When a cinematic universe is not enough
Tom Jolliffe on the current concern of the multiverse …
Cinema is above all cycles. Genres come in and out of importance. An action landscape once dominated by westerns was then temporarily shifted by gangster movies, then epics, then westerns again, then a brief discussion of pessimistic cinema, before Star wars laid out an important plan for the blockbuster as we know it.
In smaller terms, we see things that are falling in fashion, either briefly or more dramatically. The fantasy films of the 80s, a wave of creatures in the wake of jurassic park in the 90s, a wave of wire-fu martial arts films after The matrix (and many, many leather clad emo heroes). In more recent cinema history, everything revolves around superheroes. If Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi laid a serious foundation, began humbly with Wesley Snipes’ Blade, then Marvel embarked on a whole new way of making movies with Iron Man. As soon as that first film landed, Marvel toyed with the notion of a shared cinematic universe. A step forward of ten years and things got crazy with Avengers: Endgame, where Kevin Feige’s formula culminated with a gargantuan blockbuster that had every imaginable character from the Kitchen-Sink Boy bar.
In the constant studio battles to maintain relevance and ride the tides, we see a number of tactics. One is to simply remake as many properties as possible, no matter how irrelevant the IP might be in 2021. Disney is throwing masses of increasingly lazy reboots through its streaming service, of a world. universally vilified. Home Sweet Home Alone, To He is all that, a new Turner and Hooch and more. Oddly enough, Disney, having monopolized everything by delivering what audiences wanted, and usually at least at a solid level, is getting a bit lazy after Disney +. As if streaming content doesn’t particularly matter. Aside from Disney, we see countless Hollywood bastards from good foreign movies (the guilty, Horsemen of Justice) and a whole slew of totally unnecessary reboots of yesteryear mid-level properties like Road House, Hellraiser, and Under siege.
Then it’s all about trends. Right now, the thing appears to be the multiverse. A few years ago, only Marvel and DC comic fans might have been able to tell you what a multiverse was. Now, any vaguely sensitive movie buff who watches more than two superhero movies a year probably has an idea of what it is. It has already been mentioned with Doctor strange and further into the big Avengers movies (to the extent that this ability to just bring a fantasy football league of heroes into one frame).
Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse turned out to be a surprise mega hit. It was not expected to do a large number, but it has performed very well and more, has proven to be extremely popular with fans and critics alike. The film introduced Peter Parker to a number of other versions of himself in alternate universes. People without thinking about this concept suddenly became interested. The studios have taken note. There is a sequel in the works to this as well.
In addition, we have a whole range of films dealing with the multiverse. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will undoubtedly be rife with fan service cameos. In December, Marvel and Sony deliver Spider-Man: No Path Home, which promises to steal the Tobey Maguire universe from Spidey and the Andrew Garfield universe, raising villains (and as expected, those respective Spideys).
Not to be outdone, DC, which will dive into the multiverse with Breaking point, The Flash’s first big-screen solo. The solo is therefore his solo film, which he stops just before resurrecting Adam West to reappear as Bruce Wayne of the psychedelic 60s. Batman universe. Michael Keaton and Batfleck will return, however, to don a hood and a cape. It’s very exciting… or is it?
The answer to this next question is undoubtedly yes. Am I too old for this shit? Sure, but did this Multiverse malarkey burn down just as it started? Everyone is on the ball and without a doubt more will follow. This will spill over into other entities and into independent / low budget genre cinema (I have a slight urge to combine IPs on independent horror films I’ve made). Multiverse is essentially an expansion of the Shared Cinematic Universe, which is now an old hat, but what this new, more focused variation means is that a slew of films will raise identical plot points about how these multiple universes end up intertwining. How many wormholes of potential end power in the Universe will open and need to be closed?
There’s another issue with the Multiverse plot, which is again an expansion of shared universes. Imagine an ice cream. Maybe you like a lot of flavors then you get the Neapolitan. Three is a forgiving and manageable mix. Well what about some crazy sumbitch pulling in mint chocolate chips, banana, caramel, raspberry ripples. They’re riffing now, jazz hands and wild abandon. This results in cookie crumbs of different varieties. So wafers, cones, mallows, nuggets, fruit? Of course, fruit… Then you look at the bowl. It’s a fucking mess. You eat. 30 minutes and you have a headache. Sometimes too many items thrown away just cause a mess.
It could be that, like the enormous Avengers saga that ended the last phase, the messy mass of characters and divergent storylines may be overlooked by some due to the visual spectacle they bring. The problem is Infinity war and End of Game did this in as gargantuan a way as possible, so incredibly huge to become a full-fledged entity. Nothing in the MCU has come close to scale and spectacle since. We had everything equally messy, but perhaps less engaging. This might just be a trailer, but Spider-Man: No Path Home, a particular character who has seemingly bombarded us over the past decade, looks ridiculously overloaded and (potentially) not in a good way.
This constant battle between studios and within studios, to surpass themselves or maintain the same highs, increasingly favors spectacle, fan service and big ideas over narrative cohesion, structure and characterization. Sometimes you can embrace the simplicity. However The suicide squad was a little empty emotionally, in favor of a cheerful irreverence, it had a distinct simplicity, not completely paralyzed throwing more and more (and more) into it. Structurally too, while not perfect, was at least tidy (the separation of two teams in the film is well handled by a hard-hitting opening, which almost entirely eradicates it). Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings has proven to be the most flexible and cohesive comic book film this year, choosing to be more of an ’80s fantasy ode to Wuxia than Marvel’s strict formula, and keeping the focus on its protagonist and his family dynamic. It’s comic book theater but very intimate compared to most recent ones. Refreshing, pleasantly simple. With Marvel fatigue that doesn’t quite match Ridley Scott or Jane Campion levels, I didn’t expect to dig Shang-Chi as much as I have (and it even has multiverse references) but I enjoyed it very much (Tony Leung bonus points).
So how long does this particular subsection of shared universes last? How long can studios continue to dive into the multiverse to combine generations of the same characters in different incarnations? Are we going to see Bond’s next screen share with Dalton, Craig, and Brosnan in a mismanaged sci-fi turkey? Guess Bond windsurfed the iceberg in Die another day, so it can’t get any worse than that. Robert Downey Jr.’s return as Tony Stark seems almost inevitable at some point, for better or for worse. You can choose five spices to cook your dish, focusing on the nuance and character of the dish, or you can frivolously empty your spice cabinet into a single pot. One method is more likely to taste better.
What do you think of the fascination of the multiverse? Let us know on our social media @flickeringmyth.
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and avid film buff. It has a number of films on DVD / VOD around the world and several releases slated for 2021/2022, including Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray ), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more information on the best personal site you have ever seen …https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/