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  • Arnest Lim

Shared Universes and the Future of Entertainment

14 years ago, a movie was released in theaters that would change the world forever. Featuring a man in a metal suit who could fly and shoot energy beams out of his palms, no one could have predicted the absolute success that would spiral out of this movie. This was none other than 2008’s Iron Man, an action-packed comic book superhero film that would spawn the world’s most successful film franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Since then, the number of shared cinematic universes currently circulating has increased exponentially, with over 20 active franchises spanning various forms of media in the world now. More will join this list in time to come but why exactly are these shared universes so popular, and what are their pros and cons? Let’s dive deeper into this as we question whether shared universes are the future of entertainment. But first, let’s explore how shared universes came to be and what does this concept really mean.

Origins of the shared universe

While the term has become more commonly associated with movies and TV shows, the “shared universe” concept can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks in the 12th century BC, who would have continuously told stories about their pantheon of gods and added to their mythology. The stories may not necessarily have been linked but since they revolved around the same characters (in this case the Greek gods), Greek mythology was functionally the very first shared universe in popular fiction.

Tales of the Greek pantheon of gods could have been the earliest known example of a fictional shared universe.

In modern times, shared universes were probably first popularised by American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu Mythos has since been expanded upon by various authors, all of whom have written more stories featuring Lovecraft’s creations of eldritch horror. With this development, this shared universe has extended its tentacles (no pun intended) from literature to other forms of media, even board games.

H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos is likely the progenitor of modern shared universes in fiction.

The origins of the “shared universe” may not be what we expected, since we’re probably more used to seeing that in live-action media rather than literature or even through verbal stories. But with how much the concept has changed over the years, that then begs the question:

What actually constitutes a shared universe?

While there is no one-size-fits-all definition, the late comics historian Don Markstein has provided a set of 5 criteria that need to be met for something to be classified as a shared universe. While the criteria were more comics-focused, they can be extrapolated into other mediums as well:

  1. If characters A and B have met, they’re in the same universe. If characters B and C have met, by extension, A and C are in the same universe.

  2. Characters can’t be connected by real people. For example, DC Comics’ Hal Jordan has met ex-US President Barack Obama, Obama has of course met his presidential successor Donald Trump, and Trump has met Marvel Comics’ Luke Cage. However, Hal Jordan and Luke Cage explicitly exist in separate universes since they’re under different comic companies, therefore this “connection via real person” is voided.

  3. Characters can’t be connected by characters that “[don’t] originate with the publisher”. Markstein used the example of Hercules, the demigod hero from Greek myth, a character who has appeared in both DC and Marvel Comics, and has interacted with both Superman and Captain America. However, we know that those two characters don’t exist in the same universe, therefore the existence of Hercules in both companies doesn’t equate to a shared universe.

  4. However, distinctly fictional versions of real people or legends, such as the aforementioned Hercules can be used as evidence of a shared universe. For example, Marvel’s Thor and Captain America exist in the same shared universe since they’ve both met their version of Hercules, and the same goes for DC’s Amanda Waller and Hal Jordan since they both met their version of Obama.

  5. Finally, while this isn’t explicit evidence of a shared universe, Markstein states that characters are only considered to have met if they appeared together on-panel in a story. Similarly, if characters appear together on-screen in a movie or TV show, then they’re considered as having met.

A caricature of comics historian Don Markstein, who came up with the 5 criteria for a shared universe.

It’s important to note that these criteria aren’t all-encompassing. For example, the Marvel Netflix series Daredevil exists in the same universe as movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Eternals even though the titular characters of each property haven’t shared the screen with one another.

As such, the creator’s intention overrides all else, meaning that if certain properties are specifically stated to share a universe, they will be considered as such regardless of whether they fulfil all, if any, of Markstein’s criteria. On the flipside, if certain characters have met but the creators make it clear that it is merely a crossover between non-connected properties, that also doesn’t constitute a shared universe.

So we’ve covered the origins and components of a shared universe but really:

What makes shared universes so popular?

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the go-to and most popular example of a shared universe.

Many of today’s shared universes exist as TV shows and movies, all of which reference some form of source material, whether it’s comics, books, cartoons or even other movies. When you have a wealth of material to draw from, this allows creators to craft huge stories, with the next one being bigger than the last. Moreover, a shared universe opens the door for different properties to crossover with one another, and the MCU is a prime example of this.

14 years ago no one could have imagined that some of the world’s biggest superheroes would exist side-by-side on the big screen but fast-forward to the present day and not only have we seen superhero teams like the premier Avengers meeting the wacky Guardians of the Galaxy, we also have the possibility of seeing even wilder team-up combinations, the likes of which we saw in 2021’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

People couldn’t have imagined that characters from vastly different corners of the medium would be able to meet like this, but a shared universe made this possible.

