Inspired by this quotation from
'Marvel films no matter how fun I would enjoy them never amount to anything timeless because they never challenge themselves to things too difficult for the heroes or resolutions can't be permanent. Everything is a passive transition to the next film which would also be foregone inclusion because we have to keep everyone the same and must neuter the opposition and concepts down to their execution to preserve that iconography.'
First off let me say this much: Cinematic universes and super heroes DON'T MIX.
Even as a kid the surefire way to get me to ignore a comic and move to the next would be a splash page of hundreds of heroes blasting hundreds of baddies with a light show worth of lasers and beams. Why? Shouldn't that promise of excitement and scope get me interested? Well...no. To me a far more interesting and promising introduction to a comic would be to randomly turn to a page and see two of less characters talking. Maybe an image of one character in the aftermath of a battle or preparing for one. The less pyrotechnics and largely superfluous cast members the better; smaller, more intimate scenes with real focus on direction and emotion.
That way I'd get the impression that the comic had CHARACTERS not just SPECTACLE.
To me a guy wearing a cape or a mask wasn't 'cool' all by himself. They needed a story to tell, a personality.
They needed to be a 'hero' not just a 'super hero'.
People credit Marvel for the invention of The Cinematic Universe quite a lot, but the truth is that the concept has existed long before they even started making films, back perhaps to the classic film serials in which hundreds of films created an unbroken chain of cliffhanger endings before the feature presentation so that in addition to seeing the latest movie you also got a continuation of The Undersea Kingdom, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, The Phantom Creeps, Batman, and even before sound and color you had the adventures of Zorro. The idea is not new. Every syndicated television show is practically a cinematic universe if the only criteria we're going by is the same actors interacting as the same characters. In fact I'd argue, and I think surprisingly few people would dispute with me, that television shows work BETTER than film based cinematic universes. The stories have more of an intimacy to them and feel more directly connected, partially because television can have episodes filmed back to back. A smaller budget means the action scenes need to be doled out between sequences of people talking and NOT just explaining the plot which gives every show ever made a leg up on the Marvel films.
Likewise Marvel has struggled to keep continuity with a handful of films do to big stars, huge budgets, massive effects work and marketing campaigns and such. Television shows now and in the past have successfully branched into parallel storylines with the same characters after HUNDREDS of episodes. Consider the successful show Frasier which is the further adventures of a character originally established as a bit part in the show Cheers. The show based on Stargate had three spinoffs and multiple made for television movies. Star Trek ran for decades and had many different series with different casts but they kept to the same general ideas and universe. Heck, Power Rangers not only had many MANY episodes based on borrowing footage from previously aired Japanese Sentai shows but had the same cast members show up again and again throughout it's run to interact with the next generation and sometimes the continuity stretched back for years and between shows!
But why is television more successful at the cinematic universe than films?
Marvel is rolling is cash; no one can deny that, so the cinematic universe concept has been 'successful' for them, but as aspergerian-mind above points out they had great success at the cost of relatively mediocre movies. From the beginning the Marvel films have been generally entertaining but not very inspiring or powerful works. Certainly they don't HAVE to be, but fans and non-fans alike I think can agree that the potential is there for a Marvel film which makes you feel something other than generally thrilled and leaves you with more than an only passing sense of fun. Video games can do more than entertain, they can genuinely move people. So can art in general. The fact that Marvel films promise so much and deliver so comparatively little I think falls squarely on the concept they believe has led to their success: everything needs to 'tie together'. Everything needs to promise the next thing to hype up future films. Everything needs to be resolved at the close of the movie except for dangling sequel pleas that barely play into the film proper at all. The failed experiment called The Amazing Spiderman cinematic universe shows what happens when you try this with something other than a massively well known brand name attached. Everyone loves Spiderman, sure, but not everyone knows or cares about his rouges gallery so making a film based on Black Cat just so Sony could have their own cinematic universe was ludicrous, and focusing so much on films to come instead of each movie one at a time caused The Amazing Spiderman 2 to underperform over-budget and lead to yet another reboot to fix the dangling threads.
