The 15 Greatest Cinematic Universes in Movie History
There’s an expression that nobody used until a few years ago, that now seems to dominate the conversation about motion pictures. That expression is “Cinematic Universe.” It’s describes a series of movie franchises, all of which are connected directly or indirectly, which – if implemented successfully – can build not just a tentpole but a whole damned tent under which a studio can shield themselves from failed experiments and box office bombs.
You’ve probably heard about some of the biggest cinematic universes, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe (consisting of the Avengers films) and the DC Extended Universe (consisting of the Justice League films), but three are more of these sorts of interconnected movie franchises than most people realize. The earliest cinematic universes date back nearly a century. The mid-2oth century spawned several more. Some were created by accident, some intentionally, but all of them are recognized by hardcore fans and are worth mentioning in context with the new batch.
Of course, not every cinematic universe gets off the ground. Universal was proudly touting its so-called “Dark Universe” this month, but the disappointing box office numbers for The Mummy has thrown a pall over all their ambitious plans. That’s why, when we decided to rank the best cinematic universes ever, we decided to limit ourselves to films with three interconnected, distinct movies and/or franchises. At least two of these films must have been already released to qualify for our list, which has been ranked based on the quality of the films that constitute the cinematic universe, and their level of interconnectivity (with quality mattering first and foremost).
With that in mind, join us as we guide you from one whole universe to the next. These are the greatest cinematic universes in movie history! [Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the Troma-verse, which should never have been left off the list in the first place.]
15. The Transformers-verse
Includes: Transformers 1-5, Friday the 13th (2009), Bumblebee (2018)
Michael Bay’s cacophonous Transformers movies have been ruling the box office for ten years and, with this summer’s Transformers: The Last Knight, five feature films. Although the financial success of the series is undeniable, even many of the franchise’s biggest supporters seem willing to admit that they’re mindless entertainment, more akin to a theme park ride than a proper cinematic story.
Still, Paramount plans to expand the series into different directions. They’re allegedly starting with next year’s Bumblebee spin-off but actually, there’s already another film in the series: the 2009 reboot of Friday the 13th, which co-starred Travis Van Winkle as the same character he played in the first Transformers.
So yeah, Jason Voorhees exists in the same cinematic universe as Optimus Prime. How fun is that?
14. The Full Moon-iverse
Includes: Puppet Master 1-12, Demonic Toys 1-2, Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys, Dollman, Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, Bad Channels, Evil Bong 1-6, Gingerdead Man 1-3
Full Moon Features were making their own cinematic universe years before it was popular, with a wide-ranging slate of horror movies and horror comedies about little murderous homunculi like killer puppets, killer toys, heroic dollmen and so on and so forth.
The protagonists of the Puppet Master, Dollman and Demonic Toys series have come face-to-face and battled to the death in various “vs.” movies, but there are subtler links between the series, with short cameos by other monsters that establish these low-budget, often very silly horror films as a bizarre cinematic universe of their very own.
The quality may be scattershot (and that’s being kind), but at least it’s consistent. The weird world of Full Moon Features continues to this day, and it’s about as good as ever… for whatever that’s worth.
13. The Val Verde-verse
Includes: Commando, Predator 1-4, Alien 1-6, Alien vs. Predator 1-2, Die Hard 1-5, Speed 1-2
What probably started out as an in-joke eventually expanded into an unofficial and surprisingly fascinating cinematic universe. The story goes like this: the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Commando featured a fictional country called “Val Verde,” which would eventually become the setting for another Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, Predator, as well as the home of the villain from Die Hard 2: Die Harder. So, theoretically at least, all those films take place in the exact same universe.
Wait, it gets crazier. Since Predator eventually crossed over with Alien, all the Alien movies are included in the Val Verde-verse. And due to the shared presence of a fictional company called “Pacific Courier,” so is the short-lived Speed franchise.
The Val Verde-verse is sprawling but rarely interconnects in a meaningful way, and of course many of the sequels that are a part of it are just awful. But it’s a cool place to visit, that’s for sure.
