How Intricate Can Marvel's Storyworld Become on Film?

Marvel producers are attempting to create a film analog to the Marvel Universe that knits together the publisher's mainline titles. Will moviegoing audiences keep coming back for the next story, and the next?

In an otherwise dismissive review of Thor, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott makes a perceptive connection between how the producers at Marvel Studios are making their current set of films and how the publisher has been making comics for decades:

A postcredits teaser gives viewers who have lingered in the theater a taste of "The Avengers," which at some future date will braid together the "Iron Man," "Incredible Hulk" and "Thor" franchises under the eye-patched aegis of Samuel L. Jackson. Or something. This is franchise building of the kind that has long been practiced by comic book publishers to keep their long-running serials fresh and their readership hooked ("Have Golden Locks, Seeking Hammer", The New York Times, 5 May 2011).

For Scott, the Marvel strategy is purely a commercial maneuver, one that he likens to a Ponzi Scheme, where each new film is always designed to get viewers to go to the next one and the final payoff is always deferred.

Scott isn't so much wrong as he is reductive. In seeing the interlinking of films as nothing more than a commercial gambit, his analysis brushes past the more interesting questions it raises about narrative and form, and how film and comics work in ways that are both distinct and parallel to each other.

Movie series are nothing new; rarely does a month go by in the US without a new installment in some franchise opening at the multiplex. However, typically, movie franchises are self-contained titles, which is to say James Bond films relate to other James Bond films, and not to Jason Bourne movies. As Scott notes, however, the current Marvel films are designed to direct audiences not so much towards other movies that feature the character or characters you just watched, but to other Marvel films, that may or may not center on the same cast. So, for example, Iron Man 2 (2010) ultimately points to Thor rather than to another Iron Man film. The first Iron Man (2008) seeded The Avengers (2012) and subsequent movies, including The Incredible Hulk (2008) and Thor, have also worked the ground for that film.

What producers at Marvel are attempting to do is create a film analog to the Marvel Universe that knits together the publisher's mainline titles.

Marvel characters do not exist in isolation from each other, like James Bond is to Jason Bourne, but share a common storyworld. This common structure means that characters can appear across titles. It also means that stories can be written that have meta-narrative implications, that is, stories that relate to the universe as a whole and not just to individual titles and casts of characters.

Comics offers certain advantages in building a narrative architecture that provides an overarching structure for a large set of properties/characters that simultaneously exist on their own and in relationship to each other.

Individual titles are published monthly, but meta-narrative stories, or "crossovers", can be told in weekly installments. This frequency of publication allows for the development of dense strands of interconnection between characters and different "regions" of the Marvel Universe. Print also provides readers with ready reference materials to ongoing stories and narrative construction.

The higher costs and organizational and promotional demands of filmmaking do not allow for the production of more than few films a year, and each of those is likely to be an unique title. The opportunities for making connections, for generating interest in other characters and other titles, are fewer in movies than in comics. As a result, Marvel has largely relied on cameos, such as Jeremy Renner's appearance as Hawkeye in Thor, and "stingers", the postcredits sequences cited by Scott, to make clear connections between current and upcoming films.

As a matter of subtext, though, each film has introduced a new dimension to the Marvel Universe in the movies. Up until Thor, for example, the world was largely based on science fiction premises. After Thor the world also has elements of magic or of the supernatural.

The question, one hinted at by Scott, is whether moviegoing audiences will invest, both financially and affectively, in a common universe, not just for a single recognizable cast of characters, but for a bevy of characters, characters who sometimes appear in their own films and sometimes in "team" movies, or in films headlined by different characters. If I'm a James Bond fan, all I have to do is look for the next Bond film. Marvel producers are anticipating that people will become not just fans of particular characters, but of Marvel.

In comics, the extent to which Marvel has become not just a publisher's catalog, but also a common storytelling universe is both a source of pleasure for readers and a cause for frustration. While there are those who are deeply invested in the deep histories and networks of interconnection between characters, and individuals who obsess over and value "continuity" above all else, other readers have a more ambivalent relationship to the publisher's narrative strategy.

The conceit of having different characters and distinct titles exist in a common storyworld creates both opportunities and constraints for creators and readers. On the one hand, it opens up possibilities for interesting story turns and relationships; in a very real sense the entirety of the known universe is available for editors, writers, and artists to draw on when making comics for Marvel. In addition, by definition, placing individual books in a larger narrative context implies a significance to characters and events that is not limited to the scale of those books.

On the other hand, that same sense of there always being something bigger can undermine the value of the individual title, which readers are presumably picking up because they have at least as much investment in the particular cast of characters as they do in the Marvel Universe as a whole.

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