Essays · Movies

Why We Can’t Quit The Cinematic Universe

Marvel’s confirmed continuation of the MCU films is definitely exciting, but it’s more than a few years of box office success that they’re aiming for with this. 
By  · Published on October 20th, 2017

Marvel’s confirmed continuation of the MCU films is definitely exciting, but it’s more than a few years of box office success that they’re aiming for with this. 

With the recent news that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will kick start phase 4 of the MCU, it’s clear there is no shortage of stories which involve our favorite superheroes intersecting on screen. This isn’t really surprising to us. Marvel throughout the past decade has begun to connect their individual films together in some manner, preparing us for a few big movies where we will see almost all of the characters together. These upcoming films, and Avengers: Infinity War specifically are pretty sure to be box office successes, probably much more so than some of the individual films, but why that is, is fascinating to think about.

Certainly, we know that for the most part, these are studio manufactured interactions to ensure success not only in terms of box office numbers but also in terms of sales for games, DVDs, toys, apparel, etc. The list goes on and on. At this point, everyone from the most dedicated to the most casual of fans knows this is another Hollywood project to make money, but it might actually go a little deeper than that.

In an article titled Cinematic Destiny: Marvel Studios and the Trade Stories of Industrial Convergence from Cinema Journal Vol. 52 by Derek Johnson, he discusses how the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its teasers, after-credit scenes, and all, actually encourages audience participation outside of the theater. They do this by developing continuing narratives which can be closely followed for those who want to take a more active role in this fictional world. Johnson states that this is helpful for DVD sales specifically because these “extras” and bits during and after the film make re-watches mandatory for fans wanting to keep up with the different intersecting narratives. He writes:

“The narrative links constituting the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus encourage careful, repeated, often frame-by-frame viewing. Although these moments of interconnectivity constitute only a handful of scenes in otherwise self-contained films, when subjected to close visual scrutiny, those scenes offer excisable seriality (7).”

In other words, in order to catch all of the foreshadowing and connectedness between the superheroes, Marvel will spell it out for you, but you do have to be the one searching for it first. And this search is hard to resist once you have fallen into the tempestuous nature that is the MCU.

This of course, then leads to a spike in sales in other areas where the story can be expanded such as video games, books, and comics that all specifically tie-in with the films. Because you are now hooked on the universe and want more of it until the next movie comes out, these games and comics will seem like a must-have.

However, though it is obvious that Marvel wants us to buy their merchandise, watch their films, and participate in the fandom outside the theater, they’re not exactly throwing it in our faces in the sense that we have to engage in all of this to understand their line of the story. One can be perfectly happy just watching each film for what it is, only watching it once when it is first released, without really missing a thing. Sure, it probably wouldn’t be as entertaining, but it’s possible.

Although this idea of being able to participate in a fictional universe through multiple platforms while not having to interact with all of the different mediums constructs the way we view transmedia storytelling. In his book titled Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, author Henry Jenkins explores how franchises work to make each of the different mediums an “entry point,” rather than simply an extension, into the universe so that fans can engage through whichever method they choose. And those that want to further their interactions, have the option to engage in all the different ways to expand their participation in the universe. He says:

“The economic logic of a horizontally integrated entertainment industry—that is, one where a single company may have roots across all of the different media sectors—dictates the flow of content across media. Different media attract different market niches. Films and television probably have the most diverse audiences; comics and games the narrowest. A good transmedia franchise works to attract multiple constituencies by pitching the content somewhat differently in the different media (96).”

That being said, over the years, partially due to the massive expansion of these universes into other mediums and larger audiences, somewhere along the way, the comics, on a mainstream level, have been pushed to the side. In an article by Jenkins from BOOM journal Vol. 2 titled, Superpowered Fans: The Many Worlds of San Diego’s Comic-Con, he talks about events like SDCC specifically and fan culture. What began as a small convention in 1970 consisting only of comic fans gradually extended into other mediums, which brought many more fans and corporations, some of whom had no relation to comics. Jenkins states that “Many people here [SDCC] love the content of comics, but many of them do not read the comics themselves (33).”

This is true and something we don’t really think about too often. And it’s very apparent that convergence culture and transmedia storytelling are what allows us not to have to engage with the story in its original format to be a “fan.”

So why is it so easy for us to fall into something we know is a strategic economic ploy year in the making?

The simple answer is that it can be loads of fun.

It’s exciting to see characters that we have been following for years come together on screen, and it’s fun to be “in on” all of the different stories and personalities by keeping up with each of the individual films, games, etc.

But going even deeper than that, it’s interesting to think about why it’s thrilling for us to watch these characters’ band together in one film. Clearly, as humans, there is something about our nature that compels us to look for connections on a larger scale. But even more than that, there’s something about these connections within stories that enhance the escapism aspect of diving into a fantasy world. It’s why there are so many fan fiction crossovers of different stories. It’s also why we tune in to watch things like a Simpson’s/Family Guy crossover. Making one character enter the story of another character somehow validates the universe that the stories we follow take place in.

By not only having our character appear in a story but rather multiple other characters appear in the same universe is all part of the world-building aspect of films. And that’s why movies like The Avengers, and the MCU as a whole, are so appealing to us. They provide us with a “payoff” of sorts for investing so much into each individual character. By following multiple characters and then seeing them together on screen, we know that they do not exist in a vacuum.

Part of it is also about interaction and conflict. Not all of the characters we love, or are acquainted with at the very least, are going to have compatible personalities. One of the reasons the upcoming Avengers movie premiering next summer sounds like a thrill is because it will feature the Avengers working with the Guardians. Peter Quill and Tony Stark? I’m not too sure that’s a match made in heaven. Or maybe it is, and part of the excitement is waiting to find that out. But aside from this, the Guardians have always felt so different, tonally and characteristically (in a very good way), from all of the other Marvel films, so it will be cool to see the two forces combine.

All in all, comics and films in this case now go hand in hand. What used to be an adaptation of one simply became an extension of the other, and for the MCU, it seems to be working out. If anything, convergence culture has only expanded its life, and while that may excite some and turn-off others, it appears to be efficient at attracting a wide range of fans and audiences for the time being.

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Film lover and pop culture enthusiast.