Volume XII, Number I, Spring 2016


"The Marvel Cinematic Universe as a Transmedia Narrative" by Ádám Richter

Ádám Richter is an American Studies MA graduate who formerly studied at the University of Szeged. Film studies, contemporary literature and popular culture are among his main interests. Email:

Introduction

This study examines the practice of transmedia storytelling (or narrative) in connection with the popular media franchise that is officially known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). ‘Transmedia narrative’ is a phrase that refers to a way of storytelling that involves multiple media platforms, such as movies, television series, comic books and/or interactive websites, and each of the self-contained compositions is conceptually connected to the others in its common characters, events, objects, values and natural laws, constituting a fictional universe or storyworld. This phenomenon should not be confused with classic film franchises or redundant adaptations.

The reason why it is an important topic to be examined and discovered is the outstanding popularity of the products of Marvel Studios—and basically Marvel Comics—in the United States and in the world especially after 2008. Moreover, it is not only the worldwide success that makes the Marvel phenomenon interesting, but the fact that Marvel was one of the first companies to be involved in the practice of transmedia storytelling, which is both a relatively new business model and a framework for artistic expression. Although Marvel entered the film industry in the 1990s, where their only role was to sell film rights of certain Marvel characters to various film studios until 2008. Probably it is not a coincidence that Marvel became successful only when they decided to handle their characters themselves with seventy years of experience with superheroes, and this turning point was 2008, when Marvel began to build their cinematic (transmedia) universe. Within that fictional universe they have produced twelve feature films, several television and web series, short movies and comic book tie-ins so far. Marvel, a company that almost went bankrupt in the 1990s, has made 9,000,000,000 (nine billion) dollars only with its theatrical films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the highest-grossing movie franchise that has a schedule of ten upcoming feature films and many new television series in the next three and a half years. Given the popularity of Marvel products, it is obvious that Marvel has had a significant effect on popular culture, on society, on the film industry and even on the academic discourse.

The analysis of how Marvel has been affecting society or popular culture is beyond the scope of this study. However, my aim is to present the way the storylines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are dispersed in various media platforms. I argue that Marvel’s fictional storyworld is excessively influenced by the principles of transmedia storytelling. Moreover, I am interested in why Marvel was able to come up with this business strategy at a certain point of time, and why audiences might be engaged by and immersed in such media practices. I am also interested in how Marvel’s practice has affected its business rivals. Superheroes are certainly part of popular culture and mass entertainment, but this study intends to show the unprecedented vastness of Marvel’s transmedia universe that is more complex than it would seem at first. In many cases, complicated storylines are hard to follow, which can result in the audience losing their interest, but in Marvel’s case I argue that it is the depth of their fictional universe that engages the minds of the viewers.

1. Defining the Concept of Transmedia Storytelling

This section discusses the definition of transmedia storytelling, traces its origins and embeddedness in literary criticism, film theory, mass communication and media studies, and its influence on other scholars. Such terms as intertextuality, multimodality, the types of media, modes and affordances, the distinction between story–plot are also defined here.

Henry Jenkins first discussed his most influential ideas in detail in his 2006 book, Convergence Culture (Jenkins 2006a), an extension of a short article, which first introduced his newly found term, “transmedia storytelling” (Jenkins 2003), and since, to avoid ambiguities and misunderstandings, on many occasions, he has given extra details to clarify his theory on his personal blog, henryjenkins.org. Jenkins defined transmedia storytelling (or transmedia narrative) as follows:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best—so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. (Jenkins 2006a: 95–96)

Other scholars, at almost the same time as Jenkins, referred to this new multimodality as “cross-media seriality” (Ndalianis 2004: 31–69) or “repurposing” (Klinger 2006: 7–8). Their definition is somewhat similar to Jenkins’ notion, but they rather think of this phenomenon as franchising—purely as a business model—instead of an extensive artistic vision. They diminish or ignore aesthetic aspects of this multiplatform story-building process, viewing it as simply a business strategy, while Jenkins considers it an art form that undeniably has “economic motives” behind it, too (Jenkins 2006a: 104).

Jenkins admittedly adopted and transformed the idea of Marsha Kinder’s “transmedia intertextuality,” who herself interpreted intertextuality (in a transmedia context) as follows:

In contemporary media studies, intertextuality has come to mean that any individual text (whether an artwork like a movie or a novel, or a more commonplace text like a newspaper article, billboard, or casual verbal remark) is part of a larger cultural discourse and therefore must be read in relationship to other texts and their diverse textual strategies and ideological assumptions. (Kinder 1991: 2)

Kinder claims to have borrowed this idea, which she applied within media studies, from philosopher and literary critic Julia Kristeva, who translated and interpreted Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism which is—in Kristeva’s words—“a dialogue among several writings” (Kristeva 1986 [1969]: 36). As Kristeva developed Bakhtin’s theory, she concluded that “[t]he term intertextuality denotes this transportation of one (or several) sign-system(s) to another” (ibid. 86, original emphasis). Kinder makes a reference to film studies scholar Robert Stam as well—who applied intertextuality in his scientific field, namely, in connection with films—whose idea of intertextuality is that the author or the reader may not know what other texts influenced the given artifact, but these influences unconsciously help them in the meaning-making process (Kinder 1991: 2).

It was Gérard Genette who then extended Kristeva’s definition by declaring five types of transtextual relationships. For Genette, intertextuality—in the Kristevan sense—means quoting (with or without referencing the source), plagiarism and allusion, but transtextuality covered a wider scope (hence the different term). It had four more types, including paratexts (titles, prefaces, notices, book covers etc.), metatextuality (commentary), hypertextuality (transformations, sequels, parodies etc.) and architextuality (the “generic perception” of a given literary work) (Genette 1997 [1982]: 1–7). Genette’s typology has been frequently applied in adaptation theory, and it will be later used in this study, too.

Just how intertextuality was more or less changed to transtextuality in the academic discourse, Marsha Kinder began to use transmedia instead of intermedia. The latter term was popularized by Dick Higgins in the 1960s who rejected “the concept of the pure medium” in arts, and instead argued that the best and most recent artworks of the time were conceptually being between the established forms of media (hence the prefix ‘inter’), for example, performance art, dance theater, visual novels, painted sculptures etc. (Higgins 2001 [1965]: 49–50).

For Higgins, a single artistic act could disperse among many media at the material level (canvas, glass, clay, watercolor etc.), involving a fusion, while Jenkins argues that, as it appears to him, media objects are not becoming unified under a single device. He rejects the notion—what he calls the “Black Box Fallacy”—that in the future all media devices and technologies will be stuffed into one black box or one mobile device. Instead, Jenkins speaks about “cultural convergence” that has to do more with content than delivery systems or technologies (Jenkins 2006: 13–16). Therefore, Jenkins puts the emphasis not on the hardware that carries content, such as videotape cassettes, CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray disks, flash drives and e-books, nor on the devices that can operate them, such as LCD monitors, flat-screen HDTVs, VCRs, TiVos, cinema projectors and e-book readers, nor on the technology behind media, such as MP3, H.264, HTML5, JPEG or streaming services. And these are just a few examples of the many.

Instead, Jenkins is interested in the media that we consider being separate architextually—as Gérard Genette would say—such as films, television series, web series, novels, comics/graphic novels, animated films (or series), alternate reality games (ARGs), theatrical plays, radio dramas, newspaper articles, live events, exhibitions, (interactive) websites, emails, podcasts, blogs, voice mails etc. Looking at these elements, it can be said that Jenkins’s notion of media is an amalgam of different categories comprehensively enlisted by literary critic Marie-Laure Ryan (Ryan 2014: 26). In Jenkins’s words, “Each medium has different kinds of affordances—the game facilitates different ways of interacting with the content than a book or a feature film” (Jenkins 2011).1

When formulating his argument, Jenkins was admittedly influenced by Gunther Kress’ notion of “multimodality.” Kress, a semiotician, has been interested in the social role of “modes” and “affordances” in the meaning-making process. As Kress puts it, “Mode is a socially shaped and culturally given semiotic resource for making meaning. Image, writing, layout, music, gesture, speech, moving image, soundtrack and 3D objects are examples of modes used in representation and communication” (Kress 2010: 79, original emphases). What this means in Jenkins’ theory is that audiences—through their social-cultural resources—know what they see, and they can distinguish between them systematically, for example, between a live-action movie and an animated series. Therefore, Ryan labels Jenkins’ way of seeing media as a “cultural approach” (Ryan 2014: 30).

