As part of the relaunch of Murphy’s Multiverse we invited several friends, old and new, to write some guest features. This was written by MCUExchange’s Joseph Aberl.
There is something rather fascinating about the direction modern cinema has taken. Just having a successful trilogy was once the main goal for any franchise. There was only a handful that truly managed to break beyond that border, but it came at the sacrifice of quality. One can only look at the many sequels that films like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th managed to gather alongside their pop culture acclaim. As the franchise went on, they did start getting a bit campier in nature and they started to veer the franchise off of what made it unique, to begin with. Characters like Freddy Krueger became more known for the comedic aspects as the series went on. It wasn’t until the release of Freddy’s Nightmare that it managed to return to the roots that defined him.
This approach changed when in 2008 Marvel Studios kickstarted their cinematic universe with Iron Man. At the time, it still seemed like a crazy concept that could’ve fallen apart at any time. If any films in the lead up to The Avengers bombed, it would’ve remained a one-time experiment. Somehow, the major crossover turned into a cultural success story that would just mark the beginning. After eleven years, the franchise is going stronger than ever with 23 films. They try to keep things fresh by focusing on a different genre with each film. It became a template that many sought to copy.
Naturally, a variety of new franchises were banking on advertising themselves as future “cinematic universes”. There was the infamous Dark Universe. It would’ve seen the return of classic Universal monsters that crossover with each other. After a botched outing with The Mummy, the franchise was dead on arrival. This short-lived concept is rather ironic given its history. The original 1930s monster movies established the first inklings of a shared universe with crossover films.
Even Warner Bros. faced some troubles when kickstarting their cross-cinematic franchise. Using DC characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and many more, they had a foundation to build upon. While Man of Steel gave them a unique and darker approach, they started to rush to catch up with Marvel. Luckily, they decided to change their strategy. By utilizing a slightly disconnected concept, iconic characters are receiving their franchises. Some are more independent like Joker while others continue from the established universe. Moreover, they are looking at elements from a self-contained story that have potential to expand. This is what led to Aquaman getting a spin-off focused on the Trench. As such, it feels more like an expansion of an existing world rather than forcing one into existence. Warner Bros. can test the waters before rushing into it.
Just recently, a new contender threw their hat into the ring hoping to bank on this concept. Warner Animation tried their hand at establishing a franchise built around the characters created by Hanna-Barbera Productions. The recently released film SCOOB! includes a variety of famous characters that can splinter off into their films. In a way, this does highlight Warner Bros. general approach. The film mainly focuses on the duo of Scooby-Doo and Shaggy, but we are also introduced to a variety of childhood icons like Blue Falcon, Dynomutt, Dick Dastardly, and Captain Caveman. The post-credit stinger even adds to that list to tease other projects. To balance it all, the film moves away from the classic formula of the Scooby-Doo franchise by adding superhero elements to the story.
Hanna-Barbera is no stranger to this concept. Their various iconic characters ended up crossing over multiple times. They even joined for a sport-centric show. The Laff-A-Lympics series was the point where the shared universe was fully realized. This was even taken to its natural extreme in a the show, Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. The self-aware series parodied the original line-up by twisting them into modern sensibilities. All encapsulated in an adult meta-comedy that functions as a connected universe. The show introduces a lot of characters but adapts them to abide by the show’s internal logic. The first episode eases the viewer in by using characters from Jonny Quest, who are a bit more grounded than say a talking shark from the future, before escalating it. Also, the focus remains on Harvey Birdman as the glue that keeps everything together.
Sadly, when watching the film, even nostalgia cannot hide the feeling that this was rushed. A twist on the classic formula has been done before but it can easily become muddled. Scooby-Doo is a legacy series with a very established genre behind it. It still going strong since its initial inception in 1969. The new direction was teased but there is a mental connection one makes with such an established franchise. The main focus of the film repeats mistakes we’ve seen happen before, e.g. when Sony tried to spin-off the Amazing Spider-Man 2 into a shared universe. Trying to include as many potential franchises in one film can distract from the actual plot, a mistake even Marvel Studios is not completely innocent of repeating. The Spider-Man sequel did exactly that by rushing through iconic villains without much build-up.
SCOOB! repeats that mistake with characters that haven’t truly seen the limelight in quite some time. Scooby-Doo could’ve worked as an introduction into a world full of copy-cat mystery solvers, superheroes, and talking animals. Yet this film isn’t even about Scooby and the gang. Most of the film focuses on Dick Dastardly villainous plot and the Blue Falcon trying to escape the shadow of his father’s legacy. Daphne, Velma, and Fred are relegated to side-characters in their own film. In comparison, films like Iron Man and Man of Steel kept their focus on their main cast. There may have been minor hints but it wasn’t until the sequels that the universe started to truly expand.
Let’s be honest, the fact that Marvel Studios was able to establish a shared universe for this long is a miracle. It could’ve fallen apart at any time. There is a reason why it is commonly compared to a TV show, as it requires a showrunner that makes sure that every gear is in place. Each film can turn into a pothole for another. The view of the entire franchise as one also creates the habit of generalizing every new entry even if it tries to change up the formula. They are limited because most of their characters are defined as superheroes.
The Hanna-Barbera line-up could’ve avoided this issue. Not every character dabbles into same genre. Yes, they have countless groups of mystery-solvers but most of their IPs are unique. You could split up SCOOB! into multiple films that are connected through an overarching plot. Scooby-Doo introduces us to the more grounded world with a mystery that lays the groundwork. This is then continued in a film following Blue Falcon’s world-trotting adventure as a superhero. Dastardly could be the mastermind that was manipulating different events from the shadows. As it stands now, a sequel to SCOOB! will have to reinvent the franchise again. The ending tries return to its roots but there could be a disconnect moving forward, It either has to return to the formula it tried to leave behind or continue as a Blue Falcon franchise.
There shouldn’t be a rush to establish a cinematic universe. Already existing IPs have a enough options to work with. If that is all stockpiled into one singular film, they start to blend together and lose their identity. It may have worked for Marvel Studios but they are also looking into ways to tell stories in new and interesting ways. Sony ended up partnering with them to make use of that existing franchises. Warner Bros. meanwhile decided to go a different route with DC. Universal just dropped the concept entirely to return to the classic structure. Even large IPs like Pokémon didn’t even think about advertising a shared universe until their first entry, Detective Pikachu, proved that there was an audience.
There is a good chance for the Hanna-Barbera universe to take off. The foundation may be rocky but there is a reason Scooby-Doo is an icon. Even with the film being released on video-on-demand rather than the traditional route, it was a financial success. SCOOB! managed to even beat out the recently released Troll: World Tour that saw similar success via streaming. From that standpoint, Warner Animation has a good reason to continue working on expanding this universe. Iit is an opportunity to introduce a new generation to characters like Secret Squirrel, Jabberjaw, Space Ghost, Top Cat, and many more. If they truly want to make this a unique experience, here’s hoping we get the ultimate crossover with a return of the Laff-a-Lympics.