Constructing a Cinematic Universe: How much is Truly Fiction and why do we care for it?

What is fiction? Is it one hundred percent the imagination of a filmmaker or are they taking too much credit? The imagination is somewhat limited to what the human mind can fathom and what’s fathomable usually consists of personal real world influences which are then molded, spliced and tweaked to offer a fresh interpretation on screen, so much that it can often be unrecognizable to what you may experience in reality… until you start digging deep into the skeleton that binds the flesh of a cinematic universe together. I want to find out how a spark of imagination becomes a dynamic microcosm and how much of the real world is put into a so-called ‘fiction’ movie. I’m talking global events, race, gender and religion and how they’re used to push and influence a filmmaker’s imagination into a certain direction if it does at all. It may be unintentional, it may be purposefully subliminal, it’s down to the filmmaker and it’s what I’m going to investigate.

To simplify, my argument is that fiction isn’t entirely make belief and that filmmakers are restricted with their imagination depending on what they’ve seen and know in real life. With this as my argument I want to look at a mixture of fictional films and their cinematic universes. I’m going to research the biggest, most successful cinematic universes such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003); why and how Peter Jackson encapsulated J.R.R Tolkien’s masterpiece the way he did, The Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-); the sheer amount of interconnecting story arches, how Producer Kevin Feige chooses which comic book superhero to take from the pages and how they mould them into a more grounded world for the big screen, and the Star Wars cinematic universe (1977-); how the real world influenced the out of this world franchise, particularly the Original Trilogy and how audiences are successfully engaged and immersed into fictional planets and the concept of space travel.

Other than the obvious big franchises, I want to look at smaller one-off microcosms that bubble themselves without the pressure of seemingly endless sequels and expansions; standalone and short-lived franchise films that provide unique worlds, visuals and characters just as much as bigger universe films have to offer. I want to look at Zootropolis (2016); a world full of civilized animals which have blatantly replaced humans therefore it will be soaked in real world influences, and lastly Avatar (2009); simply a science-fiction retelling of Pocahontas? Or did James Cameron unintentionally make his world of Pandora a generic tale of tribespeople protecting their homeland from invaders?

For each film I will be using a number of different concepts and theories. The so-called “paradox of emotional response to fiction” will be an example of one of them; Colin Radford’s theory. I have also prepared a theory of my own which will help me against any opposing factors to claims I make and things I discover. Mise-en-scene, semiotics and research into real world similarities will be my focal points in ultimately answering how much of a fictional cinematic world can truly pass off as fiction and is there really anything unique that comes from the mind onto the screen? With enough deconstruction, are any of the building blocks to these worlds not merely copies and mirrors of real life?

Imagination and Plausibility:
To kick off my argument that nothing can truly be uniquely fictional I’ve researched many theories about the imagination and how the mind works. These philosophical quotes and ideologies are going to make up the majority of my back up. David Hume was a Scottish philosopher known for his influential system of philosophical empiricism and scepticism. He believes that “we should associate the imaginable with the possible” (A. Kind, undated) [1]. Therefore imagination is thought to be an epistemological guide to possibility. “Epistemology is the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge especially with reference to its limits and validity” (A. Kind, undated) [2]. Does that mean fiction isn’t fiction at all? Something a filmmaker perceives in his or her imagination is possibly not original at all due to the fact that the only things the human mind can fathom is from prior influences from the real world. To back this up I’m looking at the notion of knowledge, how we take in information. According to Hume above, we can’t imagine anything impossible, for example imagining a round square. Therefore whatever fictional entity a filmmaker creates, it has to be plausible within the mind. So whatever is plausible within the mind has to have come from the real world? Surely if something is unimaginable then it’s impossible to fathom and bring to the screen for audiences to visually perceive so creativity is restricted to what is possible.

To make it clear, there is a difference between plausibility and impossibility. For example, it’s possible for a filmmaker to create a character with pointy ears and call it an elf. It’s possible because ears are real, and so are pointy objects; we’re able to merge them together. They can call them an elf because the letters ‘E’, ‘L’ and ‘F’ exist. Therefore it’s impossible to create an entity from something outside of what we know. This is why I think, with the assistance of David Hume’s theory of the imagination being limited to what’s possible, that whatever is created in our minds has to have a plausible origin (in this case, a filmmaker creating a fiction piece). To make my claim stronger I need to dig deeper into how the brain takes in information to truly confirm that imagination is based off of real world influences.