One could argue if there is any difference between, let’s say, a TV show and a web-based online series. Some would say they are basically the same—moving pictures with sound on a screen—and others would argue they perceive them differently, so they consider them different. For example, classic web series—before streaming services—were usually made exclusively for the web with low-budget production costs, operating in short (2–8 minute) episodes (also known as webisodes) that usually functioned as tie-ins for bigger productions on TV, mostly to engage fans. These are definitely significant differences from television shows that affect content to a larger extent and thus the perception of the viewers as well. They probably facilitate different modes due to their different affordances—the associations they evoke—and the audience’s embeddedness in modern consumer culture and media. Of course, there always are purists who say that a book is printed on paper, therefore e-books are not “real” books and they should not be called that way, so these distinctions—due to the lack of consensus—can never be clear-cut enough. As Jenkins phrases it, “Many people are looking for simple formulas and a one-size-fits-all definition, trying to delimit what transmedia is. But, we are still in a period of experimentation and innovation” (Jenkins 2011).

As Henry Jenkins implies, he acknowledges the “classic film studies distinction between story and plot” (Jenkins 2011), which refers to the Russian Formalist school of narrative analysis, namely, when story (“fabula”) is a mental concept and plot (“syuzhet”) is the practical, structured implementation of the former (Stam 2005 [1992]: 72). It is not an adaptation of the same story within different media, but a story fragmented into smaller pieces, into smaller plots, that complement each other. In other words, a transmedia narrative is told in the form of multiple media platforms without redundancy. ‘Transmedia’ describes the mutual relationship between two or more works that are more or less self-contained.

This approach of Jenkins’ has generated interest and debate among media studies scholars (and others) over the past few years. Following in Jenkins’ footsteps, several books have been published concerning transmedia storytelling, such as Pratten (2011), Phillips (2012), Herr-Stephenson (2013) or Johnson (2013), to name a few, not to mention a lot of conferences that have been organized in the past decade to deal with this topic. Many of them relied on Jenkins’ definition, but there are some who stand out because of their refinement of Jenkins’ theory.

For example, Geoffrey Long published his PhD dissertation on this topic, and while he accepted Jenkins’s views, he added that “each component of a transmedia story is designed as canonical from the outset” (Long 2007: 40), and “A storyteller (…) should (…) spark audience imaginations through negative capability and provide potential openings for future migratory cues” (ibid. 60). Long elaborates on the first part of the second statement as this: “Negative capability is the art of building strategic gaps into a narrative to evoke a delicious sense of ‘uncertainty, Mystery, or doubt’ in the audience” (ibid. 53). Two years after Long’s work, Aaron Smith published his honors thesis on transmedia storytelling in contemporary television with the supervision of media studies scholar Jason Mittell. Smith tries to find the right balance in transmedia storytelling that engages both “hard-core” and “casual fans” (Smith 2009: 39) by analyzing the practical transmedia tactics of the television show Lost. Christy Dena is another scholar who has criticized Jenkins’ arguments on many occasions, and although she accepts the basic idea of Jenkins’, she has pointed out several weaknesses of Jenkins’ theory, and she also widened the scope of transmedia narratives by adding a new category, called “intracompositional transmedia” (Dena 2009: 162).

In summary, transmedia narrative is a way of fragmented, but interconnected storytelling, when self-contained plots are laid out in different media platforms with mutual relationship to each other; most famously theorized by Henry Jenkins. This notion is influenced by Marsha Kinder’s transmedia intertextuality, by Gérard Genette’s transtextuality, by Gunther Kress’ multimodality concept and by many other scholars from various scientific fields. Henry Jenkins’ ideas have been further developed by academic works of Geoffrey Long’s, Derek Johnson’s, Aaron Smith’s and Christy Dena’s, to name only a few of the many.

1.1 Henry Jenkins’ Criteria of Transmedia Narratives

First, as a rule of thumb, based on the argument of Henry Jenkins, a transmedia story boils down to two main criteria, labeled as “radical intertextuality” and “multimodality,” and if one part is missing, then the given story cannot be considered a transmedia narrative (Jenkins 2011). He exemplifies this by mentioning the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, L. Frank Baum and Walt Disney who wanted to build their own narrative universes by creating pieces of art being in complementary relationship to one another. Tolkien wrote many books that took place in the same fictional universe, which can be labeled as “radical intertextuality”; Baum experimented with different media platforms (“multimodality”), while Disney focused on transmedia branding, the forerunner of franchising. However, they only had either of the requirements, never both, therefore they can only be viewed as precursors to or as influences on transmedia storytelling at most.

Figure 1. Comparison of a traditional and a transmedia franchise.
Image source: (Pratten 2011: 2).

Henry Jenkins laid down seven principles that defined the pivotal questions and characteristics of his notion of transmedia storytelling. He articulated his points in several blog posts for almost half a decade now, further clarifying the details.

The first two principles can be found in Jenkins’s blog article, “The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn” (Jenkins 2009a), out of which the first core concept is entitled “Spreadability vs. Drillability.” Although Jenkins chose this to be the first element on the list, it does not seem that important from the viewpoint of the narrative, as it rather deals with its impact and reception. Spreadability, as Jenkins describes it, has to do with fan engagement which is possible due to the internet and social media (ibid.). In other words, opinions about a given narrative, and that way, the narrative itself, can spread freely across the World Wide Web like a modern oral tradition. Jenkins has even co-authored a book dealing with this topic entitled Spreadable Media (Jenkins 2013). He cites Jason Mittell, a contributor of the aforementioned book, who has criticized spreadable media to be shallow, which may have a large fan base, but without “drillability” (Mittell’s own term), it is only superficial (Mittell 2009). Drillable media is something into which fans can “drill down” because of the abundance of information they can gather piece by piece from different platforms of the given narrative, to later put it together on forums and analyze it as a community effort. For example, as Mittell writes, “One strategy that Lost took advantage of throughout its run was creating openings within the television show to invite viewers to explore the storyworld in more depth” (Mittell 2014: 264, original emphasis). This notion is similar to Long’s already presented definition of “negative capability” (Long 2007: 60).

To articulate the difference, if a media product generates buzz, hype and fan base via social networks (through online discussions), it is spreadable, and if fans create, for example, a fan database or encyclopedia (“wiki”) for a media product due to its affluent mythology, it is drillable. Given the widespread use of the internet, a transmedia narrative is usually either spreadable or drillable or both. Pierre Levy, as Jenkins quotes him, labeled this phenomenon as “collective intelligence” (Jenkins 2009b). Levy argues that many forms of contemporary art behave as cultural attractors that motivate like-minded individuals to form knowledge communities. Even producers are aware of these communities. Damon Lindelof, the former showrunner of Lost and the co-creator of the ongoing series, The Leftovers, talked in an interview about how fans can ruin entire seasons by figuring out major plot twists in advance:

We’re in a media culture where the audience is so sophisticated and they can crowdsource and Reddit this information. (…) By the time it airs a month later, the audience just goes ‘Duh!’ That’s not the storytellers’ fault. It’s just the sophistication [of the audience’s ability] to figure things out. It’s like, we’re up against this incredible creative algorithm. (Ryan 2015)

Jenkins calls his next principle “Continuity vs. Multiplicity” (Jenkins 2009a). For him, continuity is coherence in a fictional world constituted by several smaller units and occasionally different media platforms. In other words, no matter what type of medium or which title of the same universe it is, an event happening in one segment must have a consequence in the others. He argues that within the constraints of the same transmedia universe everything must be in accordance with one another in order to enhance viewer engagement. ‘Multiplicity’ is basically Jenkins’ term for fan fiction, a genre he has a fascination with, which he considers to be a part of what he calls “participatory culture” (Jenkins 2006a: 3). He argues that many transmedia narratives leave enough space for fans to construct their own parts of the story, which may not be part of the official canon (Jenkins 2009a). Fan fiction does not necessarily contradict the mainstream storyline, but complements it, leaving the coherence intact. Jenkins has been so fond of these grassroots projects that he has even published a comprehensive book on this topic (Jenkins 2006b).

The remaining five principles of Jenkins’ theory have been discussed in the second part of his “The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn” blog article series (2009b), some of which, in my opinion, belong to the more important core concepts. The third principle is entitled “Immersion vs. Extractability.” These two terms describe promotional, marketable and profitable aspects of the given fictional universe, therefore these are not even remotely new practices. For Jenkins, immersion is when audiences can actually enter the fictional world in a form of, let’s say, theme parks. Extractability describes the potential of the story of producing more and more merchandise, for example, the models of key characters, props, costumes etc.

To explain the fourth principle called “World-building,” or alternatively, “World-making,” Jenkins lends the words of an unnamed screenwriter:

When I first started, you would pitch a story because without a good story, you didn’t really have a film. Later, once sequels started to take off, you pitched a character because a good character could support multiple stories. And now, you pitch a world because a world can support multiple characters and multiple stories across multiple media. (Jenkins 2006a: 114)

What Jenkins means by this is similar to what he describes as “drillable,” but it is the other end of the spectrum. It rather has to do with crafting the universe, not with perceiving it as a fan. It is the act of creating a narrative with enough depth in order to be drillable. It is supposed to result in a mythology that can be studied, mapped out, represented in charts due to its complexity. It is not new in itself, says Jenkins, let us just think about how complex the social relationships are in Leo Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace (1869) (Jenkins 2009b). The difference is that, unlike transmedia narratives, Tolstoy only used a single medium, the book/text, and did not serialize or extend it in any way. And, of course, the format is completely different. A novel that is more than a thousand pages long can offer a satisfying backstory in itself, but in a movie there is no room for every single subplot to be told in a lengthy way, given its dense nature compared to novels. This is when spin-offs and tie-ins can supplement the main storyline in comic books, graphic novels, ARGs, theatrical plays or in any other form.

