Building a cinematic universe is not as easy as Marvel makes it look.
Where the superhero super-studio has succeeded, many others have faltered. Universal’s attempt to resurrect its classic monster movies in a Dark Universe was dead on arrival. The Lego Movie’s spin-offs were profitable, but largely failed to, uh, connect in any meaningful way. And the DC Extended Universe has done its best work (Wonder Woman, Aqua Man, Shazam) with movies that feel as though they exist entirely independent of the Justice League.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to launch an interconnected movie franchise after seeing others flounder, and it takes a lot more than that to create one that hits anywhere near Marvel’s level.
If there’s one dynamic duo that has more than a fighting chance at success, though, it’s Team Downey.
During a keynote panel at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival on Monday, Robert Downey Jr. and producer Susan Downey spoke with moderator and Fast Company Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Mehta about their namesake production company’s plans to build out the Sherlock Holmes franchise, and what they learned from working closely with Marvel mogul Kevin Feige for over a decade.
“At this point, we really feel that there is not a mystery-verse built out anywhere, and Conan Doyle is the definitive voice in that arena, I think, to this day,” the star says about future installments of Sherlock Holmes. “So to me, why do a third movie if you’re not going to be able to spin off into some real gems of diversity and other times and elements?”
“We think there’s an opportunity to build it out more,” Susan Downey adds. “Spin-off characters from a third movie, to see what’s going on in the television landscape, to see what Warner Media is starting to build out, things with HBO and HBO Max.”
Robert Downey Jr. and Susan Downey met on the set of the 2003 Halle Berry thriller, Gothika, which Susan was producing. After their romance developed, the two continued collaborating on projects together, until Susan opted not to renew her contract with uber-producer Joel Silver to produce 2009’s Sherlock Holmes as a unit with the actor and creative who had by then become her husband. Since then, the two have produced many projects together through their Team Downey shingle, including, most recently, HBO’s summer hit, the gritty Perry Mason reboot.
As Downey Jr. announced during the Innovation Festival panel, however, even though HBO has already green-lit a second season of Perry Mason, he and Susan also have big plans for their earlier detective project—a universe spanning across movies and TV series and who-knows-what-else.
“We’re not repeaters, we don’t want to just do what’s been done somewhere else,” Downey Jr. says. “But I think the model itself has become much more dimensionalized than it was before.”
Of course, this dimensionality arrived with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which Downey Jr. helped launch with 2008’s Iron Man, and departed with 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, getting front-row seats to the formation of the most successful movie universe in history while participating in it as well.
“I do think that the decade of tutelage and observation, what we were both able to have with Marvel, watching them build out and see all the opportunities, was invaluable. It was like a master class,” Susan Downey says. “And they really did know what they were doing and they had this tight-knit group of people from [the] jump locked into a vision that enables them to broaden” the comics into 23 hit movies (so far).
“What I saw was very humble beginnings, very uncertain outcomes, a lot of creative risk-taking, but there was also an algorithm to the potential,” Downey Jr. says. “It’s also having the right people,” he adds, citing Avengers director Joss Whedon as the creative voice driving first film that brought all the stars of separate solo films together. “Different sensibilities will get you to different places downfield.”
While no future Sherlock projects are in the works yet—beyond a third film, currently slated for December 2021—conversations are indeed happening. Where those conversations will lead remains a mystery for now, but Team Downey has a hunch it will be somewhere amazing.