In 2008, Marvel kicked off its cinematic universe with only the B- and C-list characters they maintained in-house control over. Captain America and Thor weren’t obscure, but they weren’t worldwide phenomena like the characters Marvel had lost in the early aughts to licensing deals. The studio was an underdog, and most observers scoffed at the possibility that their $200-million-dollar crossover blockbuster would be a success. But less than ten years later, the studio was on top of the world, so powerful that they succeeded in securing a deal with Sony that allowed the two studios to share Marvel’s flagship character, Spider-Man. Their bold maneuver had paid off.
This kind of rights-wrangling isn’t an outlier in the world of massive film crossovers; it’s the norm. Since the birth of cinema, studios have been tossing characters into crossover stew. 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War isn’t just the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: It’s a culmination of decades upon decades of this type of filmmaking. Here are just a few examples:
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein wasn’t the first time Universal’s horror movie catalog of iconic monsters collided on the big screen; that would be 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Two subsequent films, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, would add Dracula to the mix, to varying levels of quality. None of these films, however, had the raw power of the monsters’ face-off with infamous comic duo Abbott and Costello. The most charming thing about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is how seriously it takes its premise. Yes, there are gags galore, and Lou Costello’s mugging is about as extreme as it could possibly get. But the film gives Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man a sense of pathos that’s missing from other iterations of the character, and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is a genuinely intimidating presence. The monsters aren’t the butt of jokes here; they’re vehicles for Abbott and Costello to carry out some inspired comic routines against the backdrop of a Universal horror film. In a lot of ways, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is more loyal to the original spirit of these characters than something like, oh, I don’t know, 2017’s The Mummy could ever dream to be.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
The genesis of King Kong vs. Godzilla was actually a far different type of crossover, one that shares something with Abbott and Costello. In 1960, the King Kong franchise had been dormant for almost thirty years, ever since the disastrously rushed Son of Kong sequel in 1933. Willis O’Brien, an animator on the original Kong, was determined to bring the beast back to life, and decided the best way to do it was to pit him against an equally iconic monster: Preferably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Universal didn’t bite, and ultimately O’Brien sold the concept to Toho, who was similarly in search of a vehicle for resurrecting their own icon, after 1956’s Godzilla Raids Again had met with brutal reviews from Japanese critics. Toho’s King Kong vs. Godzilla is largely dismissed by Kong fans as a bootleg version of the character; it abandons his stop-motion roots in favor of a hokey man-in-suit approach. The film was a massive success and prompted the rebirth of the Godzilla franchise as a vehicle for kaiju face-offs like Mothra vs. Godzilla. Of course, in today’s heated cinematic universe environment, it was inevitable that Kong and Godzilla would meet again: Godzilla vs. Kong, from Blair Witch director Adam Wingard, is due in 2020.
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter / Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966)
Look, sometimes crossovers aren’t big-budget event movies. Sometimes a crossover is just a bizarre double feature shot in eight days, starring a fictionalized version of famous outlaws going up against distant relatives of famous Universal monsters. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter contrives a way for James to survive his infamous assassination and face off against Victor Frankenstein’s daughter, newly moved to the American West. Billy the Kid Versus Dracula sees Billy fight Dracula to stop him from stealing his wife. It’s all in the titles, really. No, I don’t know why these movies exist. Hollywood is weird.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) / The LEGO Movie (2014) / Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Movies like Roger Rabbit work because they don’t allow themselves to be bogged down in IP resurrection. Yes, Roger Rabbit is a crossover film, and yes, the scenes that allow classic Disney characters to bounce (sometimes literally) off of Looney Tunes are delightful. But Roger Rabbit and its 21st-century peers create new, exuberantly drawn characters who are just as delightful. All three films exist in a surreal childish dreamscape where copyright scuffles don’t exist (although Disney, Spielberg, and Lord/Miller went to fabled lengths to secure the rights to every character in the films). And all three work entirely independently of those groundbreaking cameo appearances by everyone from Dumbo to Milhouse to Q*bert. It’s a far cry from something like Ready Player One, where the only enjoyment to be found is in passively scanning the digital landscape to try to find that fourth Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
Alien vs. Predator (2004) / Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
We take today’s superhero-heavy cinematic fare a little for granted. That isn’t to say that there aren’t downsides to our blockbuster saturation point, or that the movies in question are perfect, but it is undeniable that the majority of modern comic-book extravaganzas are made with a minimum of respect for the source material. Even a true debacle like 2017’s Justice League was clearly made by people who love Superman and Wonder Woman, even if they don’t quite understand them. A movie like Alien vs. Predator, meanwhile, has none of that level of charm. Like King Kong vs. Godzilla, the titular sci-fi villains were drafted into service in a blatant display of craven corporate desperation, a hail-mary effort to salvage two intellectual properties for the price of one. Like 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason, slapping these two icons into a barely direct-to-video-quality cage match does nothing for either franchise; in fact, it actively diminished their standing in film history.
Tony Stark Versus Dracula will be released on May 25th, 2025.