I hear you on Potter being deceptively hard to world-build and an eventual failure in the making. Seeing the franchise name become "Wizarding World" is a bad sign but WB seems to forget Potter was a story with a clear ending, so it CAN'T go on eternally like Star Wars or superhero-verses. I'm already feeling bad on how new Potter media reflects on the main seven books. Anything else to add onto Potter & franchise-building in general: how hard it is and the roadblocks corporations face doing so?
I’ll admit, I definitely dropped that in there on purpose, because the idea of How To Make A Shared Universe is one that was preoccupying me a bit recently, and why Harry Potter it turns out can’t do that at all. Even setting aside how good or bad it might have been, Cursed Child is clearly redundant: there was one villain that all other evil flowed from in a very direct sense, his defeat closed the narrative for the main character, that’s the end, no other stories cry out to be told in this world. Yes, you can make a quintilogy about the guy who wrote one of that main characters’ textbooks, but it’s beyond pointless.
At the same time, Harry Potter seems like it should be conducive to the shared universe approach: there’s so much mythology and history setting up the scaffolding of that world, it feels as if you could explore its corners forever. But all of it, from the spells to the characters to the locations, ultimately come down to how they impact Harry. That’s not a flaw of the work, and those characters do breathe on their own, but it’s not *really* an ensemble piece. Only the one guy’s got his name on the cover (well, Sirius and Snape had their nicknames on covers, but you know). Everything relevant feeds back to him and his development one way or another, and once his story is done, the world ends with him. It’s rich set dressing, but for a purpose that has been served.
Star Wars on the other hand, as the star of the day (or at least the day I received this ask) and therefore my primary positive example? Just going by that first movie, while there’s one character in particular whose narrative ends up driving everything, one of the first things we learn about Star Wars is that a lot of people’s very different stories are propelling this world forward, from comedic robot duos to gun-slinging space smugglers to princesses overseeing galaxy-spanning conflicts to wizard samurai to plucky teens in search of adventure. They’re all relevant, and because of that we as the audience are to understand that all the corners of that world they represent are themselves relevant.
Thinking about it, I ended up laying out some rules for how these mass universes (on the Star Wars/DC/Marvel scale) tend to work:
1. They can’t be set in what we’d comfortably call the real world. If it is, there’s no real shared conceits, beyond the ones us real schmucks already live by, and aside from that the characters could run into each other, the connection is immaterial. The Middle and The Office might exist in the same universe, but besides a theoretical crossover episode, what opportunities spring from that connection that justify making it in the first place, that’d make people go “wow, they exist in the same world, this changes everything about how they both work”? If two or more fantastical things coexist though, you’re multiplying the number of things you’re permitted to bring into each other’s narrative spaces, meaning crossovers can thereby make both worlds exponentially richer.
1a. Speaking of conceits, generally speaking there does need to be a shared one or two that’s specific beyond the very concept of “magic/time travel/etc. exists,” to show why all this stuff needs to be in the same world.
2. Closely tied with the above, there needs to be the opportunity to explore multiple genres in that world; if you want this place to feel rich, it has to be able to feel like all kinds of stuff is going on in there.
3. Closely related, the idea that there are multiple figures of significance worth following beyond their involvement in one or two other peoples’ stories in this world is crucial.
I talked about Star Wars and how it invites diverse genre possibilities a bit already, so let’s go with my own favorite shared universe in the DCU. While I tend to think it actually works best when the ties that bind them are fairly loose, let’s cover what the core Justice League alone bring in:
* With Superman and J’onn, it’s clear that aliens exist in this universe, that they may have fantastic abilities by our pitiful human standards (or may gain them under special circumstances), that both literal little green men from Mars beyond our ken and incredible Flash Gordon-style pulp sci-fi civilizations of near-humans number among them, faster-than-light-travel and teleportation are on the table to get them here, at least one brings an entire ghost dimension with him, and they may well wear elaborate uniforms and publicly devote their lives to protecting Earth, while also living among us as humans in “secret identities”. Their adventures in pursuit of this duty can take them from the depths of space to the inside of men’s minds.
