Geek Anthropology: Why the MCU works

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Marvel has been very successful in creating the MCU, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While other franchises have failed in transforming themselves into Universes, Marvel has struck gold. But it hasn’t been just good luck: they saw beyond just marketing.

Think about “Universe” as a brand, and you’ll get the recipe for success if you add some glue to it. Creating a successful brand takes time and cunning, but it’s achievable if you give it some consistency. Marvel’s real goal hasn’t been to create a long-lasting story, but to create a brand that would allow endless stories.

Universes have existed within the comic book world for years. Size is unimportant. What matters is discovering new stories elsewhere in that Universe while a larger narrative still lives in it. In comics, you have a multiverse. While things might be different in another Universe, or in another Earth, the main narrative still goes on in the Universe Superheroes have their main action. You get numbered Earths and even what-ifs. Parallel Universes allow readers to explore those new stories in new places that are woven into the main Universe.

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To make it work you need some sort of connection that makes it possible to believe that all those stories belong to the same Universe (or brand). How has Marvel achieved that? Using the same “comedy focal vocabulary and tone.” By using the same comedic language, you ensure some consistency across movies. Errors might happen, just like in the comics, and yet they’re as believable. The same comedic style provides that all those stories belong to the same Universe. Marvel has achieved that after 17 movies, and several shows. While films share the same comedic tone, TV shows share the same shadows, making it possible to belong to that Universe.

We can grasp it thanks to the comic books multiverse notion. While the movies are comedic and lighter, the shows are somber. While in the films Superheroing is usual, in the shows the idea of Superhero is put into question.

Achieving this has taken time. That’s why the movies at the beginning of the MCU are a little bit different. Directors didn’t grasp that there was any shared comedic language, nor that Superheroes needed to be somewhat consistent. For example, in Thor, the first movie, Thor, and company were Gods. Thor needed his hammer to have any power. He even could suffer the effects of a taser! In Avengers and Thor the Dark World, we can see that Thor and Loki (and hence, all the Asgardians) are just another alien race. They’re stronger, but not Gods anymore. And then, in Thor Ragnarok, we have the Asgardians become gods again. If Thor is a God, then he doesn’t need Mjolnir anymore to use his power. He only needed to realize that Mjolnir helped him channel his power.

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Superheroes as diverse as Doctor Strange, Loki, Star-Lord and the Ant-Man all share the same comedic tones. Even if some are presented as more serious than others. Doctor Strange is definitely more serious than Thor is, isn’t he?

However, in the Netflix shows, what we have is a somber set of Superheroes who don’t really fancy that much being told that. In fact, they’re “vigilantes,” and people treat them more as a nuisance. They all have huge problems, and they all share similar shadows.

Theoretically, movies and shows belong to the same Universe. And yet, it’s hard to believe so when we took them as a whole until you realize that Marvel is just taking a look at two different places in their Universe, and make us enjoy the stories. Very much in the same way the comic books work.

A Universe allows Marvel to shield their brand from pitfalls in the market. How? Rotating characters. Franchises worked in the past. Their primary target was hoping that the audience would come back. However, a Universe’s goal is to keep viewers from leaving it. You get hooked on more than one character, and you invest time in discovering new places, stories, and heroes in that Universe.

Does this mean that Marvel’s Universe model will work for everyone? No, if they don’t understand how the market works. Having some characters and some stories to tell isn’t just enough to create a Universe. You need to create a shared culture, some fictitious points in common that allow your audience to believe and forget the errors that might appear, and you need to make people care about rotating characters. And you have to do so while you share new stories with new characters maintaining the same glue.

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We now tell stories across multiple media: films, shows, books, toys… you name it! Having potential buyers for your merchandise across all those media isn’t enough to create a Universe. Branding isn’t just selling some small mirrors here and there; you need something else.

Marvel has been able to start creating movies with the potential of creating something bigger. It wasn’t explaining the story of some Superheroes across multiple media channels, but creating a Universe, aka brand, that would ensure entertainment to their audiences. Whether you read a comic book about Loki, a young adult novel, enjoy the movies, or end up collecting Funkos, the glue that makes you believe in those characters is the fiction that they provide you with enough social currency.

Social currency is what makes you invested in a Universe. In the world of fandom, knowing all the permutations of a particular character, or know all the somewheres where different characters see their adventures, gives you social currency. The more you know about a Universe (brand), the more social currency (status) you have within the community (fandom). Marvel has created a new social currency that spreads across media, welcoming old and new Marvel fans into their Universe.

The Marvel MCU merely works because Marvel was able to create social currency through their Universe. It might not be perfect, it might be flawed, but it allows you to get invested and entertained almost forever.

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Copyright: Images and memes on this post (C) Marvel

About pepi

A Geek Girl interested in Geek Anthropology, comic books, books, Superheroes and discovering all about pop culture.

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