Back in 2008, Marvel Studios probably had no idea that they would eventually achieve one of the most incredible milestones in Hollywood history: creating and maintaining a shared universe of heroes, villains, galaxies, and realms across thirteen movies, five tie-in short films, and five television series. However, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the first large-scale shared universe.
Uncanny are the connections between two of Hollywood’s most infamous franchises: the beloved MCU, and Universal Studios’ Monsters franchise of the 1940’s that eventually became the basis for the 1960’s sitcom The Munsters, involving iterations of those same iconic monsters. Here are some of the connections that may cause a Marvel diehard to think twice before praising the behemoth superhero franchise, and instead pay homage to the trailblazers before their time.
Testing the Waters
Blade (1998), X-Men (2000), Blade II (2002), and Spider-Man (2002) are four of the foundational pillars upon which any semi-recent Marvel property converted to the big screen can owe its success and ambition. Blade and X-Men in particular set the standard for the high quality sought out by ambitious studios. Of course, these films were mostly unrelated and never crossed over into another Marvel property (2005’s Elektra was a sharp exception, sharing a continuity with 2003’s Daredevil as a spin-off), but between the aforementioned Blade and 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, audiences were already exposed to sixteen different Marvel superhero films, all produced by various Hollywood studios. It was not until the release of Iron Man (2008) that any theatrical Marvel film openly and blatantly crossed over without other properties.
[Trivia: You may remember that Iron Man 2 (2010) contained a memorable scene where hero Tony Stark and ally Phil Coulson were mesmerized by a prototype of Captain America’s signature shield. You may have missed, however, that same Captain America shield in the first Iron Man film, during the scene where Pepper Potts first encounters Tony in his armor, struggling to remove it.]
Unlike Marvel’s usage of various film studios, the Monsters and all of their periphery of the 1920s to the early 60s were produced by Universal Studios. Their horror genre groundwork was laid out in their 1923 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame and expanded upon in their 1925 film Phantom of the Opera. Fast forward to 1943, and at least forty films under the Monster/horror banner were released by Universal, their very first crossover film being 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman — perhaps foreshadowing what Marvel Studios would eventually accomplish with Iron Man almost seventy years later.
The Real Deal
Source material origins aside, 2012’s hotly anticipated mega-crossover The Avengers defied all expectations and set a striking new standard for superhero film quality. What could have — and by all means, should have — been a mess, proved only that wild ambition has a high return on investment. Combining four years of watching Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America, the franchise’s fifth entry The Avengers saw these heroes finally unite together under one turbulent roof to give moviegoers the summertime ride of their geekdom dreams.
Despite the hype of the concept, Universal’s House of Frankenstein beat them to the punch way back in 1945. The direct sequel to Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, this entry not only saw the return of its predecessor’s two titular Universal Monsters on screen together again, but also included Count Dracula himself, a variation of the Hunchback, and the mysterious Mad Scientist. They may not have all teamed up to save the world, but seeing them together on screen for the first time could hardly be described as anything less than immaculate and groundbreaking, especially for what was not originally designed to become a shared universe.
Laughter Is the Best Medicine
At the end of the Universal Monsters’ Hollywood era came The Munsters, an American sitcom that aired from 1964 to 1966 on CBS, that cleverly made satire out of the working-class American household while paying tribute to the iconic Universal Monsters each family member embodied. Buffoonish family patriarch Herman Munster, for example, is Frankenstein’s monster; his wife, a beautiful vampire by the name of Lily, is the daughter of Count Dracula, aptly renamed “Grandpa”; Herman and Lily’s only son Edward, of whom the resemblance to The Wolfman is uncanny, completes the core family dynamic; and finally, Lily’s niece Marilyn, serves as the “human” element that grounds the audience to the show and serves to connect the familiar and normal human world with that of once frightening and horrific, now clumsy and lovable monsters. A hilarious family rooted in a shared universe of horror and science fiction was now television’s funniest delight.
Likewise, The Avengers is absolutely hilarious. In fact, Marvel Studios often seems to prioritize comedy in their shared universe of films after seeing how well-received Robert Downey, Jr.’s quirky, idiosyncratic, yet hyper-intelligent and spoiled portrayal of billionaire weapons manufacturer-turned-superhero Tony Stark was. Not only is the funniest character within the shared universe deliberately given the spotlight over all the others, but the other characters, with nowhere else to go, quickly follow suite with humorous exchanges, quirky one-liners, and even Looney Tunes-style goofball action at one point. Did I mention the Avengers were, in and of themselves, their own family of oddballs who individually existed out of normal time, normal world, and normal society, living under one roof? Yeah… the Munsters beat them to that too.
The Universal Monsters’ trilogy of crossover films that established a shared universe had a distinct focus on just three Monsters: Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s monster. The other “Monsters,” including the Mad Doctor and various iterations of The Hunchback, were certainly more than mere periphery, but it was the aforementioned three that led the parade as far as promotion, ticket sales, and future adaptations. That said, The Munsters focused on new, comedic iterations of these horror icons, specifically (again) Dracula as Grandpa, the Wolf Man as Edward, and the monster of Frankenstein as Herman. Dracula’s daughter Lily and her niece Marilyn were never explicitly a part of the Universal Monsters franchise prior, so as important as they were to the family dynamic of the sitcom, they were not as vital or memorable as the core trio upon which the legacy of these characters were built.
Not dissimilarly, the Avengers themselves have a “big three,” in which the whole is represented: Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. Comic book origins notwithstanding, Avengers: Age of Ultron director Joss Whedon committed certain shots that emphasize these incredibly dangerous and vastly different heroes, who together represent the very idea of the Avengers. As the Munster family also contained seemingly normal Marilyn, the Avengers found themselves allied with Nick Fury and Maria Hill, who did not possess any superpowers or uncanny intelligence, but instead provided a humane connection to the unfamiliar and dangerous by continually risking their lives against the forces that threatened humanity.
Looking at just about everything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has accomplished in an eight-year span, from 2008 with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk to present-day 2016 with Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange, Universal had already accomplished this between 1923 with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1960 with The Leech Woman. Opinions aside, Universal Monsters made an astonishing achievement for nearly four decades with their decision to create a shared universe, one that is currently being mimicked with Universal’s 2014 film Dracula Untold possibly sharing a connection with the upcoming 2017 remake of The Mummy.
One may ask after reading this article: would we even have a Marvel Cinematic Universe if it hadn’t already been done with Universal Monsters and The Munsters? What do you think? Join the conversation and leave your comments below!
Article by contributor Justin Williams.