Jenkins’ fifth principle, which is “Seriality,” puts an emphasis on serialized storytelling that widens the horizons of a fictional world by first “chunking” the story into “meaningful bits,” then dispersing it “across interconnected installments” (Jenkins 2009b). In other words, the story is being manifested in smaller plots. Jenkins recognizes the influence of television series and argues that many TV shows has shifted from the episodic to the serialized format, using “story hooks” and “cliffhangers” to grab the attention of the audience and to motivate them to stay with the show, because not every episode has a satisfying closure. In the meantime, between two installments of the given transmedia narrative, viewers can look for clues and fan theories on community sites, which enhances viewer engagement. This is the section where Jenkins makes distinctions between radical intertextuality and multimodality (Jenkins 2011), two notions I have described before. The sixth principle of Jenkins’ is similar to the previous one, because “Subjectivity” describes the nature of transmedia serials, which is subjective, because it shows multiple viewpoints and perspectives from secondary/supporting characters, thus offering backstory and a more elaborated fictional world (Jenkins 2009b). Jenkins categorizes viral advertisings (guerilla marketing), such as fake ads and mock websites, to the “Subjectivity” section, because, if done well, this kind of content can contribute to the transmedia narrative.

“Performance” is the name of Jenkins’ seventh and last principle, which refers to the story as something that may contain many, as he calls them, “cultural activators”; elements that occupy the minds of the fan community (Jenkins 2009b). Jenkins cites Sharon Marie Ross who calls these cultural activators “invitational strategies,” which enhances participation (ibid.). It could be explicit, for example, in the form of a talent show, where viewers can influence the outcome of the series by voting for competitors, or it could be implicit, for example, some sort of puzzle that may be irrelevant to the main storyline, but could reveal valuable details about something for fans who really care (ibid.). Or fans can be engaged in community performances in which they imitate or re-enact a fictional act of their favorite show (Jenkins 2013: 147).

Although Jenkins’ seven principles of transmedia storytelling have been influential, they received a lot of criticism. To make his point clearer, Jenkins clarified his views on the topic, responding to objections, in a long blog post (Jenkins 2011). Some argue that transmedia is a form of branding, a profitable marketing process, and nothing else. Jenkins never denied that “there are strong economic motives behind transmedia storytelling” (Jenkins 2006a: 104), and he admits that there have been bad examples of manufacturing products under licensing that have been manifested in redundant, watered down and incoherent merchandise, whose only purpose was to use the given logo as many times as possible (ibid., 105). Jenkins mentions George Lucas as a successful example of transmedia branding: his Star Wars character, Boba Fett had been a lesser-known, secondary figure until he was developed into a child’s play, which later enhanced the role’s importance in the movies, too (ibid., 115). Instead of reprinting the same material, Jenkins advocates, what he calls, co-creation, a process when branding is made in collaboration with the artists, which is, of course, challenging due to the difficulties of coordination and consistency (Jenkins 2011). One should take into account that a transmedia project does not end in the cinema or on the screens, but overflows to other platforms in a form of paratexts. Jonathan Gray argues that many paratexts, including opening credit sequences, trailers, bonus materials, interviews, spoilers, posters or billboards and promotional campaigns, have a role in the meaning-making process (Gray 2010: 4), but it is unclear in which case they are labeled as “creative labor” or “promotional and ancillary” (ibid. 215).

Jenkins makes a distinction between ‘adaptation’ and ‘extension,’ the first of which is simply a retelling of the same story in another form of media, while the second “seeks to add something to the existing story” (Jenkins 2009b). Christy Dena pointed out that one cannot make such clear-cut distinctions between these two categories, and it is incorrect to state that an adaptation is automatically redundant because, for example, a movie adaptation of a book must extend the novel visually (Dena 2009: 145–161). Jenkins recognizes Dena’s remark, and corrects himself by saying that “both poles are only theoretical possibilities,” and transmedia plots take place somewhere in the middle with the intention of adding new elements to the existing story (Jenkins 2011). What he means by that is something called “additive comprehension,” a term Jenkins borrowed from game designer Neil Young, who once demonstrated his and his team’s goal with additions by asking the rhetorical question, “How do we deliver that one piece of information that makes you look at the films differently” (Jenkins 2006a: 123).

To summarize Jenkins’s criteria of transmedia storytelling and to give account of my interpretation, I categorize his seven principals into three groups. The first, which is the most important in my opinion, describes (or prescribes) the narrative qualities, namely, coherence and radical intertextuality (continuity), hypertextuality (seriality), different point of views (subjectivity) and fictional universes (world-building). The second category describes the effects of these media products on fans, therefore, these are rather consequences than causes, and thus not prerequisites. Multiplicity, spreadability-drillability and performance all describe fan activities which, of course, should be studied, too, but in my opinion these are less important from the point of view of the primary material. Christy Dena similarly argues that participation and interactivity are not requisite characteristics of transmedia practice (Dena 2009: 174–175). The third is an in-between category that serves both the narrative world (immersion) and fans (extractability), and even though it enhances multimodality, it is again rather describes the point of view of the consumers.

1.2 Christy Dena’s Intracompositional Transmedia

In this case, the intertextuality exists between self-contained media products, which Christy Dena calls “intercompositional transmedia” (Dena 2009: 98–99); a phenomenon different from “intracompositional transmedia” (ibid.).

Figure 2. The relationship between media and plots in intercompositional transmedia narratives, theorized by Henry Jenkins.

Christy Dena extended Henry Jenkins’ theory, and recognized new, more complex categories of transmedia storytelling that encompass alternative transmedia practices. She calls this other phenomenon “intracompositional transmedia,” meaning “the composition is the sum of multiple media platforms” (Dena 2009: 161). This phenomenon can be recognized when “one does not study the relationships between compositions but the units that make up the one transmedia composition” (ibid. 162). Dena’s example is about Jan Libby’s 2006 alternate reality game, Sammeeeees that manifested itself in phone recordings, emails, blog posts, T-shirts and many other forms (ibid.). Players had to collect the otherwise meaningless information piece by piece from different platforms, then they had to put them together in order to make sense of the fragmented composition.

Figure 3. In intracompositional transmedia storytelling, the plot encompasses multiple media. Theorized by Christy Dena.

In other words, the individual elements do not make sense in themselves, but they are part of a bigger story, and when put together, they—hopefully—make a comprehensible whole. Jenkins’ concept of intercompositional transmedia is the sum of mono-medium compositions, such as movies, episodes of television series, comic book tie-ins etc. Dena’s intracompositional transmedia is a single composition that is already transmedia in itself. The latter is a more complex and abstract idea, and thus not so frequent, however, the phenomenon does exist.

2. Marvel Cinematic Universe – A Transmedia Narrative

In the following, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is presented in terms of its history, its use of multiple media platforms, its business cycles and its popularity from 2008 to 2016, with additional information about Marvel’s upcoming plans until 2019.

Jenkins categorizes Marvel’s fictional universes into “radical intertextuality” for their being mono-medium compositions between either comic books or films (Jenkins 2011). I argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not only cinematic, but a multimodal, interconnected fictional universe that consists of feature films, television series (including the ones on Netflix), short films and tie-in comic books, therefore, it is not built upon mono-medium compositions. Even if Henry Jenkins may not be aware of this, according to his own definition, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a transmedia narrative.

