Are Cinematic Universes as Progressive as They Could Be?

By Mike Malpiedi

This past May, Marvel and Disney co-released the film, Captain America: Civil War. In just a few short weeks, it grossed over a billion dollars in ticket revenue. That’s a significant chunk of change, and other film studios continue to take notice. Since Disney acquired Marvel back in 2009, the two have produced thirteen major blockbusters (including the new Captain America) that together have managed to rake in a total of over $10 billion. Let that sink in for a minute… $10 billion over the course of seven years.

And Disney’s didn’t stop there; they received the same roaring success with Lucasarts and the Star Wars franchise.  Star Wars Episode VII is one of the major blockbuster film successes to come out last year, which also continues to amass large sums of money for Disney. The studio is planning on transforming Star Wars into another cinematic universe starting with their first spin-off, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, scheduled for release this December and a Han Solo origin film soon after.

Seeing this level of financial success, studios such as Universal, Warner Bros., Fox, and Sony are working to establish their own cinematic universes. Fox is already riding the success from the revival of X-Men series since 2011’s X-Men: First Class (although their relaunch of Fantastic Four didn’t go according to plan). Warner Bros, Sony, and Universal, on the other hand, are laying the foundation for cinematic universes using properties like DC Comics, Ghostbusters, and Jurassic Park respectively. Each studio is planning film releases for the next four to five years. In fact, Warner Bros. has already planned to release ten movies based on the stories of DC Comics between now and 2020, in the hopes that they can catch up to Marvel.

While it’s exciting that many of our favorite characters are making comebacks and on-screen appearances, it does beg the question: do these films and extended media support creativity, diversity, and maturity? Many fans and critics are having a blast with the current wave of mainstream superhero and nostalgia based franchises, but for others the answer isn’t as certain with each universe receiving as much criticism as they do praise.  While cinematic universes, like the ones described, can bring a lot of fun and excitement, the creative forces behind them can be lacking in desire to push forward diversity and interest for substance over style and profit.

For example, the major criticism in regards to last year’s Age of Ultron is that the film, while containing strong moments,  doesn’t entirely stand on its own without the surrounding Marvel Universe. The movie primarily sets up large plot points for all of the forthcoming sequels, but causes the central plot to feel more like an additional side story as opposed to the main narrative (no one puts Ultron in the corner!). With much of the film fulfilling the role of a gateway to the holy grail of profit that is Act III, and presenting fan-catered action sequences, there is little time left for character and plot development – two significant components for making a great movie. This scattered focus is also due to the sheer number of characters introduced in the film. Despite being one of the weaker films in the MCU, Age of Ultron easily reined in over a billion dollars in revenue.

As for Warner Bros and their most recent DC outing, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, their film is considered by critics to be among the worst DC films released alongside gems such as 1997’s Batman & Robin and 2011’s Green Lantern (well not quite on their level, but still not very good). The film is a flashy blockbuster packed with loads of special effects and fight sequences, but all of the heart of these iconic characters and stories is lost in translation.  Batman v Superman, however, is enjoyed by numerous fans which makes Dawn of Justice‘s release one of the more divisive in recent years. Regardless Batman v Superman, while under-performing, made $872 million at the globe box office. That might not be Marvel numbers, but that amount of money is nothing to scoff at.  It is enough that Warner Bros will continue to carry their cinematic universe forward through the release of Suicide Squad in August and a change in creative teams.

There is attention to source material that is often lost in development as well. Sticking with the DC universe, BvS attempts to tackle classic DC stories such as The Dark Knight Returns and Superman: Messiah Complex with splashes of Wonder Woman and Doomsday, but it fails to turn it all into a compelling and cohesive narrative. The very, very brief appearances of Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman don’t sweeten the spectacle much either, but they do represent a little hope for future DC films. BvS also features dark and grimy caricatures of the classic heroes that we know and love which aren’t being met with the level of enthusiasm director Zack Snyder hoped for. Similar criticisms are levied against his previous work on Man of Steel, arguing that the portrayal of Superman was off-base given the bombastic and chaotic finale.

Then there is the recent X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, Fox’s attempt at adapting the dense and expansive saga the film is named after. The film is still being met with mixed reviews bordering on disappointment. The main criticism is that the film just feels empty and void of any intriguing or engrossing plot development. Top it off with the one-dimensional love child of Ivan Ooze and Immortan Joe who happens to look like Oscar Issac, and you have a film that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the original story-line. Many consider this to  be a significant step back for the newly revived X-Men universe, especially after the reception of Days of Futures Past. Regardless, Batman v Superman and Apocalypse brought in fat wads of cash for both Warner Bros and Fox studio execs.

Along with these previously stated issues, there is the recurring argument that all of these sequels and spin-offs are creating laziness within the film and other mediums. Why spend the effort to develop an original premise when you can just make billions by recycling the Spiderman or Batman story and characters? The fact of the matter is that the bulk of movies being released today are sequels and spin-offs, or reboots of older films and media. Hell, three different studios released three different versions of cataclysmic, superpowered, hero vs hero showdowns within the same year. Even major success such as The Force Awakens show signs of playing it too safe and nostalgic, with critics saying the film uses many of the same beats from the original, A New Hope.