I fear that Disney has delusions of their own cinematic universe since Star Wars now has at least seven...SEVEN...spinoffs planned. It doesn't seem too unlikely unfortunately that these movies aren't being written so much as planned and left on the back burner until a director and writer is found to sketch them out and splash them all over the movie screens. These are not labors of love; these are haphazard efforts of a production line which feels the only way to be relevant is to be CONSTANTLY IN YOUR FACE.
Do you want to know what my favorite cinematic universe is?
The Blair Witch Project.
I'm willing to suppose a lot of people didn't even know Blair Witch HAD a cinematic universe. After all it only had two movies, so how can THAT be a 'cinematic universe'? Simple. The Blair Witch had three spin off games, books, comics, and two pseudo documentaries AND a webpage.
And the best part? ALL of these took place in the same universe but NONE of them took place at the same time.
The video games Rustin Parr, The Legend of Coffin Rock and The Elly Kedward Tale all take place in different eras, from 'modern times' to the civil war. The thread that ties them together is the titular Blair Witch or whatever dark legacy she represented in her own time so literally ANY story could be told using that connecting branch without the necessity being for famous characters to show up for a cameo or earlier events to be even all that integral to the current story being told. In Rustin Parr for instance you're a research scientist looking into a mysterious series of murders and abductions. In Legend of Coffin Rock you're an amnesiac union soldier dubbed Lazarus by the family that finds him who tries to recover a lost girl in the woods and in The Elly Kedward Tale you are Jonathan Prye, a witch hunter searching for a women who may or may not be a witch. In each instance, I think ingeniously, the stories are based off of legends ALLUDED to in the original Blair Witch film, but they do not feature the filmmakers from that movie, no characters from any of these games encounter each other, and their actions are important to THEM and may play into what happens in the grander narrative, but they are not dependent. Unlike, say, The Avengers: Age of Ultron which requires the story to begin with the events established in the first Avengers film and end up in a way leading to later Avengers movies, the Blair Witch games and indeed every piece of The Blair Witch lore (including books, games, movies...etc) can have surprises and tell self contained stories. The ending to the tale of Jonathan Prye isn't revealed in the Blair Witch movies so how the game ends is a mystery until the player reaches the conclusion. Does he die or live? He isn't required to do either by the universe because he's a PART of the universe, not a slave to it's ebbs and flows.
Confession time: the games weren't all that good, but I did appreciate that the developers and the people who owned the intellectual property didn't just make a game where you played as the filmmakers or something.
In the documentaries Curse of The Blair Witch, The Burkittsville 7 and Shadow of the Blair Witch all detail events surrounding the film The Blair Witch but flash forward and backwards to reveal what we didn't see in the movie rather than obsessing over the same events and characters. Even the sequel Book of Shadows was written specifically to distance itself from the original film rather than retread old ground...which is was ironically forced to by studio intervention, but that's another instance of forcing a cinematic universe on a series and destroying a stand alone product. The reason I consider these additions to The Blair Witch to be a true cinematic universe as opposed to Thor and Captain America and so forth is because those films barely function outside of being additions to a greater whole. Thor is not a very good movie but is required watching to understand the plot of The Avengers, and likewise Captain America's plot point about the mystical tesseract makes little sense without retroactively watching The Avengers. But Curse of The Blair Witch is an enjoyable and self contained mockumentary that tells a story apart from just leeching off constant call backs and call forwards to The Blair Witch. Even The Burkittsville 7 about the filmmakers focuses on their lives before the film so although it isn't 'required' by any means it enriches the story rather than just adding one more annoying expansion to it.
The dossier of The Blair Witch I find especially enjoyable because it's written like collections of documents for a police procedural complete with stationary marks for imaginary companies and organizations, 'torn out' pages from newspapers and magazines, and 'reproductions' of the journals of the filmmakers along with a text translation for parts where the ink has run on the pages or passages are indecipherable.
