A Guide to the Expanding Universe of Hollywood’s Cinematic Universes

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson

When you hear the phrase, “cinematic universe,” how does it make you feel? Confused? Ambivalent? Aroused with capitalistic fervor? If your answer is the latter choice, then congratulations: You might be a studio executive.

Cinematic universes, or interconnected worlds in which a number of different franchises can exist simultaneously, aren’t just the soup du jour of modern blockbuster filmmaking. They represent a tectonic change in how the powers that be develop and produce their biggest movies. Marvel got the ball rolling, but in its wake, more than a dozen other CUs are in various stages of development by studios desperate for the kind of intellectual property and moneymaking opportunity they provide.

Moreover, with the news that the Hasbro Toys CU (seriously) just added Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Chabon to Oscar-winner screenwriter Akiva Goldsman’s writers’ room (seriously), these movie factories are sucking in some of the best creative talent around. That, or they're grabbing Marvel’s writers and hoping the shine stays on the penny.

This summer's a big one for CUs. Some will continue (Disney's Marvel universe with Captain America: Civil War and Fox's X-Men–led Marvel universe with Apocalypse, while DC is aiming to course-correct after Batman v Superman with August's Suicide Squad) and Sony certainly hopes the Ghostbusters reboot will double as a viable cinematic universe springboard.

Mind you, that's just for this year; as you can see in the list below, things really go off the rails in 2017 and beyond.

MARVEL
Studio: Disney
Movies so far: 13*

You know about this one. The MCU began in 2008 with Iron Man, and its 13th entry, Captain America: Civil War, is currently tearing up the box office. According to Marvel, we’re currently in Phase 3 (of 3) of the MCU, but that still means ten more movies to come, stretching all the way through 2019. With their ascension from the Captain America movies to the Avengers core franchise, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are in the drivers' seat, aside from, of course, Kevin Feige, the grandmaster of the whole thing.

If you wonder why, exactly, the MCU has inspired so many imitators, it might have something to do with the fact that its films have grossed an imitator-inspiring $9 billion and counting worldwide — with Civil War set to put them over the $10 billion mark.

DC COMICS
Studio: Warner Bros.
Movies so far: 3*

The history of Warner Bros.' DC Comics movies is one of false starts, setbacks, and misinformation. (Nicolas Cage almost played Superman alongside Michael Keaton’s Batman, bruh.) But after Chris Nolan’s revered Batman films and Marvel's ascension, DC finally decided to pull the trigger, putting the keys to its DC Extended Universe kingdom into the hands of … Zack and Deborah Snyder. So far, that hasn’t quite worked out — Batman v Superman, the true DCEU kickoff, didn’t quite reach the lofty heights WB had in mind financially — but there’s plenty more where that came from on the way, including David Ayer’s Suicide Squad later this year; stand-alone Wonder Woman and Ben Affleck Batman movies in the future; and Snyder’s Avengers-esque Justice League team-ups starting in 2017.

X-MEN
Studio: Fox
Movies so far: 8*

Fox has an interesting dilemma on its hands: how to meld Tim Miller and Ryan Reynoldses’ R-rated meta-movie Deadpool, which is not presently part of the X-Men universe, with the cleaner and more straight-faced world of Bryan Singer’s X-movies. Whatever the answer, it’s a good problem to have: Deadpool’s the breakout hit of this year, and Singer has Apocalypse coming on Memorial Day weekend. But of all the comic book CUs, this is the one most subject to change, because you can rest assured: Fox is going to make these two meet somewhere.

GHOSTBUSTERS
Studio: Sony
Movies so far: 1* (plus the original)

What’s that you say? Sony’s getting ahead of itself by planning a Ghostbusters cinematic universe before the reboot even comes out this summer? Well, I regret to inform you that literally no one in the history of Hollywood has ever been even the least bit concerned with getting ahead of themselves, and especially not now.

Fortunately, the Ghostbusters CU has a cute name — Ghost Corps — and the undeniable talents of Ivan Reitman and Dan Akroyd at its disposal. Current plans include an all-male Ghostbusters (novel!) produced by Channing Tatum and helmed by the Russo brothers, who are shockingly not losing their minds over the two-part Avengers: Infinity War behemoth they have coming.