* Batman shows that humans can also devote themselves to the same mission with the same basic methods of operation, that these weird costumed characters can fight flashy stylized murderers with elaborately themed Rube Goldberg-esque master plans, and that said human vigilante can in fact function and defeat them with access to a perfect physique, virtually every existing human skillet, a set of gadgets and vehicles that wouldn’t be out of place in James Bond, and a network of allies, i.e. superheroing is an option theoretically on the table for anyone and everyone in the right circumstances, and they can get so good at it to earn a spot on the big table with people with superhuman powers.
* Wonder Woman and Aquaman demonstrate that magic, hidden civilizations that may emerge to impact humanity at any time, and literal gods are also on the table - and those of such realms may take classical heroic journeys to save our own world.
* Flash shows that just any old normal human can get powers like these under the right (if still improbable) circumstances, as well as bringing in time-travel and expeditions to other universes.
* Green Lantern shows that all these incredible forces can and will take notice of humanity directly, and declares that even our literal emotions can have a tangible, cosmos-shattering impact when the right super sci-fi tools are applied, and that we may take part in a universe-spanning mythology that extends from galactic military campaigns to beat cop work.
Even if you deleted the rest of DC Comics tomorrow, you could easily rebuild a world from those seven characters and the first principles they represent. There’s a ton going on. And at the same time it makes sense that they can and should all sit in a room together, because they share similar aesthetics and basic goals.
I think those rules hold up pretty well. Take Kingdom Hearts: much as I love it, it isn’t well-suited to an expanded universe setup. While there’s a lot of crazy magic and super-science and alien races and mythology in there, it all only really comes down to the people with the keyblades, and they just go from world to world to beat a given bad guy or seal a keyhole; there’s only so much you can obviously justify doing if you stray away from that core premise. Star Trek on the other hand for instance, while centering around a singular organization, has such a broad mission statement - go Out There to find new life and new civilizations - in the context of multiple ensemble piece programs that you can do just about anything with those crews, from dealing with metaphors of race relations to getting thrown into the 1930s to meeting actual Greek gods, and as such a whole empire of TV shows and movies and novels and comics and audiobook dramas and whatnot makes total sense. That’s what it comes down to: if there’s a real feeling that this is a world that can plausibly have anything, then there’s no reason not to do do everything with that set-up.
In a corporate sense like you ask the basic principles don’t change, just the budgets depending on the medium and which characters you can wrangle if it’s an adaptation. I do admire though how the MCU and the DC TV shows have made it work in the public consciousness, particularly how they sidestepped the possible uncanny valley involved with the concept by slowly building up to their weirder elements. The MCU kicked off with a normal guy in an - admittedly extraordinary - exosuit he built fighting terrorists and other guys in exosuits, the next had a monster but one of science gone wrong in building a super-soldier, the next had a god but in another dimension, with most of his time spent on Earth being moral, and the straight-up costumed superhero of the bunch was in a pulp period setting, with only Avengers finally doing a straight-up superhero action movie where they all get together with some super-spies to fight aliens. The CW’s world started off with a single crimefighter without even Batman’s allowances for a strict moral code and a flamboyant theme, slowly introduced super-drugs, eventually allowed super-beings but in a limited context with a single well-defined source point, then time travel, and then magic, and then aliens but in another universe, and then finally they let it all sit together with all of these becoming normal elements regularly crossing over and teaming up with superheroes as an established part of that world. Not that it necessarily has to be that way - I have problems with the DCEU, but it isn’t that it kicked off with Superman and then immediately brought in the rest of the Justice League, even if the insistence on pseudo-realism seems odd in that context - but especially in the early stages of making this something that can work for the first time on TV (aside from Trek, but those didn’t often cross over on TV and didn’t branch out nearly as much) and in movies, I bet it helped.