Figure 4. The Avengers from the Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) Blu-ray cover. Image source: (McMillan 2015)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a shared fictional universe/storyworld, was created by Marvel Studios in 2008, based on their Marvel Comics characters, with the release of the first Iron Man feature film. In the last eight years, many have joined this vast fictional universe. By now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become the world’s highest grossing movie franchise with a 9 billion dollar revenue worldwide that is more than the Harry Potter, the James Bond, the Lord of the Rings or the Star Wars franchise has ever made (separately). According to Box Office Mojo, the New York based comic book and entertainment company earned 623 million dollars in the United States with their movie, Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) and an additional 459 million dollars domestically with its follow-up, Avengers: The Age of Ultron (2015), and this is only two of the several movies that has had financial success in cinemas in the past few years, and there are still many that are in development or in a pre-production phase, and are expected to receive much attention from critics and audiences all over the world.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe operates in so-called phases, which means that the producers of Marvel Studios, with their current president, Kevin Feige, make a schedule about the feature films they intend to make, and they divide them into smaller groups and story arcs. As of now, there are three phases with the time span of three to four years each. The first phase began with Iron Man (2008), and culminated in the assembly of the Avengers in 2012.2 Therefore, this phase introduced the Avengers as a group and as individual superheroes in solo movies, such as The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Even though they are part of the Avengers, Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye) have not had their own individual movies yet, but they were introduced as supporting characters in Iron Man 2 (2010) and in Thor (2011), respectively. The second phase brought several sequels to the movies of the first, including Iron Man 3 (2013), Thor: The Dark World (2013) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and, once again, led up to an Avengers movie in 2015. However, this phase introduced new characters, too, in films, such as, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Ant-Man (2015). The third phase is planned to begin in 2016 and end in 2019. This phase would introduce ten movies; some sequels to individual superhero films, such as Captain America: Civil War (2016), Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017), Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018); sequels with the Avengers entitled Avengers: Infinity War (2018)3 and a yet to be titled Avengers movie being released in 2019; and new solo character movies, such as Doctor Strange (2016), Black Panther (2018) and Captain Marvel (2018).4 Moreover, Marvel Cinematic Universe now incorporates Spider-Man, a character, whose rights belonged exclusively to Sony Pictures Entertainment before 2015. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) will be at least the sixth Spider-Man movie, but first in the MCU.

Four years is a lot of time in the film industry, and everything depends on the success of the individual movies. However, by now, Marvel has a lot to offer, and even if one of their movies fails, they can rely on the more popular ones with bigger revenues. With Marvel now being a property of The Walt Disney Studios (since 2009), a highly successful parent company, it is more than likely that they can achieve their plan, and make phase three happen. That would mean, from 2008 to 2019, twenty-two big budget superhero movies in eleven years. The production cost of the twelve already released movies was between 130 and 250 million dollars each.

A distinction should be made between Marvel’s several fictional universes. These continuities are labeled with codenames. Marvel’s first and longest running continuity that mainly covers their classic comic books is called Marvel Universe, codenamed as Earth-616. The Ultimate Universe (Earth-1610) was a popular reboot of the previous comic book universe from the year 2000 to 2009; the two were published simultaneously and independently. However, among many other universes not enlisted here, there is another that is the main case study of my study: the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Earth-199999). The MCU is mainly based on and influenced by the original universe, Earth-616, so it could give the impression of an adaptation or hypertext, which it certainly is, but one should not undermine the fact that Marvel handles the two universes separately, and in many cases they diverge from the “original” universes they have already established. This divergence would seem normal, given the different nature of comics and movies, however, despite what MCU’s title implies, it not only includes ‘cinematic’ content, but comic books, too—“Marvel Transmedia Universe” would be a more proper name, William Proctor argues (Proctor 2014: 10). These comics are independent from any other universes than the MCU itself. What is part of the MCU and what is not is decided and authorized by Marvel Studios, therefore, from the viewpoint of the MCU, everything outside of the universe should be considered non-canonical.

Besides the released and upcoming feature films, there are several television series which are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered in 2013, and it finished its third season. The series returns with a fourth season in the fall of 2016. Marvel’s Agent Carter was first released in 2015, and ended with its second season in May, 2016. Both of these series are being broadcast by ABC television network that is owned by Disney, just like Marvel Studios. Marvel’s Daredevil and Marvel’s Jessica Jones have been available on the popular streaming service, Netflix since 2015. Marvel’s The Defenders is an upcoming mini-series that would unite several of its characters from the television/Netflix series, such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist; the way The Avengers movies assembled its members from other films of the MCU. Besides these series, Marvel produces 4–14-minute long short films, also known as “Marvel One-Shots,” which are featured as bonus material in Marvel’s movie releases, for example, on Blu-ray. These “One-Shots” provide more insight into the MCU and elaborate on the minor details that could be interesting to fans of the franchise. These one-shot titles include The Consultant (2011), Item 47 (2012), All Hail the King (2014) etc.

The same could be said of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s tie-in comic books. Twenty-one of them have been released so far with 1–4 issues each. In many cases, these comics not only supplement the feature films and the television/Netflix series by explaining minor details, but they often serve as a preview for the upcoming material, just like a (teaser) trailer would do. However, unlike trailers, these are not only movie adaptations in a comic book form, but they contribute to the narrative with canonical, previously unknown information. In other words, these tie-in comics try to avoid any unnecessary redundancies. It should be noted though that six out of the twenty-one comic book tie-in titles are plain adaptations, which may have additional canonical scenes, but their main storyline is based on the original movie version. These are mostly redundant pieces, thus they violate Henry Jenkins’ criteria that oppose redundancy, and, with the exception of the additional scenes that contribute to the whole, they are not part of transmedia storytelling. However, there are many examples mentioned above that do prove the involvement of multiple media; a quality Henry Jenkins would call “multimodality”—one of the two main criteria of transmedia narratives. And, to make their universe even more multimodal, Marvel is said to be planning on coming out with canonical animated tie-ins integrated into the MCU.

In short, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a collection of franchises which take place in the same fictional universe. It was founded in 2008, and there have been twelve high budget theatrical movies and several television/web series, comic book tie-ins and short films released within its creative framework. Marvel’s superhero universe appears to be very popular; this is why they intend to release many additional movies and series at least until 2019.

2.1 Applying Henry Jenkins’ Criteria to the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Jenkins’ seven principles and other criteria also apply in connection with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of the seven principles, namely, world-building has been the basis of every narrative-making process of Marvel for long decades now. Marvel started using fictional universes with radical intertextuality around the time5 J. R. R. Tolkien was talking about the “Secondary World” in 1939 (Tolkien 1983: 140), so it was not surprising that they consciously built up their cinematic universe based on the same world-making principles decades later. As literary theorist Lubomír Doležel argues, narrative worlds (fictional universes) have their own natural forces, laws of physics and the people (or any humanlike existence) with their specific physical properties, events, actions, intentions, artifacts and speech acts (Doležel 1998: 32). Marie-Laure Ryan describes “storyworld” as a fictional world that has its characters, objects, setting, physical laws, social rules and values, events and mental events (Ryan 2014: 34–36), the latter being the characters’ “beliefs, wishes, fears, goals, plans, and obligations” (ibid. 37). These features are present in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too.

The MCU depicts a very similar world to our real world, most of its events taking place on planet Earth. The MCU even acknowledges historical events and figures, for example, World War II is mentioned several times; furthermore, there are many references to contemporary popular culture.6 The known laws of physics apply, but apparently it only has a full effect on regular people, not the ones with superpowers who are only partially affected by the natural laws. Superheroes and villains are organic part of MCU’s fictional world with their own origin stories; normal, everyday people are aware of them, and they are amused or frightened by their supernatural powers. Superheroes often, but not always tend to be heroes rather than anti-heroes, however, their morals and decisions are never flawless, and their unwritten law of not killing anyone is sometimes violated. This is why, in my opinion, Umberto Eco’s essay on Superman—and in a broader sense: on superheroes—stating that superheroes are essentially good and altruistic in a romantic sense has become outdated (Eco 1972: 22). The identity of the superheroes of the MCU is either publicly known or kept in secret on purpose. Most of them are public figures, and some of them are even celebrities. Besides the superheroes and superheroines, the main difference between the real world and the MCU is the more advanced technology and the existence of other civilizations. The MCU’s Earth is only one constituent of the so-called Nine Realms, a concept borrowed from the Norse mythology. Unlike the Abrahamic religions, the MCU acknowledges several pagan deities and mythological figures somewhat similarly to ancient Greek, Roman and Norse representations. The monotheistic God figure is never present or mentioned, while Odin, Thor and other mythological characters participate actively in the universe’s events. Besides Earth, there are many planets and galaxies populated by other races and species such as the Kree, the Xandarians, the Dark Elves, the Jotuns and the Zehoberei, to name a few. There are ancient artifacts that were made at the creation of the universe or at least some millennia ago, for example, the six Infinity Stones or Thor’s hammer, Mjølnir.

The fictional world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be (re)constructed, from different aspects, from self-contained motion pictures and, in part, from comics. The solo movies of superheroes have a bigger emphasis on the individual’s characterization, showing their point of views, telling their origin stories, explaining their superpowers, their weaknesses, introducing their archenemies, while the ones with a bigger cast—like The Avengers (2012)—are more action-driven and story-oriented, where not much introduction is necessary. The use of different point of views is basically Jenkins’ “subjectivity” principle in practice. Even though most of the movies and series are self-contained, and not much preliminary knowledge is necessary to understand them, they are interlinked in many ways, and this interconnectedness is Jenkins’ “seriality” and “continuity” principle. The events of one movie are known and occasionally mentioned in the other movies and series, and many of them have lasting effects on one or several characters’ lives. The consequences are usually palpable.

