Do you ever find yourself watching the latest blockbuster, popcorn in hand, 3-D glasses at the ready, attempting to enjoy the magic of cinema, only to be met by an overwhelming sense of being the guy at a party who doesn’t understand an inside joke? Chances are you were watching the newest addition to one of the seemingly reproductive cinematic universes which are currently dominating our multiplexes.
The concept of a cinematic universe is not a new one however. Since 1931’s Dracula, which spawned the ‘Universal Monsters’ universe, studios have manipulated intertextuality, combining their most profitable assets to maximise financial return. Disney, among others, saw this concept as an ingenious marketing scheme and revolutionised it to huge success with the gargantuan Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU for short). Sure, the prospect of Iron Man, Cap and Thor sharing shawarma or Superman pummeling Batman through a series of skyscrapers is appealing, but the cost is having to bring a guide book just to fully understand a Spiderman standalone.
However, it is clear that this isn’t the opinion of the majority, and my position might be guided by cinema purism and a desire for original content. It is also true that I have enjoyed several universe entries from Marvel, taken pleasure from the links made by the Pixar theory and loved to explore the Tarantino family tree, but I believe I’m not alone in saying I am completely “Universed Out”. Recently, John Landis, Mark Hamill and even Steven Spielberg have spoken out against the superhero saturation, suggesting that I’m in good company.
Despite the quality and individualism of entries such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and, most recently, Wonder Woman, the cinematic universe revolution embodies everything bad about the Hollywood machine. With the exception of those previously named and a few others, cinematic universes reflect a capitalist formula in today’s industry. By simply swapping one elite being for another, altering an existing plot and having a famous face or occasionally an upcoming star in the lead role, studios generate another blockbuster. And who can blame them?
Of course, the saturation of universes isn’t all bad (I’ll put down my cigar, take my top hat off and subvert my frown for this one). Occasionally, the formula allows for studios to take some risks. With a fairly guaranteed audience and a likelihood of significant profit coming just from each film’s connection to the eventual team showdown, standalone outings can exploit genre, introduce independent directors to the mainstream and challenge cinematic norms. Wonder Woman is such a risk, allowing Patty Jenkins what is shockingly her first opportunity to helm a film since the impressive Monster way back in 2003, which resulted in the highest-ever US opening weekend for a film directed by a woman.
But for every Wonder Woman there is The Mummy – a new shoddy attempt by a studio to breed their own cash cow, already waiting to be milked before seeing the light of day. But hey, maybe I’m being too critical; it isn’t untrue that these are the films which keep the industry thriving and ensure that cinema is still a living, breathing epicentre of entertainment. I wish these weren’t the films keeping it alive, though. Many potentially unique and mesmerising cinematic experiences are denied funding and overshadowed by a towering figure in a leotard and another ticket bought which funds the antithesis of creative exploration, encouraging further reproductive output.
The very nature of cinema is to transcend and transport you to another universe, but what frightens me is that as more cinematic universes are born, we might find that Hollywood is offering us less new and individual material than ever before. To me, ironically, the heroes are the true villains of cinema.