5 Annoying ‘Shared Universe’ Movie Tropes
In 2008, Samuel L. Jackson broke into Iron Man's house to let him know that he was trying to make the Avengers happen. And so, with one short scene, the entire landscape of modern blockbuster cinema was changed. Suddenly the idea of multiple pop culture icons showing up in the same film wasn't limited to glib "This is why Superman works alone" references or "versus" films in which someone wrestled Jason Vorhees. A whole cinematic universe was created in an instant, and it became super successful, making roughly all of the money.
Hollywood, sensing something to latch onto and then beat mercilessly to death, began to pump out various other "shared universes," ranging from the DC Extended Universe to the Conjuring-verse to the Godzilla-focused MonsterVerse to the now-abandoned Amazing SpiderVerse. Now we have Universal's "Dark Universe," which will inevitably end with Tom Cruise fist-fighting the Bride of the Wolfman. However, in their quests to replicate Marvel's success, other studios have hastily adopted ideas that they don't really understand yet. For example ...
Vague, Secretive Government Agencies That Oversee Everything
The Marvel Cinematic Universe had SHIELD, an organization that basically served to provide a reason for all of the Avengers to get together in the first place. There are tons of things about SHIELD that didn't make a lot of sense, and often it seemed like it was kept around because of how fucking cool Samuel L. Jackson sounds when he says the word "SHIELD." But at the end of the day, SHIELD could claim that it was all about defending something, and wasn't a program invented by Nick Fury so that he could get a tax write-off on eye patches.
"Fighting the Chitauri is nothing compared to keeping track of all of my goddamn receipts."
Team-up movies don't necessarily need a SHIELD. In the original King Kong vs. Godzilla, the monsters fought each other because they happened to be in the same time zone. In the original run of Universal Monster films, Frankenstein and his peers usually got rowdy because some asshole scientist decided that it would be a good idea to implant the brain of a ghost into the body of a vampire or something, and there's nothing that monsters hate more than malpractice. It's silly, but it worked.
"I will install the anus of the Phantom of the Opera into the hands of a Frankenstein ... FOR SCIENCE."
"Not so!" huffed Hollywood, putting its cigar out in the open eye of a screenwriter. "People wouldn't buy that kind of absurd logic in our stories about the reanimated corpses of Egyptian supergods. We have to create our own secret government organization that gets these guys together." Thus, Project Monarch and Prodigium were born, with little regard for what their actual purposes in the movies would be.
Both organizations are around to keep track of monsters and ... make sure they're cool? Project Monarch appears in Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, but all we really learn about them in both of those movies is that their members like to stand around while the other characters participate in the plot. They say things like "Let them fight," and while that's a rad line to say while nonchalantly looking off into the distance, who the fuck are you, dude? You haven't helped at all in this whole film, and now you get to be the guy to decide whether or not it's cool for a trio of 400-foot-tall mutants to destroy a major city while they hopefully murder each other?
"Bro, you sound, like, real smart. But just letting them do their thing is how we got into this whole mess."
The same goes for Prodigium, an exposition generator which shows up to be like "Yup, that's definitely a mummy" and then get slaughtered. They suck at their jobs at every turn, but god forbid we find any other way to ensure a monster mash. Even the Amazing Spider-Man series, which had a whole catalog of great Spider-Man villains to use, chose to focus the endgame of the story on some unnamed guy who happened to have the cellphone number of every criminal in town.
"Did You Hear His Name?" Side Characters
Despite the fact that this Marvel Cinematic Universe could easily go on for another decade or two, there are a lot of classic storylines and characters that will never get time in the spotlight, much less a whole movie devoted to them. Things like the Ten Rings plotline from Iron Man, or Samuel Sterns' fate after The Incredible Hulk. That dude might never end up turning into the Leader and fighting the Hulk. Tim Blake Nelson is just walking through life with a weird-shaped head. Totally normal guy who goes to Burger King and his kid's piano recital, and everyone in the audience has to shift in their seats to look around his big supervillain noggin.
Dude's got a World's Greatest Dad Mug and the head of a magical terrorist.
