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.

Quotes of Quotes (XXI) – Trend Journalism and the Frequency Illusion

Frequency illusions are self-perpetuating cycles enhanced by lazy journalism and punditry. One reason people think new mothers post a lot of baby pictures is that trend pieces and op-eds claim they do. (Indeed, trend journalism is essentially a form of intellectual trolling designed to create frequency illusions. “Why is everyone suddenly listening to Wilco again?”)
– Clive Thompson, “Science Says: The Baby Madness on Your Facebook Feed Is an Illusion

Intellectual trolling? Ouch. As a former communications student, I am, of course, aware of the frequency illusion, (also: the recency illusion), and I try not to generalize too much in my posts on what I perceive to be cinematic trends. Sometimes, an opportunity is too good to pass on, of course.

Have you ever become a victim?

The Operational Aesthetic of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe

This is a paper proposal that was just accepted at the SAS Symposium “Adaptation: Animation, Comics and Literature” in Stuttgart on 24 April. I’m both thrilled and very intimidated that I get to test the main thesis of my planned book in front of an expert audience. I hope to share the full version of the paper with you after the fact.

When Guardians of the Galaxy hits movie theatres this August, it will probably be yet another box office success for Marvel Studios. It will also be another piece in the astounding puzzle that Marvel Studios is building, producing a series of big budget films that share a universe and a sort of supra-narrative, but not a linear story. And while people will come for the action and the talking raccoon, they might stay for the experience of watching a plan come together.

Jason Mittell, writing about complex contemporary TV shows, calls this fascination with narrative consonance the “Operational Aesthetic”, a term he borrowed from Neil Harris, who used it to describe the success of 19th century showman P. T. Barnum. The “narrative special effect” (Mittell) that is at work here, fits perfectly for a cinematic continuity adapted from comic books, because it has long been established there. American superhero comics have gone to great lengths to keep their interweaving, decade-old narratives aligned in the same universe, even staging cataclysmic events across all series to retroactively explain continuity errors and escape narrative cul-de-sacs.

The paper will highlight both the narrative and economic intricacies of Marvel Studio’s cinematic universe plan, link it to the concept of the operational aesthetic and trace back its origins to their comic book counterparts. It will show where the “shared universe” concept of the Marvel comic books finds both limitations and new opportunities in the adaptation process and how the operational aesthetic differs in each medium.

Quotes of Quotes (XIX) – Hugh Jackman’s Salary for X-Men: First Class

I feel like, if you can do a movie, say two or three words and one of them is the F-bomb and get out, don’t try and repeat that, move on! I always feel about that, because I didn’t get paid for it, but Fox very kindly made a charitable donation to my kids’ schools and I always felt slightly weird handing over the check when, “Listen … Don’t ask me how I got this, but …” I think I may have been the only person to be rewarded charitably and get a tax deduction for swearing on film!
– Hugh Jackman, im Interview mit “/film” über seinen Cameo-Auftritt in X-Men: First Class

Quotes of Quotes (XVI) – Jeffrey Katzenberg on Blockbusters in 1991

It seems that, like lemmings, we are all racing faster and faster into the sea, each of us trying to outrun and outspend and out-earn the other in a mad sprint toward the mirage of making the next blockbuster.
– Jeffrey Katzenberg, Some Thoughts on Our Business, 1991

I have started reading James B. Stewart’s book Disney War about the twenty years of Disney under Michael Eisner and I’m only 200 pages in, when Disney was at the height of its power with the success of The Beauty and the Beast still fresh and the Eisner-Wells-Katzenberg team still together.

The book does not dwell on the industry’s changing mechanisms during the late 80s, when the advent of home video and globalisation started turning the mechanisms of the business on its head. But it does quote extensively from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s infamous 1991 memo, which is now fully available online.

It’s hard not to see a direct line from Katzenberg’s words in 1991 – in which he goes on to say that “[i]f every major studio release must aspire to repeat the 1989 success of ‘Batman,’ then we will undoubtedly soon see the 1990’s equivalent of ‘Cleopatra,’ a film that was made in the hope of repeating the 1959 success of ‘Ben Hur.'” – to this summer’s speeches by Spielberg/Lucas and Soderbergh about ballooning marketing costs and a possible “implosion” of the business (which, despite a summer of flops, is unlikely to happen).

You can derive two possible conclusions from this: 1. Things “broke” in Hollywood long before the Noughties and what we’re experiencing at the moment are just the last ripples of a child that fell into a well long ago (to use a German expression that denotes a lost cause). 2. The “problem” of today is not really a problem, it’s just the way Hollywood works and there has always been some version of the same problem around.

Your choice.

From the Vault: 10 Tips For Becoming an Acclaimed Arthouse Film Director

I admit to being something of a narcissist in that I enjoy reading through old things I wrote. But sometimes that is a good thing, because I come across stuff that might actually be worth revisiting. Like this: A snarky list I wrote almost seven years ago in February 2006, on my old, personal blog – back when the Internet was still somewhat less “sharing” than it is now.

I thought I’d repost the list here. I seem to remember it was written following a viewing of, amongst other things, Dogville and the Bill Douglas Trilogy. But nothing much has changed in the last seven years, really. What are your thoughts?

10 Tips for Becoming an Acclaimed Arthouse Film Director

1. When you set out to make art films, the first thing you need is a Manifesto. Try to make it as crazy as possible, treat it as if it was a completely revolutionary new way of making films. Then, make exactly one film that adheres to the Manifesto.

2. When your first film is finished, claim that the Manifesto is bullshit and make all your other films in a completely different way.

3. As soon as you have made three films, claim that they form a trilogy. No art film director is complete without a trilogy. The three films don’t actually have to do anything with each other. Proclaim that you will continue making trilogies and let the critics figure out how your films connect. They will find somethng.

