Geek is the new sexy: how transmedia storytelling helped Marvel make superheroes mainstream

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Written by: Alessio Casella

As little as fifteen years ago, superheroes were only for nerds. Despite their highly interconnected stories, characters and universes, comic books were generally regarded as lowbrow entertainment, being their main targets either teenagers or grown-ups deemed to be stuck in a perpetual adolescence.

Although in the 80s and 90s graphic novels gained some legitimisation as art, their readership was still limited to the comic books connoisseurs. It’s only in the 2000s, when directors like Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan successfully brought some of the most iconic Marvel and DC heroes on the big screen, that superheroes started being received by mainstream audiences.

theavengers

lego-avengers

However, it took Marvel Studios and auteur-producer Kevin Feige to finally give superhero movies their cinematic Golden Age. Supported by the economic power of Disney – which acquired the studio in 2009 – Marvel’s productive strategy was as simple as it was intuitive: tap into the pool of hundreds of original stories and characters found in the comic books, and create a shared universe connecting all of them. The result was Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a transmedia franchise worth literally billions of dollars, bringing together films, TV series, tie-in comic books, videogames and theme parks.

The reasons behind MCU’s success can be tracked down to the very nature of transmedia storytelling. Jenkins himself notes that “[f]ilms and television probably have the most diverse audiences; comics and games the narrowest. A good transmedia franchise works to attract multiple constituencies by pitching the content somewhat differently in the different media” (2006, p. 96), also adding that any narrative instalment offers a new entry point to the narrative universe.

Here lies the strength of Marvel’s narrative universe: the studio was smart enough to exploit the innate cross-over nature of Marvel comics by creating multiple entry points and a complex structure, in order to expand their fandom from the niche audience of ‘hardcore’ comic book lovers to the mainstream public.

mcu

A visual representation of the links bewtween every instalment of MCU

References

Box Office Mojo (no date). Marvel Cinematic Universe. Available from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=avengers.htm [Accessed 26 February 2017].

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

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