“Empiricism is the theory that experience is of primary importance in giving us knowledge of the world. Whatever we learn, according to empiricists, we learn through perception” (Theory of Knowledge, 2016) [3]. Empiricism helps reinforce my idea that what we perceive is our source of knowledge. Merging this information with the fact that Hume believes we can’t imagine the impossible means that we can only imagine things from what we can perceive. In other words, our minds are furnished with information from experience. Therefore experiences in terms of a film and its microcosm come from the filmmaker’s personal knowledge of global events, locations, people and their characteristics, race and religion. In short, you can’t fathom something in your head unless you’ve experienced it and that goes for all five senses on the body. Perhaps this is sliding to the realm of psychology. To reel my findings back into the world of fiction filmmaking I can use my findings to analyse mise-en-scene and semiotics in a mixture of cinematic universes as stated in my introduction. Now that I’ve established where my argument stands and my recent findings, we can see precisely what real world influences there is. I’ll be looking mostly into the why’s and how’s in regards to both mise-en-scene and semiotics and then using them to back up why I believe that fiction isn’t entirely make believe.

Middle Earth is just New Zealand:
Before I get into analyzing cinematic universes and microcosms I need to discuss the aspects of them I’m going to be looking at. Mise-en scene is The arrangement of everything that appears in the framing- actors, lighting, décor, props and costume. The frame and camerawork are also considered part of the mise-en-scène of a movie (G. Moura, 2014) [4]. Every aspect of the mise-en-scene has the potential to help me discover real world influences. For example, the movie Big Hero Six (2014) is set in the fictional city of San Fransokyo. The city scape displays a blatant copy of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco with architectural tweaks you’d find originate from Tokyo. Even if the name of the city wasn’t a merging of the two real world cities, it’s obvious to realize given the architectural design. Semiotic theory focuses on the social and cultural meaning of signs and codes. Signs consist of an image, a word, an object or even a certain type of practice” (R. Beach, 2010) [5]. Using the mise-en-scene I’ll not only be able to discover blatant real world influences, but finding possible semiotics means I’ll be able to find subliminal meanings also. Another example from Big Hero Six is the character Baymax. He’s a big round robot, so he seems approachable and huggable. His lack of sharp edges relieves intimidation. However, there is a moment in the film where Baymax temporarily turns evil. His eyes turn red which symbolizes danger as opposed to his shiny white body, which symbolizes innocence. Colour representations help subliminally change the audience’s verdict of a character or object.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), The Return of the King (2003) were directed by Peter Jackson and based on J.R.R Tolkien’s books of the same names. Going back to the human imagination, Peter Jackson interpreted Middle Earth by reading the descriptions in the books and associating descriptions with locations and characteristics from the real world. Of course when finding the right location for the movie to mirror the feel of Middle Earth, there is only a select few the real Earth has to offer besides computer generated green screen scenes. The choice to film in New Zealand because of its remote mountainous diversity isn’t the important part, it’s the fact that he imagined/interpreted Middle Earth as remote and mountainous, something that’s accessible and fathomable in the real world. One of the movies heroes Aragorn is portrayed as a strong leader by always being in the lead of groups, having the majority of dialogue and making the majority of decisions. On the other side you have an Ork, sniveling, ugly and dirty. To portray evil, Peter Jackson made the Orks horrifying. They need to be repulsive and unattractive to minimize likability so the audience roots for the right side. The fact that I mentioned attractiveness is similar to the real world where objects that look pleasant and approachable, and a person that one finds attractive will always be the focal interest as opposed to something rotten or broken. In this case this is the Ork.

Marvel Jumps from the Comics to the ‘Real World’:
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) currently has thirteen films on the table, Iron-Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2009), Iron-Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Avengers Assemble (2012), Iron-Man 3 (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ant-Man (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016), and many more in production and planning phase. This juggernaut of a continuous storyline offers dozens of personal story arcs that branch off and interconnect at different times which slowly weaves a rich tapestry of superheroes and the unique traits they bring with them. Although there are locations set in outer space, the majority of this continuous story has been focally set on Earth. In real life you wouldn’t expect to see superheroes on the news but when you watch the movies you accept that these characters exist in this mirror of Earth. Throughout the films there’s been terrorist threats and real world cities exist alongside make believe locations. Producer Kevin Feige’s decision to implement men and women with ridiculous abilities into a plausible world/New York is clear proof that the films are somewhat restricted to the existence of real locations and scenarios. As I said above, villains can range from terrorists which we experience in real life, to enhanced artificial intelligence which is also something quite plausible in the 21st century.

