Collage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe film posters

The Power of Transmedia Storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

13 minutes to read
Paige Christianne Andres

"Ten years of movies all weaved into a tapestry of fantastic storytelling," says Winston Duke (M'Baku, Black Panther) about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in an interview in 2018, perfectly encapsulating the intricacy of the MCU's transmedia storytelling. Since the 2008 release of Iron Man, Marvel has been innovating storytelling in modern media with an expansive universe on several media channels, each contributing a new type of experience for the audience. But despite the size of this transmedia project, the MCU still manages to hold a high degree of consistency that is unprecedented. They are the pioneers of transmedia storytelling. 

Being at the forefront of transmedia storytelling, the MCU decided to use different platforms to narrate several interconnected stories within a single coherent universe, constantly innovating the way audiences can consume their content, compared to traditional intermedial franchises being mere source-material-to-movie adaptations. For example, going beyond traditional cinematic storytelling, as of 2021, the MCU has introduced a scripted podcast to their roster, making them the first big movie franchise to launch a radio drama. Furthermore, WandaVision on Disney's streaming platform (Disney+) innovated in-universe genre-bending with their mix of comedy, horror, and drama (Figure 1). It even utilized synthetic intermediality through performing in front of a live studio audience in their first episode, mixing film and theatre, much like other sitcoms from the 1950s.

Figure 1: Still from WandaVision: Don't Touch That Dial (Season 1 Episode 1), (2021)

However, the MCU has not always been the transmedia masterpiece it is today. The other Marvel shows made before their partnership with Disney, such as Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter, were not given the same opportunity to be more out-of-the-box with their storytelling and world-building, which, as will be discussed, presents a problem for the MCU continuity.

Marvel fans were promised a more robust connection between the MCU films and TV series, where the films would set the foundations for the series and the series would flesh out the universe, but Marvel failed to fulfill that promise. Instead, with Agents of SHIELD, the fans got "a fairly standard “threat of the week” show" (Naudus, 2021) which had no impact on the cinematic universe and is far from what the company promised. However, the films did present consequences within the TV show universe, so it is still transmedial, but not in an expected way. The full transmediality of it is somewhat one-sided because the films can be watched without the context of the series, but the context of the films is needed to understand the series. Moreover, Marvel has now confirmed that all pre-Disney+ series have been removed from canon, rendering the intricate world-building from Agent Carter to the Defenders completely irrelevant to the MCU.

To understand these limitations, the definition of transmedia storytelling and the motivations for doing it must be explored first, as well as what 'canon' is and the process of 'decanonisation'.

Transmedia storytelling

As mentioned previously, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a pioneer of transmedia storytelling in modern media. But what exactly is transmedia? Cardona (2017) simply puts it as a "massive fictional universe dispersed across every kind of media channel imaginable, resulting in a single unified viewing experience". This contrasts with the traditional approach of movie franchises, where the use of a new platform is used to simply adapt the story from the source material again and again. This is seen, for example, in the Lord of the Rings franchise where it was adapted from book to film to TV. The MCU, on the other hand, uses the new mediums to expand the already existing universe with new locations (such as Madripoor in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier), characters (such as Agatha Harkness in WandaVision), and interconnected plot points (such as the Fall of SHIELD in Agents of SHIELD). 

However, there is more to it according to Jenkins (2007, 2016) who proposes three characteristics for a piece of media to be considered transmedial: multimodality, intertextuality, and dispersion. The MCU achieves all three. 

As opposed to simply being superhero films, the Captain America films are made to be political thrillers and the upcoming Doctor Strange film will allegedly dip into the horror genre.

First is multimodality, where the project must "deploy the affordances of more than one medium" (Jenkins, 2016). In the case of the MCU, they share the story of its universe mainly via film, TV, and radio.

Second is intertextuality, where these media platforms must offer new content and experiences for the audience to acquaint themselves with the universe (Jenkins, 2016). The MCU utilizes genre-bending to offer unique experiences for the audience. For example, as opposed to simply being superhero films, the Captain America films are made to be political thrillers and the upcoming Doctor Strange film will allegedly dip into the horror genre.

