- Marvel Studios
- The Marvel Cinematic Universe kickstarted a trend and changed the way studios think about blockbuster filmmaking. But similar franchises haven’t been able to replicate its success.
- Some have course corrected, such as Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe, which is now focusing more on standalone stories.
- Others were dead on arrival, like Universal’s Dark Universe, which flopped right out of the gate with 2017’s “The Mummy.”
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When “Iron Man” hit theaters in 2008, it kickstarted what had never been done before: a cinematic universe of connected superhero movies that would eventually culminate in events like “Avengers: Endgame.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe had a few stumbles in the beginning. Its first few movies – such as “The Incredible Hulk” and “Thor” – were neither critical darlings or box-office smashes. But since 2012’s “Avengers,” which grossed over $1 billion globally, the MCU hasn’t slowed down. All 22 movies have grossed over $20 billion combined worldwide.
The MCU proved what a successful cinematic universe could do, and others tried to follow in its footsteps. Their efforts have seen mixed results.
Granted, it’s hard to compare other cinematic universes – whether they are currently running, in the works, or were instant flops – to the MCU. Disney and Marvel Studios have landed on a winning formula that no other studio has replicated. But it’s impossible to deny the impact the franchise has had on how studios think about blockbuster filmmaking, especially seeing how “Avengers: Endgame” has performed at the box office (spoiler: it’s the second biggest movie of all time).
Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe is the easiest franchise to compare to the MCU, in that it took superheroes who had never appeared together on screen before and put them in the same movies. But after several critical misfires and the franchise’s answer to “The Avengers,” “Justice League,” disappointing at the box office, Warner Bros. has course corrected with successes like “Aquaman” and “Shazam!”
Other potential universes didn’t live long enough to get that opportunity. Universal’s “Dark Universe,” based on its classic monsters like Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman, began and died with 2017’s “The Mummy,” which tanked with audiences and critics alike.
Below are 8 cinematic universes that aren’t the MCU, and what their status is:
Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe
- Warner Bros.
The DC Extended Universe course corrected after a few misfires. The franchise began in 2016 with “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and then “Suicide Squad,” which made $873 million and $746 million worldwide, respectively. But they were torn apart by critics, and both have a 27% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Then “Justice League” bombed.
It was supposed to be DC and Warner Bros.’ answer to “The Avengers,” but made just $658 million worldwide, and has a 40% Rotten Tomatoes critic score. Warner Bros. rethought its DC superhero movie strategy after that, and the movies since have been more in line with the franchise’s one bright spot: “Wonder Woman,” which focused less on a connected universe and more on a standalone storyline.
“Aquaman” and “Shazam!” followed “Justice League,” and only allude to a larger cinematic universe. The positive response shows that it’s a successful strategy for the franchise. “Aquaman” grossed over $1 billion worldwide and was one of the biggest movies of 2018. “Shazam!” didn’t fare as well at the box office with $362 million, but it also didn’t have as big of a budget ($100 million) and has an impressive 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.
DC movies will continue to follow this standalone strategy. “Joker,” an origin story about Batman’s greatest foe, hits theaters in October. “Bird of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” follows in February. And “Wonder Woman 1984” arrives next summer.
James Gunn is developing “The Suicide Squad,” which will be a soft reboot, and director Matt Reeves is making “The Batman,” which will recast Ben Affleck with a younger actor (Robert Pattinson has reportedly been cast). Both films will be released in 2021.
Warner Bros. “Conjuring” universe
- Warner Bros.
The “Conjuring” franchise has been a consistent box-office presence since the first movie debuted in 2013. “The Conjuring,” directed by James Wan, made $319 million worldwide and was made for just $20 million. The sequel, “The Conjuring 2,” doubled its production budget and made the same amount globally as its predecessor, but was still a hit.
Multiple spin-offs from the “Conjuring” movies have turned the franchise into a universe that audiences will show up to the theater for, and it’s mastered how to make a low-budget but high-grossing horror movie. “The Nun” fought off poor reviews last year (it has a 26% Rotten Tomatoes critic score) to earn $365 million worldwide off of a $22 million production budget. It’s the highest-grossing movie in the franchise.
2014’s “Annabelle” was made for $6.5 million and earned $257 million worldwide. Its 2017 sequel, “Annabelle: Creation,” was made for $15 million and grossed $306 million. April’s “The Curse of La Llorona” wasn’t as huge of a hit with $120 million globally, but was still only made for $9 million.
The next installment in the franchise, “Annabelle Comes Home,” comes to theaters June 26, and “The Conjuring 3” is set for a 2020 release.
Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters
After the Disney-Fox merger, there’s only one major studio besides Disney that owns film rights to Marvel characters: Sony, and it’s going full speed ahead with what it refers to as Sony’s Universe of Marvel Characters.
It’s unknown how connected the films will be, if at all, but Sony has 900 Marvel characters at its disposal centered around Spider-Man.
There was a time when Sony’s Spider-Man cinematic universe was thought to be dead. It attempted build one out of its “Amazing Spider-Man” movies, including a villain-centric Sinister Six movie that never saw the light of day. But the movies didn’t resonate with audiences, and after 2014’s “Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Sony struck a deal with Marvel Studios where it could use the character in the MCU while Sony retained creative and distribution rights.
But the success of “Venom” changed that. The movie, focused on one of Spider-Man’s most popular enemies in the comics, made $855 million worldwide, giving Sony the confidence it needed to move forward with its Marvel universe. Next up is “Morbius,” about another Spider-Man villain who’s part vampire, starring Jared Leto.
