In the 2010s, Marvel proved that crafting a cinematic universe across multiple films can pay off. The series as a whole has earned more than $22.5 billion internationally, making it the highest-grossing movie franchise of all time. But it wasn’t the first example of a shared movie universe. Since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have been finding clever ways to connect their films. The cinematic universes listed below may not be as obvious or ambitious as the MCU, but they will give you something new to look for when revisiting classic films.
1. Quentin Tarantino Movies
Quentin Tarantino’s distinct writing and directing style aren't the only things that tie his films together. In 2016, the filmmaker stated that his movies are all set inside a shared universe. The connection between some films is obvious: Pulp Fiction (1994) and Reservoir Dogs (1992) both feature characters with the last name Vega, and they’re meant to be brothers. Things get more complicated when looking at From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) and Kill Bill Vols. 1 (2003) & 2 (2004). According to Tarantino, these heightened stories actually exist as movies within his larger cinematic universe. He told The Project: “So basically when the characters of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, when they go to the movies, Kill Bill is what they go to see. From Dusk Till Dawn is what they see."
2. Universal Monster Movies
Horror icons like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man are all strongly associated with the Universal brand, and an argument can be made for their movies taking place in the same universe. Following decades of success with its monster movies, the studio began producing crossovers, starting with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man in 1943. House of Frankenstein expanded the universe even further to include Dracula. Boris Karloff returned for this picture, but he played a mad scientist instead of Frankenstein’s monster. Universal tried to revive the original cinematic universe with The Mummy reboot in 2017, but its new “dark universe” quickly fizzled out.
3. E.T. & Star Wars
Star Wars (1977) takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far away, and E.T. (1982) is set in 1980s suburbia, but the two films are connected. Hollywood heavyweights and longtime friends Steven Spielberg and George Lucas snuck references to each other's science fiction blockbusters into their films. In E.T., the lovable little alien recognizes a kid dressed up in a Yoda costume as a friend from back home. Lucas confirmed that Yoda and E.T.’s species come from the same corner of the universe in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999). For a moment in the film, a group of aliens that bear a striking resemblance to E.T. can be seen in a senate meeting.
4. Pixar Movies
Pixar is notorious for sneaking Easter eggs into its animated films. Toy Story’s (1995) Pizza Planet truck has made a cameo in every Pixar movie—even the ones that lack human characters and modern technology—and the movie’s toys appear in bedrooms in Up (2009) and Monster’s Inc. (2001). Some fans have taken these references as evidence that the studio's entire filmography is connected. The most popular Pixar shared universe theory comes from writer Jon Negroni. He states that the magic in Brave (2009) is what made the talking toys and animals possible in later Pixar movies. This version of the timeline ends with the monsters in Monsters, Inc. evolving on the apocalyptic Earth depicted in WALL-E (2009). The theory doesn’t account for the studio’s more recent films, however, and filmmakers who work there have said it shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
5. Stephen King Movies
The Stephen King shared universe originated with the horror author’s novels. His characters occasionally reference events that took place in his earlier books, and his The Dark Tower series introduces a multiverse of King characters existing across different dimensions. This through line has carried over into the many film adaptations of his work: Recurring characters and settings in King movies include Randall Flagg, Castle Rock, and Derry.
6. Spy Kids & Machete
Though they’re made for very different demographics, Spy Kids (2001) and Machete (2013) have a lot in common. Both series were directed by Robert Rodriguez, and they both feature a character nicknamed Machete played by Danny Trejo. In Machete, Danny Trejo is a former Mexican federale out for revenge, and in Spy Kids he plays Juni and Carmen’s gadget shop-owning uncle. Though Rodriguez has stated that the connection between the two franchises is loose, Trejo once said Machete shows, "what Uncle Machete does when he’s not taking care of the kids.”
7. Ghostbusters & Casper
The beginning of Casper (1998) includes a montage of characters trying to rid Whipstaff Manor of its pesky spirits. At one point, Dan Aykroyd reprises his role as Ray Stantz to make a cameo. After fleeing the haunted house, the defeated Ghostbuster says, “Who you gonna call? Someone else.” Now we just need Casper to show up in Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) to solidify the cinematic connection.
8. Trading Places & Coming to America
Five years after the release of Trading Places (1983), Eddie Murphy and director John Landis teamed up again to make Coming to America (1988). Murphy plays an African prince instead of a poor con artist in this film, but a cameo from two characters suggests the two movies take place in the same universe. At one point in Coming to America, Prince Akeem gives a wad of cash to two homeless men. These men are played by the same actors who portrayed wealthy investment brokers in Trading Places, and their dialogue indicates they’re meant to be the same characters as well. Why they don’t notice the prince’s resemblance to the man who bankrupted them isn’t explained.
9. Piranha & Jaws
After starting as a Jaws (1975) ripoff in the 1970s, the Piranha franchise came full circle with the release of Piranha 3D in 2010. It features Richard Dreyfuss playing an oceanographer named Matt—which should sound familiar to anyone who remembers the actor’s performance in Jaws. The cameo can be taken as a tongue-in-cheek homage to the series’ inspiration or proof of a maneating-fish cinematic universe.
10. Scream & Kevin Smith Movies
The connection between Scream and Kevin Smith movies started with the original Scream movie in 1996, which features a shot of Clerks (1994) on VHS. Not only does the movie exist within the Scream universe, but its characters Jay and Silent Bob somehow do as well. They make a brief cameo in 2000’s Scream 3. This suggests the existence of a cinematic universe connecting not only Clerks and Scream, but every Kevin Smith movie Jay and Silent Bob have appeared in.
11. Alien & Blade Runner
Ridley Scott directed two of the greatest science fiction films of all time: 1979’s Alien and 1982’s Blade Runner. According to one fan theory, both movies take place in the same gritty future featuring advanced artificial intelligence and insidious corporations. Shared themes and aesthetics aren’t enough to make a cinematic universe, but there is one strong piece of evidence in the theory’s favor. The 20th anniversary-edition DVD of Alien includes an extra titled “Nostromo Dossier,” which references Alien’s Dallas accepting payment from Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation.