The Shared Universe: Superhero Movies Then and Now

by Matt Rashid

Since Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, nothing has had a greater impact on the superhero film genre than the shared universe.

Richard Donner once promised “You’ll believe a man can fly.”  In 1978, he fulfilled this promise with the release of Superman: The Movie and the benchmark was set for a new era of superhero films.  No longer was Superman fighting the Mole Men in easily dismissed comic book fare at a Saturday matinee.  From now on, movies about heroes in capes had the potential to be “real” movies – classics, even, taking their place in annals of cinema history along with Citizen Kane and The Godfather.  Eleven years later, Tim Burton would make another superhero movie classic: Batman.

“I’m Here to Fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way”

You'll Believe a Man Can Fly

Superman: The Movie 1978

Since Superman: The Movie, not all superhero flicks have met that standard (I’m looking at you, Quest for Peace and Batman and Robin!), but the genre managed to stay alive, even when it was on life support (I see you, too, The Phantom and The Shadow), long enough for the renaissance that came with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, Raimi’s Spider-Man, and Nolan’s Batman Begins.  One element all these movies shared is the avoidance of one key element in comic books – the shared universe.

In the world of comics, whether it be Marvel or DC, the stars of those respective publications share the stage with many heroes.  Spider-man knows and often works with Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, etc.. Superman and Batman are allies and friends along with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Green Lantern.  They often come together in joint adventures as either The Avengers or the Justice League or sometimes they just drop by and are along for the ride in a one-off adventure, but they live in and share the same world.

In film, by contrast, the heroes of the Donner to Nolan-era of comic book cinema are solitary in the world they protect.  Christopher Reeve’s Superman is not only the only super hero in Metropolis, he’s the only one on Earth! Batman, whether it be Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney or Christian Bale, is alone in defending Gotham against his rogues gallery.  Even the X-Men, although a team, are essentially one hero consisting of many parts.  They don’t live in a world with Spider-Man or the Avengers.  They are isolated and on their own.

In Superman II (1980), Kal-el faces the three Kryptonians. There are no others to help him. As a result, the audience knows this story is personal, the threat level is especially high and Superman is operating without a net.  In the end, though Superman is victorious, it is laced with sadness and loneliness.  His only true ally, Lois, is left in emotional pain beyond what ordinary humans are meant to experience and has to have her memory of events wiped away (a dated view of Lois, but it made for a great tragic love story).  Now Superman/Clark is left alone in a world that he has just saved and there is no one who can truly know how that feels. In one cut, he even detonates his Fortress of Solitude.  There is no high-five back at the Hall of Justice. Similarly,  Michael Keaton’s Batman is alone in saving Gotham from the Joker.  There is no backup.  The mutants in the X-Men film are the only supernaturals in that world.  Even the good mutants are viewed with, at best, suspicion as there is no Spider-Man or Cap or any other kind of augment to serve as an example to the world’s suspicious  non-mutant population that these super-human beings can truly be a force for good. The situation is similar in Spider-Man (2002) and Batman Begins (2005) – our hero must carry the burden alone.

“This is Why Superman Works Alone”

Batman Forever (1995)

Batman Forever (1995)

The first hint of a possible shared universe, however, occurs back in 1995’s Batman Forever with one throwaway line by Bruce Wayne remarking that Dick Grayson’s circus “by now must be halfway to Metropolis“.

That’s all there is.

There’s no mention of Superman, but if there’s a Metropolis in this world, then it stands to reason that there is, or will, be a Superman.  It’s just a hint, but it opens all sorts of possibilities.

This reference is taken a step further in Batman and Robin (1997) when Batman tells Robin, “This is why Superman works alone.”

There it is!  Definitive proof that this Batman lives in a world shared with, at least, Superman.  Oh! What possibilities! Sadly, it is never explored.

Heroes would have to continue to serve and protect in isolation and the stories would have to reflect that.

Superman Returns (2006) doubles down on this notion by having the plot revolve almost entirely around the idea that Superman (Brandon Routh) is, not only, alone, but also, no longer needed by society.  As a spiritual successor to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, and, as if, sensing the imminent demise of this era of super hero story telling, Superman Returns plays up Superman’s isolation, while jettisoning any joy or fun, even going so far as to have him stabbed and discarded off a cliff into the ocean only to be fished out by Lois and some rando played by James Marsden who was Cyclops in X-Men.

Clearly our heroes needed company.

“I’m Here to Talk to You about the Avengers Initiative”

Nick Fury in Iron Man

Iron Man (2008)


A comic book movie about a second string Marvel hero hits theaters: Iron Man.

At first, there is nothing too unusual about this film except that it’s really good fun and not concerned with following the dark, brooding hero template which had become de regeur.  With Robert Downey, Jr as Tony Stark, Iron Man was a new kind of hero – snarky, funny and looking to right his moral compass without kneeling on a building gargoyle.  He was mankind’s new protector..

…until a little scene which occurred as audiences were starting to file out.

“‘I am Iron Man’. You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”

With these words, spoken by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the shared universe had arrived and it wasn’t left vague: Fury concludes by referring to the “Avengers Initiative”.  It was promise to introduce Captain America, Thor, Hulk and as many others as Marvel desired.  It was a promise that these heroes would be affecting each other and the world they now shared. (It was recently revealed that an alternate version of this scene also referenced X-Men and Spider-Man)

DC soon, arguably clumsily, followed suit with references in Man of Steel to Wayne Enterprises and quickly jumping right to the mash up sequel in Batman V Superman, also introducing Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg.

There era of the shared universe had arrived and there was no turning back.

Instead of singular, isolated story lines, the new era of comic book films would interconnect like a lattice.  An event in a Captain America movie would have ramifications for Spider-man.  Characters and their ancestors, no matter how minor,  have a part to play in almost every movie – particularly in the Marvel Universe, but in DC, as well.  Other franchise have tried to launch their own shared universes, including Universal Studios with their Dark Universe

It has not only affected cinema, but also television, as both Marvel and DC have imported the concept to their small screen IPs.

“Avengers, Assemble!”

The Avengers (2012)

Avengers Assemble!

The impact on story-telling is undeniable.  In the prior era, comic book films had to generate a fresh new plot with each film and with limited resources to draw upon.  In fantasy, this can be a particular challenge.  Origin stories tend to be the strongest entries and the most reliable plot. Signs of flagging begin to show almost immediately after that.  The third film has usually worn out its welcome leading to reboots within a just a few years.

The shared universe allows for broader story telling and plot generation in an almost fractal-like manner.  Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), is a good example.  Its plot is not a direct follow up to Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).  It, really, is born out of Avengers: Endgame and the impact that movie had on the Marvel Universe.  Spider-Man: Far From Home‘s plot of going on a class trip to Europe would have been less interesting without the rich backdrop against which it takes place.

It also has the benefit of introducing characters that would otherwise prove challenging on their own.  Hulk is a difficult  solo movie to make as proven with Hulk and The Incredible Hulk. As one of the Avengers, or appearing with Thor, Hulk has proven to be one of the beloved characters of the MCU.  Likewise with Ant-Man, who might not have been high on anyone’s list or even attempted as a film, his story succeeds when it’s part of the broader universe.

Donner promised a man could fly and changed comic book cinema forever by treating the hero with respect. Jon Favreau and Kevin Feige changed it again with Iron Man.  By introducing and fulfilling the concept of the shared universe, the comic book movie genre has been changed forever and brought to the next level expanding the possibilities of the imagination.

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