Full Talk: The Operational Aesthetic of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe

This is the full text of the talk I gave at the SAS Symposium “Adaptation: Animation, Comics and Literature“. To get the whole experience, call up the Prezi presentation (pictured above) and hit the next slide whenever there’s the word SLIDE in the text (as if you couldn’t tell).

I’m here to talk about the Operational Aesthetic of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, so let’s get to it. (SLIDE)

First: Just a quick reitaration what the Marvel Cinematic Universe actually is. (SLIDE) It’s of course mostly a series of feature films that have come out since 2008. (SLIDE) and that share a narrative continuity, what you might call a Universe. (SLIDE)

But there’s also a series of short films, called “One Shots” (SLIDE) that explore smaller nooks and crannies of the universe and link them together. These short films are distributed as DVD extras. (SLIDE)

There is also, at the moment, one TV series, called “Agents of SHIELD”, airing on ABC (SLIDE), but four more are planned for distribution via Netflix, starting in 2016. (SLIDE)

Finally, there’s a number of tie-in comics, both digital and analog, that close narrative gaps and explore character Backgrounds. (SLIDE)

What’s important to note is that every one of these elements, every film, every series, every comic tells a self-contained story. But there are overarching narrative throughlines that connect them, like the rise and fall of SHIELD, the secret spy organization that plays a role in almost every one of them. (SLIDE) Now, Shared Universes are nothing new, of course. (SLIDE)

Crossovers have a rich tradition in literature, especially in serialized fiction narratives like the pulp novels that started becoming popular in the late 19th century. (SLIDE) A shared universe has also been a cornerstone of Marvel Comics’ success. (SLIDE) Starting with “Marvel Mystery Comics #7” in 1940, characters would start to share stories. (SLIDE) Superhero teams like “The Avengers” with a changing roster of members became regular comic series in the sixties. (SLIDE) And starting with “Secret Wars” in 1984, special comics would bring the whole universe together for big crossover events. (SLIDE)

Through the course of Marvel’s corporate history, these crossovers have become a valuable tool to, effectively, get readers to buy more comic books – if you want to participate in the momentous events, you have to buy them all. (SLIDE) Today, as you can tell by this screenshot from Marvel’s website, they are a regular thing. (SLIDE)

Now, as the last point notes, there is an obvious leaning of framing this principle simply in terms of business practice. If you cross over narratives you steer readers towards another serialized narrative and you hope to reap the synergy. You also strengthen the corporate brand, the umbrella over all other brands. Your customers consume more, but they stay inside the system that you provide for them.

But there is another component to these shared universe narratives and I personally believe it’s also a significant reason why they work so well. (SLIDE) Now, Television scholar Jason Mittell calls this the “Operational Aesthetic”. What he names “Complex Television”, he says (SLIDE)

“offers another mode of attractions: the narrative special effect. […] These moments of spectacle push the operational aesthetic to the foreground, calling attention to the constructed nature of the narration and asking us to marvel at how the writers pulled it off; […] we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis.”

(SLIDE) Following Mittell, you could picture the operational aesthetic sort of Rube-Goldberg machine, where it’s simply a lot of fun to see all the elements work together to achieve an effect of awe. (SLIDE) I personally prefer to follow this guy, John “Hannibal” Smith, from the “A-Team”. Does anyone remember his catchphrase? That’s right: “I love it, when a plan comes together”.

Right. So let’s explore some of the opportunities and limitations that a shared universe – with its operational aesthetic – has. (SLIDE) Now, all these apply to comics as well as films. I will just use examples from the films, because I know them much better. (SLIDE)

A shared universe allows you to use the operational aesthetic for references to other parts of the universe with an audience that feels “in the know”, in what I call “Easter Eggs and Callbacks”. (SLIDE)

So, you can allude to things yet to come. This is most prominently done by adding so-called “stingers” to the films after the credits. The first one after Iron Man, pictured here, famously had Samuel L. Jackson saying: “You have become part of a bigger universe”, explicitly stating the mission of the studio. (SLIDE)

But you can also call back to things that already happened. In this scene in Thor: The Dark World, Thor’s brother Loki turns into Captain America with an inside joke that is only understandable to viewers who know The Avengers. (SLIDE)

Secondly, there is the aspect of coherence. An audience can explore different corners of the same universe and their investment is rewarded by narrative links that allow for a sense of recognition. I could quote Henry Jenkins here, but I’ve decided against it.