It all feels remarkably real because everyone put in the effort to make it feel that way.
Every new piece of The Blair Witch feels like an addition that takes it in a new direction and fleshes out the mysteries. Even the much derided Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows (with a subtitle the studio added which has nothing to do with the movie at all!) was painstakingly written and designed to expand the ideas of the first movie complete with hidden messages, an ambiguous ending, and VERY subtle indications that it takes place in the same location as the original movie that only someone with a pause button would pick up (such as grave markers and signs in the background).
And consider too that a lot of the 'cinematic universe' of the Marvel world is DEEP under wraps. The guy who fights Captain America on the boat during the hostage mission in Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier is according to hardcore fans some mercenary guy who kicks supernaturally well, which explains why he stands up against a super soldier and why he wears a silly uniform. His name IS stated once to be Georges Bartock, but I suppose I missed it or it just didn't mean anything to me personally (I was corrected below by an attentive watcher!). I guess that's subtle, but it's also nonsensical. Someone, like say ME, who had no idea who this guy was would ask themselves 'why is cap getting his butt kicked by some random ordinary guy when he had no trouble with hundreds like him earlier?' Maybe it would make us look him up, but if we have to it's not that friendly to an audience who either wants to watch a movie OR read a comic, not have to do both.
In Blair Witch there's no real instance of mythology you NEED to know in order to understand something, and what you do need to know is all but stated very carefully in each self-regulated source. In the original movie you can understand every strange occurrence if you relate it back to the opening scenes where the filmmakers talk about the legend of The Blair Witch and the accusations of murderer Rustin Parr. There's some unanswered questions on purpose but nothing overtly logically nonsensical. In each game too the weirder elements are given some kind of explanation, even if its shadowy and strange. You are never left just wondering 'who is that guy and why am I supposed to know him?' like a lot of people were with Nick Fury's first appearance.
The best kind of cinematic universe is one in which the investigations into the lore or following the adventures of characters are INTERDEPENDENT. Star Trek Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek the Original Series and Star Trek The Next Generation all share ideas, names, places and characters and sometimes they cross between the shows, but none of them is entirely dependent on you watching all the previous episodes. Voyager is about Janeway getting her crew home from The Delta Quadrant. Deep Space Nine is about a space station and a galactic war surrounding it. The Original Series and Next Generation are about separate crews traveling around the universe looking for new civilizations. They all use phasers and tricorders, answer to Star Fleet, meet with Klingons and Romulans, and sometimes hear about each other but you don't need to know about Kirk to enjoy the adventures of Sisco or Picard. These were all set in the same universe, yes.
BUT THE UNIVERSE IS A BIG PLACE.
The problem with the Marvel Universe is that its really really small.
Nothing happens unless its happening directly to the characters on screen. The Earth is usually in danger because if it was anything less the heroes would probably not care that much. They're too strong to do something as pedestrian as stopping a crime. Heroes have to fight other heroes or...I dunno...it will all seem silly? Places seem so inconsequential to what's going on in them. One city looks like another if it's just going to play the battlefield of the heroes mowing down scads of bad guys. One country looks like another if all the heroes do there is discuss the plot. Even outer space isn't all that interesting if every single event occurs so close to one another. Lord of the Rings is criticized for having too many walking situations, but at least that made Middle Earth feel like it was larger than a series of interconnecting rooms. In The Avengers our heroes travel to German from New York in MINUTES via jet plane. It made it feel like nothing existed of importance between point A and point B.