Not only did that film introduce a brand new character in Shang-Chi, it also reintroduced fan favourite characters like Wong, who has traditionally been a Doctor Strange supporting character. Moreover, it even gave audiences the return of the Abomination, a villain who hasn’t seen the light of the cinema screen since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk. And all of this is possible because they all share the same universe. That’s what fans love, the connectivity of it all.

Even in current literature, there are some very expansive and well-written shared universes, with one example being the “Riordanverse”. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because this shared universe originated from Rick Riordan, who you might know better as the author of the Camp Half-Blood Chronicles, The Kane Chronicles and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard.

Just a look at some of the literary works that make up the Riordanverse.

In fact, all three of these novel series exist in the same universe, and characters within each series have crossed over with one another. This isn’t a case of “non-canon” crossovers either because Riordan has made it explicitly clear that his works are in the same universe. Fans have had a whale of a time with these books and seeing their favourite characters meeting one another would’ve certainly made them happier.

But nothing is perfect and neither is having a shared universe, for the concept itself brings with it its own flaws.

What are some issues with shared universes?

Unfortunately, the greatest thing about shared universes is also the worst thing because connectivity is a double-edged sword. Sure, it’s great that all your properties exist in the same universe and they can crossover with one another as the writer sees fit, but that also comes with its own problems, the first of which we’re currently seeing with the MCU.

Because so many of these films and TV shows are connected, it becomes difficult to enjoy any of them as a standalone story. In fact, you end up having to watch a whole slate of other media before you’ll even be able to understand what’s going on. A prime example of this is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (henceforth referred to as Doctor Strange 2), which was released in theaters this May.

Apart from (obviously) being a sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange, the film’s plot was also heavily affected by the events of WandaVision, a TV series that was streamed on Disney+ last year. While I won’t do a deep dive into the series (that’s an article for another day), to fully appreciate the story of Doctor Strange 2, audiences would have had to watch WandaVision as well. If you didn’t, well, crucial details like the existence of Wanda’s children would be lost and the film would’ve had less impact.

Majority of global moviegoers wouldn’t be subscribed to Disney+ and would just be casual audiences who watch this movie because the Marvel logo is slapped on it. But because the shared universe plays such a big part in the understanding of Doctor Strange 2, it will undoubtedly alienate some viewers. This is but one of the many problems with Doctor Strange 2 and we’ve explored other issues with that film right here.

Similarly, this connectivity problem also plagues comic books. Whenever comic companies have huge crossover events that span various comic lines, it forces readers to read issues that they wouldn’t normally read. For example, the massive Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover that DC Comics went through in the 1980s was a limited series that spanned 12 issues. However, the crossover also had tie-ins from 15 different comic lines, with tie-ins ranging from 1 issue to 7 issues.

The massive crossover event that was Crisis on Infinite Earths would’ve forced readers to read comics that they normally would not.

This would have been a huge turnoff for readers at the time and even today, big crossover comic events pose a huge hassle as people have to read a random issue from another series just to get the full story. This is the biggest problem with the connectivity of a shared universe, it alienates casual fans, adversely affecting comic sales.

Does the future of entertainment lie in shared universes?

With the increase in shared universes across entertainment mediums, it would seem that the future of entertainment is leaning towards such a storytelling approach. A model like this is becoming very lucrative, especially for movie studios, with 8 of the top 10 highest grossing film franchises and series having roots in shared universe material. It’s inevitable that this is where entertainment is headed.

And it’s not just Western media too, for even Indian films have started to branch into shared universes. At present, 5 different shared universes exist in Indian cinema, with the most recent one (known as the “Astraverse”) starting just this year.

Brahmastra: Part One - Shiva is the first film in the “Astraverse”, the latest shared universe that has sprung from the mind of producer Ranjir Kapoor.

Shared universes will only become more and more common as audiences crave connectivity between stories, no doubt spurred by the extreme popularity of the MCU. Of course, not everything that will be released in theaters or on TV in the coming years will be connected to something else. There’s still plenty of content out there that can be viewed as a standalone product.

As for me, I love connecting the dots between different properties so shared universes are not a problem. But hey, even if shared universes become the norm and you’re not into them, don’t fret, for many properties within shared universes aren’t that dependent on one another. You’ll still be able to enjoy something without having to watch five other movies or TV shows to understand.


Iron Man and all related characters, settings, and media are property of Marvel Worldwide, Inc.

Hal Jordan and all related characters, settings, and media are property of DC Comics. A Time Warner Company.

Camp Half-Blood Chronicles and all related media are property of Hachette Books, an imprint of Perseus Books Group.

Brahmastra: Part One - Shiva is the joint property of Star Studios, Dharma Productions Pvt. Ltd., DNEG and Starlight Pictures.

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