In 2009 Avatar (Cameron) became the highest grossing film of all-time at the global box office. In the same year the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Entertainment, which had only recently clawed its way back from bankruptcy. The media conglomerate was attracted to the comic book company following Marvel’s successful early steps into film production with 2008’s Iron Man (Favreau) and The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier), the first films in a planned shared universe. Ten years later the twenty-second film in what was now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers 2019) surpassed Avatar to become the highest grossing film of all time. Avengers: Endgame confirmed what was already readily apparent, Marvel Entertainment had dominated Hollywood filmmaking for the past decade, prompting a wave of imitators and detractors. Marvel reached this enviable position by applying the strategies of comic book publishing to transmedia production.

When superhero comic books first emerged in the late 1930s young enthusiasts tended to stop reading spandex-clad adventures upon reaching adolescence. This revolving readership meant that little emphasis was placed on long-form storytelling, with Umberto Eco remarking that the Golden Age stories “develop in a kind of oneiric climate – of which the reader is not aware at all – where what has happened before and what has happened after appears extremely hazy”. 1 However, by the 1960s a dedicated comic book fandom had emerged with enthusiasts continuing to read and collect comics for years even decades. To reward (and exploit) this interest, publishers began placing a greater emphasis on continuity, with narrative threads continued across multiple issues. Publishers also began to increasingly crossover their characters such as the 1960s issue of The Brave and the Bold in which heroes such as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and The Flash teamed-up for the first time as the Justice League of America.

Following the success of the Justice League of America, Marvel Comics introduced a wave of comic book heroes that dominate cinema today, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men. Whether it was the soap opera-like personal life of nerdy teen Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) or cosmos-spanning epics like X-Men’s Phoenix Saga, Marvel embraced the continuity now commonplace in comics to become the industry leader. Marvel also cleverly cross-pollinated their characters through superhero teams like The Avengers, or using character crossovers to generate interest in new or failing books. 2

The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (1963)

Outside of classical movie serials like Flash Gordon, the sustained continuity of comics was rare in Hollywood cinema – few Bond films acknowledged earlier entries. Similarly, crossovers tended to be confined to low-budget productions such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (Neil 1943). However, moving into the new millennia screen industries began to embrace these strategies. As Henry Jenkins notes, in the digital age audiences became migratory as they moved more freely from one media platform to another. 3 Coupled with this, the wider availability of earlier movies and TV shows in digital formats emboldened screen industries to become more ambitious in long-form storytelling.

To coincide with the release of The Matrix sequels The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (both 2003) the franchise’s creators, the Wachowskis, together with conglomerate Time Warner, developed a larger story that extended across a series of animated shorts (The Animatrix), two video games, Enter The Matrix (2003) and The Matrix Online (2005-2009), and The Matrix Comics. The Matrix was the first high profile transmedia franchise by a US conglomerate, and became one of Jenkins’ key case study in Convergence Culture. However, with a worldwide gross of $427,343,298, the final Matrix film, The Matrix Revolutions, grossed less than the first film The Matrix (worldwide gross of $463,517,383). This drop in interest was partly attributed to the dense, arguably impenetrable, narrative of the expanding franchise, which made it difficult for all but the most avid consumers to follow the story. As Askwith and Gray later observed, “if ‘the Year of the Matrix’ worked to demonstrate the possibilities for transmedia storytelling, it also illustrated the inherent challenges of these possibilities”. 4 Using more than seventy years of comics as a road map, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) realised the potential for intricately-plotted cross-platform franchising hinted at in The Matrix and in the process changed Hollywood filmmaking.

As a comic book publisher, Marvel had a number of advantages that found the studio well suited, perhaps even ideally suited to this new era of transmedia production. Marvel boasts in press releases that it is “one of the world’s most prominent character-based entertainment companies, built on a library of over 5,000 characters featured in a variety of media over seventy years”. 5 Thus, Marvel has the storyworld depth to sustain the creative mining of even the most ardent film franchises. For instance, the MCU can go from the squalor of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in streaming service shows like Daredevil (Goddard, 2015-18) and Jessica Jones (Rosenberg, 2015-19) to the otherworldly majesty of Asgard in blockbuster films like Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017).