Same problem I have with the J.J Abrams version of Star Trek, and I'm apprehensive this mentality will leak into Star Wars now that he's in charge of that too. The 'heroes' in Star Trek were never super human. Kirk is a faliable guy who is always learning new things, even as he grows older in later films like Wrath of Khan. Picard is not an 'action hero' so much as a thinker and a leader and Sisco is not superior in strength, it's his will that sets him apart. The J.J Abrams Star Trek universe has EVERY character of the original crew portrayed as some kind of superior genius. And by virtue of their intelligence they are also elevated into super heroic status; able to jump impossible distances, survive ridiculous odds unscathed, and waltz consequence free through a mass scale threat to the galaxy. Like the Marvel heroes, by embellishing the crew this way they've become 'too good' for something as provincial as 'exploring strange new worlds'. Now all they do is shoot the bad guys because they have the most powerful weapons and most intelligent minds and most agile bodies of anyone else. They aren't notable for rising against adversity because the world has to do it's very best to MATCH their own superiority.
You never fear for them and you never really believe they're in danger.
And if this moves to Star Wars we can expect the new movie The Force Awakens and future installments in Disney's 'cinematic universe' to feature our larger than life heroes being invincible and incorruptible as they stare down one minor (if highly destructive) annoyance after another or shoot it until it stops moving.
There cannot be any intimacy, any interactions, any kind of quieter moments of doubt and danger and sacrifice if every hero we have on display is so incredible they only care about world shattering events that take hours to explain properly and go up against bad guys that need to be ridiculously overpowered to come anyway near them AND STILL end up getting utterly destroyed by the end of the story just to make way for the next unimpressive non-challenge.
Thor isn't going to die, and if by chance Marvel decided to kill him off you can bet you'd know about it in advance. The reason is that Thor isn't a story: he's a franchise. Nobody cares that much about Asgard or The Frost Giants or any of his world because it doesn't ultimately matter so much as Thor himself. Same with Iron Man, Captain America, and any other Marvel character they decide to give their own films. The hero isn't going to die, the world isn't going to change, the bad guy isn't going to win, and nothing can happen that means that much because the next Avengers movie will ignore everything except the bare minimum which will mostly be jokes and call backs. Marvel had the audacity to state that in Age of Ultron 'an Avenger will die'.
Quicksilver getting killed was utterly pointless. He isn't the same Quicksilver from other Marvel movies and he's barely introduced as a largely silent antagonist until he turns a new leaf and almost immediately is killed. He wasn't an Avenger in any real sense and he had no arc, no real friends, nothing to care about where he was concerned. You can't claim that his death was supposed to motivate anything or come as that much of a surprise.
Marvel is grasping at straws; trying to make even the most mundane things seem amazing because they defy the conventions they themselves have put into place which hopelessly gridlock their movies.
So how would I make a better cinematic universe personally?
1: If At All Possible, Tell a Story With Suspense and Surprises.
Super heroes, with a couple of rare exceptions, are seldom in any real danger. Watchmen twisted the narrative by pitting the heroes against society and each other rather than a strict villain so as different story could be told, but by and large I'd suggest a story with mortal characters who if they did possess extraordinary powers had limitations to these. Even Ironman is practically a god so I'd find it much more interesting if the story focused on someone more like John McClain (before Die Hard 4) who rarely emerged from a fight without a serious injury. In order to engender suspense there must be the possibility of at least two eventualities happening. Indiana Jones might not 'lose' exactly, but he's sure not going to fight through ALL the Nazis by himself. His plans to circumvent his situation is where the excitement and uncertainty comes from. Same with James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Sherlock Holmes, Burt Gummer and other 'mortal' heroes who have limitations that are clearly indicated. A self imposed limitation like Batman's 'no killing' decision is a nice way to make a hero vulnerable without making them 'weak'. Batman chooses to fight without becoming what he does battle with. The same is true of the nigh invincible Neo from The Matrix films who managed to remain interesting because for all his powers he kept getting into situations he couldn't use them to win the day.
Lets see a hero off kilter, learning from their MISTAKES perhaps, relying on others, learning about what they stand for through trial and error, discovering that the world doesn't even revolve around their success or failure.
Each character is PART of a larger story, not the whole.
That way their part may END, even abruptly...but the STORY will go on.