And that's cool. You can't expect every reference to pay off and every maybe-villain to have some kind of climactic trilogy-ending battle with their super frenemy. But if you're gonna drop "Oooh, I know who THAT guy is" characters in the story, at least give them some sort of meaning. Otherwise you might as well begin labeling background extras, which is basically what The Amazing Spider-Man 2 did. "Look! It's Norman Osborn! And Felicia Hardy! And Alistair Smythe! I'm sure glad I recognized them, because otherwise this movie and my life as a whole would be truly bereft of significance."
He could conquer Spider-Man, NYC, and the world, but he couldn't defeat a movie with multiple screenwriters.
These new shared universes haven't really caught onto the fact that you can't arbitrarily label someone with a "classic" name and have it carry weight. In Godzilla, the lead Monarch guy is named Serizawa, after the tragic scientist from the original Godzilla. I'd like to think that in a better world, everyone in the theater would get that and we'd all start making out (because in this new reality, passion also works in unforeseen yet exciting ways). But I'm willing to guess that a lot of people didn't, and the ones who did were left hoping that maybe a guy named Serizawa would contribute more to the narrative than being generally unhelpful.
Superman's little man friend Jimmy Olsen was added to Batman v. Superman and immediately killed off without even getting named in the theatrical cut. And the biggest question for this is "Why would you even bother to signify that this was Jimmy Olsen?" Not because Jimmy Olsen is too beloved to be treated this way. There will never be enough Jimmy Olsen cosplays in the world to make me believe that anyone actually gives a roving reporter shit about Jimmy "Daily Planet Third Wheel" Olsen. But it is distracting, as it's inventing a world not by filling it with unique characters, but by labeling people with recognizable names and distributing them in a fan service fart cloud.
RIP Jimmy Olsen. You were a brave man, and truly excelled at standing slightly to the side of things.
A Wave Of Boring Everyman Action Heroes
A major benefit of the superhero genre is that the characters are a part of the spectacle. They're not observers or survivors of whatever giant laser is threatening NYC that day; they're the people creating it and then fighting over said giant laser. Two birds with one spandex stone.
And a great part of classic monster movies is that the main characters were rarely the action-y bros. They were the scientists and the explorers and the businessmen. And yeah, sometimes they delved too deep, discovered aliens from the Black Hole Planet, and had to right-hook their way out of there, but they left most of the tussles to the monsters. If Godzilla is fighting a three-headed space demon, it kind of immediately shoves any human on human-shaped fiend battle into second place.
Honestly, watching Godzilla movies as a child kind of shoved everything else in life into second place.
Modern monster / horror movie creators seem to think that we need superhero-willed protagonists to complement the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Kaiju, and it's adding icing to icing. The main character in Godzilla survives countless annihilations of the towns around him, saves a little kid, and ensures that a nuclear warhead gets blown up all by himself. Tom Hiddleston's character in Kong: Skull Island is a grab bag of Indiana Jones attributes, because how is this series of GIANT MONSTERS FIGHTING OTHER GIANT MONSTERS gonna compete with Tony Stark and the Avengers if the main character isn't perfect at everything?
At one point, he borrows another character's katana just so he can be better at katanas too.
Tom Cruise in The Mummy is literally turned into a superpowered character because, apparently, having a Mummy and Mr. Hyde wasn't enough. The lead now has to gain super strength to compete in this universe, and that plot point isn't resolved by the end of the film, but left open in an "Eh, we probably won't get to this because it lets us barrel over any logic in our path" kind of way.
That means that there are going to be multiple films in the Dark Universe where, in order to bypass the idea that it's hard to team together a Dracula and an Invisible Man, they're going to have Ultra Mutant Tom Cruise and the Invisible Man. You know, that classic Universal Monster Ultra Mutant Tom Cruise. What a joy it will be to watch him duke it out with the Hunchback of Notre Dame in a duel to see who belongs in this franchise less.
I can't wait for Abbott and Costello Meet The Ultra Mutant Tom Cruise.