TRANSFORMERS
Studio: Paramount
Movies so far: 4

So this is kind of confusing: Yes, there are already four Transformers movies, all directed by Michael Bay, dating back to 2007. But last year, Paramount, Bay, Steven Spielberg, and Lorenzo di Bonaventura convened a writers’ room, led by Akiva Goldsman, to blow the franchise out into something more like a universe. While the Marvel, DC, and Star Wars tents have so far been largely distinct in terms of writing and directing talent, many of the screenwriters in the Transformers room will also participate in the Hasbro exercise — which makes sense, considering Transformers is also a Hasbro product. (That Hasbro room is also set to include a number of Marvel writers.)

What’s this actually going to look like? Who knows! But expect big robots and exploding stuff.

STAR WARS
Studio: Disney
Movies so far: 7

Star Wars was a mere franchise when it was just Episodes I through VII; it will become a CU with the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this winter. Along with Marvel, the Star Wars universe is one of the few whose existence actually makes sense: Disney and Lucasfilm, headed by Kathleen Kennedy, very smartly realized that fans, long subsisting on novelizations and video games, would be delighted by stories located within that world, not necessarily just the linear narrative extending through the main films. And when you have the opportunity to build on the highest-grossing movie in domestic history, you take it.

LEGO
Studio: Warner Bros.
Movies so far: 1

The Lego Cinematic Universe. What a time to be alive, amiright? But, hey, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s Lego Movie was a mega surprise, and there are certainly enough characters to spin off, starting with Will Arnett’s Batman (making him the second Batman to exist in a Warner CU, confusingly enough). Lord and Miller are continuing to head up the project — these dudes are also making a Star Wars movie and remain involved with the Jump Street films, how the hell do they have the time — so it should have creative continuity with The Lego Movie and The Lego Movie 2.

JUMP STREET / MEN IN BLACK
Studio: Sony
Movies so far: Depends on how you look at it

Speaking of which! There’s going to be a female Jump Street movie written by Paul Downs and Lucia Aniello of Broad City, and a crossover with Men in Black, because no dormant franchise can go untouched. Tatum, Lord, Miller, and Jonah Hill will drive the project, though it’s unclear what the project will actually … be. Anyway, did you remember that Josh Brolin was in Men in Black 3? I sure didn’t!

GODZILLA / KING KONG
Studio: Warner Bros.
Movies so far: 1

Godzilla and King Kong first met back in 1962, and soon they’ll meet again. Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures relaunched the Godzilla franchise with Gareth Edwards's underperforming-but-admired 2014 film, with a sequel to come from the now Star Wars–approved director in 2018. And next year, they’ll try to erase your memory of Peter Jackson’s three-hour-long 2005 King Kong with Kong: Skull Island. All of this is a buildup to Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020. Mothra waits.

UNIVERSAL HORROR
Studio: Universal
Movies so far: TBD

Universal wants Transformers and Star Trek writer Alex Kurtzman and Furious 7 writer Chris Morgan to make new movies based on its roster of monsters every year going forward, all existing in the same universe. This process begins with next year’s The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise. Sure.

KING ARTHUR
Studio: Warner Bros.
Movies so far: 0

In 2017, Warner Bros. will release Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Charlie Hunnam, Aidan Gillen, Eric Bana, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, and … David Beckham. If it succeeds, Ritchie reportedly has another five films in mind, with CU wizard Akiva Goldsman producing. Will it succeed? Sherlock Holmes says yes; The Man From U.N.C.L.E. says no.  

VALIANT COMICS
Studio: Sony
Movies so far: 0

With this one, Sony is aiming to build the first superhero-based CU based on comics not published by Marvel or DC. Valiant Comics was a superhero-comics company that formed in the early 1990s, went defunct in the early '00s, and was resurrected by a wealthy fan, in 2012. Now they put out printed stories about guys like superpowered ex-soldier Bloodshot and a bunch of superpowered teens who star in a series called Harbinger. The John Wick creative team is making a movie based on Bloodshot that’s supposed to come out in 2017, and then there’s going to be a movie called Harbinger in 2018, and then there’s going to be sequels to each, and then they’re going to fight each other in something called Harbinger Wars, and Sony is going to put out all five of them.

CALL OF DUTY
Studio: Activision Blizzard Studios
Movies so far: 0

Activision Blizzard Studios want to make a universe of Call of Duty movies. Moving along.

ROBIN HOOD
Studios: Warner Bros., Sony, Disney, and Lionsgate
Movies so far: 0

There are four possible Robin Hood movies, one from each of the above-listed studios, and at least one of them, Sony’s, was pitched with a universe in mind — though you can rest assured that all of them would presumably end up there.

Meanwhile, there was a Robin Hood movie as recently as 2010. It was not a success.

*Including this summer's release.