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The thing about the most popular shared universes is they often happen by accident. Nowhere is that more true than in the shared continuity of the Marvel and DC superhero universes.
It all started out simple enough, with each company putting out superhero comics with a range of characters. People got the bright idea that fans liked Batman and fans liked Superman and it wasn’t that hard to put the two of them together. Then Wonder Woman shows up. Then Aquaman. Then a Justice League, and so on.
It’s a hodgepodge, messy system, and there’s a reason most superhero universes are a crazy collection of characters, themes, and ideas. In the Marvel Universe, there is everything from street level vigilantes to magical gods to alien empires to government conspiracies to alien horrors to talking duck people and on and on and on. It is a world of limitless possibilities, and mostly it was because the creators threw everything against the wall and then retroactively tried to make it into something coherent. The weird thing is that it worked.
The MCU movies actually did the same sort of thing. They were more organized about it, but still, the fact that Iron Man grew from a simple movie about an obscure superhero into a worldwide phenomenon is not something anyone could’ve expected. Nick Fury’s cameo in the first Iron Man is cute, a little Easter Egg for the fans, but there was no way to tell it would evolve into this juggernaut of a media empire with films ranging from space opera to heist film to spy thriller and with more yet to come.
To be sure, the films at this point are very orchestrated, very controlled, and I think we’re starting to see a little fraying at the edges. Age of Ultron, while a good movie, is not a great one because it seemed a lot of editorial mandate was in play. Also, just as in the original comics, there is a point of too much continuity, of losing your emotional story in pursuit of plot points that are meant to pay off sometime in the future. Still, the MCU has managed to hold together mostly, even as it opens vistas.
Doctor Strange will be the next big leap. If it manages to introduce out and out magic to the Marvel Universe (and not the relatively safe “Superscience as Magic” version of the Thor films), then the MCU will have succeeded in creating probably the first ANYTHING GOES cinematic superhero universe. How long it will be able to maintain that is anyone’s guess, but so far, so good, right?
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. attempt to rush their shared cinematic universe is mostly floundering. There are a lot of reasons for this, but probably most of all, I’d say it’s because no one at WB seems to genuinely respect the material. Man of Steel was devoted to “fixing” Superman by making him sad and ineffective, and it looks like BvS: Let’s Forget that Batman Doesn’t Believe in Killing People Because It’s Convenient for the Plot is trying to cram everything into it in a mad dash to get on that gravy train.
It also doesn’t help I believe that Zack Snyder is at the helm. Whether you like him or not, his style is simply too distinct, and it’s not all that great for superheroes. Especially lousy for Superman, I think. One of the thing the MCU has in common is a certain shared style that is easy to adapt and work with. The films have their own sensibilities, but those sensibilities work well enough together that it’s not hard to imagine Ant-Man, Captain America, and Star-Lord all living in the same world. Simply put, I don’t believe Zack Snyder has the versatility to be the architect that builds the foundation of the DCCU. Or perhaps he is just too strong a director to suppress his style, which could very well end up hobbling the entire series. So far, we’ve had two films in this series. Both are dark and dreary and maudlin. How does something like Aquaman or Plastic Man fit into that? Captain Marvel?
To be fair, it’s more of DC’s inferiority complex at work. They’ve been trying to prove themselves as “sophisticated” as Marvel for decades now, and all they’ve managed to do is make a bunch of gruesome and depressing comics about an invincible alien and a rich guy dressed in a bat suit. Marvel has the luxury of being light without having to be considered light. Captain America is about as corny and old-fashioned in his sensibilities as you can get, and it works because he’s allowed to be.
I can’t predict where any of this will go. I imagine BvS: Scowly Scowl Scowl will be a success, and I imagine the people at WB will immediately begin fixing whatever it perceived as wrong with it regardless. Like mad scientists, they’ll keep focus grouping and rewriting and editing and planning and focus grouping some more until they stumble their way toward the success they want or they finally give up.
Either way, it’s a strange process to watch from the outside.
And, yet, I cannot look away.
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