Huge properties with shared universes are certainly overwhelming, but mixed media franchises are the kind of gift that keeps on giving.
When you fall in love with a character, a story, or a universe, it’s hard to deny you want to keep them all alive. Some tales are meant to be one-offs; they’ve said their peace, and while they may live on forever in our hearts, they are not meant to have a sequel or a reboot or a spinoff.
Other properties, whether intentionally or unintentionally, are made for expanded universes. Perhaps it was because of their iconic characters or the vastness of their worlds, but either way, these traits allow them to continuously evolve into mixed media franchises.
That’s how we got the DC Arrowverse, with its spinoffs of spinoffs, or Firefly‘s follow up movie and comics, which continued a beloved story after initial cancellation. Or Marvel’s insane 10-year crossover extravaganza.
These expanded universes allow us to play in a specific sandbox much longer than would have been allowed with its original run. The concept of a shared universe did not originate with Marvel, but they certainly have taken it to a whole new level.
However, one of the biggest complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how complicated it can be to understand all the nuanced cameos and references in each movie.
Take, for instance, Avengers: Endgame. This film was the result of a culmination of a decade of cinema. It boasted dozens of primary, secondary, and tertiary characters, each with their own background and stories that had been previously explored.
While it wasn’t absolutely necessary, for example, to watch Agent Carter in order to fully understand her relationship with Captain America, it did expand upon the impact his death had on her, explored her importance in founding S.H.I.E.L.D., and provided further characterization for Howard, Tony’s father. All of this was relevant, to varying degrees, to the plot points in the final two Avengers movies.
If you have an interest in consuming hundreds of hours of media within a single universe, this is the fandom for you. If you do not, you could still watch the films independently, understanding and enjoying them on their own.
It’s that key distinction amongst mixed media franchises that make them so popular (and profitable). They allow fans to continue to consume their product with the promise that there will be more, while also keeping the door open to new fans who are willing to take the time to jump into a large and constantly expanding fandom.
As you can imagine, these kinds of profits are exponential.
While consumerism often finds itself both a villain and a hero, creativity typically soars when it comes to mixed media franchises. Not only does an expanded universe inspire new characters and stories and worlds, it also challenges creators to write in different genres, for different mediums, and with different audiences in mind.
And that, right there, is why I get so excited whenever I think about mixed media franchises.
While there are, no doubt, many ways expanded universes come about, there are, essentially, three main types: those that offer a continuation, those that offer an expansion, and those that know they’ve got a good thing in the bag and set out with intention.
Take all that away, and what’s left?
One of my favorite ways expanded universes come about is when fans are not ready to let go of their favorite fandom.
By now, we all know the story of Firefly, its original corrupted viewing order, and the subsequent film Serenity and followup comic series. This is an example of a show that picked up a cult following which kept the story alive.
Where Firefly could’ve flown off into the sunset, never to be heard from again, it has now cemented itself as a part of pop culture history.
Other series may have ended on their own terms, but that didn’t mean their stories were over. Buffy, Angel, and Charmed got followup “seasons” in comic form which allowed the characters and their stories to live on, even if we didn’t see our favorite actors on screen anymore.
While a comic series will never make up for the fact that your favorite show has ended, it does allow you to stay with your favorite characters a bit longer and in an official capacity that something like fanfiction can’t quite capture.
I’ll admit that sometimes the fic is better than canon, but there is something to be said about knowing without a shadow of a doubt how the creator intended a story to carry on.
It’s also important to point out how challenging it can be to wrangle a mixed media franchise. Writing a television show is worlds away from writing a comic book or creating a podcast, like Teen Wolf has wanted to do.
Buffy is a particularly good example of this, as there have been rumors about a Buffy reboot with a new slayer, which will undoubtedly update the story and provide new challenges and perspectives while still keeping the original universe alive.
Plus, you have books like Slayer and Chosen by Kiersten White, which spotlight a different character within the universe but provide cameos from characters we didn’t get a chance to see during the final seasons of the show.
With a change in form comes a whole new world of possibilities. If you don’t have to budget for actors and CGI and set designs, you can go to places you never thought possible, you can bring characters back from the dead, and you can fight monsters you didn’t even know existed.
For many of these cancelled properties, happening upon success in a new form of media is like getting a second chance at life.
To boldly go where no man has gone before
If we’re talking about expanded universes, two main properties immediately come to mind: Star Trek and Star Wars.
For these two franchises, an expanded universe just makes sense. They’re set in world where traveling to other worlds, meeting other species, and exploring the unknown is commonplace. They are ripe with unlimited opportunity.