Delving into a hero in particular, Captain America stands for freedom and serves to protect the world from villainous threats. In Captain America: The First Avenger the plot is set in a fictional version of 1945 where Captain America must help his country win World War Two. Although World War Two was a real life event, the movie swaps out Nazis as the main villains to a fictional group within the Nazis called Hydra. Nazi Germany exists side by side the make believe Hydra which helps sell the fact that the movie isn’t as audaciously rewriting historical events, instead they use it in their favour and have it as the characters first stepping stone for many more character-moulding eras and events to come. He is nicknamed, “The star-spangled man with a plan!” which makes people aware they can rely on him, he’s colourful and spectacular. The characters iconic prop is his shield which is as star spangled as his outfit. The shield represents safety and protection and the character being shamelessly patriotic and selfless are all aspects that shine bright with positivity.

Star Wars is Earth but set in Space:
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). Filmmaker George Lucas set the space opera in a galaxy far, far away but influences closer to home are evident throughout. Lucas himself said that he crafted his heroes and villains, theology, mysticism and mythology found in the real world. “I love history, so while the psychological basis of ‘Star Wars’ is mythological, the political and social bases are historical”(George Lucas, 2005) [6]. Nazi Germany was the villainous influence for Lucas. The elite assault forces devoted to the Galactic Empire called Stormtroopers share a common name with the paramilitary fighters who defended the Nazi party. Those fighters were called Sturmabteilung which translates from German to English as ‘Storm Department’. Both share devotion and loyalty. Even their uniforms and Darth Vader’s helmet resemble those worn by the German Army members during World War Two. Another Nazi similarity is that the character Palpatine gradually rose from a chancellor to the evil emperor which is like Adolf Hitler’s political ascent from chancellor to a dictator. Another influence is the Vietnam War. The guerrilla war waged by the movies Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire mirrored the battle between an insurgent force and a global superpower that was happening in Vietnam as Lucas was writing Star Wars. Lucas also said within an audio commentary on the 2004 re-release of Return of the Jedi [7] that the Viet Cong served as his inspiration for the forest-dwelling Ewok characters, who were able to defeat a superior opponent despite them having less refined weaponry. Both the Viet Cong and Ewoks were well-served by their “superior knowledge of the local terrain and an ability to blend into that terrain” (William J. Star Wars and History) [8].  Lastly the Cold War. The unfriendly relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States, with the threat of nuclear warfare around them was hardly history when A New Hope came out in theatres in 1977. This seems to have been encapsulated by the Empires super weapon called the Death Star looming round the corner for the Rebels.

We’re All Animals:
One of Disney’s recent animated movies, Zootropolis (2016) is set in a world where humans don’t exist and are replaced with anthropomorphic animals. Before I even have to delve deep into the film it’s evident straight away that one of the biggest influences for these animal characters are humans. The definition of ‘people’ is converted from humans to a variety of different creatures. The different species can be considered to be different races to an extent. The movie surprisingly tackled stereotyping and racism which is a gigantic issue in the real world. Our interpretations of other people are altered by influences which is what happens in the movie. An example is that foxes are deemed sly and untrustworthy in the film. There’s instances in the film where foxes are threats. In a world where predator and prey live side by side it’s evident that there is tension and stereotyping. Although one of the main character happens to be a misunderstood fox who lives a life of hustling crime simply because he was bullied as a child. His attitude was; if people see foxes as bad then I may as well be bad which is essentially a self-fulfilling prophecy. Crime policy and race are cleverly incorporated. Bigots just like in real life who label a person at a glance make up the majority of characters in the film. They use species instead of race and cloak it within a humorous family friendly film. The overall message throughout the film is that anyone can be anything and that everyone is the same. Yet when a female rabbit becomes a police officer, she finds that the much bigger animal cops (rhinos, tigers, elephants etc) don’t take her seriously. They also all happen to be male. Getting to the end of the film it leaves and provides a lot of good messages about tolerance and not judging people by appearances, and reinforces that a small female rabbit can be as good as a cop as a giant doubtful male buffalo. There are many moments in the film where the storytelling seems to get dangerously close to touchy and delicate subjects to do with racism but then steers away at the last second to leave rippling thoughts with the intent of provoking. It’s clear that the movie plays with those treacherous areas on purpose and uses them to their benefit. It’s not just the characters either, the city of Zootropolis is a bright and colorful microcosm. No city in the world is as colorful and vibrant but the fact that there’s animals walking and driving, going to work and living in human-like homes is identical to our life. Overall this movie is influenced by human nature and uses its family friendly genre to get across subjects that are often controversial in serious terms.

