Move Over Marvel, Mattel Is Starting Their Very Own MCU (Mattel Cinematic Universe)


In the interest of corporate synergy and mainstream Hollywood entertainment, the intersection of toy making and movie making have collided on more than one occasion, to very mixed results. The 1980s saw the first boom when popular properties like Masters of the Universe, Transformers, My Little Pony, and The Care Bears all had their time in the celluloid sun. Since then, Hasbro has enjoyed multiple hits with the live-action "Transformers" franchise — although it's been struggling to match its previous heights at the box office lately.

For all the successes, of course, there are also box office duds like 2012's "Battleship." In that case, the film wound up sinking plans for a partnership between Hasbro and Universal Pictures to make multiple tentpole films based on other toys and board games.

Mattel is now willing to bet on the inevitable success of Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" to drum up interest from top tier creative talent in the industry to develop their own MCU, or the Mattel Cinematic Universe, so to speak. With an overabundance of toy properties under their roof, Mattel is currently developing feature films based on Hot Wheels, Magic 8 Ball, He-Man, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, Polly Pocket, View-Master, American Girl, and the widely popular card game Uno.

Culturally speaking, "Barbie" is gearing up to be the breakout hit of the summer and has already sold out most screenings across the country thanks to advance ticket sales. The question is, can that sort of phenomenon be re-packaged over and over again? That seems unlikely, but Mattel is definitely planning on building up a new era of live-action movies on the plastic shoulders of its most controversial creation.

From Barbieland to total 'brand immersion'

Thanks to a new, exhaustive piece in The New Yorker, the curtains have been pulled back a little to reveal more details about how Barbie finally came to life and what other projects are in the pipeline.

To her credit as a producer, "Barbie" star Margot Robbie has shepherded the project for years, eventually courting Greta Gerwig and her writing partner Noah Baumbach to craft a story that could be both a satisfying artistic endeavor and a viable, commercial film that would still be on brand. Agreeing to attend "Barbie Boot Camp," Gerwig and Baumbach underwent a rite of passage that many filmmakers have gone through in the past by visiting the Mattel Design Center in El Segundo, California. J.J. Abrams walked the great halls of Mattel when he dabbled with making a "Hot Wheels" movie and Vin Diesel also took the fabled tour when a potential "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots" film was on the table.

Led by chief operating officer Richard Dickson, Mattel spares no expense on the tour (which features life-size Hot Wheels cars, a massive bigature of He-Man's Castle Grayskull, and a Barbie Wall of Fame). During the tour, the idea for "Barbie" started to crystalize in Gerwig's mind, working as a bridge between the real world history that Barbie and the Mattel corporation have been a part of and the plastic fantasy land of Barbieland.

After Mattel managed to wrangle the rights to "Barbie" back from Sony, effectively ending the biting satire that had been in the works with Anne Hathaway and Amy Schumer attached, CEO Ynon Krieiz met with Robbie and everything else finally started falling into place. Of course, the movie hasn't even hit theaters yet, but everything surrounding "Barbie" feels like it was almost meant to be.

Mattel Films and the other MCU

"Barbie" may be a pre-destined hit, which is sure to add a fair amount of pressure to the person responsible for finding out what comes next. Ynon Krieiz is betting that former Miramax veteran, Robbie Brenner, is the right person to make that call. As the new head of Mattel Films, Brenner's main focus has been to comb through the heralded company's endless assembly line of toys to find the I.P. that's most ripe for mass, cinematic consumption. The next step, of course, is to find and convince top creatives in the industry to come on board, take the tour, and board the corporate bandwagon. Brennan told The New Yorker, "In the world we're living in, I.P. is king. Pre-awareness is so important."

With the barrage of entertainment options at our fingerprints, Brenner may be right. With the Barbie brand, the major difference is how much of that pre-awareness has already been baked into the culture over the last seven decades. For better or worse, our pre-conceived notions about Barbie are helping to amplify Greta Gerwig's film to a near deafening volume across the digital airwaves.

Do any of the other projects in Mattel's upcoming slate really stand a chance? There are some possibilities. Daniel Kaluuya ("Get Out," "Judas and the Messiah") has agreed to come on board to produce a film about everyone's favorite purple dinosaur, Barney, with the intention of leaning into deep-seated "Millenial angst." That could be a potential disaster or an existential tour de force in the vein of "Being John Malkovich." Another project reportedly has Tom Hanks in talks to star in "Major Matt Mason" based on a character that helped inspire Buzz Lightyear. And the success of "Barbie" could be good news or bad news for Lena Dunham's other doll-centric project, "Polly Pocket."

What Mattel property has the best chance at being a hit after Barbie?

According to The New Yorker, over 45 films are in some state of development at Mattel Films. But after "Barbie," what other Mattel property really has a shot at mainstream success? 

Well, for starters, there's the new live-action "Masters of the Universe" movie that Adam and Aaron Nee ("The Lost City") are directing, with actor and dancer Kyle Allen starring as Prince Adam, aka He-Man. Mattel is developing the project in collaboration with Netflix in the hopes of creating a massive sci-fi fantasy franchise that can finally escape the shadow cast by "Star Wars." Indeed, the company has always had a friendly level of competition with Kenner toys (now owned by Hasbro), which has made billions on a galaxy far, far away. With multiple TV series and one too many films in development, Disney and Lucasfilm have effectively watered down the "Star Wars" brand, which could even help give "Masters of the Universe" a fighting chance.

Despite numerous starts and stops over the years, Mattel may well use the success of "Barbie" to help further revive the '80s-born "Masters of the Universe" toy line (something that's been riding on nostalgia alone for far too long). After becoming CEO, Ynon Krieiz saw the potential in "Masters of the Universe" that a lot of executives have failed to recognize. "It's as big as Marvel and DC," he told The New Yorker.

Marvel's Cinematic Universe has always been interconnected, a feature that used to be a selling point, yet now makes it feel like you have to do homework to engage with the franchise at all. With Mattel follow suit by connecting "Barbie" to other, vastly different properties like "Masters of the Universe?" That could be more of a lesson in marketing than in storytelling.

"Barbie" opens in theaters on July 21, 2023.

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