Index of pages on various cultural and media topics
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics

The 4 Big Fictional Universes

The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has set Hollywood on its ear. So, at least for a while, fictional universes are all the rage.

Let's review the four most important fictional universes. In order of their creation, they are DC (Detective Comics) which includes Batman, Superman, and many other superheroes, Marvel which includes the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider-Man and many others, Star Trek, and Star Wars.

Each of these universes has many heroes, villains, and other characters. They are the product of many writers and other creative contributors. They all represent a vast rich treasure trove of characters and ideas from which stories can be drawn. They have all been used to produce movies and TV shows both live action and animated. They have also been used to create comics, books, toys, and computer games. Beyond these, they have frequently used to sell a vast array of merchandise including lunch boxes, pajamas, Halloween costumes, and Valentine cards.

DC: the First Universe

The first major universe, DC, started with the creation Superman in 1938. Superman was the second hero to wear tights, the Phantom from the newspaper comic strips came out a little before Superman debuted. But the Phantom did not have super powers. Superman is considered the first of the superheros.

Superman's great success started a trend. He was rapidly followed by Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Green Arrow, Hawkman, and many others. Most of the major DC heroes were first created in a short period from 1938 to 1941.

Many heroes were extensively reworked since then. For example, many fictional characters have been the Flash or Green Lantern.

This first era of creation in the late 30s and early 40s is referred to as the Golden Age. Superheroes became less popular in the late 40s and early 50s. Only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman stayed in regular publication. In the late 50s, many of the heroes were revived but often with a new fictional character becoming the hero, and often with a new explanation for their super powers.

DC like many other companies of that age was assembled as a combination of several companies. We might call this the General Motors model. So many DC heroes originally started with various other companies and were eventually added into the DC universe.

The other three universes, Marvel, Star Trek, and Star Wars did not start that way. They were much more the creation of an individual or a small team, and one company. This is more like Ford.

The Marvel Universe

Two of Marvel's Characters, Captian America, and Namor, the Sub-Mariner, were also created in the early 40s at the same time as the DC superheroes, but the Marvel Revolution and the Marvel Universe that we are familiar with began in 1961.

In the late 50s, DC began to bring back its superhero universe. This was the beginning of the Silver Age. DC successfully launched the Justice League of America, a group of powerful and popular superheroes. This was a revival of the Justice Society of America which had been popular in the earlier Golden Age. The Justice League was like Marvel's Avengers. But remember the Avengers were the copy of the Justice League.

The publisher of Marvel, Martin Goodman was playing golf with an executive from DC. DC was much more successful and had just had a big success with the Justice League. Goodman reacted to the DC bragging by telling the editor of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, to produce a comic based on a group of superheroes.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were putting out various types of comics, mostly monster comics at the time. Stan Lee wanted to quit his job as a writer and editor of comics to write novels with fully developed characters. His wife suggested that he create superheroes with complex more fully developed personalities. If you are fired, so what, you were planning to quit anyway. So Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four in 1961.

The Fantastic Four was a hit, quickly followed by the Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Avengers, the X-Men and others in the early to mid-60s. This was the Marvel Revolution.

Both superheroes and super villains became more complex. The heroes were not completely good, nor the villains completely evil. Marvel successfully moved beyond the youth audience of comics, to a more mature, sophisticated audience. The Marvel formula was so successful that DC eventually followed it.

While many companies successfully followed Marvel's formula of more complex characters, no company successfully created a new superhero universe since the early 60s. Many companies have tried. Even Marvel and DC tried, but success was at best temporary.

This is central to why the Marvel and DC universes are so commercially valuable. It has proven difficult to impossible to create anything like them. There have been small universes, we would usually call them franchises, not universes: Ben Ten, Power Rangers, Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, The Transformers, the TV series Heroes, and The Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman universe. But these have not had the larger, sustained success of Marvel and DC.

