I’ve just recently started catching up with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix, and I started thinking about how well Marvel has done with its properties since Iron Man came out all the way back in 2008. A lot has been said already about the “shared universe” idea, and how “revolutionarily” it is, but I don’t think that’s it. . . not exactly, anyway. Sure, that’s what everyone is focusing on, and we will be inundated with “shared universe” properties from now until the next decade, most of which will go two or three films and quietly die an unmourned death. After all, the idea of several different creative properties sharing a single continuity is not all that new an idea. It’s at least as old as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is probably better than whatever Universal Studios comes up with now to jump on the bandwagon. And we have Star Wars, Star Trek and Dr. Who as examples of franchises that spawned decades worth of TV, movies and print stories in a continuity that was shared to one degree or another. As evidence that the shared universe in and of itself has little to do with Marvel’s current success, consider the following counterfactuals: Would the Marvel Cinematic Universe have succeeded if it led with Daredevil? Would Guardians of the Galaxy have made any less money if it wasn’t connected to the MCU at all?
So what’s up with Marvel? Here’s the top five things I think they’re doing right. The MCU serves some of these points, but my guess is that folks jumping on the shared universe bandwagon will whiff on most if not all of these points.
4) Brand identity. Most superhero movies are identified by either the main characters (X-Men, Fantastic Four) or the director plus main character (Raimi’s Spider Man, Nolan’s Batman), so once you spin off a property (a Nightwing movie say) you loose some connection to the original property. Marvel’s movies are identified by the studio name, much like Pixar’s films. So that they can make a Guardians of the Galaxy without any necessary connection to their prior films, and Marvel’s fanbase has developed enough trust to give the oddball flick a chance.
3) Superheroes are a trope, not a genre. Speaking of Guardians of the Galaxy, how did Marvel manage to stick a straight-up eighties-era space opera fantasy in the same continuity as Captain America? Because Marvel isn’t making “superhero movies,” they’re making movies with superheroes in them. They’ve done Space Opera, WWII War Movies, Conspiracy Thrillers. . . Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t even have superheroes for the most part, and owes much more to the X-Files than Superman.
2) When you have decades of intellectual property, it doesn’t have to ALL go into ONE movie. How many villains do you need for a superhero movie? How many do you usually get? How well does that usually go?
And most important, and the step most likely to be overlooked by everyone jumping on the bandwagon.
1) Write a decent screenplay.