If there’s one thing we know about Hollywood, it’s that no good idea goes unpunished. When a film becomes a hit, you’ll see copycats and rip-offs on theater screens faster than you can say “extra butter.” We’ve lived through an eternity of found footage horror flicks, Hangover-inspired gross-out comedies and teen survival dystopias.And now it seems like the industry has found its latest chew toy: “cinematic universes.”Secret OriginsIt all started with Marvel. Tony Stark showed up at the end of the Hulk movie. Thor’s hammer in Iron Man 2. All leading up to Avengers, then flowering back out to solo films over three “phases” so far. Just about every one of these movies has been a massive hit, leveraging geek-friendly directors like Joss Whedon, star power from Robert Downey Jr, and the well-established world of Marvel superheroes.Let’s clarify for a second: we’re not talking about sequels and franchises. The Fast and the Furious is not a “cinematic universe.” The definition here is a group of films that have independent storylines and casts but reference and influence each other by taking place in a fictional space with shared continuity – what happens in one film affects the others.One could argue that Disney has pretty much caught lightning in a bottle here. What are the odds of another successful franchise encompassing fifteen films and counting, with another nine on the way plus broadcast and Netflix TV series? Here’s the answer: the odds are not good.Where Marvel goes, DC will follow. But Warner Brothers has seriously botched the rollout of their “cinematic universe.” Instead of delivering warm, family-friendly takes on their iconic heroes, they drilled audiences with Zack Snyder’s murderous Batman and moody Superman. Suicide Squad introduced a little levity into the formula, but their attempts to hint at and introduce other heroes have been clumsy at best and painful at worst. It’s looking like Wonder Woman finally gets it right, but it’s set some 80 years in the past.The funny thing is that DC has already made a live-action universe work on TV with multiple shows on the CW. The problem is, they’ve already made the choice to not have that successful set of properties intersect with the movie versions. That leaves fans with two competing fictional worlds to keep track of, hamstringing both.A Ruined WorldThis illustrates the central danger of the “universe” model of filmmaking: it has to feel natural. Marvel was smart: they dripped out connections in slight cameos and post-credits scenes. DC introduced a pile of heroes for the upcoming Justice League in Batman vs Superman all at once in the middle of the movie and then shuffled them off to Buffalo. The Marvel movies work as stand-alone films first and foremost, while other studios seem to think that the “universe” will do the heavy lifting for them.It’s not surprising that superhero properties have done well here because the core concept of a shared universe originates from there. It’s called “continuity,” the idea that every story is true and can have repercussions in the future. That’s how Marvel created “Marvel zombies,” who had to pick up every issue of every series so they knew what was happening in the fictional world.But Jim Shooter, the editor who presided over Marvel during their massive success in the 1980s, had a maxim: every comic book is somebody’s first. Even though the storylines of their comics could be intricately woven together, each and every 24-page issue needed to provide enough information and value that it would be worthwhile for a new reader to pick up.That philosophy has carried forward to the Marvel movies. Nearly all of them are fun and engaging on their own merits, with the deep continuity cuts backgrounded for hardcore fans.It’s easy to see how superhero universes can go wrong. All we have to do is look across the aisle at Fox, which has built an X-Men universe that is frankly incoherent. Time skips, alternate futures, Oscar Isaac painted like Ivan Ooze – the X-Men movies are wildly repellent. James Mangold’s Logan made it work by stripping away nearly everything but a handful of core characters, but the franchise is already pretty poisoned.Welcome To The MultiverseAnother case: the fact that a “Hasbro Cinematic Universe” even exists is a terrifying indictment of our culture. Michael Bay’s incoherent CGI robotfests make plenty of money, and the G.I. Joe films have been solid if unspectacular actioners. But now Paramount is working on a movie to tie the two properties together, to be followed by big-screen adaptations of late 80s toy lines M.A.S.K., Micronauts, Rom and Visionaries. How many of those do you remember, let alone have fond feelings for?The announcement of Universal Pictures’ “Dark Universe,” connecting all of their classic monster franchises together, hit the Internet like a wet thud last week. The latest remake of The Mummy with Tom Cruise is painfully lacking in buzz, so why did the studio think that making it the cornerstone of a “cinematic universe” would help matters any?Even Guy Ritchie’s flop King Arthur was originally conceived as part of an “Arthurian cinematic universe” that would roll out individual films for each of the Knights of the Round Table before bringing them together, Avengers-style.Final CrisisAll of these failed and pre-failed universes share some things in common. They all came hot on the heels of Marvel’s success without recognizing what made those movies work. I realize that in 2017 it’s kind of a waste of time to tell Hollywood to “just make good movies,” but that’s really the case here. If a Marvel movie ends up being a dud, it’s not going to sink the franchise because they’ve already built enough momentum to get over it. All of these other “universes” don’t have that momentum. They’re trying to burst out of the gate as fully-formed cultural phenomena, and if there’s one thing geeks really don’t like, it’s being told we’re supposed to like something.The one other “cinematic universe” that seems to be doing well, both creatively and financially, is Star Wars. But, like Marvel, that’s a franchise with a tremendous amount of both fan affection and lore. There are hundreds of paperback novels, video games and comic books painting every corner of George Lucas’s galaxy far away. And while the mainline movies are one continuous narrative, Rogue One proves that there’s plenty of room to explore.I didn’t even touch on every “cinematic universe” in the works right now – Legendary’s King Kong/Godzilla “monsterverse,” Sony’s ridiculous Robin Hood franchise, Lionsgate proposing a Power Rangers one… we’re in the dozens at this point, straining both studio budgets and moviegoer patience.Marvel’s movies work because each one of them is a good film. They’ve brought in new directors like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler to carry the movies forward in interesting directions, and slowly and steadily build the universe. But if you went in and stripped out the “shared universe” from most of them, they’d still work just fine. It’s a garnish, not an entree.People didn’t like Paranormal Activity because of the found footage gimmick – they liked it for the tension it racked up and its unique atmosphere. The Sixth Sense was more than the twist at the end, but M. Night Shyamalan obviously learned the wrong lesson. All of these proposed “cinematic universes” are putting the cart before the horse, counting on the gimmick to sell tickets when nothing else works.Good luck with that, guys.
