Ever since The Avengers hit theaters in summer 2012 and completely upended the traditional Hollywood business model, cinematic universes have been all the rage. DC, the historic and obvious foil to Marvel, tried their hand at it starting with 2013’s Man of Steel. Lion’s Gate kicked off their Monsterverse with 2014’s Godzilla (which is finally starting to pay off in full this summer with the bombastic Godzilla: King of the Monsters). The long-since aborted Dark Universe – a reboot of Universal’s old monster movies, which actually did share a tightly woven, inter-franchise chronology all the way back in the 1930s – stumbled into existence in 2017’s ill-considered The Mummy. It’s the reason why the stand-alone Unbreakable (2000) was able to work itself up to full-fledged franchise status and the reason why they keep making all of those new Harry Potter and Star Wars spin-offs: because sooner or later, somebody’s going to stumble onto the next MCU and pretty much run rampant over all of its supposed box office competition.
And, to be fair, it’s a pretty ingenious business model. When every single movie in a franchise is either a sequel, prequel, spin-off or tie-in to every other movie in the franchise, each and every movie is an event. Each acts as a 90-minute trailer for each other. Every Iron Man fan who might not necessarily care for Bruce Banner will still pay to watch The Incredible Hulk because they heard that Tony Stark is going to appear at some point during that movie. Every Thor fan will sit through Doctor Strange (2016) just to catch a glimpse of the once-and-future Asgardian prince. Every Marvel fan feels obligated to watch (and, most importantly, pay to see) every Marvel movie because everything so perfectly ties together.
Over the last decade or more, we’ve gotten some pretty strange, would-be cinematic universes, from The Conjuring movies to The Lego movies. As it turns out, however, we very nearly got one infinitely stranger (and, if I’m being perfectly honest here, infinitely more compelling) than any of those. We very nearly got a 1970s rock ‘n’ roll cinematic universe.
As most moviegoers will recall (varyingly with exuberance or revulsion, depending on how you liked the movie in question), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) was one of the biggest stories in entertainment from last year. This otherwise unassuming Queen biopic with a notoriously troubled production, despite everything that it had going against it (from behind-the-scenes shakeups to across-the-board negative reviews), ended up as the 6th highest grossing movie in America and the 10th highest grossing movie worldwide in 2018: raking in nearly a billion dollars in ticket sales before its worldwide tour was done. It was THE most awarded movie at that year’s Oscar ceremony too, notably scoring a Best Picture nomination and earning leading man Rami Malek the Best Actor trophy against a star-studded field that included the likes of Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Willem Dafoe and Viggo Mortensen.
Although an understandably smaller story in 2019, Rocketman – an on-paper nearly identical Elton John biopic helmed by Dexter Fletcher, the very same man that was brought in to replace Bohemian Rhapsody director Bryan Singer after that man was fired near the end of filming – nearly continued Bohemian Rhapsody’s success story from the previous year. As it turns out, director Dexter Fletcher considered – and nearly went through with – bringing Rami Malek back as Freddie Mercury in a small role in his latest rock ‘n’ roll biopic. And had he pulled the trigger on that idea, it’s not hard to imagine how this could have reshaped the world of musical biopics forever.
Imagine, if you will, a savvy studio like Fox (who made Bohemian Rhapsody, now owned by Disney) signing its leading men and women for musical biopics onto multi-film contracts like the Marvel movies: ones in which they’re expected to appear three, four, five, six times over as many movies for a rather tidy sum. Imagine rock star biopics about the likes of the Beatles, Billy Joel or Metallica where they get their start by opening for established superstars like Queen or Elton John: where these actors actually share screen-time together and Malek or Egerton reprise their star-making roles years after their movies exited theaters. Imagine a Live Aid movie that functions more like an Avengers-style crossover, where all of these different superstar bands (and the superstar actors that play them) come together for one climactic third-act concert.
Now, I’m sure that many of you are rolling your eyes at this concept and already lamenting the death of “serious” cinema, but it’s not all that far-fetched of an idea given the current state of the film industry. And given the pedantic vision of so many of these shared cinematic universes, this is one that’s actually exciting to my mind. With the back-to-back successes of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, more biopics of their like are bound to be fast-tracked by studios: and sooner, rather than later. This is one way to have some fun with the concept and add some crowd-pleasing verisimilitude to the proceedings. Say what you will about the Marvel movies, but they clearly know how to deliver on the kind of blockbuster spectacle that these kinds of biopics are only just now figuring out how to do. What’s wrong with learning from the best?