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Sharing, not caring: Has the cinematic universe killed the blockbuster?

In the past few months, several potential billion-dollar franchises released the first films in their respective cinematic universes. But, to varying degrees, they all fell at the first hurdle and now their futures all lay in doubt. Have we reached peak cinematic universe fatigue? Or is this a sign that we no longer want the same old stories re-told and re-booted countless times? 

Let me ask you a question; were you ever in the market for a re-boot of cheesy 90s action movie The Mummy starring Tom Cruise? Or how about a gritty origin story for the Power Rangers? Or Guy Ritchie – a filmmaker for whom the word ‘subtle’ doesn’t quite classify his approach to storytelling – taking on the myth of King Arthur?

The quite simple answer to that is, no. Of course you aren’t. Over the past four months, The Mummy, Power Rangers and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword all appeared in cinemas to fill that large billion-dollar franchise hole that’s been staring Hollywood in the face ever since Harry Potter called it quits and nobody stepped up to fill the void. These three films weren’t just films, oh no, they were calling cards for trilogies, sagas, shared cinematic universes – the whole shebang. Together, they had three major movie studios’ backing and hundreds of millions of dollars of budget, promotion and hype behind them. And what did they do?

To put it politely, they were all pretty much flushed straight down the shitter. King Arthur barely re-couped its budget, The Mummy grossed $200 million less than the Tom Hiddleston-starring King Kong re-boot and the Power Rangers barely scraped $100 million at the global box office after a thrashing from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

All these films, to a certain degree, represent properties and brands that the modern world has lost touch with and, ultimately, has no interest in.  Of course, each one of these films had the potential to revitalise their tired, tarnish brands and bring them dragging, kicking and screaming, into the modern world, but they failed. Why? Across the board, mainly thanks to lazy storytelling and filmmaking. mostly due to the fact that these films were, as discussed, supposed to be the foundations for potentially billion-dollars of commerce across multiple films. But the foundations can never be strong and stable if you’re focusing too much on what to build after them. and all three films, at heart, have a hollow core where the heart of their franchise should have been.

Take Power Rangers, whose Krispy Kreme product placement was so central to the actual plot of the film, I first thought the film-makers were attempting some bizarre post-meta statement. Likewise with King Arthur and The Mummy, most of the bulk of their running time was spent foreshadowing the events of foredooming films instead of actually developing the characters that should have introduced us to their respective worlds. Do we care if Russell Crow is Dr. Jekyll when a demonic mummy is running amok? Can we care about the fate of Merlin and Mordred when Charlie Hunnam still hasn’t picked up that damn sword? These films have concepts, sure, but they don’t have anything approaching a narrative arc or character development, because of course those would have been saved for the sequels.

But, then again, we only have ourselves to blame. We made Marvel the most powerful studio in Hollywood and lapped up its inter-connected Cinematic Universe making it, as of right now, the highest grossing movie franchise in the history of cinema, pulling in over $11 billion dollars of revenue. And you’d have to be a pretty stupid studio executive to look at those numbers and not thing, well, I’d like a piece of this myself. So here we are, with Tom Cruise headlining a so-called ‘Dark Universe’ of Universal’s most iconic monster movie villains, Guy Ritchie pinning his hopes on a six (!!!) film King Arthur saga. Built not of need or necessity, but out of a formulated construction based on what paying audiences are most likely to lap up. And, quite happily, it turns out that even though Hollywood may be churning out re-boots and re-takes on beloved and recognisable fictional properties, we won’t just watch any old crap (I say this knowing full well that Despicable Me 3 just debuted at the top of the US box office – but, hey, you win some you lose some).

Hollywood always has and always will be a cash cow. Before Marvel, we had Westerns and before that, we had Charlie Chaplin. Par of the course is that, when something is an instant and resounding success, then others will seek to benefit from this and copy what was a success. This is explains the deluge of inter-connected, multi-character franchises hoping to take flight, from DCs Justice League, to JK Rowling’s so-called Wizarding World. But what Hollywood needs to beware of is that audiences can and most certainly will sour their taste of superhero and their ilk in the near future. And that will mean more than just finding the next big franchise to take off…it could mean the potential end of the blockbuster itself.

Words by George Griffiths

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