A character is not exclusively tied to a certain title, but he/she can appear freely in any of Marvel’s installments, and to make it more believable for the viewers, these characters are played by the same actors and actresses with the exception of a few unfortunate, but necessary recasts. For example, Robert Downey Jr. has reprised his role as Iron Man seven times so far. However, Wilson Koh argues that it is not the actor or the actress who sells the movie, but the character they play (Koh 2014: 495). This could be true to a certain extent, because all the movie posters include one or more superhero costumes, and there is a big emphasis on the titular names of the characters or superhero groups, but the MCU’s point has been to keep every detail consistent as much as possible. Therefore, it is unclear if Marvel could sell the same leading role with a different actor/actress after the original one becomes too old for the part or his/her contract expires. Would the audience accept, for example, an Iron Man who is not played by Robert Downey Jr.? It is a theoretical question, but a real issue that Marvel has to solve soon, because understandably not all actors/actresses want to be tied to the MCU for the rest of their lives.

This possible crisis could be solved by rebooting (remaking) certain parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This strategy would not be unfamiliar to Marvel, since they tend to reboot their comic book series as soon as a title becomes stale, and the same could apply to their cinematic universe. Or the other successful Marvel strategy is the introduction of more and more new characters with new plot threads, and when one segment of their fictional universe becomes less entertaining, they can easily make a shift toward another segment. Their cinematic universe is already vast enough to engage a wide variety of audiences—a practice known as “tiering” (Dena 2009: 329). Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is a World War II period film with Nazis and American soldiers, while its sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) jumps into the 21st century, and is basically a spy movie that, in parts, resembles Nixon era conspiracy thrillers—Marvel could even hire Robert Redford to play the movie’s antagonist who had previously starred in Three Days of the Condor (1975), a definitive film of the genre. Thor’s movies are closer to the fantasy genre, revolving around Norse mythological characters and objects. The Guardians of the Galaxy usually participate in intergalactic space actions which gives their movies a science fiction/space opera flavor. Ant-Man is a less serious character, therefore his solo movie has a lighter tone with more humor and less things at stake. However, even Scott Lang (Ant-Man) indicates his story’s embeddedness in the MCU when jokingly saying, “I think our first move should be calling the Avengers” (Peyton 2015).

What connects the individual movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—besides its intertwined plots and character arcs—is their common tone and feel. No matter what other genres they get inspiration from, these motion pictures remain superhero movies with intense action sequences, optimistic mood and a little bit of humor. Just like the Marvel comic books, these films are made to entertain. To achieve this unified tone and mood, Marvel had to make arrangements to hold their movies together with a firm hand, and this person who was picked to manage creative decisions was Kevin Feige.

Feige has been the president of Marvel Studios since 2007, and he either produced, co-produced or executive produced each feature film of the MCU. Basically, Feige is the one who oversees and conducts all the creative processes in Marvel Studios. With the help of Feige, Marvel’s intention was to design a unified universe right from the beginning, which is an important aspect, because, as Geoffrey Long argues, “a transmedia story is designed as canonical from the outset” (Long 2007: 40). Kevin Feige who has a great knowledge of comic books said in an interview that they wanted to make a cinematic universe that had “never been done before” (Philbrick 2010). He is aware of there being a mainstream audience—they are rather interested in the self-contained aspects of the movies—and fans who “want to look further and find connections” (ibid.)—this distinction is similar to that of Aaron Smith’s who differentiates between “hard-core” and “casual fans” (Smith 2009: 39). When asked why they hired the Russo brothers—a duo who had made comedies before, not action movies—to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Kevin Feige answered: “You don’t have to have directed a big, giant visual-effects movie to do a big, giant visual-effects movie for us. You just have to have done something singularly sort of awesome” (McIntyre 2014). This philosophy shows that Marvel Studios wants diverse projects within a given framework—fast-paced blockbusters with a lot of visual effects, using a very similar tone and mood.

Marvel has made sure that the audience gets a similar experience with every product of theirs; as if they watched different episodes of the same series. In this way, viewers get three or four feature films a year in the movie theaters, so they do not have to wait several years to see their favorite character again on the screen. The audience stays invested in the fictional universe of Marvel, because they get more and more new material to their excitement. What makes the MCU even more “drillable”—as Henry Jenkins or rather Jason Mittell would call it—is the presence of additional material in the form of television series, short movies, comic book tie-ins and so on. Fans can dig deeper into the fictional world of Marvel, and between two movies, while waiting for a new one to come out, they can be entertained by several seasons of superheroes. These materials provide further insight to the story-world of the MCU, revealing more and more pieces of the puzzle they can put together. These little pieces of information are worthy of inquiry, because they actually matter, given their canonical nature.

The abundance of information provided by the Marvel Cinematic Universe resulted in fan “performance”—Henry Jenkins’ term—which means that knowledge communities with similar interests came to existence shortly after the creation of the MCU, and they created online databases that collect every bit of information about Marvel’s story-world, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki and the Marvel Movies Wiki—even Marvel maintains a community-driven encyclopedia on their official site, called Marvel Universe Wiki. These community-minded fans reconstruct each and every detail in the form of organized, thematic articles from character biographies to hidden messages (“Easter eggs”). Due to the MCU’s “spreadable” nature—Henry Jenkins’ other term—fans voluntarily help spreading any MCU related content via the internet. For example, the first two-minute teaser trailer7 of the upcoming feature film, Doctor Strange (2016) has attracted 13.6 million views on YouTube in four days, which shows that fans eagerly promote their favorite franchise by sharing the teaser trailer on every forum and social network. The official trailer has good numbers as well: in 8 days, it garnered 11.9 million views.8

Jenkins’ other criteria, “immersion” and “extractability” are not exclusive features of transmedia storytelling. However, there are Avengers related theme parks9—something with which Disney has a lot of experience—and fans can buy any sort of merchandise from T-shirts to superhero artifacts, but in the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, these are rather part of business than artistic expression. And, due to Marvel’s strict policy that keeps their fictional universe coherent, there is not much space for “multiplicity”—Jenkins’ term for fan fiction—instead, fan communities can theorize what will happen or why something happened in the way it did.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an example of transmedia storytelling. The MCU exist within a continuity (a radical intertextuality) that provides potential sequels with different (subjective) points of view. The seriality of the MCU makes it possible to populate the same fictional universe (storyworld). The multimodal nature of the MCU could appeal to various audiences, including cinema-goers, the audience in front of their television device, or the Netflix subscribers who love binge-watching. And, on top of that, there are tidbits even for comic book readers, or hardcore fans who watch all the Blu-ray extras. Due to the vastness of this transmedia universe, fans can form knowledge communities online, and they can reconstruct the minor and major details of their favorite storyworld by creating web-based encyclopedias (wikis). Marvel provides enough material for interested viewers to be able to immerse themselves all the time.

2.2 Intracompositional Elements in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

As Dena argues, “Each small volume unit has a high degree of dependency with the other units. The total work is the sum of the all of the units spread across media.” In other words, intracompositional practice does not involve self-contained media products, but the meaning can only be conveyed when the pieces are put together.

The storyline of the so-called “Infinity Stones” (formerly known as “Infinity Gems” outside of the MCU) is being dispersed among multiple media including feature films, television series, comic books and short films (“Marvel One-Shots”). Their story is the sum of these compositions; they cannot be understood based on one movie or a comic book issue. Thus they might seem irrelevant, but the Infinity Stones are key objects in the creation myth of Marvel’s fictional universe. Many details about them are yet to be revealed as the MCU develops, because Marvel is not faithful to their original comics in every aspect, and in many cases they divert from pre-established comic book storylines in the MCU, so one cannot rely entirely on their comics universe.

However, there are many details that have already been made clear and confirmed by the released materials. The Art of the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the official movie tie-in book of the feature film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) revealed that the Cosmic Entities, a group of cosmic beings, namely, Entropy, Infinity, Death and Eternity created the Infinity Stones when the universe (the physical world) was born. There are six of them in total, and all of them have individual, unique powers, consisting of the Space, Time, Reality, Mind, Soul and Power Stones. They cannot be destroyed, and anyone who owns either one of them will become powerful in a certain way—more or less as their name implies. Some of this is revealed in the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) by a character named Taneleer Tivan, better known as the Collector, and other details became known from Thor’s dream (or vision) in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

Figure 5. Thanos, retrieving the Infinity Gauntlet, screenshot from Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

In the latter movie, a post-credit scene shows Thanos—another intracompositional “element”—retrieving the Infinity Gauntlet, a metal glove with six sockets that can hold all the Infinity Stones at once. Thanos then says, with an unnerving smile on his face, “Fine, I’ll do it myself,” meaning that his servants failed to collect and hand him the Stones, so he has to do it himself. Probably, this is going to be the main conflict—as several plots are pointing to this direction—of the upcoming feature film, Avengers: Infinity War (2018). But who is Thanos and why does he want to get a hold of the Infinity Stones?