Avatar, the Pocahontas Sci-fi Reboot:
There’s nothing wrong with re-telling aspects of a film that came before it, whether it’s intentional or not. That’s what my investigation is about, acknowledging similarities and influences. In this circumstance, there are undeniable similarities between Avatar (2009) and Pocahontas (1995) and Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest (1992). There are many other films about a male character going native and converting to their points of view. In terms of Pocahontas, the story is focused around a man falling in love with a native woman while his ex-comrades want to run the natives out. The woman is also betrothed to a native warrior but she’s not interested in him. In terms of Fern Gully similarities, the animated film features peace-loving forest folk with special powers, whose magic trees are threatened by humans who want to chop them down. One human is brought to their native world and helps them save their land. Both Fern Gully and Avatar share notions of deforestation so the mimicking isn’t necessarily a negative thing. My intention isn’t to simply compare the three films but to clarify that fiction and the imagination filmmakers have when creating microcosms and cinematic universes aren’t particularly fresh ideas, even when genres differ. The real world events surrounding Pocahontas in history are of course the influence for the 1995 film, this doesn’t mean it was the catalyst of similar ‘going native’ films but it helped influence films such as Avatar judging by being heavily similar. Sadly, the violent displacement of indigenous people by ruthless companies doesn’t just happen on the screen so this controversial endeavour in the real world is bound to be a big influence to subliminally raise awareness. It’s clear to see that these films, which are all fiction, are heavily influenced from the real world in diverse ways. Whether it’s a standalone film or a stretched out franchise, there always seems to be influences, regardless of genre also.

Fiction and its Paradox:
Now that I’ve stated my thoughts and views on what fiction is and how much of the film seems to be fiction it’s interesting to find out why audiences are emotionally engaged in something that doesn’t exist. Perhaps the main reason, like my findings have concluded, is that fiction isn’t necessarily afar from life itself which differs from movie to movie and could also be the reason why different audiences prefer some films to others- because it depends on the viewer’s personal influences, favours and values. The question though isn’t ultimately answered yet. How is it that we can be moved by what we know doesn’t fully exist, namely the characters, locations and events. The so-called paradox of emotional response to fiction is an argument for the conclusion that our emotional response to fiction is somewhat irrational. The argument contains an inconsistent triad of premises which all seem initially plausible. These premises are; that in order for us to be moved (to tears, to delight, to anger) by what we come to learn about people and situations in film means we must believe that they really exist, 2- such existence beliefs are lacking when we knowingly engage with fictional texts; and that fictional characters and situations do in fact seem capable of emotionally moving us. To summarize, it’s seems difficult to pinpoint why and how we can be emotionally engaged in a fictional movie even though we’re aware it isn’t real, which becomes a double-edged sword having the notion of a fiction film not being real we’re aware it’s separate from real life.

The initial statement of this paradox comes from English philosopher Colin Radford. In his 1975 article (C. Radford, How can we be moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?) [9], he argues that our ability to respond to fictional character and situations emotionally is “irrational, incoherent, and inconsistent” (Pg 75). If belief in fiction (concerning emotions) intends to move us whilst we’re aware the film is imaginary, it’s puzzling to find that some aspects do move us at times regardless of this notion as we watch something. “Being moved in certain ways by works of art, though very natural to us and in that way only too intelligible, involves us in inconsistency and so incoherence” (Pg 78). Radford’s conclusion to the paradox is that our capacity for emotional response to fiction is irrational but at the same time familiar. In real life, if you’re told something that isn’t true then you don’t care for it. So why does this change when watching a film? We know it isn’t real yet we remain engaged with it. It’s as though we somehow forget what is true, as though we switch off what we know outside of the microcosm on screen. In other words, it seems as though we temporarily lose our awareness of its fictional status. This is backed up with another quote earlier on in the article, “I can only be rationally moved by someone’s plight if I believe that something terrible has happened to him. If I do not believe that he has not and is not suffering or whatever, I cannot rationally grieve or be moved to tears. Such beliefs are absent when we knowingly engage with fictions” (Pg 68).  Given this information it’s clear to see that there is somewhat of an illusion where our minds unintentionally disengage from outside feelings. This in turn goes hand in hand with our connection and relatability to the characters and the story which was constructed by the filmmaker’s imagination. Therefore engaging fiction films can be considered successful immersions of the mind.