12. The Troma-verse
Includes: The Toxic Avenger 1-5, Class of Nuke ‘Em High 1-5, Sgt. Kabukiman NYPD
Few independent film companies have devotees as loyal as Troma, a studio that produces low-budget, low-concept, ultraviolent, oversexed and yet somehow wholly innocent motion pictures about toxic waste mutants and kabuki cops. Always the underdog, always bonkers, Troma films are unmistakably connected by their outlandish sensibilities… and by the fact that they’re actually connected.
The majority of Troma’s in-house productions take place in or around Tromaville, New Jersey, the so-called “Toxic Chemical Capital of the World.” It’s a haven for corruption, pollution, murder and madness, but somehow these films – many 0f them directed by Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman – make us hopeful that someone might eventually clean up that dump, and by extension, clean up the dumps in our hearts.
Rarely “good” but always distinctive and weird, Troma survives to this day by the skin of their teeth. That skin is probably radioactive. And it only makes them more powerful.
11. The Conjure-verse
Includes: The Conjuring 1-2, Annabelle 1-2, The Nun (2018), The Crooked Man (TBD)
James Wan’s smash hit supernatural thriller The Conjuring was a spectacular, self-contained horror film that alluded to the existence of other monsters. It only made sense to make films about those monsters too, and so in addition to The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2 we also have the killer doll prequels Annabelle and this summer’s Annabelle: Creation, as well as the upcoming spin-offs The Nun and The Crooked Man.
What’s great about the Conjure-verse is that it wasn’t created as a marketing ploy, it sprang directly from the audience’s enthusiasm. These demons were so intriguing and scary in the Conjuring movies that they practically demanded their own franchises, so that’s what we’re going to get.
Unfortunately, even though the Conjuring movies are great, the first Annabelle spin-off was pretty much awful from beginning to end. So the success-to-failure ration isn’t so hot at the moment. Hopefully the next few films can raise the bar, because if the Conjure-verse takes off, it’ll only get bigger and more exciting from here.
10. The Medfield-iverse
Includes: The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, The Shaggy Dog, The Shaggy D.A., The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him Now You Don’t, The Strongest Man in the World, Flubber
Nobody was thinking about “Cinematic Universes” back when Disney created Medfield University, a school of higher learning that was the focal point of wacky sci-fi stories about floating rubber (a.k.a. “flubber”), men who turn into dogs and a young Kurt Russell with the brain of a computer.
These films were some of Disney’s biggest hits in the 1960s and 1970s, and even though it’s been a long time since the studio has done anything with the absent-minded professor or Dexter Riley (or Merlin Jones, who is sometimes considered to be part of this universe as well), it’s only a matter of time before the studio realizes that there’s still life in these wonderful properties.
Medfield will rise again! (Maybe!)
9. The View Askewniverse
Includes: Clerks 1-2, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Scream 1-4
Kevin Smith knew exactly what he was doing when he first started making movies. His first two features, Clerks and Mallrats, revolved around the same plot points from different perspectives, and future installments brought back recurring characters Jay and Silent Bob for various wacky shenanigans.
The so-called “View Askewniverse” has developed a cult following since its inception through comic books, cartoons and more, and Smith has repeatedly revisited these characters as he grows older, and explores the foibles of maturity and the recurring tendency we all have to fall back on immature behavior when times are hard, when nobody’s looking, or when we think we can get away with it.
But weirdest of all is the fact that, technically, the “View Askewniverse” also includes the blockbuster and groundbreaking slasher series Scream. Jay and Silent Bob made a cameo appearance in the third (and the jokiest) Scream movie, and we’ve never been able to look at the two franchises in the same way ever since.
8. The DC Extended Universe
Includes: Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Justice League (2017), Aquaman (2018), Shazam (2019), Green Lantern Corps. (2020), The Batman (TBD), The Flash (TBD), Batgirl (TBD), Nightwing (TBD), Justice League Dark (TBD), Gotham City Sirens (TBD)
Unlike their Conjuring movies, Warner Bros. seemed all too eager to put the horse before the cart with their DC Extended Universe (DCEU) superhero movies. After the modest success of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel the studio jumped in with both feet and produced Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that shoehorns in a lot of exposition for future, interconnected superhero movies. Batman v Superman suffers from overstuffage, and their next film, Suicide Squad, also reeks of post-production tinkering. Whatever entertainment value the film has (certainly the cast is great), the storytelling is a mess.
But things are looking up for the DCEU. This summer’s Wonder Woman is a massive success, financially, critically and culturally. The DCEU always has some die-hard fans but now a wide variety of audiences seem actively interested in what happens next. Hopefully Zack Snyder’s Justice League will play more like Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster than the divisive films the DCEU has produced in the past, and keep this momentum going.
7. The Pixar-niverse
Includes: Toy Story 1-3, Monsters Inc., Monsters University, Inside Out, Up, Ratatouille, WALL-E, A Bug’s Life
What started as a series of easter eggs has become an obsession, a conspiracy theory of sorts, that inspires Disney fans to consider all of the Pixar movies as one interconnected universe. And although many of the connections are theoretical, some are very concrete. Films like Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc., for example, definitely co-exist.
It would take too long to explain in detail here – The Pixar Theory has it all laid out for you – but suffice it to say that the characters from A Bug’s Life make a cameo appearance in Toy Story 2 and the character of “Boo” from Monsters Inc. owns one of the Toy Story dolls. Other connections have been spotted and some interpretations are decidedly sinister, including the potential for the Cars movies to exist as a post-apocalyptic future in which mankind has gone extinct.
Whether you accept the Pixar-niverse at face value or read between the lines, the only thing keeping this cinematic universe from the upper echelons of this list is the fact that – for now, at least – there seems to be little chance of these movies interacting in any meaningful way. Pixar seems content to make all of the overlapping elements incidental, and as such it’s a cinematic universe on a surface level only.
6. The Shermer-verse
Includes: National Lampoon’s Vacation 1-5, Home Alone 1-5, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Some Kind of Wonderful, Uncle Buck, Planes, Trains and Automobiles
John Hughes was one of the defining voices in cinema throughout the 1980s. His particular blend on sentimental suburban comedy created a template that many would imitate, but few could replicate. Whether he told stories about family road trips, teen romance or little kids making the most out of their parents’ criminal negligence, he inspired a whole generation to love his outlook, look up to his characters, and treat his output like the work of a truck auteur.
And of course, all of John Hughes’s films – regardless of whichever studio put them out – are connected. That’s because all of them take place in a town called Shermer, Illinois, based 0n John Hughes’s hometown of Northbrook, Illinois (which used to be called Shermerville). The characters from John Hughes’s movies didn’t directly connect but the shared sense of community, the interconnected sense of tone, made it feel as though they did. Shermer was a home away from home, populated by rich and vibrant characters who we could connect to and, in certain cases, aspire to be.
5. The Toho-verse
Includes: Godzilla 1-30, Godzilla (1998), Mothra, Rebirth of Mothra 1-3, Rodan, Varan the Unbelievable, Frankenstein Conquers the World, Atragon, King Kong Escapes
The impossibly long-running Godzilla series started out as a salient commentary about post-war Japan, and the impact of the nuclear bomb on their country and culture. Then, somehow, it expanded to a series of awesome giant monster fights, with a heroic Godzilla repeatedly saving Earth from one deadly kaiju after another.
The Godzilla franchise created and inspired so many monsters that eventually they all moved in together on Monster Island, the location for many of Godzilla’s adventures and also for the awesome kaiju team-up Destroy All Monsters. Eventually, Godzilla’s most popular cohorts earned their own movies, and even the ill-fated Roland Emmerich Godzilla rebooted got folded into the concept, with the bastardized American version renamed “Zilla” and getting its ass kicked by the original Godzilla in one of the briefest fights in movie history.
(Legendary Pictures is hard at work on a new Kaiju-niverse, which will eventually combine the Godzilla and King Kong reboots in an all-new battle royale, but for now they only have plans for two interconnected franchises. When they get to work on a third, we’ll consider them for future versions of this list.)
4. The X-Men-iverse
Includes: X-Men 1-8, Deadpool, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine, Logan, Deadpool 1-2, The New Mutants (2018)
Everybody talks about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but people sometimes overlook the fact that 20th Century Fox has their own cinematic universe, and that they got started almost a decade before Marvel did. Their ambitious X-Men-iverse has produced some of the best superhero movies ever made, including X2: X-Men United, X-Men: First Class, Deadpool and Logan.