Sony Pictures Television chairman Mike Hopkins told Variety in March that Sony had “the next seven or eight years laid out” for its Marvel universe.
Warner Bros.’ MonsterVerse
- Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.’ “MonsterVerse” – the designation for its cinematic universe featuring Godzilla, King Kong, and more giant creatures – began in 2014 with director Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla.” It was followed in 2017 by “Kong: Skull Island.”
The third entry in the universe comes this weekend with “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” a sequel to “Godzilla” but also a lead-in to next year’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” crossover. That movie wrapped production last month, and hits theaters next March. But plans for the MonsterVerse after that haven’t been revealed.
“Godzilla: King of the Monsters” is tracking for a subpar $50 million opening (it cost $200 million to make) and has a terrible 46% Rotten Tomatoes critic score. “Godzilla” and “Kong: Skull Island” performed well at the box office with $529 million and $566 million worldwide, respectively. But if “King of the Monsters” underperforms, then “Godzilla vs. Kong” will likely have to be a hit for Warner Bros. to continue to invest in the franchise.
Paramount’s “Transformers” universe
After five “Transformers” movies directed by Michael Bay, Paramount released “Bumblebee” last year, a prequel/spin-off that received critical raves but not the box-office dollars to match.
“Bumblebee” has a 92% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, easily the best-reviewed “Transformers” movie in the franchise, but it grossed less than its predecessors with $467 million worldwide. The lowest-grossing “Transformers” movie, 2017’s “Transformers: The Last Knight,” earned $605 million worldwide. The highest grossing, 2013’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” grossed $1.12 billion.
Still, “Bumblebee” wasn’t a dud, and the critical reaction could signal that it was a step in the right direction. Paramount has hinted that it’s the beginning of a new vision for the franchise, but hasn’t made any official announcements about the future.
“We are going to do another big ‘Transformers’ movie,” producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura told Slashfilm in December. “It is going to be different than the ones that we’ve done before.”
He added, “I think we’ve learned something in this movie [‘Bumblebee’] about tone that I would think the next big ‘Transformers’ movie is going to have. It’s not like we’re going to copy it but we’ve learned something. There’s more freedom than I think we originally thought in terms of what we can do.”
Warner Bros’ “LEGO” universe
- Warner Bros.
Status: On life support
2014’s “The LEGO Movie,” from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, was a hit. It was made for $60 million and grossed $469 million worldwide. It was meant to launch a “LEGO” film universe, but the spin-offs and sequel that followed it haven’t performed as well.
2017’s “The LEGO Batman Movie” grossed a respectable $311 million, but “The LEGO Ninjago Movie” earned $123 million. This year’s “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” fell way short of the expectations set by its predecessor, and grossed $191 million, less than half of what the first movie made. In other words, it was a failure.
So what’s the future of the franchise? It’s up in the air. No future installments have been announced yet, which signals that Warner Bros. is taking a step back from what it thought would be a money-making machine.
Disney’s “Star Wars” stories
Status: Likely dead
The Disney era of “Star Wars” began with a bang in 2015 with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the seventh movie in the Skywalker Saga that began way back in 1977 with the original “Star Wars.” Disney promised to release a new “Star Wars” movie ever year, with spin-offs under the “A Star Wars Story” banner opening in the alternate years to the main trilogy.
It worked at first. The first spin-off, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” was a success and earned over $1 billion globally. But the second, “Solo,” disappointed at the box office with under $400 million. It prompted Disney CEO Bog Iger to promise a “slowdown” on “Star Wars” movies after this year (“The Rise of Skywalker” opens in December). Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy recently suggested in a Vanity Fair interview that there won’t be any more character spin-offs following “Solo,” and even compared it to the MCU.
“I think there is a larger expectation that Disney has,” Kennedy said. “On the other hand, though, I think that Disney is very respectful of what this is, and right from the beginning we talked about the fragility of this form of storytelling. Because it’s something that means so much to fans that you can’t turn this into some kind of factory approach.”
She added: “You can’t even do what Marvel does, necessarily, where you pick characters and build new franchises around those characters. This needs to evolve differently.”
But that doesn’t mean Disney’s “Star Wars” universe is dead. A 2022 release will kickstart a new trilogy from “Game of Thrones” showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. And Disney is developing live-action TV shows for its upcoming streaming service, Disney Plus, starting with “The Mandalorian,” which launches with the service in November.
Universal’s Dark Universe
- Marco Grob/Universal
Universal got ahead of itself with its Dark Universe, which would have told connected stories starring its classic horror monsters. It hit the ground running with an announcement in May 2017 that it would launch the universe with that June’s “The Mummy,” starring Tom Cruise. There’s even a website dedicated to the would-be franchise that is still live, and Universal released the above cast photo.
But “The Mummy” was a disaster. It grossed $409 million worldwide, only $80 million of which was in the US. And it has a 16% on Rotten Tomatoes.
A new “Bride of Frankenstein” movie was set to be released this year, but was shelved after “The Mummy” bombed. And as The Hollywood Reporter reported in November 2017, Dark Universe writers and producers Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan departed the franchise for other projects.
But while the Dark Universe is dead, the characters that would have inhabited it could still live on.
“The Invisible Man” remake is still happening, but not as part of a connected franchise. “Upgrade” director Leigh Whannell will direct, and a new actor is being sought (Johnny Depp was originally attached to star).
“Throughout cinematic history, Universal’s classic monsters have been reinvented through the prism of each new filmmaker who brought these characters to life,” Universal’s production president Peter Cramer told Variety in January. “We are excited to take a more individualized approach for their return to screen, shepherded by creators who have stories they are passionate to tell with them.”