It’s this infinite possibility that allows for creators, both old and new, to constantly add their own spin to the stories we know and love.
Star Trek began as a television series created by Gene Roddenberry. It debuted in 1966 for three seasons and has since inspired additional television series, films, books, comics, and video games that take place both in the original timeline and alternate realities.
If you wish to watch The Original Series and stop there, you can. If you want to experience new stories with new characters, you can watch The Next Generation, or Deep Space Nine, or Discovery. If you want to see Captain Kirk played by Chris Pine, watch the films that debuted in 2009. If you want to see what Picard is up to these days, watch the CBS All Access series.
Expanded universes allow for a lot more diversity, both in the types of stories we tell and the kinds of people who lead them. Now, it’s easier than ever to see secondary characters taking on their own series, or people of color commanding their own ships.
These expansions also allow for a lot more choice. I’m definitely the kind of person who likes to consume every piece of media I can, but not everyone feels the same way. With Star Trek’s universe, you can start at the beginning and work your way forward, or you can jump around until you land on the specific properties you want to consume.
Plus, these huge franchise reboots allow new audiences to discover a magic that older fans already knew existed. Say what you want about the new Star Wars movies, but I never cared about the originals until The Force Awakens caught my attention.
All of a sudden, Star Wars spoke to me in a way it never had. I could relate to and admire Rey, Finn, and Poe in a way that I never connected to Luke, Leia, and Han.
It’s important to note here that an appreciation for new additions to a universe doesn’t destroy its foundation. This goes back to the ability to choose what you consume. If the new Star Wars isn’t for you, that’s fine. Just like the old Star Wars isn’t for me.
Better yet, you can choose the form in which you consume your media. Maybe you can’t sit through the animated Clone Wars or Rebels series, but you can pick up Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray or Aftermath by Chuck Wendig.
Maybe you’re in the mood to watch a children’s show one day and a horror movie the next. Some of these shared universes allow for that kind of viewing diversity, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Suddenly, we get to discover backstories and alternate realties and foreign worlds all within a familiar setting. Not only do we get to continuously love what we’ve always loved, but we can make more room in our hearts for more of the same.
Sometimes you gotta run before you walk
Few successful franchises intentionally set out to create shared universes from the get-go. There’s always the hope, of course, that they will succeed, but there’s always that equal chance that they’ll crash and burn.
Marvel has most famously created a successful mixed media franchise with their cinematic universe. Comics have been sharing universes for decades, but we are beginning to enter an era where this has become more commonplace across many types of media.
Marvel’s decision to create a shared cinematic universe has expanded to that of television, novels, video games and more. Unlike Star Trek and Star Wars, the creation of the MCU (here, referring to more than just the films) was intentional from the beginning.
We also saw a similar approach with the Harry Potter franchise. The books were adapted into films, which then expanded to video games and companion novels and even websites like Pottermore, which allowed you to learn more canon information from J.K. Rowling and keep that initial magic alive just a little bit longer.
This idea of using related, interconnected media to gives fans more of what they love has begun to take hold even on smaller scales. The creators of Love, Simon saw the film’s success and created Love, Victor, a television series set in the same world which focuses on a different character. It will have references to the original and will be narrated by Simon, but ultimately be a nearly separate addition to this world.
These decisions may not have been made from the outset, like with the MCU, but they’re certainly coming along faster and faster these days. Studios and creators know when they have a good thing on their hands, and they want to take advantage of that as best they can.
While consumerism can certainly lead to exploitation, this doesn’t always have to be the case. Aside from the idea that you can keeping playing in your favorite sandbox pretty much indefinitely, there’s another reason why shared universes are so exciting: They encourage critical thinking and detailed viewing of our favorite franchises.
Catching a reference to another property within the same franchise is a special kind of reward. All of a sudden, all those hours you spent watching and rewatching your favorite movies and television shows has paid off. It might be meaningless or even bothersome to a casual fan, but for a super fan, it’s this moment that means the most to us.
And I haven’t even mentioned productions from different studios that have allowed cameos and crossovers to occur, like the Disney-Sony deal that finally brought Spider-Man into the MCU. Or Deadpool’s countless callouts to the X-Men’s wonky timeline or references to other films, including those set in the MCU.
As the industry evolves and more successful properties expand their worlds, I hope we keep seeing creative, detailed, and thought-out mixed media franchises pushing the envelope of what is expected of them.
I hope we can keep our favorite characters and stories alive in new and interesting ways. I hope we can reward fandom culture in a way that elevates our viewing of media across all kinds of platforms.
What are some of your favorite mixed media franchises?
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