April 23, 2018 is a day to be remembered in the history of films. Released on that date, Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War is a movie to be reckoned with not just because of its sheer cast size and budget, but also because of the massive buildup that included a period of 10 years, a gross budget of around 3.4 billion USD, and 18 movies. It is the dedication and time the studio took for this one movie that make it so special; no other film has ever had such an arduous buildup. The introduction of a completely new universe and a series of character development, without doubt, make cinematic universes special in that they create a whole new level of immersion for the audience, which makes Infinity War a very significant movie as well. Certainly, it may not have been the first, but Infinity War has definitely set a standard that many other attempts of cinematic universes that are currently underway will have to fulfill. But will these cinematic universes be a gift or a curse to the industry?
If one were to speak in mathematical terms, one could say that sequels are just a subset of cinematic universes. Sequels dealing with the same character in the same setting with a new conflict are no doubt what cinematic universes do in a much larger scale with a larger cast. And just as how sequels usually mean low-risk investments with high probability of high return for studios, a well-established cinematic universe can be seen as a similar investment as well, especially for movies that people of every age can enjoy — just like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Because of this, theoretically, it should not be a problem for a cinematic universe to earn money. Complex crossovers of different characters and continued worldbuilding is usually enough to persuade today’s average movie-goer to watch the movie. However, so far, it is hard to say if this theory actually works; there isn’t much information on cinematic universes so far. Aside from the MCU and DC Extended Universe (DCEU) that has a handful of films released, cinematic universes are a new trend that has just started with other new big projects such as the Dark Universe with Tom Cruise’s The Mummy and giant super-species with Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island. From the MCU and DCEU though, the theory that cinematic universes are golden geese does seem very likely. Not only the successful MCU films, but even the DCEU films, which have been bashed by critics, have made a decent amount of money, gaining 3.8 billion USD from the worldwide box office with a budget of 1.1 billion USD.
So, cinematic universes are geese popping golden eggs left and right for the industry’s production; it gets mad cash for more mad cash. Yet, there is a reason why some movie critics lampoon and despair at the box office successes of cinematic universes. It is true that some of those critics may just harbor a sense of elitism against superhero movies, which are what the current “established” cinematic universes are, but it is also true that cinematic universes also come with a risk of lower artistic value. As mentioned before, cinematic universes are low-risk. They make a lot of money compared to the amount of creative labor involved in them. Many of the MCU films follow a formula: introduce the hero, encounter number one, defeat, enlightenment, encounter number two, and victory. The only difference is the setting and character, and not to anyone’s surprise, this formula is very successful. While there are some more creative takes in MCU and DCEU — may they be successful or not — without doubt, they do lack other qualities standalone films and more artistic, articulate films have. The lack of any memorable soundtrack or quotes is just the beginning, and this absence is not because MCU and DCEU are superhero movies. The old Superman and Spiderman soundtracks are considered some of the best and Uncle Ben’s responsibility pep talk proves how superhero movies can have inspirational, memorable quotes. The increased repetition of and importance given to plot elements in cinematic universes decrease the significance and impact of their soundtracks and dialogues. While these flaws of cinematic universes are definitely correctable in future attempts, the current direction is certainly worrying.
Cinematic universes are like mankind’s search for a maritime route to India. People just found the amazing spice of cinematic universes, and now producers and directors are racing to find the sea route that will be their Cape Route. That route will bring those producers and directors riches and fame, but what we need is someone like Columbus or Vespucci who will show a different path that cinematic universes can take to open up a vast world of possibilities: the new world. Will cinematic universes stay as simple cash cows or become building blocks for films to be remembered through the ages?