Now, the commitment to a coherent universe and lasting characters allows for an exploration of plot “holes” and “What if”-Scenarios. (SLIDE) For example: at the end of Thor the Bifrost, a magical bridge that allows the citizens of Asgard to travel to other worlds, is destroyed. At the beginning of Thor: The Dark World it is whole again and the film doesn’t explain why. He doesn’t have to, because the story is explained in one of the comics leading up to the film. (SLIDE)

And since one of the favourite pastimes of geeks around the globe seems to be to pit their heroes against each other to see which one would win in a fight, a shared universe allows for these things to actually happen and canonically answer “What if”-questions like “What happens, if Thor’s hammer” hits Captain America’s shield”? (SLIDE)

These are the opportunities (SLIDE), but of course, there are also downsides. “Limitations and Pitfalls”. (SLIDE) For one thing, having a coherent universe, means that even slight narrative incoherences risk destroying the whole operational aesthetic. Extra care needs to be taken that all odds and ends are tied up. There are two mechanics that come into play here.

One is the act of retroactively explaining inconsistencies away, what is called “Retroactive Continuity” or “Retcon”. For example, there was a stinger at the end of The Incredible Hulk in which Tony Stark meets General Ross and tells him, that he’s “putting a team together”. The filmmakers later decided that it wouldn’t actually be Stark who puts the Avengers together and produced a whole short film that explained, that SHIELD sent Stark to see Ross as a decoy to distract from their actual plan. (SLIDE)

The second mechanic is simply one of convention. After The Avengers, viewers had to simply accept that the individual members of the team would continue to have solo adventures for which the other Avengers will not be available to help them. (SLIDE)

There is also the limitation that the individual narratives have to stay self-contained because, audiences might not have seen all other instalments. So you have to provide some exposition every time. There are, of course, clever ways to do this (SLIDE). In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers relives his own history, which is the plot of the first film, by visiting an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. (SLIDE)

Finally, you have to take care that you don’t overuse the operational aesthetic and rely to heavily on it to avoid the so-called “Small Universe Syndrome”, where a reference to everyone else in the universe pops up at every corner. At this point, you both alienate casual viewers, who are not deep into the mythology, and you lessen the impact of the operational aesthetic’s mechanics.

This means: A succesful operational aesthetic allows for longterm, earned narrative payoffs of previously established coherences. Too much narrative entanglement ultimately leads to narrative cul-de-sacs and a need to “reboot” the universe. (SLIDE) This has actually happened several times in comics history. DC Comics famously destroyed its whole universe at the end of the 80s to be able to start fresh. (SLIDE)

Since this conference is dealing with adaptation, let’s finally deal with the way these more or less established principles of serialized fiction present a challenge in the world of movies. Here, you are not only dealing with writers, artists and characters that have to be shared, but also with large financial risks, large logistical undertakings, huge crews of people and possibly the egos of the people embodying the characters.

So how did Marvel pull it off anyway? (SLIDE) The first thing they did was to secure longterm funding. In 2005, the newly-founded Marvel Studios secured $525 Million dollars of Credit from Merrill Lynch to produce ten films over eight years. This financial independence allowed them to plan ahead in a way that they could not have, if they were just licensing their characters out to other studios, like they did with Spider-Man. (SLIDE)

They also signed long-term contracts with actors that commited them to as many as 9 films for a fixed wage. In this way they kept the overhead costs for the films stable. (SLIDE) There is tight creative supervision and control through central figures like Studio President Kevin Feige and writer/director/producer Joss Whedon. They basically play the same role a so-called “showrunner” would play in a television series, keeping the individual parts of the universe in line with the overall vision. (SLIDE)

Finally, as Derek Johnson has noted, Marvel Studios used a lot of good self-marketing and so succeded to create a positive industry narrative for themselves. An “origin myth”, as Salon puts it here. (SLIDE)

So, these are the components that made it possible. However, I believe that the fact that it is quite a bit harder to create a shared universe in the world of feature films, actually strengthens the operational aesthetic. Viewers that are aware of narrative machinations, probably also have a faint idea of the complicated logistics involved in producing films like these. (SLIDE)

Now, can I prove this? The short answer is no. In my further research (SLIDE), I want to explore factors of social pychology that might figure into, for example, theories of consonance. (SLIDE)