Stay on target T-Shirt Tuesday: The Best Hulk ShirtsT-Shirt Tuesday: The Best Fortnite Shirts Back in the days of geek prehistory, a T-shirt was a signal to the world around you that you cared about your nerdy pursuits enough to fly them like a flag. Companies like Graphitti Designs contracted with movie studios and comics publishers to create shirts with our favorite characters and sold them up on the walls of comic book stores and through mail order.The computer revolution has enabled the T-shirt world to become something totally new – affordable production and distribution means that shirts can be printed in small quantities and sold anywhere in the world. Starting with Threadless, dozens of companies popped up letting artists and designers show their stuff. It’s a better time than ever to be a geek fashionista, and if you’re looking to expand your wardrobe we’re going to help you out every week… on T-Shirt Tuesday.This week: a set of shirts inspired by Nintendo’s Pokemon franchise so cool that you’ll have to catch ’em all.Kawaii PikachuMight as well lead off with the de facto mascot of the Pokemon series, that little electric mouse we’ve all come to know and love as Pikachu. Designer kudasai takes inspiration from classic Japanese advertising art to reinterpret modern pop culture characters in retro ways, and their take on Pikachu is one of the best we’ve seen. It’s a little weeby but not overwhelmingly so.$20, buy it here.Pokeball AnatomyOf all the mysteries in the Pokemon universe, how Pokeballs work is an enduring one. You just throw them at any size of beast and they somehow transform into energy and are sucked inside – but what’s it like in there? Are the Pokemon conscious? Do they have cable? This schematic diagram from artist SoleVision doesn’t answer any of these questions, but it’s a cool shirt anyway.$20, buy it here.EevolutionMost Pokemon have a pretty standard evolutionary path, maybe with one or two branches here or there. And then there’s Eevee. Originally this baby could only transform into a trio of forms – Flareon, Jolteon, and Vaporeon – but as the franchise has expanded more and more evolutions have been added until Eevee basically became the Swiss army knife of the Pokemon world. This charming design by Nados illustrates them all in a slick and approachable vector style.$20, buy it here.Dragonball PokemonKudos to VintageTeeShirt for fusing two legendary Japanese anime together into a single sweet T. Taking titular hero Goku from Dragonball Z and tricking him out with Ash’s trainer hat and a handy Pokeball is one thing, but then having him ride through the clouds on a Gyarados puts this into legendary status. The exceptional line work worthy of Akira Toriyama makes this something more than a novelty knock-off.$20, buy it here.Wood Owl WoodsLove that cute little Rowlet, the bow tie wearing vegetable owl that you could start with in Pokemon Sun & Moon. Artist Versiris seems to be as fond of the little guy as we are, creating this image of a strong and gnarled tree on a misty forest morning that attracts a number of Rowlets as well as some other creatures.$20, buy it here.Blood Sugar Sex MagikarpWe love all Pokemon, even the ridiculous ones. So the idea of paying tribute to the flip-flopping fish Magikarp, the least threatening pocket monster of the original 151 appeals to us greatly. Designer Byway had the brilliantly bizarre idea of parodying the cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1991 major label breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik by revising the tribal cover artwork to feature Magikarp instead of the four band members. It’s so ludicrous it’s amazing.$20, buy it here.MimikyuOne of the most meme-worthy Pokemon in the latest batch is Mimikyu, a Ghost-type who masquerades under an old rag as a Pikachu to lure the unwary. This clean, expressive illustration by Laflleche is a great way to tell onlookers that you’re not what you seem to be. Mimikyu’s not a bad guy, though – it only wears the disguise because it thinks looking like a Pikachu will make it easier to make friends.$20, buy it here.Missing MomOne of my personal favorite Pokemon is Cubone, the “lonely type” that walks around in a skull feeling sorry for itself because it lost its mother. Obviously designer wetbrained has a similar soft spot for the little guy, as they created this charming tribute to the mournful little guy’s lost parent.$20, buy it here.FirestarterThe original three starter Pokemon – Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander – have a place in any gamer’s heart and were a big part of the franchise’s success. All three of them were deftly designed monsters with winning personalities and fun abilities. This cute shirt from BlancaVidal pairs a chubby-cheeked Charmander with a subtly creepy caption to make a hot pick for any Pokemon fan.$20, buy it here.Kanto GamesThe thing that makes Pokemon so addictive is that you never know what you’re going to get. That random encounter could be a rare shiny that you’ve been hunting for months, or it could be just another damn Pidgey. It’s a lot like the classic claw games you see at arcades and pizza parlors, and artist Donnie captures that hilariously with his shirt that pictures a dejected trainer struggling to pick out a Pokeball.$20, buy it here.Bad GirlTeam Rocket might not be the most effective antagonists around, but they certainly have earned a place in pop culture. This richly detailed illustration by ProfessorBees casts Jessie as the prototypical “bad girl” with tattoos and an attitude, striking a pose atop the back of her loyal Arbok. It’s a clever modernization of the character that stays true to her personality.$20, buy it here.Let us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey.