The Era of the Cinematic Universe
I recently watched the season finale of Star Wars: Clone Wars. It was the last of the existing Star Wars canon that I completed. From start to finish I was awed by how both Clone Wars and the later show Star Wars: Rebels, added rich context and character development to the existing story. And now, watching The Mandalorian, it is clear just how hard Disney and Star Wars are leaning into the idea of a wider, connected, narrative universe.
It shouldn't be that surprising, given the incredible success of the Marvel franchise. Disney learned that building an entire world where characters move in and out of different pieces of content and make connections like an ever more complex spider web is like catnip to many. They also saw how successful that effort was when there was a person at the helm who knew the entire story back to front and could inventively weave ever more connective tissue. For Marvel, this was Kevin Feige. For Star Wars, thankfully, it has become Dave Filoni.
Essentially, Feige was a Marvel superfan, given opportunities on some of the earliest Marvel films of this era because of his extensive knowledge and passion for the content. Now he guides the entire narrative voice of the Marvel cinematic universe. In much the same way, Dave Filoni was hired for his passion for Star Wars and ultimately went on to create Clone Wars and Rebels and now co-creates The Mandalorian with Jon Favreau (who is no stranger to building a franchise).
With both Marvel and Star Wars, they are utilizing the new shows (if you don't know what I'm talking about, check out the recently announced slate of shows coming out on Disney+ in the next couple years) in the same way Clone Wars and Rebels already did for Star Wars: To add context and richness to the existing story. I cannot explain how excited I am to be able to continue that experience.
As a quick aside, Star Wars has been doing this via novelizations for ages. Essentially, superfans were creating fan-fiction that became publicly available and popular and in some cases was ultimately accepted as canon. And also of course it should be noted that Marvel is a comic brand first and all of their current films and shows are pulling from that reference material, that has always been the soul of the brand, despite many current fans having never read a single comic.
I don't think this "cinematic universe" trend is isolated to just Disney. It's spreading throughout all of film and television (and really all of media - I'm looking at you Geico commercials). As it should. It's great! Personally, my enjoyment of the Star Wars Prequals was increased 10x over by the existence of Clone Wars. And it created my favorite character of all time, Asohka Tano. Why wouldn't more creators capitalize on the opportunity to enrich their work in the same way?
Obviously it's not always successful. DC just can't figure out how to make good movies. The Fantastic Beasts movies are pretty meh. The Game of Thrones spin-offs were canceled when the showrunners botched the landing on the original series (although I do hear there is an animated series in the works now). But you can see the approach succeed on a smaller scale in other places. For example, the Chicago shows, Fire, PD, and Med, often overlap stories and characters. Similarly, Station 19, the new Grey's Anatomy spin-off often shares storylines, making it necessary to watch both shows to follow the action. Even Pixar tolerates, if not perpetuates, The Pixar Theory that all of their movies exist in one universe.
It's certainly possible that this will turn out to be a fad. A response to the glut of content and a desire for it to be more organized. There are always trends in media. Remember when it felt like every show on television did a musical episode in the same year? Or how anthology series were all the rage for a while? However, this idea feels bigger and slower-burning. Less like a passing trend and more like a rolling snowball that has finally reached a certain size and speed. So perhaps it will prove more persistent and pervasive. I certainly hope so.
Where will we see the next universe? I suppose only time will tell. In the mean time, I'm counting the days until the Asohka show comes out.