However, there’s the evidence of the side of the creators that suggests that an operational aesthetics figures into what they are doing, beyond monetary considerations. The filmmakers often grew up with comics and loved the mechanics there. (SLIDE)

Joe Russo, one of the directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, recently said in an interview that he “gets off” on the fact that his film is connected to the others. (SLIDE)

Clark Gregg, the star of the SHIELD T.V. series even joked that viewers who can’t wait for the longterm payoffs to affect them are “losers”. (SLIDE)

Marvel has also started leaning heavily on the connectedness of the universe in their marketing, airing a TV special called “Assembling a Universe” and suggesting the hashtag #itsallconnected for people tweeting about “Agents of SHIELD”. (SLIDE)

Finally, other studios have started to imitate the Marvel model. I guess we can safely say that their main motivation is to make money. (SLIDE) However, there is not a lot of justification for a film like the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, which connects the films from the early 2000s with the more recent Prequel First Class – beyond a general feeling of “Wouldn’t it be cool, if we joined these universes together”. (SLIDE) So to summarize all this on a most basic level, I conclude (SLIDE)

The construction of a shared universe across feature films, a tv series and accompanying texts creates an operational aesthetic, where the shared universe exists both as a narrative challenge of adapting serialized comic book mechanics to the screen and as an exploration of the gratifying nature of a complex but coherent narrative construct and the commitment of the company to keep it coherent.

I hope this all made some sort of sense to you and I (SLIDE) Thank you for listening.

Thank you so much to Hannes Rall and Susanne Marschall for accepting my proposal and letting me talk at their event. Thanks also goes out to all those helping me with my ongoing research, especially Jochen Ecke, Janina Wildfeuer, Sascha Brittner, Martin Skopal, Bernd Zywietz, Andreas Rauscher and, of course, Katharina.

11 thoughts on “Full Talk: The Operational Aesthetic of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe

  1. Ein wirklich spannender Text! Liest sich gut und war als Vortrag bestimmt noch einmal so mitreißend. Schön zu sehen, dass man auch in diesem Bereich “forschen” kann… :)

    Ein schönes Beispiel für aktuell verbundene Filmuniversen ist auch J.J. Abrams “Star Trek”-Reboot, der mit dem Auftreten von Spock ja an TOS anschließt. Zwar kein Comic, doch durchaus auch ein Versuch der Verbindung.

  2. Sehr schöner Vortrag, schlüssig, nachvollziehbar und mir ist endlich klar geworden, worauf du damit hinaus willst :) Als sehr treffend empfinde ich die die “Showrunner”-Analogie, die du ziehst, vor allem wirkt es wie eine crossmediale Weiterentwicklung dieser Aufgabe, die kein Einzelner mehr übernehmen kann, sondern eine “Logistikzentrale”. Das bringt spannende Fragen mit sich:

    Handelt es sich bei der Spiel- und Kurzfilm, Serien und Comics-Flut nicht auch um einen Reboot von Marvel selbst? Als hätte man den Rahm der Comics abgeschöpft, neu zusammengewürfelt und sei zurück auf Los gegangen. Gibt es diese Grenze tatsächlich? Das müsste doch gerade in der Comic-Welt kontrovers diskutiert worden sein.

    Und dann natürlich SPIDERMAN – der erste Film, bei dem mir das Marvel-Logo entgegenblätterte – fällt ihnen das nicht noch auf die Füße, wenn SONY die Rechte daran hält und nun selber seinerseits ein Universum strickt, kolabieren dann nicht irgendwann die beiden Systeme?

    Spannend – um ehrlich zu sein finde ich das sogar spannender als die Filme. Danke Alexander :)

    • Das mit dem “Rahm” der Comics stimmt auf jeden Fall. Allerdings ist das ja auch innerhalb der Comics selbst inzwischen Usus. Alle x Jahre wird neu gebootet und die Geschichten werden neu erzählt, mit leichten Veränderungen zum letzten Mal.

      Und was die Tendenz zum Systemkollaps angeht – diese Gefahr besteht auf jeden Fall. Wenn jetzt jedes Studio sein eigenes Universum aufbaut und jeweils einen Film pro Jahr oder mehr raushaut, kann es gut sein, dass da irgendwann eine Sättigung erreicht ist. Wann das sein wird, darüber traue ich mich derzeit noch nicht, eine Prognose abzugeben.

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