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Similarly, as mainstream cinema becomes increasingly episodic, past sources have proven themselves ill-suited to corporate strategies, as Kristin Thompson observes, “not just any movie can generate a franchise. Musicals, biopics, and adaptations of most literary classics don’t offer much potential for follow-ups”. 6 Conversely, the Sisyphean protagonists of Marvel comics such as Captain America and Iron Man are perfect fodder for franchise filmmaking as their never-ending quests for justice can furnish countless sequels and spin-offs. As Peter Lunenfeld presciently observed of creative industries in the late 1990s, “narratives are developed to be unfinished” adding, “The entire American comic book industry serves as a model of the perpetually suspended narrative”. 7

Elizabeth Evans notes of transmedia storytelling that “when texts are created across multiple media platforms, then the question of who the author is becomes even more complex” 8 However, Bart Beaty argued that comic book publishers have, “a great deal to teach us about collaborative authorship, audience knowledge, and editorial oversight in the culture industries” (109). 9 Indeed, authorship in mainstream comics tends to rests on an industrial level with teams of writers, artists, and other creators working on characters that span thousands of comic book issues with remarkable consistency. Replicating its dominance of publishing, Marvel Studios has stepped into the authorship vacuum created by transmedia models, with the company’s logo opening each movie, television series, comic, and video game. Even when fans and the press have sought to identify the creative visionary behind Marvel Studios, they have not located it with a writer-director such as fan favourite Joss Whedon (The Avengers and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), but rather Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. This is comparable to the manner in which Stan Lee as publisher became the face of Marvel Comics during the industry’s Silver Age, as well as how the television showrunners who “in addition to being the storyteller-in-chief […] has many management responsibilities, including staffing the show with writers, negotiating with network executives, and budgeting”. 10 As I have discussed elsewhere, Feige might best be described as a “franchise-runner” with similar examples including Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy whose oversight of the Star Wars franchise includes film, television, and theme parks. 11 While the demands of cross-platform storytelling are pushing Hollywood to adopt franchise-runner models, it was Marvel Studios that first successfully applied the collaborative authorship and editorial supervision commonplace in comics to a blossoming transmedia franchise.

Marvel’s box office success has seen a number of studios attempt to replicate the Marvel Method. Universal Studios update of their classic monsters, Dark Universe, petered out after the Tom Cruise-starring The Mummy (Kurtzman, 2017) underperformed, while the DC Extended Universe seems to have transitioned to more autonomous films (e.g. Aquaman, Joker, and Birds of Prey) following the box office failure of team-up movie Justice League. In 2016 Sony Pictures, which holds the film rights to Spider-Man, formed an uneasy alliance with Disney that allowed the webslinger to appear in MCU films. Emboldened by the commercial success of Spider-Man spin-offs Venom (Fleischer, 2018) and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey, and Rothman, 2018) the Sony-Disney deal has now ceased with Sony hoping to apply the Marvel method in the creation of a Spider-Man cantered cinematic universe. Undeterred by the loss of Spider-Man, Marvel Studio’s ambitions continue unbated. In addition to releasing a string of billion-dollar movies in recent years (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Captain Marvel), the studio is a pillar of the new streaming service Disney+. Marvel will produce a number of big-budget streaming shows (e.g. Loki, WandaVision, and Hawkeye) that continue the narratives of the films with the original stars. At the start of the 2010s such complex cinematic continuity and transmedia extensions would have been difficult to imagine, but by applying the strategies of comic book publishing to a film industry enriched by new distribution platforms Marvel have created more than a new universe, they have created a new way of franchise filmmaking.

Endnotes:

  1. Umberto Eco, “The Myth of Superman,” Diacritics 2.1 (1972): p. 17.
  2. The first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (March 1963) had an appearance from the already popular Fantastic Four to spur interest in the new book.
  3. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), p 2.
  4. Ivan Askwith and Jonathan Gray, “Transmedia Storytelling and Media Franchises,” in Battleground: The Media, ed. Robin Andersen and Jonathan Gray (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008), p. 524.
  5. “Disney to Acquire Marvel Entertainment,” Marvel.com, 31 Aug. 2009.
  6. The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 6.
  7. Peter Lunenfeld, The Digital Dialectic: New Essays on New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1999), p. 15.
  8. Elizabeth Evans, Transmedia Television: Audiences, New Media and Daily Life (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 32.
  9. Bart Beaty, “Comic Studies: Fifty Years After Film Studies,” Cinema Journal 50.3 (2011): p. 109.
  10. Michael Z., Newman and Elana Levine, “The Showrunner as Auteur,” in Legitimating Television: Media Convergence and Cultural Status (Oxon: Routledge, 2012): pp 39-40.
  11. Liam Burke, “A Bigger Universe: Marvel Studios and Transmedia Storytelling” in Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ed Julian C Chambliss et al. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018): p. 40.

About The Author

Liam Burke is a senior lecturer and the coordinator of the Cinema and Screen Studies major at Swinburne University of Technology. Liam has published widely on comic books and adaptation. His next book, the edited collection The Superhero Symbol (with Ian Gordon and Angela Ndalianis), will be published by Rutgers University Press in 2019. Liam is a chief investigator of the Australian Research Council funded project Superheroes & Me.