Media X Building Branded Worlds: Marvel’s Cross-Media Strategy
Jennifer Beckett & Tom Apperley
In 2008 Marvel launched a thorough, long-term re-envisioning of their Cinematic Universe. Marvel mainstays such as Spiderman and The X-Men were already successful franchises, but Iron Man (2008) was the first film released under the auspice of Marvel Studios. Unlike previous franchises — where character rights were sold to external studios — Marvel Studios enables the company to monetize their well-developed, popular intellectual property while retaining full creative control over the narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.1 Marvel Studios produces films, live action TV and videogame content, suggesting a more integrated approach to brand management. In the past couple of decades many competitor media franchises have emerged, but Marvel Studios’ concern with maintaining both narrative and branding consistency over multiple platforms is as yet unparalleled in entertainment media.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its closely interwoven narratives incorporating multiple media platforms, constitutes a cross-media world. The notion of cross-media and, alternately, “transmedia” was introduced by Christy Dena and Drew Davidson. The concept is described by Henry Jenkins as:
a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. (944)
This concept of cross-media is crucial for understanding how fans experience the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While both the branding and the narrative are highly managed due to the way the cross-media narrative needs to be ‘put together,’ the Marvel Cinematic Universe relies substantially on imaginative ‘work’ from the audience in order for the narrative to be actualized. This relationship indicates the undercurrent of tension that shapes the experience of fans. This article will highlight the tension through a discussion of how the various Marvel products seek to engage fans, and how this engagement impacts the apparently coherent branded narration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In 2011 Marvel Studios announced an addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an extra feature on the DVD/Blue Ray release of Thor (2011) — Marvel One-Shot: The Consultant (2011). This short film returns to the world of The Incredible Hulk (2008) and sees Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) on the job for S.H.I.E.L.D., sabotaging an attempt to have Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), alias ‘the Abomination,’ released from jail. At the same time Marvel announced that One-Shots would become regular features on future DVD/Blue Ray releases. These short films act as additional narrative pathways into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which link characters and movies together (Strom n.pag.). In their capacity as expansions, One-Shots offer fans an opportunity to speculate about possible narrative directions: does The Consultant point to a return of the Abomination in the future?
Significantly, the One-Shots also indicate Marvel’s willingness to ‘play’ within their own space, testing out characters and potential future plot lines with audiences. In doing so, the One-Shots create another platform for the brand to reach fans and provides a risk free environment for experimentation. This diminishes the possibility of damaging the brand by releasing an under-developed film, or one based on a character that turns out to be unpopular. In an interview for Entertainment Weekly about the announcement of The Avengers (2012) based One-Shot episode Item 47 (2012), Marvel Studios co-president and Item 47 director, Louis D’Esposito stated:
There’s always a potential to introduce a character. We have 8,000 of them, and they can’t all be at the same level. So maybe there are some that are not so popular, and we introduce them [with a short] — and they take off. I could see that happening (Breznicon n.pag.).
The One-Shots also enabled Marvel to expand the role of S.H.I.E.L.D. — the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logisitics Division. An in-universe special forces organisation, S.H.I.E.L.D. appears in all of the films and is one of the lynchpins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unsurprisingly, Marvel Studios’ first foray into live action TV is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which allows them to draw substantially from plots already introduced in the films. Their commitment to maintaining cross-media consistency also means that Clark Gregg reprises his original role as Agent Phil Coulson. This consistency carries through with The Avengers director Joss Whedon being brought in to head the development and production of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Since the announcement at the May upfronts that the ABC network had picked up the program, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was one of the most anticipated series of the 2013 US ratings period. Promotional videos have been viewed over 2.7 million times on Marvel’s YouTube channel, and another 2.5 million times on YouTube.2 When it finally debuted in September 2013, it was the largest TV drama debut in the US for almost four years, drawing 11.889 million viewers (Hibberd).
Despite strong brand linkages, the multiple pathways into the Marvel Cinematic Universe through the films, the One-Shots and now Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. can create tensions between the individual experience of the cross-media world and the officially branded narrative arc. The existence of tension between the individual experience and the overarching narrative is demonstrated by the way that ‘official’ branded narratives are supplemented by a widespread, vibrant fan culture. This culture draws from the provided narratives to produce numerous genres of fan creation. These may also draw on content from Marvel’s comics and other franchises, like DC, and thus navigate multiple parallel storylines, characters (even versions of characters), planets, multiverses and universes. Fan-made content adds an enormous amount of information to the brand, signalling different conduits for navigating through official materials, connections between storylines, and possible interpretations of ambiguous events — such as the death and resurrection of Agent Coulson. The brand performs considerable boundary work in order to establish the difference between official Marvel products and ‘unofficial’ products, yet the contributions made by fans are a significant indication that they perceive exploring the narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a playful, experimental, creative and imaginative undertaking. The acknowledgement and encouragement of these activities is key to Marvel’s branding strategy, and they happily provide forums for fan-fiction and art on official websites. Furthermore, Marvel is responsive to fan speculations as a part of its active audience engagement, illustrated by their willingness to change plot points in Thor: The Dark World (2013) to address issues that initially rose on online fan forums (Bunbury n.pag.).