Figure 6. Mistress Death and Thanos in the non-MCU comic book series, The Infinity Gauntlet. Image source: (Starlin 1991: 28)

Thanos was first presented—well before the MCU—in a comic book, namely, in Iron Man #55, published in February, 1973. He is from the Saturn’s moon, Titan, and he comes from the genus of the Titanian Eternals (Titans), at least in the comic books before the MCU. Marvel has long used mythological references, for example, in Greek mythology, Titans and Titanesses were second order divine beings, or in the case of Marvel’s another character, Thor, when creating him, they heavily used Norse mythology as an inspiration. When Thanos, the “Mad Titan” first met Death, who often manifested itself in the form of a seductive Caucasian woman, wearing a dark cloak with a hood, Thanos fell in love with her, Mistress Death, immediately, and from that time on he tried to impress her by bringing death to more and more beings in the universe. Death—both as a person and as a concept—became Thanos’ obsession.10 In order to destroy all life in the universe, he acquired the Infinity Gauntlet and all the Infinity Gems. In the MCU, Thanos’s motivation for obtaining the Stones and the Gauntlet has remained unclear so far, but Death was confirmed to be part of the Cosmic Entities in The Art of the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), so Marvel might use this character similarly as they did in certain pre-MCU comic books.

What we do know about Thanos is that he is a dangerous, violent warlord who commands the alien army of the Chitauri. As Korath says in the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), “Thanos is the most powerful being in the universe.” In the movie, The Avengers (2012), the Chitauri are led by Thor’s stepbrother, Loki, with the approval of Thanos—this agreement is revealed in the digital comic book, The Avengers Adaptation (2014)—in the Battle of New York. The Chitauri are mentioned in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series, in the Iron Man 3 Prelude (2013) comic book tie-in and in many other places within the MCU. Thanos has two adopted daughters, Gamora and Nebula, who were trained to be assassins by Ronan the Accuser, the sadistic villain of the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and its Prelude (2014). Thanos also appears rather briefly in the digital Guardians of the Galaxy Prequel Infinite Comic (2014) and in the Thor: The Dark World Prelude (2013) comic book.

Now that the transmedia nature of Thanos’s quest for the Stones has been introduced, we should examine where the six stones are. The Space Stone, better known as the Tesseract is cube-shaped, blue and provides unlimited energy. It can also open portals or gateways between any two points of the universe; this is how Loki invades Earth in The Avengers (2012). Even though the Tesseract is first shown in the end of Thor (2011), its history dates back to the beginning of times. According to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the Tesseract had been under the surveillance of Odin in Asgard for centuries before it was hidden in Tønsberg, Norway, only to be found by the Nazi’s special weapons division, HYDRA in 1942. The Tesseract had fueled the Nazi’s super bomber called the Valkyrie until Steve Rogers (Captain America) defeated HYDRA’s commander. From Iron Man 2 (2008), the audience learns that the Tesseract after World War II became the property of S.H.I.E.L.D., an international counterespionage agency that was co-founded by Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) father, Howard Stark. In 2012, the events of The Avengers (2012) took place; Loki stole the Tesseract, but he was captured and brought back to an Asgardian prison with the Tesseract as well. In the comic book, Thor: The Dark World Prelude (2013), Thor gives the Tesseract to Asgard’s watchman, Heimdall to repair the Bifrost Bridge that connects the Nine Realms. From the movie, Thor: The Dark World (2013), it could be known that Loki impersonated Odin in Asgard, so the future of the Tesseract is in question.

The Mind Stone is yellow and it can be used as a weapon and as an instrument to manipulate others. According to The Avengers (2011), it was owned by Thanos, who then gave it to Loki as a gift, whose job was to invade Earth and get the Tesseract for Thanos. The Mind Stone was contained in a Chitauri Scepter at that time, and after the Battle of New York, S.H.I.E.L.D. took possession of it. In Avengers: Age of Ultron Prelude – This Scepter’d Isle (2015), Agent Mark Smith, one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s research technicians steals the Scepter, and hands it over to HYDRA. In Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), HYDRA already has the Scepter, and they use it to develop new weapons and give extraordinary powers to people, for example, to the twins, Pietro (Quicksilver) and Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch). In The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), the Avengers attack HYDRA’s fortress, and get a hold of the Scepter. Avengers member Tony Stark (Iron Man) starts to study it when he realizes that the Stone inside of the Scepter has a net of neurons that could create artificial intelligence. They connect the Stone to a peacekeeping program, and name it Ultron. The program starts to live its own life, and soon attacks Stark’s computer system, J.A.R.V.I.S. Ultron then starts to spread in computerized systems via the internet, and builds its own robotic body with the purpose of eradicating humanity in order to save the planet from destruction. For a little while, Ultron owns and uses Loki’s Scepter. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Hulk) recover the program J.A.R.V.I.S., and upload it into a synthetic body with the help of the Scepter. As a result, Vision, the humanoid robot comes into existence. In the process, the Scepter is dismantled, and the Mind Stone becomes the part of Vision’s forehead. Presumably, the Stone is a power source for Vision, so if Thanos collected it that would probably result in Vision’s death.

The Reality Stone, also known as the Aether is mostly a dark red liquid, but it can change its form. It can turn matter into dark matter, and consume the vital power of living beings, therefore it is a dangerous, deadly substance. It appeared in the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) for a brief moment, and it was mentioned in the Guardians of the Galaxy Prequel Infinite Comic (2014), but its history was told in Thor: The Dark World (2013). In the latter feature film, Odin explains that the Aether got into the hands of Malekith thousands of years before. Malekith was one from the Dark Elves who lived in one of the Nine Realms, Svartalfheim. He tried to transform the universe back into eternal darkness with the help of the Aether, but Odin’s father, Bor stopped him, and hid the Aether in one of the Realms. The movie then shows that in 2013 the Aether is rediscovered; Malekith gets a hold of it again, and tries to do his former plan with the Realms, starting with Earth, where he gets stopped by Thor. Asgardians then successfully contain the Aether, and hand it over to the Collector to oversee it. By this time, Asgard already has an Infinity Stone, the Tesseract, this is why they rather place it somewhere else. From the Guardians of the Galaxy Prequel Infinite Comic (2014) it could be known that the Collector’s residence is inside a free-floating space waste called Knowhere, therefore it is an appropriate hiding place for the Aether.

The Power Stone is purple and is being contained in an orb. As the Collector explains in the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), the Orb used to belong to the Celestials who were giant, robot-like ancient beings. They used the power of the Orb to intimidate entire societies, and, if necessary, to destroy them. This is the reason why Thanos is trying to find it. He hires Ronan the Accuser to obtain it, and if he does so, he can achieve his goal by eliminating the population of the planet Xandar. According to the Guardians of the Galaxy Prequel Infinite Comic (2014), the Collector also wants the Orb for himself, so he secretly entrusts Thanos’s stepdaughter, Gamora with searching the artifact. From this comic book it also becomes clear why Nebula and Gamora fight each other, and why they despise, but also fear their stepfather, Thanos. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) reveals that Peter Quill (Star-Lord) finds the Orb on the planet Morag, but it ends up in the hands of Ronan the Accuser who forges it into his hammer, and attacks planet Xandar. The Guardians of the Galaxy successfully defeat Ronan, remove the Stone from his hammer, and give it to the Nova Empire’s military force, Nova Corps to surveille it on Xandar. Even though it can be deduced, James Gunn, the director of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) officially confirmed on his personal Twitter page that the Orb is the Power Stone (Gunn 2014).

Four out of six Infinity Stones have been presented in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. It was implied by the president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige that an amulet known as The Eye of Agamotto would be introduced in the upcoming feature film, Doctor Strange (2016), and it could manipulate time (Collis 2015). Based on Feige’s statement, the amulet is most likely the Time Stone, and has the color green. The whereabouts of the last remaining stone, the Soul Stone has yet to be revealed, but it can be deducted that its color will be orange. The other key object, the Infinity Gauntlet has been shown twice. Once in Odin’s vault (with fake stones in it) in Thor (2011), and for a second time in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) when Thanos retrieved it. Seemingly they are the same, but they are not. The former is a right-handed, and the latter is a left-handed gauntlet. It was also confirmed by Kevin Feige in an interview that there are two Infinity Gauntlets in the MCU (Eisenberg 2015).

The storyline of the Infinity Stones can be extremely fragmented to the extent when casual viewers may not even realize the importance of what they see. These snippets may appear irrelevant or may seem to be mere plot devices (“McGuffins”), but it is more than likely that the Infinity Stones will be of great importance in many of the upcoming Marvel releases. After putting together the pieces of this complex puzzle, one can understand the motives behind many key events. What makes this task difficult is that the material is dispersed among many compositions in various media platforms. There is a short sequence related to this storyline in one of the movies that continues in a comic book for just a few pages, only to return in another movie for a few seconds. Many viewers may not even know who Thanos is other than a random villain who for a strange reason turns up in a twenty-second long scene in the mid-credits of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). This phenomenon is called an intracompositional transmedia practice that has been used successfully and excessively by Marvel.

