Should film franchises like Ghostbusters follow Marvel’s universe-building plan?

Whether or not we like it, the Ghostbusters Cinematic Universe — or “GCU” — is now a thing, thanks to the announcement from Sony Pictures that there is a second, male-centric Ghostbusters film in the works that will join Paul Feig’s female-centered Ghostbusters reboot.

With the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Warner Brothers fast-tracking the DC Universe (DCU) into existence and Disney releasing Star Wars films that won’t include an episode number, it’s hard to imagine that this blockbuster method won’t continue to grow in prominence. This is especially true as every up-and-coming actor and director declares their franchise allegiance after breaking into the popular consciousness.

For better or worse, the success of the MCU means some of these attempts have to fail. Sony’s previously planned Amazing Spider-Man universe has already been disbanded in lieu of a deal that (sort of) makes the web-slinger part of Disney’s MCU and brings Marvel Studios’ human ATM-machine Kevin Feige in to consult Sony on their future Spider-Man projects. As Sony’s original plans for the franchise failed, many more will follow and they won’t have the luxury of swinging into their more successful competitors’ arms.

As with many developments in the world of blockbusters, we can send our thanks for this trend to George Lucas. He created the Star Wars Universe as soon as he signed the deal that gave him merchandising rights to his creation, leading to an action figure for every creature that grabbed a pint of blue milk in the Mos Eisley Cantina all the way to the Mynocks seeking refuge inside an asteroid-dwelling space slug.

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More importantly, the popularity of Star Wars led to the creation of the expanded universe, now relegated away from canon as “Star Wars Legends.” The books, comics and video games that made up this licensed fan fiction grew the universe beyond the films and in turn, created a literal universe from which Lucasfilm and now Disney can borrow and use to their advantage. With the 2016 release of Star Wars: Rogue One, it looks as though Disney is already borrowing from one of the Legends’ classic series.

Disney and Marvel, of course, struck gold and created the current MCU with the release of Iron Man in 2008. More importantly, the film tested audiences’ willingness to follow a then-second-tier superhero after Marvel sold the rights to their top players (such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and X-Men) to the likes of Sony and Fox — each of them following the traditional franchise model.

Thanks to an excellent performance from Robert Downey Jr. in a solid movie, we proved we were ready to see what else Marvel had in its catalogue. Tony Stark’s appearance in The Incredible Hulk gave a taste of what was in store. With 10 movies, a deal with Disney, and two television shows, the studio created a Hulk-sized franchise. Meanwhile, DC and Warner Bros. are playing catch-up after being stuck in the middle of their “grown-up” Batman franchise.

Warner Brothers is taking a similar but different approach with the DCU by using its second-most popular hero. Eight years ago, Superman was one of the top three comic book heroes as far as the movie-going public was concerned. Like Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Zack Snyder’s Superman films are as dark and serious as The Bat Cave, with none of Marvel’s bright colors or quips despite the past iterations of the Last Son of Krypton.

Clay Enos, Warner Bros. Pictures

Audiences’ middling opinion of Man of Steel has left a strong feeling that the DCU will be the next universe to topple. The rushed nature of the plans for the DCU only add to this, despite there only being one less film in the build-up to its Justice League Part One, compared to what Marvel produced leading up to The Avengers. DC announcing a lineup of movies through 2020 does its best to quell these fears but history — read: Sony — has shown that even the best-laid plans can fail if the material doesn’t meet the standard of quality set by the MCU.

Of all the Marvel franchises that could get a stand-alone franchise, Spider-Man is best suited for his own webbed-world. With an expansive set of adversaries that rival Batman’s, the friendly neighborhood hero is the reason why movies in the MCU have a villain problem. Green Goblin, Doc Ock and Venom all outweigh an MCU rogues gallery that pretty much consists of Loki and everyone else.

While Amazing Spider-Man laid a decent foundation, its sequel built upon the franchise too fast for any spidey-sense to give warning. By doing so, Amazing Spider-Man 2 fell victim to the one of the many problems that plagued Spider-Man 3: A lack of focus caused by too many villains, making Sony’s ambitions a closer brother to the old franchise model, rather than the evolution it was meant to be.

This has brought us to the beginning of post-comic book universe creation and in true blockbuster fashion, they involve existing properties with Ghostbusters leading the way despite a lack of material on which to build.

The Ghostbusters franchise has a modern classic, a bad sequel, a non-canon animated series and a well-remembered, canon animated series. Granted, the errors could all be erased with a couple of good movies, but if audiences believe that DC is jumping on the universe-creating bandwagon driven by Marvel, then they will think the Ecto-1 is being pulled with the rims dragging on the pavement.

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Sony is creating the GCU without knowing whether it’s conceivable to begin with. But the studio would have benefited from announcing Ivan Reitman and Dan Aykroyd’s project after Paul Feig’s film succeeded. Based on those involved, I’m confident it will and Sony must be more so.

However, projects like Feig’s Ghostbusters need room to breathe and exist on their own. Maybe Sony is banking on audiences feeling a sense of required viewing since these next two films are part of a shared universe, just like Disney justifiably does with Marvel. I know I feel that way about films released as part of the MCU, but for the most part, they are also good movies.

Box office returns have proven that standalone blockbusters like last summer’s Edge of Tomorrow and Snowpiercer are doomed, domestically. Both would have warranted sequels, prequels, and spin-offs had they reached the Marvel standard of financial success. But even if they do well overseas — a market that has grown exponentially in importance — domestic box office successes and failures still grab headlines.

Once the GCU hits with the Russo Brothers’ Ghostbusters film, we will soon find out if every major intellectual property in every studio’s arsenal will be developed into a universe of interconnected movies. Based on early chatter, the GCU has an uphill battle to earn audience approval. For every new universe that climbs said hill, more are likely to fall by the wayside.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is an editor for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He has covered baseball for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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