Physics is inescapable. No matter your location, or your cinematic preferences, we are all bound by the laws of physics. Science and physics enable cinema itself – from the basics of film capture, through projection right up to 3D and celluloid’s digital successor. Moving beyond the physical realm, the fashionable shared movie ‘universe’ is just as beholden to these laws and thermodynamics than might first appear. Our own universe’s ultimate fate, the theories behind that, and the laws of thermodynamics may well show the final destination of cinematic movie universes.
There is a well known theory in physics that, eventually, the Universe will suffer from the phenomenon of heat death. That is, over time energy will be gradually expended into less and less useful forms until – eventually – life and activity of any kind cannot be sustained. This is the fate that also awaits the now-normal concept of shared movie universes, and although it won’t be immediate the arrow of time will eventually come for them.
…over time energy will be gradually expended into less and less useful forms…
The blockbuster sequel has been an inevitable concept for decades now, but can still be a source of cinema-goer trepidation. Despite a number of popular exceptions – THE GODFATHER PART 2, T2, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – the majority of stories that spawn sequels, particularly multiple ones, suffer from diminishing returns pretty quickly. It’s a popular, even cliched, notion but one that continues to hold water. Even the three mentioned eventually succumbed (THE GODFATHER PART 3, literally any Terminator movie between 2003 and 2015). Even if THE RETURN OF THE JEDI has its quality debated, the series descended further still into the dull (if perhaps overly-maligned) prequel trilogy. Although ticket price and standard inflation hides it, this weariness for the sequel machine is also reflected in the reduced number of bums on seats.
So we now get shared movie universes – characters and stories inhabiting the same fictional world. Naturally comic book adaptations have so far been the natural vehicle for this, but there are plans afoot for shared movie universes everywhere, each a little more daft than the last – STAR WARS (we’ll maybe give you that one…), a Tom Clancy universe, Hanna-Barbera, Universal’s ‘monsters’ and so on. The idea – from a financial standpoint – being that the duds don’t back the rights-holders into the ‘reboot’ of the sort required by Batman in 2005 or the numerous aborted Superman films prior to MAN OF STEEL. One uber-franchise to draw in multiple demographics. So far the only mature example of this is the series of films from Marvel studios.
…there are plans afoot for shared movie universes everywhere, each a little more daft than the last…
Marvel stands as the best example of what the cinema business desperately want to create: the equivalent of a perpetual motion machine, something that fascinated scientists for centuries (and still does). A device that would continue to run without new energy or resources. A wonderful idea, which is as impossible as it is nice. Either the machine needs to create energy from nothing, which violates the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, or it somehow is 100% efficient and/or there is no friction, violating the 2nd Law.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is simply one of those drinking bird desk toys. It appears as if it might go on forever, but it is doomed to collapse like everything else – cinematic or cosmic. It may have the same illusion of perpetuity, but it’s bound by the same laws as everything else. Before long its universe, much like the actual universe, will expand to that point of heat death.
Already, the fabric of Marvel spacetime is looking stretched (and the DC one straight from the off). In the creative sense, energy may also follow another interpretation of the second law of Thermodynamics – it will degrade to the point where nothing happens naturally. Everything collapses to the point where no new spark can be created, nothing can be crafted from the generic mass of energy. Here, creative energy becomes creative entropy: disorder, lack of structure, floating and useless energy.
Here, creative energy becomes creative entropy: disorder, lack of structure, floating and useless energy.
Picking apart Marvel may seem a little churlish. Especially so, given they’ve just grossed $1bn+ worldwide with a character that engendered sniggers from everywhere besides America and – as mentioned – they are really the only ‘movie universe’ game in the multiplex right now. However, the freedom to express creativity in the Marvel universe is becoming ever more impossible. Even the well-received CIVIL WAR has a shoe-horned Spider-Man presence, squeezing the more established heroes to the periphery at a crucial point in the narrative. The inclusion of multiple Avengers also pinches screen time from Daniel Bruhl, who could easily have been Marvel’s best villain since Loki, and the one with the most pathos of all. Instead we get time for peripheral characters and cameos to be ‘badasses’ (also see the much-trailed Wolverine cameo in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE). The Russo brothers evident fondness for the Steve Rogers character and (perhaps surprising) aptitude for more ‘weighty’ action direction keeping the film from feeling like an over-inflated balloon.
When this Big Freeze happens, the other movie universes are liable to go with it. Maybe not straight away, but they will. The other production studios try to follow suit because it makes money – more money than them, upsetting the equilibrium. Should the energy be sapped from the MCU, it will suck energy from the others because there is a codependency – the final example, mirroring the zeroth law of thermodynamics: all these ventures are ultimately in equilibrium with one another.
The expansion continues, however, and the creative energy gradually degrades. You can’t fight thermodynamics, even when writing movie scripts.