2: Make Each Installment Self Contained
Batman Sub Zero is a made-for-tv movie based on Batman: The Animated Series. Every element of Batman's mythos is laid out with beautiful simplicity in a matter of moments from the very beginning of the film and the majority of the rest of it actually focuses more on the story of the villain Mr. Freeze than on Batman himself. If you hadn't seen a single episode of the animated series or even another Batman related movie you could still understand what was going on moment by moment. Sub Zero is it's own story, and its a great one.
Same with the Batman animated movie Mask of the Phantasm which weaves into the regular mystery plot a story simultaneously about Batman dealing with a relationship till now the audience didn't know about and also the backstory and pain of the events leading up to him becoming Batman: in essence telling a new story and an abbreviated origin story at the same time, alongside the Phantasm plot as well!
Recent animated spinoff movies have fallen into the trap of leaning on existing materials to make sense (Batman: Red Hood and Justice League: Doom for instance) and of course origin stories are pretty self contained like the Wonder Women and Dr. Strange animated movies, but what's notable about Mask of the Phantasm and Sub Zero is that they tell new stories in the same universe as the animated series but they are not beholden to it. When Mr. Freeze shows up in the animated series his backstory is alluded to but not really defined. To discover his backstory you can see Sub Zero which lays it out neatly, but it's NOT REQUIRED to enjoy any later instances of Mr. Freeze or the show.
Consider something like The Empire Strikes Back as well. It seems odd but it's remarkably self contained. There's no elements that are that inexplicable (except for Ben Kenobi's ghost but that happens pretty late in the beginning of the film) so anyone with a passing knowledge of science fiction could point out quickly that The Empire were the bad guys, that the rebels were the good guys hiding from them, that Leia was a princess, Han was a smuggler and so forth. Compare this to Age of Ultron which has an introduction so jarring I actually had to google it when I got back home to understand it and it only makes full sense if you've seen both the original Avengers film AND Captain America 2. That's not a friendly cinematic universe. That's closer to...well...a Marvel comic book series in which stories are divided among other issues that have nothing to do with each other just so you buy all the books to understand the story.
I much prefer installments to be experiences unto themselves. There doesn't need to be NO continuity, but continuity for the sake of continuity is just annoying. In Empire Strikes Back there's a big flash forward from the original Star Wars: A New Hope film. That ended with the rebellion celebrating the destruction of the Death Star on a forest planet. Now their own a snow planet and The Death Star is being rebuilt and characters are discussing plans for the future. The story has continued but it's skipped ahead a bit; right to the point that the STORY starts up again. Tying the creation of Ultron to the infiltration of S.H.I.E.L.D by Hydra was just unnecessarily convoluted. It didn't make the 'cinematic universe' more rich, it just made it more dependent.
So cut the ties! Pick up the story when the story gets going. Gloss over things if they don't play immediately into the plot. I rag on Joss Whedon a lot and on Firefly but I'll admit that you can easily see the movie Serenity without watching any episodes of Firefly and still understand the plot, the characters and what's at stake.
I think it gives Serenity legs where something like Age of Ultron will flounder in the future without someone marathoning Marvel movies to get to it in order to understand whose where, why they're fighting who, and why things are happening at all.
3: Try Different Times, Different Characters, Different Events
Age of Ultron wraps up with all the heroes played by major actors all but stating 'we're going away now because our actors need to do other things'. I couldn't help but chuckle at the worst exists of major characters in a film since the original group of Power Rangers left on a 'good will tour' at the end of their show to make way for the next team. But Ultron introduces new second string heroes and believes this will keep up the momentum of the cinematic universe by promising later movies to involve the likes of Scarlet Witch and Warmachine and Falcon. The problem? None of these people are interesting. Unlike, say, characters from The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars who were secondary we don't know anything about these new heroes except that they are side kicks. Does Warmachine have a deep backstory? Not really: he's just Tony Stark's friend who found an Ironman suit and put a gun on it. The Falcon's 'power' is he has mechanical wings. That's it.