Then again, they have also produced some of the WORST superhero movies ever made, including X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: Apocalypse. So the good-to-bad ratio isn’t exactly phenomenal. But with the series expanding to acclaimed television series, and an emphasis on mature storylines that no other superhero franchise seems interested in telling, the studios gambles are paying off with just enough regularity to make them one of the best cinematic universes around.
3. The Universal Monster-verse
Includes: Dracula 1-3, Frankenstein 1-4, Creature from the Black Lagoon 1-3, The Mummy 1-5, The Invisible Man 1-5, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy
Before Universal’s “Dark Universe”, their pantheon of larger-than-life creature features was known only as “The Universal Monsters.” Everyone knew that the studio’s iconic versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon all lived in the same universe, and everyone loved that about them.
It’s important to remember that the Universal Monster-verse was such an enormous success that these films kept the studio out of bankruptcy during The Great Depression. They were so influential that practically every horror filmmaker and fan would happily admit that they owe filmmakers like Tod Browning and James Whale a life-debt. And despite one reboot after another, to this day these versions of the characters remain stamped on the popular consciousness. Go ahead and make another Frankenstein. Nobody’s every going to forget the Boris Karloff version. Ever.
The sequels were a mixed bag – some were brilliant, some were bizarre, some are simply forgettable – but the classics are indelible, and the trail these franchises blazed paved the way for modern blockbuster franchises as we know them. Heck, they were even willing to poke fun at their creations. The comedy team-ups with Abbott and Costello are still considered some of the funniest movies ever made, and with good cause.
The “Dark Universe” had a lot to live up to. It’s a shame that Universal couldn’t recapture all this magic (at least, not yet).
2. The Star Wars-verse
Includes: Star Wars 1-9, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Rogue One, The Star Wars Holiday Special, Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure, Ewoks: The Battle for Endor, Han Solo (2018)
George Lucas’s Star Wars was a groundbreaking blockbuster with so much thought put into every frame that every single character, even if they were only on-screen for a few seconds in the background, had their own name and story. It’s a whole universe of possibilities that would eventually be mined for expanded universe stories in comic books, video games and novels, but once Disney got a hold of the series they jettisoned all that extra continuity and started over, with only the CG-animated Clone Wars tv series and the official “Episodes” as a part of the official canon.
But whether the Star Wars Holiday Special or the underrated Ewok movies count or not, the Star Wars films still constitute one of the most exciting cinematic universes we have. The sprawling saga of the Skywalker family continues in the “official” franchise, and new films that fill in gaps in the series (like last year’s blockbuster Rogue One) and prequels about beloved characters (like next year’s Han Solo) are keeping fans of these series incredibly happy.
And with Disney more-or-less promising to release a new Star Wars movie every year for the rest of our lives, our children’s lives, our grandchildren’s lives and so on, it seems as though nothing can stop the Star Wars-iverse from expanding ever further, a long time from now, into galaxies far, far away.
1. The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Includes: Iron Man 1-3, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America 1-3, Thor 1-3, Guardians of the Galaxy 1-2, Ant-Man 1-2, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Avengers 1-3, Black Panther (2018), Captain Marvel (2019)
There’s a reason why, even though cinematic universes have been around for almost a hundred years, nobody started talking about them until Marvel Studios came along. For the first time a series of interconnected blockbusters was being created on purpose, with a vision for the future, and a guiding hand to make sure all of the characters felt like they belonged together (and didn’t screw up each other’s continuity).
In theory this would have been another example of putting the horse before the cart, but although there have been a couple of stumbles along the way, it’s almost impossibly to deny that Marvel Studios did exactly what they set out to do. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is one of the most successful movie franchises in history, with a consistent tone that makes them feel of a piece with one another, and an ongoing narrative that keeps audiences coming back for more.
Some have argued that, by now, the MCU movies all feel pretty similar, but of course that’s the whole point. We’re watching the cinematic equivalent of a television series play out on the big screen, with tonal consistency throughout, and just enough variety between the characters and their adventures to keep things interesting. Call it a flaw if you want, but we would never have reaped the rewards the MCU has given us unless the studio had chosen a path and stuck to it.
Will Marvel always be the best cinematic universe? Probably not, but for now that’s the lay of the land. Those are the best cinematic universes we have. What comes next?
Top Photos: Warner Bros. / Marvel Studios
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.