My Personal Theory and Conclusion:
I propose my own theory that helps reinforce my beliefs that fiction is simply a culmination of influences from real life. It is often looked past and unrealised. Most fictional films offer one sun and one moon, with exceptions such as Star Wars that blatantly showcase other planets with multiple suns and moons. Yet when you look at the majority fictional films such as The Lord of the Rings, Shrek (2001), the list is endless- they all have one of each, identical to the real world and they’re all called the sun and the moon. These supposed fairy-tale universes aren’t so different to real life after all when the imagination of filmmakers never tends to stretch out of what we perceive astronomically in real life. Or perhaps it’s unintentionally hard wired into filmmakers to create a fiction piece that still feels like home. The only exceptions to this theory seem to be a handful of Sci-fi films which often intentionally want to give an out of this world feel so it’s reasonable to see why they don’t all fall into this rule. This idea was intended to prove that things we take for granted such as the sun and moon within fiction films are easy ways to pin point and use to reinforce fiction consists simply of real life experiences.

“To label a movie as ‘non-fiction’ is not necessarily to say that it contains no fiction or has no traffic with fiction. On the contrary, the documentarian may make or use fiction as a major part” (T. Ponech, What is Non-Fiction Cinema. 1999. Pg 143) [10]. That quote explains that non-fiction often uses elements from fiction for the story telling aspect. I like this quote because concluding on my findings it’s clear to see that this works both ways- fiction can take also from non-fiction and it does. To conclude my work- throughout this investigation into the world of imaginary worlds, how they work for us, and how we work for them, I’ve tried to unearth some philosophical standpoints which have helped me examine and describe the way the mind works whilst constructing or watching a fiction film. As well as this, I’ve researched a variety of fictional universes and their real world influences, whether they be obvious, impossible to realise at first glance, subliminal or unintentional. Researching how fiction is practically made up of what we know and how we think means that there can never truly be anything unique. Yes, implausible situations may occur on screen or an unearthly creature may seem unique at first, but characteristics, mannerisms, what we perceive as good and bad are things that make up these fictional entities. This in my eyes is the main reason as to why we’re so engaged into something that doesn’t exist, because atomically, when you dissect an aspect of fiction it’s always going to be a mirage of what’s possible. It wasn’t my intention to undermine fictional films, as I believe the fact that we’re able to construct worlds and characters seemingly from thin air, our collective of personal experiences is somehow able to put together something that feels true and engaging on screen, outside of the physical realm and the universe we live in, fictional films that provoke new ideas and points of views that we can then apply not only to our own imagination, but to the real world around us yet at the same time offer the creativity to come up with landscapes and worlds that go beyond what the real universe can contain or show us or could ever be. In a way, when a filmmaker creates a cinematic universe they are temporarily playing God and I think that’s the beauty of fiction.

Bibliography and References:
[1] Kind, A. (n.d.). Imagery and Imagination | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [online] Available at:
[2] (n.d.). Definition of EPISTEMOLOGY. [online] Available at:
[3] (n.d.). Theory of Knowledge » Empiricism. [online] Available at:
[4] Moura, G. (2010). MISE-EN-SCENE. College Film & Media Studies. [online] Available at:
[5] Beach, R. (2010). CI5472 Teaching Film, Television, and Media. [online] Available at:
[6] Klein, C. (2015). The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars” – History in the Headlines. [online] Available at:
[7] Star Wars Return of the Jedi (1983). Directed by Richard Marquand and written by George Lucas 20th Century Fox Home Ent.
[8] William, J. (2013) Lucas Film, John Wiley & Sons. Star Wars & History, Pg 28
[9] Radford, C. (1975) How can we be moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina? Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Pg 67-80
[10] Ponech, T. (1999) What is Non-fiction cinema? Westview Press Pg 143

6 thoughts on “Constructing a Cinematic Universe: How much is Truly Fiction and why do we care for it?

    1. I’m from the UK. I remember watching the first trailer for it and it was called ‘Zootopia’. But then for some reason, once the local trailers and TV spots came out, it had been renamed ‘Zootropolis’. Then it got even more confusing when some countries kept the original name and some countries didn’t haha. Great film either way.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I was dead but I’ve been resurrected! Sorry, in all seriousness, I’ve been incredibly busy in my final year of university, as well as travelling and making short films etc. Making more blog posts is always on my mind but I never get round to doing them and I should punch myself in the face for it. I have so many ideas and I also want to start my own personal podcast (as I’ve been featuring on a friends). I hope you haven’t lost faith in me! And that goes to my other followers too. I appreciate your concern and I appreciate every single one of your comments. It makes me very grateful and happy knowing that people spend their time reading my posts, not only that but also wonder where I’ve gone! So again, sorry and thank you. I’m working on some posts that should be done soon!

      Liked by 1 person

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