Shared universes -- they’re the big thing in movies now, thanks to the massive success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, which comes together once again today in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Every studio is trying to catch up with the idea of a series of intertwining franchises, from Warner Brothers with their nascent DC movie universe launching with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice to Sony with a just-announced Ghostbusters shared universe.
But shared universes aren’t new -- they aren’t even new to cinema. They’re definitely not new to storytelling, as the entirety of the Greek mythological canon, and by extension The Iliad and The Odyssey, is a shared universe. In fact shared universes have a long and storied history, and include some of the great works of art of the last two hundred years.
Many of Thomas Hardy’s novels, including Jude The Obscure, take place in a fictionalized part of England called Wessex. Agatha Christie’s characters crossed over, allowing us to connect Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, even though they never appeared together. Isaac Asimov merged his two fictional worlds from the Foundation series and the Robots series into one massive megaverse. Stephen King’s stories first had tangential connections -- shared fictional towns, oblique mentions of events from other novels -- before he pulled them all together in the multiverse-spanning The Dark Tower series.
King’s shared universe seemed to arise out of in-jokes and easter eggs, but it eventually cohered into something metafictional. The web of TV shows that share a universe is far less coordinated; it turns out that if you draw a line between various TV series throughout history that have crossed over (either directly or through reference) you can construct a massively shared universe that has been estimated to contain over 90% of all television shows ever aired. Known as the Tommy Westphall Universe, it stems from the final episode of St. Elsewhere, where it is revealed that the entire series was happening inside the imagination of an autistic boy. Drawing a line to other shows that crossed over with St. Elsewhere -- and the shows they in turn cross over with beyond that -- you end up with a six degrees of separation game that connects shows as disparate as The X-Files and The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H and I Love Lucy, making almost every show you’ve ever watched Tommy Westphall’s daydream.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a much more cohesive world, and it takes that from the continuity-obsessed comics from which it sprang. The first ever comic book crossover took place in Marvel Mystery Comics #8, where Namor The Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch duked it out. A few months later DC introduced the first team-up comic with All-Star #3, which brought together many different characters into the Justice Society of America.
Crossovers would continue for decades, but it wasn’t until the 1960s when it became serious business. DC crossed over their characters in Justice League (and between titles as well) but it was Marvel Comics, launching their new line of superhero books, that made sure all the crossovers counted. Spider-Man, looking for a way to monetize his new powers, tried to join the Fantastic Four in Amazing Spider-Man #1, and the characters in other books would reference that. Doctor Strange ended up needing medical assistance and he got it from Dr. Don Blake, the Mighty Thor’s secret identity. The Human Torch delivered a speech to Peter Parker’s class. These crossovers weren’t necessarily big events, but they established that the characters lived in the same city at the same time, unlike DC, where the heroes all lived in their own fictional towns, far apart. Iron Man could bump into Ant-Man while getting lunch, but Batman had to travel all the way to Metropolis to meet up with Superman.
All of these connections in the Marvel universe led to the original team of Avengers -- Iron Man, Ant-Man, The Wasp, Thor and eventually The Hulk -- getting together. What made this team unique in comics at that point is that the events of their solo titles could impact their adventures as a team, unlike the Justice League, which seemed to exist outside of the main lives of its members. Marvel Comics established that their line wasn’t just a bunch of different books being published at once, it was a massive, long-form soap opera that spanned multiple titles.
Today the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the blueprint for every studio hoping to follow their path to the box office, but it wasn’t the first out of the gate. The Universal Monsters all shared a universe, although trying to figure out how the timelines of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf-Man gibe is tricky. Godzilla, King of the Monsters, rules over an expansive cinematic universe where all sorts of kaiju have their own adventures and battles. The worlds of Predator and the Alien franchise have come together, although with much, much less success than Marvel has achieved (which is a bummer - remember how exciting it was to see a Xenomorph head as a trophy on the Predator’s ship in Predator 2?).
For some the shared cinematic universe is a warning sign -- an example of yet another way that the studios are franchising and branding every single movie into a homogenous glob. For a nerd like me the shared cinematic universe is a joy. I grew up parsing the continuity of Marvel and DC, and I loved the way the gods would cameo in different Greek myths. Seeing the monsters rumble in Godzilla and Universal movies always filled me with joy. Half the fun of reading Stephen King books at one point was looking for the little clues revealing how this fit into the larger tapestry, whether it be a mention of Derry or Castle Rock or a flitting appearance by a character you recognized from another novel. When the connection is what drives the story, it can be overwhelming -- this is a problem both Marvel and DC face regularly, as their business has turned largely into promoting huge crossover stories where you need to buy 30 extra comics to understand what’s happening -- but when it’s done with subtlety and ease it’s a blast. There’s a sense of puzzle pieces coming together, and of being rewarded with a bigger picture. You don’t have to watch Agents of SHIELD, Marvel’s weekly TV series, to understand Avengers: Age of Ultron, but if you do there will be tiny clues and payoffs that will reward you for paying attention.
There’s a reason we’ve been telling stories that exist in shared worlds for so long. We like the consistency, we like the way they build on each other. It feels more like life, which isn’t just a series of unrelated events but a very long sequence of causes and effects where we move in and out of the stories of our friends, enemies and loved ones. We live in a shared universe -- it makes sense we would want our stories to take place in one as well.