenger combo attacks? Say, Iron Man scoring a sweet ricochet off Cap’s shield?
Age of Ultron is loaded with ’em. You’ve seen some of it in ads, probably. Everybody drunk and failing to lift Mjolnir, or Thor knocking Cap’s shield so it frisbees through half a dozen Ultron minions. Cap and Thor bro out with combo attacks more than a few times. Black Widow and Hulk do the same. Two of the biggest beats in the entire movie involve one character picking up another’s signature gear; a third involves three Avengers triple-teaming a single opponent. It’s a very special emphasis paid to the stuff people can only get in an Avengers movie. Crossover stuff.
Ditto for the banter. As in every Joss Whedon production (every Marvel production, really), every character zings and zings repeatedly. Age of Ultron is one of the few films where it feels wholly appropriate. I waited three years for these characters to hang out again- I’d like to see them actually hang out. Have fun. That includes ample zinging (but maybe less Whedon smarm from Ultron, which wasn’t really necessary at all).
These other universes lack the actual comic book foundation to make a universe worthwhile (or, like the DC-verse, it’s just a matter of rushing in without a decent game plan). It makes sense that everyone else is chasing Marvel’s secret cinematic universe gold, because a) the gold, and b) Hollywood’s already so reliant on established IPs that making ten sequels when you used to make one seems like an obvious play. But the MCU doesn’t come off like a trend to be chased so much as it does lightning in a bottle.
And frankly, I’d just prefer not to live in a world where ten-plus cinematic universes exist, because summer movie season would feel like an old-timey oil monopoly and I’d still like to enjoy an original thought here or there between Marvel Movie #638 and 22 Fast + 22 Furious = 44Ever. No original thoughts this weekend, though. That’s when Marvel Movie #11 comes out.
Related Topics: DC Comics