Still, no matter how supportive it may appear, Marvel’s branding constrains some elements of fan interaction with the narrative. The cross-media branding suggests a particularly instructional mode of building the Marvel Cinematic Universe that demands individual units of content — films, DVD extras, videogames, TV — are combined in specific ways in order to strategically reveal new scales of narration that connect branded properties. This management of the audience experience is an acknowledged phenomenon in branding. Adam Arvidsson describes brand management as a process that “works by enabling or empowering the freedom of consumers so that it is likely to evolve in particular directions” (244). The tension that arises in the branded cross-media strategy of Marvel stems from the push for the narrative to evolve with a sensibility defined by branding which is sometimes at odds with the audiences’ experience and behaviour.
An example of this kind of tension between the playful approach fans have to the narrative and the instructional constraints of branding is illustrated by Marvel’s new Lego line. Enabled by Disney’s strategic licensing deal with Lego in 2009, the line has produced two main types of Marvel branded Lego toys. The first type are construction sets of various sizes that build a scene from one of the films, which include iconic Lego minifigures representing branded Marvel characters. The second series of Lego sets are Marvel characters that are constructed from blocks; multiple sets can be combined together in order build larger versions of the characters. A crucial point of contention for Marvel fans was that the minifigures themselves could not be purchased individually, and collecting the sets would inevitably require the purchase of duplicates. Consequently, traffic in the individual figures became a norm in Lego forums and communities. We suggest these two styles of producing iconic characters through Lego are symptomatic of how branding shapes the narratives of cross-media worlds. The world may be individually experienced by audience members as it is ‘built’ by them through their interactions with media content, each piece suggesting particular connections to other pieces, into a rich “intertextual assemblage” (Apperley n.pag.). However, it is important to acknowledge than the narrative is not designed or experienced as individual pieces, rather as connected sets that may be built around an individual character — like Thor — and can be further combined with other characters and built into a larger set, in this case The Avengers. While the audience can ‘play’ within the Marvel universe and expand it with their own imagination and creations, the branded products are experienced through an unavoidable doubling and repetition.
Marvel’s cross-media branding of the Marvel Cinematic Universe contains multiple pathways through the narrative, but these are maintained through careful strategies of branding and promotion. The novel scale of the project and the investment in narrative consistency suggest that it is a core part of their brand identity and of how Marvel is perceived by their fans. The issue we raise in this article is that the confluence of narrative and branding produces contradictions and tensions, and that it is this very ambiguity that produces a key part of the enjoyment of, and enthusiasm for, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Future studies of cross-media franchises need to be attentive to the reciprocal relationship between the imperatives of creativity and narrative, and ownership and branding. The active role the audience plays in assembling and animating the interconnected narratives of the cross-media world is what makes it more than merely an exercise in brand management.
Apperley, Tom. “Getting stuck on level one: Designing a methodology appropriate for xbox.” Blogspot. 2004. Web. 4 November 2013.
Arvidsson, Adam. Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Brenzican, Arthur. “FIRST LOOK: Marvel unveils top-secret ‘Avengers’ short film ‘Item 47’.” Entertainment Weekly. Time Warner. 3 July 2012. Web. 1 November 2013.
Bunbury, Stephanie. “Marvel's Thor sequel makes worlds collide.” Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. 27 October 2013. Web. 1 November 2013.
Davidson, Drew. Cross-media Communications: An Introduction to the Art of Creating Integrated Media Experiences. Pittsburgh: ETC Press, 2010. Print.
Dena, Christy. “Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14.1 (2008): 41–58. Print.
Hibberd, James. “‘Agents of SHIELD’ ratings a Hulk smash.” Entertainment Weekly. Time Warner. 25 September 2013. Web. 2 November 2013.
The Incredible Hulk. Dir. Louis Leterrier. Marvel Studios, 2008, Film.
Iron Man. Dir. John Favreau. Marvel Studios, 2008. Film.
Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment: An Annotated Syllabus.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 24.6 (2010), 943-958. Print.
Kidman, Alex. “Aussies Still Leading the World in Game of Thrones Piracy.” Gizmodo Australia. n.p. 2 April 2013. Web. 4 November 2013.
Marvel One-Shot: Item 47. Dir. Louis D’Esposito, Ebling Group, Marvel Studios, 2012. Short film.
Marvel One-Shot: The Consultant. Dir. Leythum. Ebling Group, Marvel Studios, 2011. Short film.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel Television/ABC Studios/Mutant Enemy. 2013. Television.
Marvel’s The Avengers. Dir. Joss Whedon. Marvel Studios, 2012. Film.
Strom, Marc. “Marvel One-Shots: Expanding the Cinematic Universe.” marvel.com. Marvel. 2 August 2013. Web. 4 November 2013.
Thor. Dir. Kenneth Branagh. Marvel Studios, 2011, Film.
Dr. Jennifer Beckett works at the Journalism and Media Research Centre, at the University of New South Wales, Australia. She is a researcher, writer and social commentator that works in the fields of public communication, social media, cinema, and the psychology of trauma. She is currently blogging her research project on the Marvel Cinematic Universe at Building Multiverses.
Tom Apperley is an ethnographer that researches digital media technologies. His previous projects have addressed broadband policy, digital games, digital literacies and pedagogies, geo-social media, smartphones, social inclusion and urban theory. He is a Senior Lecturer at the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. More on his research can be found at https://unsw.academia.edu/ThomasApperley
1. Marvel Studios is the production company that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is a consistent narrative told over a number of media platforms.
2. Data obtained September 25, 2013.