Compare this to Lando Calrision who at least has some kind of history to him and a set of skills. You could make an interesting movie about Lando's exploits as a smuggler in the old days or his political struggles as administrator of Cloud City. You can't make a movie about Falcon without cramming him together with other B-List heroes. He doesn't have that much of a defined character or identity.
But with different time periods, different characters, different events he could!
Imagine if Falcon wasn't just a hastily tacked on addition to the Captain America movies. According to the comics Falcon was originally outfitted by Black Panther, shows sophisticated interest in science and even fought The X-Men. Lets see that! As stands Falcon is just that guy who shows up in Captain America's movie. So lets have a film that lets The Falcon spread his wings (sorry) by himself, perhaps even in a time period before or after The Captain even becomes a factor so he can get a moment to show what makes him interesting.
Better still I like the additions to a cinematic universe which go WAY forward or WAY backwards.
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is one of my favorite video games. The developers wanted to tell a story in the Star Wars universe but without becoming entangled in either the trilogy that existed or the prequel trilogy which was in the works as they began their game. Their solution? Set the game hundreds of years in the past!
It's brilliant. Some things remain the same but some things have changed and every adventure you have in the game is immediate: not directly dependent upon the films or any other form of media. You could meet new characters who might all be dead by the time the original trilogy rolled around, but that didn't mean their lives weren't meaningful. You got the sense through the stories being told that Star Wars wasn't just movies, it was millions of stories told by millions of people throughout decades of history, with more than enough room for fans to carve out their own niches as well.
Naturally J.J declared all of the expanded universe of Star Wars, from games to comics, defunct because the only thing that matters nowadays is movies and their bloody cinematic universes...but I digress...
Basically do ANYTHING but a direct sequel, and if it IS a direct sequel HAVE IT FOLLOW THE SAME LINE OF FILMS. You didn't have to watch the 'Han Solo Frozen in Carbonite' movie to discover how he wound up in Jabba's palace. The Return of the Jedi follows after Empire Strikes Back but not DIRECTLY afterwards. Time has passed. Some loose ends weren't necessarily tied up in a neat bow. Because it didn't follow directly on the heels of previous films it didn't feel like nothing at all happened between the times the first movie stopped and the next movie began.
More importantly, what about a sequel/prequel/spinoff that's about what we don't know and didn't get to see?
Everyone wanted a Magneto movie for awhile. Why? Nothing from his childhood to his adulthood is really a mystery about Magneto: any movie about him would be a one-shot lackluster adventure designed specifically to sell a movie and the character, not to tell a story.
In the expanded Star Wars universe there were stories just about Wookies. Just about Ewoks. Just about droids.
Marvel has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D the television series but even that is slavishly shackled to the immediate cinematic universe.
It doesn't need to be that way and being so makes each new production less valuable in my eyes, not more.
It's been a winning formula for some time and many fans are pleased, but there's a general sense of settling for less. Was Iron Man 2 really ground breaking cinematic entertainment, or would it even be considered tolerable at all except for being tied to the MCU? Is Avengers 2 everything the trailer promised? Or did it completely ignore the deeper implications of the vengeful super-intelligence of Ultron and instead fashion him into yet another easily defeated and ignored baddie for the length of the movie only?
I want to see stories that lead to more stories. Who cares about characters when they become icons? Icons are meant to represent characters, not the other way around! You can't make a movie about Batman as an 'icon' because then he isn't a person anymore. Even Superman at his best was portrayed as an alien first and a super hero second because him being an alien among earthlings was the interesting aspect of his character, not just being able to fly and throw things. EVERY super hero can do that nowadays.
Focus on the people, not the irons. Focus on the stories, not the plots.
To make a 'cinematic universe' I want each new stepping stone to reveal new places to see and new pieces to the puzzle, not retconned mini-plots that start from nothing and end nowhere.
And most of all if you can't make a 'cinematic universe' AND tell good stories and make interesting characters...DON'T TRY. You don't need a cinematic universe. You don't need icons and epics and nonsense.
Just tell a story we can enjoy with characters we can care about.