Trying To Frame Sequels Around The Dumbest Things
At this point, the name of the shared universe game is "amass." Amass sequels, and potential sequels to those sequels. Marvel has a lot of sequels, and uses established popular characters to help launch new characters. Other production companies are planning to launch new characters, but they have no foundation to do it from. And so they just begin to amass stuff. Stuff for things that might happen.
Usually, these would be seen as Easter eggs. If Peter Parker sees a WANTED sign for the Kangaroo, it's cute, because I doubt Marvel will ever build a Spider-Man movie around the relentless acclaim of the Kangaroo. But in The Mummy, you see a quick shot of the Creature from the Black Lagoon's preserved forearm and some vampire skulls. Because maybe they'll get to that.
"It was either this or my set of NASCAR memorabilia plates."
One of the first scenes in the original Creature From The Black Lagoon has scientists discovering a preserved arm, but a creature shows up later in that movie. In The Mummy, all we get is "We have his hand for some reason. Maybe you'll get to hang out with him one day. He's obviously not that much of a threat, as again, we have his goddamn hand." Same thing with the vampire heads. If you're going to build up an antagonist, you should probably consider not showing artifacts from their demise being kept in a very safe space by very untalented people.
The Conjuring-verse is firing off in all directions, making an Annabelle 2 and movies about the Nun and the Crooked Man from The Conjuring 2. The Conjuring 2 is not a bad movie. The first 90 minutes has the best use of space and lighting in a horror film since John Carpenter's heyday. But you got the wrong message from it if you decided that it was popular because people were clamoring to see the Crooked Man get his own Babadook-esque solo journey, or if you watched people's reactions to the creepy nun painting/monster and thought "Oooh, they seem to be scared of this scene. I bet they'd want a Nun spinoff, done by an entirely different team with different opinions on how to set up a horror sequence."
I mean, that's why Halloween became so popular, right? Other people came in and did their own things to it.
At the end of Kong, the surviving members of Skull Island Spring Break 1973 are shown a cave painting of Godzilla and assorted Godzilla monsters/food. But that movie takes place in the '70s, so it has absolutely no bearing on them. By the time Godzilla shows up again, they'll be old or possibly very dead. So, in essence, it's just a scene where the characters in the movie are informed of a sequel to the movie. I hope Marvel takes note of this and rightfully ends Infinity War with Thor being handed the script to Avengers 4.
"That's neat. I can't wait to see how all of that plays out when I am 80."
Constant, Ill-Fitting Pop Music
When Guardians Of The Galaxy came out, blasting a classic pop/rock soundtrack, it seemed like a revelation. "People like music ... THAT THEY LIKE?" And since then, other superhero movies have tried to infuse themselves with pop music, to mixed results. For instance, while it is light and fun, the Spider-Man: Homecoming trailer often sounds like it was produced by someone who would be quick to judge your Spotify account if he saw the slightest hint of Katy Perry on it.
But that move, along with the choice to arrange Suicide Squad as a series of extended music videos, was largely panned by everyone with ears. DC recognized their gaffe and said "OK, we went too far with that one. We know that now. But how about a version of 'Come Together' that sounds like it's being beaten up in an alleyway by the trailer itself?"
Obviously, adding pop music to songs isn't a totally awful choice. The trailer for Kong: Skull Island is arranged well enough that it doesn't feel like a marketing executive is asking you "Hey, this is fun, right? You're having fun?" the whole time you watch it. Plus, the song fits the tone of the actual movie, which is a blend of exciting fantasy adventure intermixed with the Oh Holy Fuck that naturally comes with watching people get torn apart by a mammoth tropical spider.
Sadly, the "naturally" part is what's lacking in most of these. The trailers in no way reflect the music in the actual movie, which often sounds like John Williams was bitten by a radioactive Hans Zimmer. The Mummy tried to remix "Paint It Black" for one of its trailers, and then, like two men struggling over a gun, laid that on top of a typical movie trailer score. If you've ever wondered "Who is this movie for?" the answer becomes clear when you listen to someone try to cornhole a "Paint It Black" instrumental into epic orchestral adventure music.
No one. But maybe someone.
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