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.

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