Monday, April 25, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: Did Marvel Spearhead The Cinematic Shared Universe?

A reader named Jake writes:

“I read the negative commentary on your blog about the MCU movies.

I understand why you (wrongly) feel that these movies aren’t of very high quality in terms of cinema. I won’t try to change your mind.

But won’t you at least give those movies the benefit of the doubt and really acknowledge them for innovating the brand new and complex concept of a shared cinematic universe?”

Jake, thank you for asking that question. You may not like my answer.

In terms of film history, it would be inaccurate for me credit the MCU with spearheading or innovating the idea of a shared cinematic universe.

Therefore I can’t give those films the acknowledgment or credit on the terms you desire.

I can note that the Marvel films have updated the shared universe concept, and would give them credit for that accomplishment, if that would satisfy you.

First, what is a shared universe?

In terms of movies, it’s a universe in which settings and characters re-appear entry to entry with a degree of consistency.

So a character can appear as a star in his or her own movie, but then recur as a supporting character in a different movie, with a different lead.

The underlying idea is that the universe offers an umbrella of consistency, and that various characters can operate underneath it in a multitude of stories with either weak or strong linkages.  Captain America can star in his movies, but also be a team member in The Avengers, for example.

Did Marvel spearhead this concept?

No. Not at all. It’s existed for between 50 to 60 years, actually.

Going back to the mid-1950s, one can find a shared cinematic universe operating under the auspices of Toho.

The Showa Era of Toho’s kaiju films, actually, is a perfect example of a shared cinematic universe that was executed in the 20th century. 

Here, characters get their own starring roles or star turns, such as in Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961), but then the same characters offer support in team movies such as Invasion of Astro Monster (1965) and Destroy All Monsters (1969)

Sometimes, less significant characters (a B team, as it were) are also featured in their own shared universe Toho films.  

Ebirah: Horror of the Deep (1961), for instance, is named for a kaiju lobster, but Godzilla and Mothra appear in the third act to maintain the integrity of the “shared” universe concept. 

Similarly, Anguirus shows up to help Godzilla in Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), but as a sidekick. New (but beloved…) characters are brought into the fold too, just as Marvel brings in characters from other comic series.  Remember King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967).

The settings are generally the same: Japan, Infant Island, and Monster Island/Monsterland, for example.

The shared universe created by Toho is, similarly, elastic enough to incorporate message movies (Godzilla vs. Hedorah [1972]) and more overt kiddie fare, even, such as Godzilla’s Revenge (1968).  By comparison think about the tone differences between, say, Guardians of the Galaxy (2015), and Thor: The Dark World (2013).

Going back even further, one could look at the Universal Monster Movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and similarly make a case for a shared cinematic universe in that example.  Think again of the tone differences – Abbott and Costello got into the act! – and the monster mash-up or versus movies.

So basically, the MCU idea of a shared universe has been done before, only with giant monsters and classic monsters, instead of with superheroes.

I understand that I aggravate fans of the MCU when I note that these movies are generally too expensive and bloated, and too broadly plotted, with minimal distinction between entries. 

But that doesn’t mean that the shared cinematic universe concept itself is the basis on which to praise the films, at least if we are discussing who explored the idea first.

A debate could be had, for certain, about whether Toho, Universal, or Marvel films have handled the idea in a superior fashion, of course.

Thank you for your question, and don’t forget to ask me more at

1 comment:

  1. John,
    Since one concept I especially enjoy tracing is the crossover, I read your response here with interest. You are absolutely right about the Toho Monster Rally films having been a key series that sustained itself by merging different movie monsters, and, of course, the Universal horror films are often cited as the earliest examples of this approach to franchise development (with [i]Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man[/i] the starting point). Thanks to the MCU, there has been talk of several other studios finding these sorts of franchises, including talks of a rebooted Universal Horror one.

    I'll be interested in knowing from you or other readers if they can think of even earlier examples. I know that Hal Roach merged some of his comedy series at times, with Laurel & Hardy appearing with Our Gang, but it might be arguable if these actually count as a cinematic universe (then again, those are the fun arguments to have). Depending on whether those count, I [i]think[/i] the earliest example is in 1930 in the anthology film [i]Paramount on Parade[/i]. This was one of the omnibus films produced at each studio to show off what they could and would offer with sound cinema, and Paramount Studios version features a scene called "Murder Will Out," in which Sherlock Holmes (played by then screen Holmes Clive Brook) and Philo Vance (played by his most famous film portrayer, William Powell) team up to take on Fu Manchu (played by Warner Oland, then in the midst of playing the supervillain over three different films). I'll be interested in knowing other examples. (For example, I always hoped for the Hammer monsters to be in a rally.)