- - Thursday, May 2, 2019

The box office behemoth that is “Avengers: Endgame” offers a formula ready for reproduction in Hollywood: Create a movie “universe” of intertwined plots and characters and converge the storylines into a singular, spectacular conclusion.

Since 2008’s “Iron Man,” that schema has birthed the Marvel Cinematic Universe of 21 films and $18.54 billion in worldwide box office receipts, to which “Endgame” — the 22nd movie mammoth — has added $1.6 billion in global box office revenue since its official release last week.

It’s a blueprint other studios are eager to copy, but universe building isn’t a template that’s easily duplicated.

Consider the DC Comics Extended Universe, which includes the likes of Superman, Batman, the Flash and other first-order superheroes. Yet the universe only lately hit its groove with 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” 2018’s “Aquaman” and this year’s “Shazam” after a long series of cinematic stumbles such as 2011’s “Green Lantern” and 2016’s “Suicide Squad.”

Christopher Sharrett, professor of visual and sound media at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, said one way Marvel trumped DC Comics is by sheer volume. Call it an extension of the Marvel Comics’ way.



Marvel has always tried to saturate the market with their comics, overwhelming their rival DC, the company that led the way with comic superheroes as far back as the ‘30s,” Mr. Sharrett said. “Marvel overwhelms DC with product and an ocean of spinoff merchandise.”

This year alone has brought Marvel-centric movies such as “Captain Marvel,” “Avengers: Endgame,” “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” “Dark Phoenix” and “The New Mutants.” The latter two aren’t officially part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but spawn from Marvel Comics titles.

Another trick up Marvel’s sleeve involves supersynergy, a battle-tested technique for other blockbusters.

“When Marvel markets, they market,” Mr. Sharrett said. “Ads for Avengers become ads for Ram trucks — which morph into fast food. Saturation advertising and achieving the dominant tone over the competitor is basic. Image is more important than product. You accept the image, you buy the product.”

Product placement is key: “Endgame” includes a scene that gives a nod to the popular “Fortnite” video game. The game, in turn, now features “Avengers” audio clips along with players wielding Captain America’s shield and other Marvel-related flourishes.

Other movie “universes” have met with some success despite in-house reservations. Warner Bros.’ “The Curse of La Llorona” has all the hallmarks of “The Conjuring” supernatural horror universe, including a faith-friendly story and tales set in the past. The film also featured Tony Amendola as Father Perez, a character from “Annabelle,” another “Conjuring” feature.

The studio still resisted dubbing the film an official part of a universe, which has earned $1.569 billion to date from five films: 2013’s “The Conjuring,” 2014’s “Annabelle,” 2016’s “The Conjuring 2,” 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation” and last year’s “The Nun.”

The universe’s official sixth film, “Annabelle Comes Home,” hits theaters June 28.

Its track record is far better than Universal’s heralded Dark Universe. Craving an Marvel-like money-making machine of its own, Universal Pictures planned a series of interconnected films based on creature feature classics such as Dracula, The Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster. But Tom Cruise’s 2017 film “The Mummy” proved such a critical and commercial dud that the plan was quickly shelved.

Stephen Fishler, CEO of the online marketplace ComicConnect in New York, said Marvel’s universe had a head start that few in a potential multiverse can top.

Marvel has put in 40 to 50 years of backstory … [giving] present-day screenwriters an incredible choice of what to pick and choose from,” Mr. Fishler said.

Film studios craved access to that resource during the 1970s and ‘80s, but visual effects weren’t robust enough to pull it all together.

“If the same people, the writers and what not, had the idea in the mid-‘80s [for a Marvel Cinematic Universe], it would have looked horrible,” Mr. Fishler said. “It’s a matter of timing.”

Another Marvel advantage comes down to freshness. Batman and Superman have been iterated and reiterated time and again, but a talking humanlike raccoon, as found in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise, is another matter.

That could hurt any Dark Universe-style project, Mr. Fishler said, because audiences have grown up watching variations of those monsters.

“It creates confusion in the mind of the moviegoer,” he said.

Scott Foulkrod, associate professor of philosophy at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania, said the Marvel model poses a challenge for any studio to repeat.

“The Marvel universe was really a perfect storm, a coming-together of good writing, directing and actors, and it had ready-made familiar characters to choose from,” said Mr. Foulkrod, who frequently screens films in his classroom. “Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as Tony Stark. My students argue that there should never be another actor playing the role for another generation.”

To repeat the Marvel Cinematic Universe success story would take great stories, relatable dialogue and pinpoint casting, Mr. Foulkrod said.

However, this doesn’t mean the universe concept applies only to superhero fare. The dead and buried Dark Universe may come back to life courtesy of indie horror king Jason Blum, and this summer brings “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw,” a spinoff from the action thriller franchise.

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