After the breakout success of Marvel's The Avengers, it seemed like every studio was trying to figure out a way to replicate the formula with its own cinematic universe. Despite attempts from several studios, no one has been able to pull it off to the degree that Marvel has. After rough starts, Warner Bros.' DCEU and Universal's Dark Universe announced within a short span of each other that they would be focusing more on standalone films rather than building a shared continuity. These were two of the biggest studios making plays to create cinematic universes, and with both of them seemingly shifting gears, it might be time to ask: Should studios stop trying to make cinematic universes?
Yes, I think that any studio not named Marvel should ease the throttle and turn away from cinematic universes. There are a few reasons for why I believe this, but the bulk of it rests on the fact that since the birth of the cinematic universe in 2008's Iron Man, no one has been able to achieve the same kind of success, and it's ultimately damaging to the films in the long run.
Quite a few studios have announced plans for cinematic universes over the years in the wake of the MCU, and while that franchise is still one of the strongest ever made, I think studios are beginning to realize it's much harder than it looks even when you have all the right parts.
The DCEU took a different route than Marvel to build its series. Rather than introduce all of the important characters in solo movies and slowly build to a team-up movie, Warner Bros. decided to do almost the exact opposite and introduce half of the characters IN the team-up movie and then make the solo films.
That meant devoting a lot of time to setting up its universe in films like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. In the case of the former, those elements of the film felt shoehorned in, such as setting up the Justice League in an email. Suicide Squad didn't fare much better, and while both films have other problems, the fact that they had to service the studio's longterm strategy didn't make them better movies.
Some critics saw this as a rush to the finish line in order to compete with the MCU, but no matter the reasoning for the strategy, it ultimately backfired. Justice League, what was meant to be the crown jewel of the DCEU, fell below expectations and only grossed $657.9 million worldwide.
Things went even less smoothly for Universal. The studio decided to revitalize its collection of classic movie monsters, like Frankenstein and The Wolfman, as interconnected action blockbusters. Called the Dark Universe, the first film of the intended series was The Mummy, which had major star power in the form of Tom Cruise behind it.
The movie landed with a thud. While it did well from an international standpoint, grossing $409.2 million worldwide, the film barely made a dent domestically with $80 million. Reviews were likewise lackluster and Universal went back to the drawing board. The studio eventually decided to halt production on all future Dark Universe projects, and the cinematic universe was tabled after only one movie.
Like Batman v Superman, The Mummy dedicated a chunk of time to establishing an interconnected movie world, again to the detriment of the film itself.
Even with access to some of the most iconic characters in fiction, neither studio was able create a cinematic universe on par with Marvel. True, Marvel had a head start on them, but if your cinematic universe is tanked after just one movie, then something is seriously wrong.
However, Warner Bros. was able to strike gold on two specific films: Wonder Woman and Aquaman. While neither film is perfect, both got mostly positive reviews and did very well at the box office. Both of them have their own strengths and weaknesses, but it's worth pointing out that the one thing they both have in common is that they barely mention the DCEU.
The two movies stand on their own two feet and only worry about their own stories and characters. It's no wonder why Warner Bros. has decided to shift its attention to making great solo films that don't cater to other movies. None of this is to say that the DCEU should be dissolved or that it can't work one day. I think Warner is realizing what it should have done in the first place and will make Justice League 2 when it's ready.
The DCEU and Dark Universe are not the only cinematic universe to take damage, but they are arguably the most high-profile. While it was never technically confirmed to crossover, people assumed the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot would connect to the the X-Men franchise. Fox even had the actors all take a picture together (which Dark Universe did to, by the way), but Fantastic Four was dead on arrival. There was also talk of a Transformers cinematic universe at one point.
More cinematic universe are failures than successes. Studios spend years developing these films and hiring writers to sketch all the storylines out, but all the eggs are in one basket. If things don't go according to plan, then the studio either has to spend serious effort retooling the whole thing to what it thinks people want -- like what Warner Bros. did -- or it has to start completely from scratch like with Dark Universe. It seems like it's a safer bet to focus on making one good movie at a time.
That's not to say that no one but Marvel can make a good shared universe. Legendary is making Godzilla fight King Kong next year and everything seems to be going smoothly. That series only has two movies so far (likely because all the special effects force longer productions) and has less to set up, but it's not rushing into things.
Ultimately, cinematic universe can be really fun to watch and follow along with over the years, but it feels like any miscalculations during early development sends the whole thing cascading down a cliff. It might be more worth a studio's time to just make great standalone films first and look for opportunities down the road for a cinematic universe.