Today, I watched Universal’s feeble attempt at kick-starting its new “Dark Universe”, The Mummy. Unsure as to whether it wanted to be a horror, adventure movie or Tom Cruise action vehicle, the muddled and overstuffed turkey left me feeling cold and fatigued with the modern plague of shared universes. Within the confines of superhero films, the concept makes perfect sense: Comic books have always took place within a consistent, single space that allowed for equal parts crossover and self-contained yarns. The negative knock on effect of Marvel’s staggering success with their own media franchise, however, is that everybody wants to hop on this gravy train. DC’s response felt like a natural one, the historic competition between the undisputed titans of the genre called for these two opposing sides to duke it out, with The Avengers on one side and The Justice League of America on the other.
Not even superhero franchises are safe from failing with their own universe, Sony were eager to announce their numerous Sinister Six and Venom spin-offs ahead of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. When ASM2 became the lowest-grossing Spidey flick in history, they were forced to reevaluate and lease the character to Marvel for Captain America: Civil War. After the overwhelmingly positive response to Tom Holland’s portrayal in that film, Sony have made it clear that they intend to press forward with their original plans, confirming the casting of Tom Hardy in a Venom solo movie. While not directly connected to Marvel’s money making leviathan, the common thread of Spider-Man will exist simultaneously in both worlds and factor into the web (this is where you laugh) of Sony’s plans.
If your head is hurting from trying to process how the same Spider-Man can exist in two separate cinematic universes that are not connected by continuity, then we’re in the same boat. The bloated mess of all this franchise synergy has caused fatigue to set in on a narrative technique that isn’t even ten years old yet. It is a sad indicator of such fatigue when I’m actually dreading the potential incoming universe that The Mummy is trying to usher in. The original Universal Monsters were the precursor of what we know as a cinematic universe, the blueprint, if you will. The crossing over of franchises was an unheard of exercise until the world was introduced to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, a groundbreaking film that deserves more credit for inspiring a commonplace trope today. There was once a time when crossovers felt special, a cinematic event that would unite characters from other worlds and have them either team up or test their mettle against one another.
I don’t want to sound overly nostalgic, but the pure overexposure of crossover movies had led to us taking them for granted. Ten years ago, we would have all collectively soiled ourselves at the prospect of Iron Man showing up in a Spider-Man film. Fast-forward to now, when we’re actually getting this fabled blockbuster, and the overall response to the marketing has been a unified shrug. What happened? Things like this should feel like the biggest cultural phenomenon of our time, instead it’s just another movie. Dr. Strange can have Thor cameo in the middle of the credits, and rather than being a mind-blowing moment, it’s just a funny little side gag that sets up Ragnarok. In 1993, the ninth instalment in the Friday the 13th franchise hit theatres, and was titled Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. Despite the series overstaying its welcome and the movie itself not being good at all, I’ve read stories of audiences erupting with excitement, throwing their popcorn in the air and screaming at the top of their lungs at the final shot of the film. As the camera lingers on Jason’s iconic hockey mask, an equally recognisable prop in horror lore shoots out of the ground to pull the mask downwards towards damnation. That prop was the clawed glove of Freddy Krueger, as his chilling laugh is heard in the background. This was confirmation that Freddy vs. Jason was happening, and even though it would take ten years, just the thought of it had slasher enthusiasts chomping at the bit.
Had that movie come out today, it certainly wouldn’t have people at a fever pitch. The current climate of cinema has spoiled us with constant nods to other characters and events that have ceased to be Easter eggs to merely become commercials for the follow-up. This is one of the many reasons why Wonder Woman works so well, it is self-contained enough that someone with no knowledge of the other DC films can follow and understand it, but adds dimensions to the character of Diana Prince that the fan base can engage with in the upcoming Justice League. Our consumption of these blockbusters has made it so many of us will theorise over potential post-credits stings in the next Marvel movie, rather than what will actually occur in the film itself. People were legitimately mad over the Howard the Duck cameo at the end of the first Guardians of the Galaxy, despite the fact that it was tonally appropriate and served as a meta joke on the film being so far removed from the rest of the MCU that it could exist on its own merit.
I can’t deny the prevalence of the cinematic universe, as it’s undoubtedly the single biggest innovation in blockbuster filmmaking since the original Star Wars in 1977. But since Nick Fury first propositioned Tony Stark with the Avenger Initiative back in 2008, everyone seems to think that they can pull off Marvel’s once in a generation home run. Every other month, something will come down the pipeline about a new Transformers spin-off or fifty more Fantastic Beasts movies to link up with the incomparable Harry Potter juggernaut. It’s just gotten to be too much of what was once a good thing, and it has now inevitably soured. I’m all for seeing the Justice League on the big screen for the first time, or The Avengers fighting Thanos, but when it comes to connecting everything for the sake of it, can’t we just go back to letting a movie be a movie?