FEATURE: From Monsters To Superheroes - The History Of Shared Universes In Film And Television

FEATURE: From Monsters To Superheroes - The History Of Shared Universes In Film And Television

Did you think the concept of a shared cinematic universe began with the MCU? In this brief overview, we look at the history of shared universes. When did they begin? How have they evolved? And what's next?

As a comics fan, it’s not abnormal for me to see characters from one franchise cross paths with the characters from another. It’s a fun way for writers and artists to get to build the larger world in which these stories take place and possibly show how a singular event can have a ripple effect on other, later events.

The Marvel and DC Universes are regular entries in the geek lexicon, and they constantly evolve and change as their companies publish their comics. However, the idea of a shared universe has made its way into more mainstream forms of entertainment in the past decade. With the release of IRON MAN in 2008 leading into an entire AVENGERS film and television franchise, it seems like the shared universe is becoming the norm for major entertainment, with WB following suit with their DC Cinematic Universe, Fox creating an X-Men Universe, and even a return of the Universal Monsters in a new, albeit rocky, shared universe.

Though it may seem like a novelty at the moment, the shared universe is not a new concept. It’s been around a long, long time.

Jay & Silent Bob in Dogma (1999)

My initial understanding of a shared universe began with my first viewing of the movie Dogma. Released in 1999, it was the fourth feature by writer/director Kevin Smith, and it was the second of his that I had seen, the first being Mallrats. In Dogma, two of the main cast of characters are Jay and Silent Bob, played by Jason Mewes and Smith himself, respectively. Having previously seen Mallrats, I recognized these two characters as the troublemakers that aided Brodie and T.S., the two protagonists from that flick. To me, it was a subtle nod, telling me, “These two movies are related, but one isn’t a sequel to the other.”

Later, I would see Clerks and Chasing Amy, and I suddenly had a better understanding of the so-called “View-Askewniverse,” named after Smith’s production company. Yes, they did relate to each other, and yes, these characters knew each other, even referencing events from previous films, like the death of Julie Dwyer being integral to the plots of both Clerks and Mallrats. Smith, being a comics fan, likely made the decision to link his films because of the shared universes in comic books, where they are most notable.

House of Frankenstein (1944) is considered to be the first major cinematic crossover

The first major film shared universe dates back to 1931, about 10 years before DC’s characters began meeting each other in the comics. Universal Pictures released Dracula and Frankenstein that year, both to great success. They followed with more monster movies: The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, and sequels to the original Dracula and Frankenstein.

Since the creature features were such a success, it only made sense for Universal to try to top them. In 1943, Universal released Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the fifth in the Frankenstein series and a sequel to The Wolf Man. Though it was only moderately successful, it was followed the next year by House of Frankenstein, another crossover that included brought back Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man, but also included Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein.

It was the first huge crossover event in American cinema, and some consider it to be the proper beginning to the on-screen shared universe.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) created the tradition of pitting two established monsters against themselves.

In Japan, the most notable movie shared universe is the Godzilla franchise, beginning in 1954 with the original Gojira. Toho, the company that created and owned Godzilla, saw the success of the first movie and began creating other monsters, including Rodan, Barugon, and, most notably, Mothra. Eventually, all of these giant monsters would begin fighting each other on screen, and this became a tradition of the franchise that continued into 2004 with Godzilla: Final Wars.

Of course, the third Godzilla movie featured a fight against America’s monster, King Kong, which implied that both franchises existed concurrently, marking the first international shared universe! What’s even more interesting, Final Wars was part of a separate continuity that began with Godzilla 2000, and it featured an appearance from the original American Godzilla from Roland Emmerich’s 1997 flick.

Therefore, there are two different shared Godzilla universes! Furthermore, Legendary Pictures, who made the 2014 American Godzilla, is once again pitting the King of the Monsters against a rebooted King Kong who we’ve already seen in Kong: Skull Island. There is an entire Godzilla Multiverse!

Tommy Westphall, the creator of every TV series ever.

