Shared superhero universes: Are they more successful on television?

The idea of shared on-screen universes has been around for decades; We’ve seen adaptations in different genres such as the Universal Monster movies to the likes of crossover events such as Freddy Vs. Jason.  With all the mainstream success of recent years with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (something the DC Extended Universe is trying to replicate with mixed results) it comes as no surprise that production companies are looking to cash in. The past few years alone have seen the creation of the MonsterVerse (GodzillaKong: Skull Island) and The Dark Universe (The Mummy etc.), with many others in development.

But shared universes have worked very well on television too, from the Buffyverse (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel), Whoverse (Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Class) and all the NCIS and CSI shows with their various spin-offs. But there are challenges.

Marvel proved that shared universes can work in film, throwing in references and cameos to link characters and events to a wider universe while building to event movies like The Avengers. The difficulty with creating a shared world within a TV series, is you not only are you required to entertain, you also need to match the tone and character development for the people watching any related spin off shows also consisting of 20+ episodes.

Shared universes on superhero TV shows can be particularly tricky, ensuring each hero is given sufficient story, heart and motivation, while having the understanding that there are other “supers” in the universe. For this reason it wasn’t until the failed attempt at a movie universe of their own (the flop that was The Green Lantern) that DC in 2012 moved to TV, launching Arrow, which later spun The FlashSupergirl and Legends of Tomorrow to the mainstream public. Not only has this been well received but it seems to have mastered the ability to ensure people come back for more.

The requirement to keep up with all shows is essential, especially when crossover episodes occur. If a particular show is missed the plot can become confusing and disjointing; not to mention that each episode follows one another so missing a single moment can often mean disaster. Let’s say you’ve not been watching Supergirl, whenever a crossover happens on either The Flash or Arrow. The character could be rendered useless, either confusing or boring you, making you not want to come back. However, this can always have the opposite effect; perhaps you’ve witnessed a new character you were not aware of and become more susceptible to watch their show.

This isn’t as apparent in the superhero movies of Marvel or DC. Although helpful to stay up to date, it’s not essential, even when getting to the big team up movies. Not seeing the previous film doesn’t cause major problems for the average watcher because far less content is crammed into its running time.

Due to the success and the ever growing popularity of VOD services, TV show budgets have skyrocketed with Game of Thrones currently receiving movie level budgets for individual episodes. This has since caught the eye of Marvel who’ve utilised the Netflix platform by creating successful superhero shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Recently they have all been brought together Avengers style in The Defenders, receiving generally positive reviews. Given that Netflix has over 100 million subscribers worldwide, all with the opportunity to watch from the comfort of their homes and for a small monthly fee, it isn’t out of the question to suggest these shows could just as easily be as successful as the movies.

When talking of universes in any media, the conversation swiftly moves into continuity. You don’t want to confuse your audience, so have to make sure everyone is aware the TV universe is separate from the movie. Well unless you’re Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. The TV series was created to exist within the movie universe, taking place shortly after The Avengers. Here was a more in-depth world of the SHIELD, an organisation that helping our superhero friends in phase one. It had a poor start, but even with signs of improvement it soon became apparent that it was being hindered and hugely affected by the movie plot lines. This meant that episodes had to coincide with the movies of the time, creating a show that not only had to be up to date, but heavily relied on audiences watching the latest movies, or risking either spoilers or high levels of confusion.

The fall of SHIELD towards the end of season one was both a narrative blessing and a curse. The series' plot was driven by the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that rendered SHIELD inert as the organisation was infested by HYDRA. It put the central agents of SHIELD into a spin as the premise of their very show was thrown in jeopardy. Downgrading SHIELD also meant that audiences, consistently wondered where our superheroes were, when technically they were part of the universe and could easily help out. Audiences found themselves longing for the movie characters, rather than paying attention to those being created for the TV show. It wasn't until season two that the show finally started to develop characters that were as interesting as the big-screen counterparts.

Co-existing TV and movie universes is an extremely difficult juggling act, trying to keep both audiences in the loop. Because of this, Marvel made the masterful decision to create its new shows on Netflix, their own universe not reliant on the movies. This gives them creative freedom to take their characters in any direction and allowing audiences to watch at their own leisure rather than worrying about being spoiled. as crossovers between TV and movies become more rare and unnecessary.

Regardless of the show you’re talking about, one thing rings true for all; they’re far too long, often clocking in at a whopping 16+ episodes a season, with the likes of Arrow, The Flash and Agents of SHIELD receiving 23.  This can be a slog, especially when watching week by week. By the finale the viewer is so worn out and bogged down by additional subplots, they neither care for the outcome nor understand fully what’s transpiring. Seasons are full of exposition, introducing additional characters with new and confusing backstories, and this is far more prominent in the Arrowverse. Not only are there four different shows, but each one has upwards of 10 'main characters. This makes it hard to keep up, even more so in Arrow as the amount of deaths, reincarnations and character changes become mind boggling.

They could all benefit from a less is more approach, cutting back on the number of episodes could increase budgets, subsequently increasing production values, casting options and overall quality. Consider Game of Thrones; its success tells its own story that companies should take note of, given that they only need 10 episodes are needed to engage their audience.

As far as the success of shared universe movies over television, both mediums have their advantages. With film it’s the experience, including 3D and IMAX, but TV, with ease of access and binge watching from the comfort of your home for a fraction of the cost, probably shades it in the success stakes.

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