2.2 The Success of Marvel and the Future of Transmedia Storytelling

Marvel’s key to success was their transmedia strategy, which they adopted from their comics practice, and Marvel has only been a record-breaking member of the movie charts since they started to think not in terms of short-time success (selling movie rights), but in terms of long-time world-building. Their practice even influenced their biggest rival, DC to make a similar cinematic universe.

Marvel Comics, the fundamental comic book publisher behind many superhero movies, was founded in 1939.11 Since its foundation, more than seven decades have passed by, but reading comic books is still a popular form of entertainment in the United States. Based on the data published by ComicChron.com and ICv2.com, the overall North American comic book market, including print and digital sales, earned 935 million dollars in 2014. In the past seventy-five years, this enormous demand for comic books has created a wide variety of publishers in the United States. The two biggest rivals, Marvel Comics and DC Comics dominate the market, but there are minor comic book publishing houses as well, such as Image, IDW, Dark Horse or Valiant. According to ComicChron’s John Jackson Miller, who has aggregated the monthly data of Diamond Comic Distributors and the sales figures found in comics publishers’ Statement of Ownership, in September 2015, Marvel had a 38.12% share in units sold compared to the 26.32% of DC Comics. The same share in dollars is 32.67% for Marvel, while it is significantly less for DC with a 26% share. In the top 300 list of comics sold, Marvel has seventy-nine items, while DC has almost as many with sixty-nine items. Marvel’s prevalence is obvious.

In its first three decades of its operation, Marvel’s main field of interest remained to be the comic book market. In the 1970s, some television series were made with Marvel characters, but they could not even dream of the big screen of the movie theaters. The 1990s saw several animated series made for children and a few direct-to-video releases. In 1993, Marvel Films—later known as Marvel Studios—was established. After 1995, Marvel had to face a potential bankruptcy, and, in order to avoid it, Marvel sold many of their film rights to several film studios. Since that, some film rights have been retrieved, while some remained at the disposal of other movie production companies.

Blade (1998) was the first live-action superhero feature film of a Marvel character with a wide theatrical release. It was made by New Line Cinema, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., which had the license of the character Blade, and they made two additional sequels—the last one in 2004—before the rights reverted to Marvel Studios in 2011. Twentieth Century Fox still has the rights of relatively many Marvel characters, including the X-Men,12 the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer and Deadpool. Sony Pictures Entertainment, besides some minor characters,13 bought only the license of Spider-Man, and made five movies with him before forming a business partnership with Marvel Studios in 2015. The upcoming feature film, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) will be the first Spider-Man movie that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sony and Columbia Pictures are still the main producers and distributors of any Spider-Man related films, but Marvel has had more creative control since the agreement. Ironically, now it was Sony that—motivated by business necessities14—sold the license back to a company that originally had sold it to them. By now, Marvel Studios has fully retrieved the rights of several formerly sold characters, such as the Hulk (Universal), Daredevil and Elektra (Fox), Ghost Rider (Sony-Columbia) and the Punisher (Lionsgate).15 These licenses expired, because the studios involved could not make successful movies with these characters, so they abandoned the idea of further sequels, and, this way, the rights reverted to Marvel.

As Derek Johnson points out, 2005 was an important year for Marvel Studios, because they changed their strategy,16 and started to focus on independently made movies, of which they had creative control, rather than selling licenses to other studios (Johnson 2012: 9). Their improving financial situation made this transition possible. In 2005, Marvel reacquired the film rights of Iron Man, a major character in the following Marvel Cinematic Universe (Zeitchik 2006). In 2006, Marvel retrieved the rights of another Avenger, Thor (Carle 2006). From 2007 on, with Kevin Feige on board as the president of Marvel Studios, they could start to build their own universe with the characters of which they still had the rights. The members of the Avengers belonged to Marvel Studios, so they could craft a storyline around this superhero team.

Figure 7. The domestic gross and production budget of each MCU feature film in million dollars. The numbers are based on Box Office Mojo’s data.

Marvel Entertainment was acquired by Disney in 2009, but Marvel Studios remained its subsidiary. Marvel Studios has belonged directly to The Walt Disney Studios since 2015, but it preserved its creative independence it has been aiming for. Alan Horn, the chairman of Disney since 2012, “welcomes a healthy creative disagreement,” and, as Horn stated, “[T]here is an elusive partnership between the creative side and the business side” at Disney (Rainey 2016). Actually, it was Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, who preferred to directly report to Horn instead of the CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac Perlmutter who is said to be a famously controlling businessman (ibid.). In 2015, Disney had a 2.5 billion dollar profit from its movies; almost half of the 5.2 billion dollar film industry (ibid.). Walt Disney Studios, the owner of Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm and Pixar, not only makes animated movies, but produces and distributes the new episodes of Star Wars and superhero movies of the successful Marvel Cinematic Universe.17

The other studios, which used Marvel licenses, were unable to do such a world-building process, because they did not have enough superhero rights at their disposal to make a shared universe. And, probably, they did not even intend to put the enormous time and energy needed into a shared universe, instead, they were thinking in short term success. Most attempts of these studios failed to impress a wide enough audience; this is the reason why the film rights reverted to Marvel. Twentieth Century Fox has to rely on its X-Men sequels, and, more recently, on Deadpool,18 which means they can release a movie every two or three years—only a few, compared to Marvel’s releasing three or four movies a year. Sony only has Spider-Man and some villains in their possession, which is not enough material to rely on in terms of shared fictional universes. Marvel does not have such a problem. The movie theaters and the television screens are flooded with their own material that they can produce and distribute with the assistance of Disney. Marvel does not need to rely on any external studios anymore.

Marvel’s strategy, the one they supposedly adopted from their comic book branch, proved to be a trendsetter for Marvel’s old rival, DC Comics. The parent company of DC Comics is DC Entertainment, which is owned by Warner Bros. Entertainment (WB). Years after Marvel’s successful business model, DC/WB created their own shared universe in 2013, called DC Extended Universe (DCEU). They started with a Superman reboot entitled Man of Steel (2013), followed by the Superman–Batman crossover film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). As of now, DC/WB has a schedule with eleven upcoming movies until 2020.19 DC/WB has an extensive television universe20 besides the cinematic one, and unlike Marvel, they handle the two separately, viewing them as a so-called multiverse. DC/WB has published book and comic book tie-ins loosely connected to their movies, but these are scarcely part of their cinematic canon. According to Henry Jenkins’ terminology, the multiverse of DC cannot be considered a transmedia narrative due to its disconnected nature. In other words, only radical intertextuality is present, but the transmedia criterion is not fulfilled.

Marvel has no other rivals in the superhero business. However, they seemingly influenced other franchises as well. Marvel’s parent company, Disney owns the shared universe of Star Wars, which is an example of transmedia storytelling,21 and they intend to expand it with additional sequels—including movies without the main characters. Similarly, the second highest-grossing franchise, Harry Potter is being expanded with the upcoming movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), inspired by the book of the same name, that takes place in the Harry Potter universe, but does not include the well-known main characters of the previous movies. However, this is rather just a book adaptation, and cannot be considered a proper transmedia narrative. This approach is only similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in that it introduces the same fictional universe from a different point of view, but it was a common method—for example, making a prequel—of old franchises, too.

Conclusion

In this study, my intention was to point out the transmedia narrative characteristics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I demonstrated how Marvel designed a shared fictional universe based on their own comic book universe. However, it is not only an adaptation, but an independent storyworld that lives on its own. When architecting the MCU, Marvel was inspired by their own practice in comics that they had been using for decades—the interconnectedness of characters, objects and events. They created an independent continuity that has functioned as a framework ever since, and resulted in numerous sequels all of which have a reference point in the same fictional world. Marvel has mastered the skills of character development by introducing most of the superheroes in their solo movies in order to make room for action in the crossover films, where no introduction is needed any more for the members of the superhero teams. Marvel is represented in the film industry, in the television business, in streaming sites and in comic books. They use all these media platforms to provide a subjective point of view of their storylines, which is also a common transmedia practice.

As it was emphasized, Marvel uses intracompositional transmedia practices to engage the hardcore fans. There are certain storylines within the Marvel Cinematic Universe which are not made of self-contained units, but they are fragmented to an extent that they probably do not provide much information for the casual viewers. Although these storylines seem irrelevant, they are very important to the events occurring within the MCU. Typically, these tidbits or Easter eggs are collected by fans online. These knowledge communities are very characteristic of our era, when the vast majority of people in the developed world have internet access, and they can easily find each other on online forums and create databases of their favorite fictional world. They are invested in the story, because they can use their collective minds to put the pieces together, and make sense of the smallest of information. In our times, the movie or the television show or the rest usually does not end when it is over, but usually it continues on the social networks, message boards and online encyclopedias.