Star Trek

The third universe, Star Trek, started in 1966 with the original series which lasted three years. It was a marginal failure kept alive by the letter writing campaigns of its rabid fans. Normally shows had to last four years to be stripped five days a week in reruns, but Star Trek took off with only three seasons worth of programs. The fans watched them over and over until they could recite the scripts from memory. The original series with Kirk, Spock, and Bones established the Star Trek Universe.

The success of Star Trek in the reruns almost brought it back as a television series, but the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind convinced Paramount to try Star Trek movies instead. The movies were a big success. Their success delayed the return of Star Trek to television for almost a decade, until Star Trek: The Next Generation went into syndication in 1987. The success of Next Generation was followed by Deep Space 9, Voyager, and finally the relative failure of Enterprise which only lasted four years.

In the last decade, Star Trek returned to the all movie strategy. The last of these movies, "Star Trek Beyond" had a disappointing box office, So Star Trek returned to television with new series Star Trek: Discovery, Picard, and Strange New Worlds.

Star Trek has held a very special and powerful place in Western culture. Even though it has many unrealistic elements it plays an important, though unrealistic, role in our view of our own future. Physics, specifically Einsteins relativity strongly suggests we may never exceed the speed of light, and there is no evidence that our galaxy is filled with advanced space traveling civilizations.

Still, we see ourselves in that way. Recently I read an article on how NASA was experimenting with a form of space propulsion that was similar to something on in the Star Trek universe.

While Star Trek is culturally powerful, perhaps more powerful than the other universes, the commercial value is probably less than the other three more fanciful universes. This is because it is easier to launch a science fiction universe than fantasy universe.

In fact, for several years recently we had at least one very successful science fiction film that is not part of a universe, or even a franchise. In 2015 there was The Martian, in 2014 Intersteller, in 2013 Gravity. All of these have been top ten movies, but none have had sequels. These movies are all more realistic than Star Trek.

When a movie or other work of fiction is based in reality there is less need for a universe, a franchise, a series of books, or a trilogy. As fiction moves away from reality it is harder to make the audience care. News stories are about reality and they instantly catch us because we know they are real. In realistic fiction, we only have to make a connection to a few characters to care about the story. In fantasy, we have to buy into a whole world. The more we have to buy into, the more time it takes to sell the audience. News stories are a few hundred words but fantasies are frequently trilogies, three, frequently long, books. More recently they have become even longer, for example, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series which ran to fourteen long books.

So while Disney paid about four billion for Marvel and another four billion for Star Wars it is not clear that Star Trek is worth anything like that.

Star Wars

The last major universe to be established was Star Wars. The first film came out in 1977.

While Star Trek is considered science fiction, Star Wars is often called space fantasy. Science fiction is often rated as soft to hard, with the more realistic science fiction as hard. Star Trek might be medium, Star Wars is very soft.

As mentioned above the more realistic something is the easier it is to sell it to the audience. The harder it is to sell to the audience the more valuable the franchise or universe is likely to be because it is harder to imitate. So Star Wars may be a far more valuable universe than Star Trek.

When the prequel trilogy began with The Phantom Menace in 1999, they introduced the midi-chlorians as a more scientific explanation for the force. The fans did not like this. They preferred a less scientific and more spiritual force. This is normally how an audience will react.

Fiction is normally grounded in reality or tradition. Most of our fiction is grounded in reality, fantasy is grounded in tradition. When you create a fantasy universe you are creating traditions. Financially what is important is that these are traditions that you own, and can exploit for profit. It is hard to sell the audience on a tradition, but once you have done so it is rarely a good idea to replace the tradition with science, or even plausible pseudo-science. Even in the unlikely event that your scientific explanation sounds realistic, you may be lowering the value of the franchise or universe.

Fictional Universes are Old

Star Wars, the youngest of the four great universes, is forty years old. The DC universe is eighty years old. These great universes are perhaps like land, they are valuable because more are not being created.

Of course more small universes are being created all the time, maybe someday a company will manage to make one of them into a great universe, but given the history of these things, do not hold your breath.

Last edited August 19, 2019

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Index of pages on various cultural and media topics

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Index of pages on various cultural and media topics