There is also the looming issue of diversity within these various cinematic universes. There have been strong strides with the release of films like the new Star Wars and Mad Max alongside superhero team-up films, but studios aren’t pushing as far, or as hard, for diversity as they should be. Throughout the past several years, there are multiple instances where diversity is on the table, but scrapped in favor of the status quo such as Kitty Pyrde being sidelined by Wolverine in Days of Futures Past and the reaction to the #Donald4Spiderman campaign in 2010. These issues are even present in recent Marvel mega team-ups such as Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. These films may feature a wider range of characters -the latter featuring multiple African American and female heroes – yet the MCU has yet to generate a compelling solo film focusing on a female or minority character.

Black Panther is still set to be the first African American hero in the MCU to get his own film, but that film was immediately pushed back after Marvel made a deal with Sony to use the movie rights to Spiderman. The newly acquired character soon found himself written into Civil War and swinging into the hearts of millions thanks to an excellent performance from Tom Holland. The performance is indeed stellar, but many feel that Spiderman’s quick introduction into the MCU stole much of the thunder meant for Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther who is also introduced in Civil War. Boseman’s performance is fantastic in the film and left many wanting more, but none can deny the major impact that Holland’s Spiderman brought to the MCU. Marvel and Sony agreed to release the upcoming Spiderman: Homecoming on July, 2017, thus resulting in the Wakandan King’s 2018 release date. Despite clamor from fans across the internet for more solo minority and female superhero films, it is clear to see where studio executives may have their heart set (hint: it may have something to do with the billions of dollars in revenue they’ll receive from the Web Warrior’s presence in the MCU).

Woman aren’t seeing much time in the spotlight either. While team-up films give audiences great female characters such as Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Woman and… well that’s about it at the moment, but there lies the problem. Not only are female superheroes lacking in solo feature films, they are also being underrepresented in the current team-up films. Sure, there are also excellent heroines such as Peggy Carter and Maria Hill that have a place in the MCU, but there roles are quickly being limited to short appearances and, in Peggy’s case, a brief television series. To top it off, characters like Captain Marvel won’t see an introduction to the MCU until 2019 and maybe, just maybe we will get a Black Widow movie before the apocalypse is upon. And let’s not even get into why it’s taken this long to get a Wonder Woman film from DC and Warner Bros. Now some might be thinking “wait there are plenty of women and minority characters on MCU and DC shows such as Agents of SHIELD, Jessica Jones, and Legends of Tomorrow,” but those shows tend to have less connection (and in DC’s case no connection) with the their larger film counterparts.

While there are brief nods to the films in each Marvel television series, the films often don’t reciprocate those nods and thus the two have little to no connection with one another. It is understandable since there is already enough difficulty fitting the current Avengers roster and story lines into one film, but it limits exposure to a wider audience for these sets of extensive characters. Same goes for Warner Bros and DC who made the executive decision to keep their television and film universes completely separate. A few million may watch Jessica Jones, AoS, or Legends of Tomorrow but tens of millions see an Avengers, Iron Man, or Batman film worldwide and that range of impression matters.

As more major blockbusters feature white, heterosexual, and male protagonists as the headliners (and the ones worthy of merchandise) year after year, it reinforces apathetic and regressive behavior toward woman and minorities. Case in point, the controversy over the female-led Ghostbusters, the anger at Michael B. J0rdan playing Human Torch, and the initial reaction to the Force Awakens cast. The consistent lack of emphasis on minority and females characters, and their stories, helps to enforce this behavior simply by failing to fully represent their existence. And sure some may think, “but these various internet trolls and bigoted folk are few and far between. There are more good people that support diversity in film and media who are progressive in the way they approach the world.” While this is true, these few people happen to have a very loud presence in online communities and social media supported by the often anonymous nature of the internet.

There are common reinforcements of gender roles in these films that help to subtly foster some of these voices as well. For example, the handsome white man is always right story-line in Jurassic World (sorry Chris Pratt, the movie is fun, but it’s true) and Black Widow’s “I’m a monster because I can’t be a mommy” bit from Age of Ultron. Both instances are problematic for a number of reasons. Then there is the possibility that Suicide Squad will alter Harley’s story-line based on scenes in the trailers. The animated series shows a woman who, while manipulated by Joker, chooses to fall in love and align with his ideologies, but from the trailers it seems to be a more traumatic, forceful, and chemically induce relationship influenced by her revised origin in the new 52 comics. The films is slated to release in early August, so audiences will soon see how Harley’s story is presented on the big screen.

As of now, there are at least a few universes showing spurts of creativity, maturity, and diversity such as the new direction of Star Wars and the recent Mad Max: Fury Road. There are, unfortunately, other ways which these cinematic universes are still failing to progress with films pandering to gender roles, sidelining diversity, and putting profit over substance and character. Despite all of this, there are still films within these expanding and developing cinematic universes such as Deadpool, the upcoming Rogue One, and the female-led Ghostbusters that do show promise for a potentially bright future. If studios put more effort, and continue to put more effort, into exploring compelling narratives that involve other representations of humanity then audiences may start to see some truly unique worlds and get the films they actually deserve.

The problem is audiences’ need to vote with their dollars in order to see any sort of change. If they keep paying for films like Fox’s Apocalypse and Sony’s Amazing Spiderman, there won’t be major forward progression for quite a while. Time will tell how long audiences will have an appetite for the current status-quo of cinematic universes, but if studio bank accounts are any indication, the hunger is here to stay.

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