Film studios had a wake-up call in 2008. For years, they had been in a creative stupor, commissioning remake after sequel, meaning that original scripts were marginalized to the point that they were seen as unprofitable risks. Then came a seismic volte-face: Samuel L. Jackson popped up in a post-credits scene in the first Iron Man movie and audiences went wild, giddy for the idea that a follow-on movie didn't just have to be the continuation of a plot-thread: it could be something more entirely. The thirst for coherent, inter-locking threads that built up to a bigger picture started here.
The difference between a mere sequel and the beginning of a movie universe is vast; whereas a sequel will continue the narrative for a popular character, a universe is entirely more enriching, creating a non-linear narrative that branches off into entirely different forms of story-telling while offering constant references to what has come before...and is yet to follow. Marvel Studios are fantastic at pulling off this trick, with a universe that comic book fans and casual cinema-goers alike can follow with ease. But is their position as the dons of universe-building under threat? As studios wise up to playing the long game with their releases, more universes are cropping up, many of which threaten to bring in more bucks than Marvel.
We shall examine ten of the most exciting and ambitious proposed movie universes, taking in studios that are both looking to the early days of Hollywood for inspiration and companies that are looking to build up a fanatical following from scratch. While there is an obvious risk of over-saturating a market and relying too much on audience loyalty, it's hard to believe that the following universes won't deliver some serious profit margins for their backers.
10 The Ghostbusters Universe
Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II were two of the most widely loved films of the '80's; it comes as little surprise that the driving force behind the movies, Dan Aykroyd, spent years plotting a film to finish the trilogy. The sad death of Harold Ramis and the reluctance of Bill Murray to commit put paid to that idea, but instead, we not only have a female-centric reboot starring Melissa McCarthy, but a whole host of interlinked projects in development. There could be as many as four new films in pre-production, with Channing Tatum and Chris Pratt linked to a male-centric Ghostbusters film and a Victorian-era prequel mooted. Producers at Sony have gone as far as creating a new internal division, named Ghost Corps, to act as an umbrella company for anything that goes bump in the night.
9 The Lego Universe
The Lego Movie was one of the best movies of 2014 and a surprise smash-hit to boot. Writers Phil Lord and Chris Miller wasted no time in capitalizing upon the critical and audience love for the little brick fellas; they have already began writing a direct follow up, The Lego Sequel. Probably the break-out character from the original, Will Arnett's inspired Lego Batman, will be getting his own spin-off movie, as will the popular Ninjago characters that many feel would have been the icing on the cake of the first movie had they appeared. Jason Segel is also involved in the production of Billion Brick Race, a project closely linked to the central universe storyline.
8 The Jump Street/MiB Universe
Possibly the most bonkers-sounding tie-in all of the featured universes is the decision to link the Jump Street franchise, starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, with the Men In Black films. As of yet, there is no word on how the crossover will work, but it's mooted as part of an expansion of the Jump Street universe, which shall see Hill and Tatum teaming up for another direct sequel (23 Jump Street), as well as a female-orientated spin-off. It's uncertain whether Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones would return for the MiB crossover, but there is still plenty of potential for that particular universe to build on any success the branch-out may bring.
7 The Valiant Comics Universe
Though their attempts to create a workable Spiderman franchise to hang a universe on have frequently been thwarted from perpetual reboots and bad decisions, Sony haven't put off the idea of building a comic book movie universe from scratch. They announced a five-movie plan to bring Valiant Comics to cinema screens, although how far the universe progresses may depend on the box office of the first proposed movie, Bloodshot, about a shape-shifting soldier with healing powers. A sequel is also planned, along with two Harbinger films before the two franchises crossover in Harbinger Wars.
6 The Transformers Universe
One of the franchises with the strongest existing audience is also likely to be one of the most critically derided. The Transformer films of the 2000's and early '10's were undoubtedly loud, trashy and weak on plot, but they made barrow loads of cash for Paramount Pictures. Just as Disney is looking to build an expanded Star Wars universe, Paramount hopes to revive the robot warlords via another direct sequel (Transformers 5), origin stories for the most popular characters, such as Bumblebee and a potential trilogy set on Cybertron itself. The studio is busy recruiting a new writing room to work alongside Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg and Hasbro, with the aim of making up to ten new films.
5 The X-Men Universe
The X-Men have already been the subject of a successful universe, almost a decade before Marvel popularized the idea. The excellent Bryan Singer trilogy began in 2000, and birthed a spin-off, X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. The problem with the original X universe is that the continuity was all over the place, a crucial factor in 20th Century Fox essentially deciding to reboot the series with the recent Days Of Future Past. New films to look forward to in the wider universe include a third Wolverine film, the exciting-looking Deadpool, Gambit and three confirmed movies about the whole team, beginning with the imminent X-Men: Apocalypse.
4 The Star Wars Universe
This could potentially be the universe that makes Marvel look small-time. Since Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, there has been an explosion of activity in the writing rooms and boardrooms of the House of Mouse. Alongside Episodes VII, VIII and IX, all scheduled to appear within the next four years, Disney is working on an Anthology series of spin-offs to flesh out the backstories of some of the most popular characters; Han Solo and Boba Fett are rumored to be the subject of the first two. Alongside the canonical Clone Wars and Rebels TV shows already in existence, it all adds up to a pretty weighty universe.
3 The Classic Monsters Universe
Universal is looking to the past to safeguard their futures. The studio still owns the rights to the characters from the 1930's-40's first Golden Age of horror and believe that this is a trump card that they can use to bring in the bucks at the box office. The shared universe concept seems to have kicked off with Dracula Untold in 2014, after which the studio commissioned a Van Helsing spin-off, alongside stories about the Mummy and Wolf-Man. Another untitled/undecided release is scheduled for 2018 and could quite feasibly feature classic monsters such as Frankenstein, or be another spin-off from the Dracula mythology. You have to wonder if the lightbulb went off in the heads of the Universal execs whilst watching the basement scenes at the end of The Cabin In The Woods...
2 The Stephen King Universe
The Master of Horror has an uneven track record when it comes to adaptations of his books. For every seminal picture such as The Shawshank Redemption or The Dead Zone, film-makers seem to turn his words into garbage with nonsense like A Good Marriage. The exciting thing about being a Constant Reader of King's is that he frequently drops easter eggs into his work and builds a shared universe amongst the novels. A whole raft of movie and TV show adaptations are currently in various stages of production, most notably IT, The Dark Tower, The Stand (all three of whom share elements of story) and 11/22/63. A retelling of Firestarter is also in the pipeline, which involves a shadowy government agency called The Shop, who are due to get their own spin-off TV series, as well as a prequel series about a certain Overlook Hotel.
1 The DC Universe
Quite simply, it is impossible to see the shiny new DC universe failing at the first hurdle. Or rather, the second - Man Of Steel was retroactively decided upon as the start of the shared universe, as the sequel was announced to be the superhero mash-up, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Interest in the latter is so fierce that it will take catastrophic reviews to dent the box office takings, meaning that DC/Warners should make good on their ambition to deliver the slurry of related movies that they recently announced would take them up to 2020. Alongside a separate Batman trilogy, fans can look forward to Green Lantern TV shows and a full film, Wonder Woman, The Flash TV and film, Cyborg, Aquaman and the team series of both Justice League
and Suicide Squad. The smart money is on the darker, grittier DC universe being one which could outshine that of Marvel.