Another extremely popular (and extremely convoluted) shared universe is not in movies but television. Long before AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. shared its universe with the MCU and the Arrowverse on The CW began, there was Tommy Westphall, a child on the TV series St. Elsewhere. In its final moments, it was revealed that the entirety of the show’s 6-year run (from 1982 to 1988) was in the imagination of Tommy Westphall, a child with autism, as he stared into a snowglobe containing the titular hospital.

While that in itself is not remarkably interesting, what makes it notable is that due to crossover episodes and special appearances in other series, almost all of major television dating back to the 1960s and into the 1990s must take place within Tommy Westphall’s imagination. The late, great comic book and television writer Dwayne McDuffie (Justice League Unlimited) once published an article attempting to track all the shows included in the Tommy Westphall shared universe. Here’s just a quick excerpt:

Characters from St. Elsewhere have appeared on Homicide, which means that show is part of the autistic child’s daydream and likewise doesn’t exist. It gets worse. The omnipresent Detective John Munch from Homicide has appeared on X-Files, Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU. Law & Order characters have appeared on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. X-Files characters have appeared on The Lone Gunmen and Millennium. Characters from Chicago Hope have appeared on Homicide. Characters from Picket Fences have appeared on Chicago Hope. All those shows are gone (if you count cartoons, which makes this game much too easy, the X-Files characters have appeared on The Simpsons. The Critic has also appeared on The Simpsons).


(The entirety of McDuffie’s article can be found here. Read it. It’s a doozy.)

The Tarantino movies share a universe...sorta.

In the 1990s and 2000s, shared film universes were much less prevalent. They existed, but they weren’t exactly consequential, and they definitely weren’t as in-your-face as their early predecessors. This was the time when the term “shared universe” meant that Vic and Vincent Vega from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were brothers, though no one ever told you that explicitly, and they never interacted; when Batman said, “This is why Superman works alone,” in Batman and Robin; when Leon: The Professional was probably Jean Reno’s character from La Femme Nikita.

Subtle clues or throwaway lines linked films, not plot details or deliberate character interactions (with the exception of Jay and Silent Bob, and that Godzilla crossover, of course). Every superhero film, for example, was standalone. Steel starring Shaquille O’Neil never had an appearance from Superman, nor did Spider-Man ever cross paths with Ben Affleck’s Daredevil (thank goodness). And, of course, 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS was much to grounded to include any nods to the other DC characters. 

Freddy vs. Jason attempted to jumpstart a shared horror universe

Shared universes did make their way back into the public eye through, once again, horror movies. In 2003, modern slasher icons Freddy Kreuger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th) were pit against each other in the very aptly titled Freddy vs. Jason. Taking inspiration from the Universal Monster series, the film intertwined the murderers from the 1980s in a modern setting, gave them a reason to fight, and left the "winner" ambiguous.

Plans for a sequel were made, but it has yet to happen. However, the following year, Alien vs. Predator combined two sci-fi franchises and was successful enough to earn a sequel in AvP: Requiem, though neither of the films were considered canon with their respective series. Ridley Scott's return to the Alien franchise marked an end to the universe.

The shared universe lay dormant for a while. Until Samuel L. Jackson broke into Tony Stark’s home after the credits in IRON MAN and spoke of “The Avengers Initiative.”

And everyone’s mind around the entire world exploded.

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in Iron Man (2008)

This history doesn’t even cover literary shared universes, dating all the way back to HP Lovecraft’s writings in the 1920s. Even Stephen King has created a shared universe that links many of his novels including IT, the Dark Tower series and 11/22/63. Shared universes have existed almost as long as writing has existed. Heck, you could even argue that the Christian Bible is a shared universe with the Koran since major players from Islam and Christianity appear in both holy books!

These days, every major film franchise is a shared universe. We now have the MCU (which includes two ABC TV series, 5 Netflix series, and an upcoming Hulu series), the DCEU (even if they don’t want to call it that), the Arrowverse, the Dark Universe, the Legendary Godzilla Universe, the X-Men Universe at Fox (which now includes a TV series of its own), a Harry Potter Universe, and new ones being imagined every single day. And that’s not exactly a complaint, because someone like me eats it up; ever since I saw Jay and his lifemate Silent Bob beat up a few demon-possessed rollerbladers, I was hooked.

What's your favorite shared universe? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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