I argued that one does not have to be a hardcore fan in order to be amused and to be engaged. If someone likes the self-contained movies, they get to have two or three a year—every four to six months on average. It is significantly less time than the other studios can offer with a two or three year long wait. The interest of the audience can vanish between two movies, but Marvel avoids it by releasing more material. It was something the other studios could not do, because they did not have enough film rights, and they even treated badly the ones they had. But Marvel goes further, and provides numerous seasons of television shows and web streaming series, which are, of course, connected to the MCU, and they feature additional materials to the movies. If someone is even more interested, they can read several comic book tie-ins that explain the main events of the MCU from a different point of view in the form of prequels/preludes or sequels. And if a fan is still interested, they can find bonus features on the physical and digital movie releases in the form of short films that provide even more insight into the fictional universe of Marvel. There is enough material to constantly grab the attention of the fans, who eagerly spread the news about any upcoming material. This practice raises the awareness of the general public and grows its anticipation for a new movie. Marvel’s transmedia universe is now vast enough to feature diverse compositions, which means that the MCU can appeal for a wide audience—for viewers who like action, comedy, romance, science fiction, fantasy, thrillers or all at once.

By looking at last year’s top highest-grossing movie chart of Box Office Mojo, with figures from the United States, one can notice that in the top 20, seventeen out of the twenty are either (comic) book adaptations, remakes or sequels. It probably means that in our present world, when there is an abundance of stimuli, people prefer to choose what they know, what they have heard of, especially when they have to pay for it. Marvel has proved to be a reliable source for entertainment; a brand people can trust—and something that is hard not to know about. And if a certain movie does not attract as many people as the other, that is not really a problem, because in two or three months another one comes out that probably will attract these people. In that case if someone chooses to stay at home—that is fine, too. There is enough superhero material in the television and on Netflix that may be a good marketing source for other platforms as well.

Marvel’s unprecedented transmedia practice is an example to follow in an era when people want constant engagement and entertainment. Marvel was aware of the essence of recent popular culture, and created a practice that is the sum of what had been done before in serialized television shows and in comic books. These old practices met the expectations of online communities and, basically, Marvel’s success was granted. It is certain that at least in the next couple of years there is going to be a superhero “coming to a multiplex near you”—as classic movie advertisements would say—and that is something Marvel has accomplished; whether if we are happy about that or not.

 

Works Cited

Primary sources from the Marvel Cinematic Universe

(In chronological order of their respective release date in the United States.)

I. Feature films (including upcoming movies)
  • Favreau, Jon (2008). Iron Man. Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby et al. Marvel Studios.
  • Leterrier, Louis (2008). The Incredible Hulk. Written by Zak Penn. Marvel Studios.
  • Favreau, Jon (2010). Iron Man 2. Written by Justin Theroux. Marvel Studios.
  • Branagh, Kenneth (2011). Thor. Written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz et al. Marvel Studios.
  • Johnston, Joe (2011). Captain America: The First Avenger. Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Marvel Studios.
  • Whedon, Joss (2012). The Avengers. Written by Joss Whedon. Marvel Studios.
  • Black, Shane (2013). Iron Man 3. Written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black. Marvel Studios.
  • Taylor, Alan (2013). Thor: The Dark World. Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus et al. Marvel Studios.
  • Russo, Anthony and Joe (2014). Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Marvel Studios.
  • Gunn, James (2014). Guardians of the Galaxy. Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Marvel Studios.
  • Whedon, Joss (2015). Avengers: Age of Ultron. Written by Joss Whedon. Marvel Studios.
  • Reed, Peyton (2015). Ant-Man. Written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish et al. Marvel Studios.
  • Russo, Anthony and Joe (2016). Captain America: Civil War. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Marvel Studios.
  • Derrickson, Scott (2016). Doctor Strange. Written by Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill et al. Marvel Studios.
  • Gunn, James (2017). Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Written by James Gunn. Marvel Studios.
  • Watts, Jon (2017). Spider-Man: Homecoming. Written by John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein et al. Sony–Marvel.
  • Waititi, Taika (2017). Thor: Ragnarok. Written by Stephany Folsom. Marvel Studios.
  • Coogler, Ryan (2018). Black Panther. Written by Joe Robert Cole and Ryan Coogler. Marvel Studios.
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  • Wood, Elizabeth (2019). Captain Marvel. Written by Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve. Marvel Studios.
  • Russo, Anthony and Joe (2019). [Untitled Avengers sequel.] Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Marvel Studios.
II. Short films
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  • Leythum (2011b). A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer. Written by Eric Pearson. Marvel Studios.
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III. Television series
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  • Marvel’s Agent Carter. ABC. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. 2015– .
IV. Web streaming series
  • Marvel’s Daredevil. Netflix. Created by Drew Goddard. 2015– .
  • Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Netflix. Created by Melissa Rosenberg. 2015– .
V. Comic book tie-ins
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  • Lente, Fred Van (2011). Captain America: First Vengeance #1–4 (May–June 2011). Marvel.
  • Yost, Chris and Pearson, Eric (2012). Marvel’s The Avengers Prelude: Fury’s Big Week #1–4 (Mar.–Apr. 2012). Marvel.
  • Lente, Fred Van (2012). Marvel’s The Avengers: Black Widow Strikes #1–3 (May–June 2012). Marvel.
  • Kyle, Craig and Yost, Chris (2013). Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World Prelude #1–2 (June–July 2013). Marvel.
  • David, Peter (2014). Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier Infinite Comic #1 (Jan. 2014). Marvel.
  • Abnett, Dan and Lanning, Andy (2014a). Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comic – Dangerous Prey #1 (Apr. 2014). Marvel.
  • —— (2014b). Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude #1–2 (Apr.–May 2014). Marvel.
  • Javins, Marie (2014). The Art of the Guardians of the Galaxy #1 (July 2014). Marvel.
  • Pilgrim, Will Corona (2014). Marvel’s The Avengers Adaptation #1–2 (Dec. 2014–Jan. 2015). Marvel.
  • —— (2015a). Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron Prelude – This Scepter’s Isle #1 (Feb. 2015). Marvel.
  • —— (2015b). Marvel’s Ant-Man – Prelude #1–2 (Feb.–Mar. 2015). Marvel.
  • —— (2015c). Marvel’s Ant-Man – Scott Lang: Small Time #1 (Mar. 2015). Marvel.
  • Bendis, Michael Brian (2015). Marvel’s Jessica Jones #1 (Oct. 2015). Marvel.
  • Pilgrim, Will Corona (2016). Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War Prelude Infinite Comic #1 (Feb. 2016). Marvel.
Databases
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Notes

1 Zoltán Dragon also emphasizes the importance of the medium, which specifies its content (Dragon 2011: 25).

2 The Avengers are a superhero team with an indefinite membership. In the MCU, they usually consist of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye.

3 Avengers: Infinity War was planned to be released in two parts, but instead it will be one movie which will be followed by a separate Avengers sequel (McNary 2016).

4 The movie entitled Inhumans was scheduled to come out on July 12, 2019, but Disney delayed its release indefinitely (Schwartz 2016).

5 Marvel’s predecessor, Timely Comics was founded in 1939, but crossover comics only became prevalent in the 1960s, and the genre has remained popular since.

6 For example, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 2, The Hunger Games is mentioned.

7 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lt-U_t2pUHI (Accessed: July 31, 2016)

8 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSzx-zryEgM (Accessed: July 31, 2016)

9 The Avengers are represented in the parks of Disneyland, and they have had an exhibition at Discovery Time Square since 2014. To read about the latter’s interactive nature, see: Schmidt (2014).

10 In Greek, θάνατος (thánatos) means “death,” which is personified in Greek mythology under the same name.

11 Originally known as Timely Publications, later as Atlas Comics, and, finally, as Marvel Comics after 1961.

12 Among many others: Professor Xavier, Wolverine, Mystique, Colossus, the Beast, Magneto etc.

13 Sony has the rights of such villains as the Green Goblin, Venom, Sandman, the Lizard, Doctor Octopus, Electro, and Rhino.

14 Sony failed to create a permanently successful Spider-Man franchise. Their upcoming movie will be the second reboot in five years, which means it will be the third new storyline of the cinematic Spider-Man in ten years.

15 The Punisher already appeared in the second season of Marvel’s Daredevil. Moreover, Netflix has ordered an entire season of the new web series, Marvel’s The Punisher (“Netflix Orders…” 2016).

16 They even changed their name from Marvel Enterprises to Marvel Entertainment in 2005.

17 Prior to 2011, the movies of the MCU were distributed by Paramount Pictures.

18 The solo Wolverine movies were not outstanding in financial or critical terms, nor was the Fantastic Four franchise with its three films.

19 With characters and superhero teams, such as the Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman etc.

20 DC’s television universe is basically the so-called Arrowverse, consisting of such series as Arrow, The Flash, Vixen, Legends of Tomorrow, Constantine and Supergirl.

21 The official (canonical) Star Wars universe consists of seven feature films, an animated movie and an animated television series.