4. Bribe a critic you know and let him attribute you to some kind of stylistic movement. The name doesn’t really matter, but make sure the word ‘Realism’ is in there somewhere.

5. If Hollywood offers you to make a film for them for which you will get paid shitloads of money, decline. Renounce Hollywood and all its capitalist methods and say that you will never work for The Man. Then, a few years later, do it anyway.

6. Insist on casting one specific actor in every film you make. Insist on him (or her) playing parts that absolutely don’t fit him but claim that you have absolute faith in him pulling off the performance. For bonus points, cast a male actor to play a female part or vice versa. At some point, start a liaison with that actor. You get extra credit if he or she is (a) in some way related to you (b) of the same gender as you (c) a lot older or younger than you. When everybody has lost interest in the liaison, break it up big time and marry a childhood friend.

7. After you have made a few films, insist on shooting your next film with some kind of very crazy technique. This can range from simple black and white to digital cameras, original silver nitrate film, continous takes, split screens, silent films, DVD-Versions with multiple endings, whatever. Make up any crazy shiit and claim that you’re doing it because it helps you understand the essence of cinema.

8. Take on a new and interesting Identity after some films. Change your name, grow a long beard, let no one take pictures of you, move to a country in some remote part of the globe. Alternatively, announce your retirement from the world of filmmaking and instantly start working on a new film.

9. Before every film, announce that it is your most personal film yet.

10. Make a film about your childhood. Claim that this is the zenith of your work, that you always wanted to make that film and that only now you feel you are mature enough to make it. Better yet, make a trilogy about your childhood (see point 3). Don’t actually make it about your childhood though but about a kind of childhood the most important critics can identify with.

Bild: JJ Georges, CC-BY-SA

Quotes of Quotes (XI): Danny Boyle on Marketing

[Y]ou lie to raise money. You lie all the time. I remember to sell Slumdog Millionaire, we said it was Amélie with a bit of Trainspotting thrown in.
– Danny Boyle in the April issue of “Sight and Sound”

This is a little bit old already, but it’s genius nevertheless!

Quotes of Quotes (X): The Operational Aesthetic

Accounts of cinematic special effects highlight how these moments of awe and amazement pull us out of the diegesis, inviting us to marvel at the technique required to achieve visions of interplanetary travel, realistic dinosaurs, or elaborate fights upon treetops. These spectacles are often held in opposition to narration, harkening back to the cinema of attractions that predated narrative film and deemphasizing classical narrative form in the contemporary blockbuster cinema. While such special effects do appear on television […] complex television 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; often these instances forego strict realism in exchange for a formally aware baroque quality in which we watch the process of narration as a machine rather than engaging in its diegesis.
– Jason Mittell, Complex TV, “Complexity in Context”

I do love it, when a plan comes together. And I love it even more, when someone finds a technical term for that love. After reading my defense of Star Trek Into Darkness‘s plotting, a friend alerted me to Jason Mittels excellent work-in-progress book Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling which is now fully online for free! I have only devoured two chapters so far, but it is an excellent read with not too many academic strings attached. Highly recommended!

As for the “Operational Aesthetic”, that is: the joy of watching a machine work, I feel like Mittell has found me out. Since I have always been a fan of visual special effects, it comes as no surprise that I’m also a fan of narrative special effects – and I think it’s one of the few joys left to us in the realm of market-oriented contemporary franchise filmmaking. Mittell mentions puzzle movies like Inception as examples from the big screen, but I think the same terms fit perfectly with the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and evolving franchises like The Fast and the Furious.

Finally, I also like the fact that Mittell mentions the “baroque quality” of these narrative shenanigans. I have been trying to link the baroque to contemporary cinema before, and it’s always good to see people agree with me. (Although Mittell’s quotation referred me back to Angela Ndalianis’s book which I remember quoting six years ago in my MA thesis, so maybe the thought wasn’t really my own in the first place.)

Don’t you see where this J.J. Abrams thing is going?

startrek

2009. J. J. Abrams directs Star Trek, a Reboot of the original “Star Trek”-Franchise.


super8

2011. J. J. Abrams directs Super 8, produced by Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin, which allows Abrams, as he points out in Interviews to “share DNA” of earlier Amblin movies like E. T. – The Extra Terrestial.


Star-Wars-Abrams-Logo

2013. (January) J. J. Abrams is officially confirmed as the director of Star Wars: Episode VII.


startreket

2013. (May) The Abrams-directed Star Trek Into Darkness features a post-credit sequence, in which James Kirk returns to his quarters to find E.T. sitting at his desk. He is pointing a glowing finger at the Captain and says: “Mr. Kirk, you’ve just become part of a bigger universe.”


etstarwars

2015. Star Trek: Episode VII features a longish subplot about a kid on Tattooine making friends with a gnarly outcast from the galactic senate, who has moved into Ben Kenobi’s old cabin.


spaceavangers

2017. SPACE AVENGERS


Based on an idea by Carsten / images: Paramount Pictures (3), Lucasfilm (1), Disney (1)

Quotes of Quotes (VII)

Food for thought, and the reaction to Retromania and everything around it that I could most relate to:

Retromania is a provocation. It deals in what Mark Fisher calls ‘negativity’. The term is intended to be less pessimistic that it sound. ‘Negativity’, for Fisher, is a productive spure: discontent as a call to arms. […] Rather than simply represent that negativity, however, Reynolds and Fisher would have us respond to it. This is the difference too between the kind of negative politicism expressed during the recent London riots and those camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral and across the nworld in the name of the Occupy movement. Negativity is obviously not an end in itself, but sometimes it simply has to come first.
– James Parker, University of Melbourne (via)