Finally, there is dispersion, where understanding of the plot and world-building must be constructed through audience encounters across the different platforms (Jenkins, 2016), which can be seen throughout all Marvel Entertainment productions, seeing as the plots are all interconnected. The Avengers movies demonstrate this perfectly because characters from different Marvel movies are all thrown together to solve an issue that has been introduced in the separate movies. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thor and the characters from The Guardians of the Galaxy end up on a mission together (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Still from Avengers: Infinity War (2018) where Thor can be seen in a spaceship together with Rocket and Groot from The Guardians of the Galaxy.

Transmedia storytelling, according to Jenkins (2007), works not on individual character arcs or particular plots, but on the fictional universe at large, which "can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories". Jenkins suggests that this type of storytelling encourages an impulse in both the writers and audience to know anything and everything we can about the fictional universe that is constantly evolving and expanding. This ties into Cardona's (2017) idea that familiarity with the universe is what drives audiences to start and continue consuming content about it. In the MCU, we can see this at play in every platform they have, utilizing the solo movies to expand character development and the TV shows to flesh out the universe and build anticipation for the films. Being the most anticipated MCU event, the Avengers movies are what ties all of this together to form a coherent universe.

It is difficult to find a balance between progressing the story for fans of the universe and telling a coherent narrative for first-time viewers, but the MCU manages to connect all their media platforms together

Cardona (2017) proposes that transmedia projects must be strictly controlled by their creators to result in a "single unified vision". This means that whatever happens in one medium must send shockwaves of consequence to the other media channels this universe is set in. This can be seen in the Agents of SHIELD episode following the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the film, HYDRA was exposed to be hiding within the ranks of SHIELD, resulting in the fall of SHIELD. Then, the series episode details how the non-HYDRA agents coped with losing their jobs.

Furthermore, Jenkins (2007) states that each new encounter with the universe must be understandable on its own even as it expands the narrative of the universe at large, urging audiences to "revise [their] understanding of the fiction as a whole". This means that Captain America: Winter Soldier can be enjoyed as a one-off film while still pushing forward with Steve Rogers's character arc and the sub-plot of SHIELD being infiltrated by a fascist group. It is difficult to find a balance between progressing the story for fans of the universe and telling a coherent narrative for first-time viewers, but the MCU manages to connect all their media platforms together via characters Agent Coulson, who never actually existed in the comics but was beloved by the fans enough to be used as a bridge between the films and the TV series Agents of SHIELD, and Nick Fury, who bridges the gap between the solo films.


The proof is in the profit

This seems like a lot of work and money to tell a story, but there are benefits to building such a vast transmedia universe; one such benefit being success and subsequently, profit. Cardona (2017) mentions that the MCU's success relies on the familiarity audiences have with the universe, meaning that it is less to do about the quality of the films—even though Marvel films are brilliantly made in most aspects of filmmaking—and more to do with how we, as audiences, experience the storytelling throughout the content. This familiarity motivates audiences to go to the theatre and watch every single movie the MCU puts out and subscribe to Disney+ to watch their series, which guarantees a profit. Furthermore, Cardona (2017) explains that the MCU stands in the middle of familiarity and innovation, which, again, guarantees a level of success even if the product does not hold up. Captain Marvel, for example, got a 45% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes but still grossed over $1.1B worldwide, which is a testament to how much the audience is devoted to the franchise. That being said, the MCU is far from the perfect transmedia project it set itself out to be.

'Reality is often disappointing.'

Having such a large universe with so many media channels to experience it through, the MCU has to cut corners with their storytelling to avoid overwhelming their audiences. As aforementioned, the MCU has been trying to find the balance between progressing the story for fans of the universe and telling a coherent narrative for first-time viewers. While they have succeeded in connecting their TV shows to the films, they have failed to acknowledge their TV shows in the films. This means that while you do not need to watch everything about the MCU beyond the main movies to understand the general narrative of the films, you do need to have extensive knowledge about the films to understand and enjoy the TV series.

This is not a major problem to those only interested in the films, but this was not what fans expected when the MCU promised a vast transmedia project that bridges the gap between television and the silver screen. Naudus (2021) says that "Agents of SHIELD was going to show us what life was like day-to-day for ordinary SHIELD agents, fill in the gaps between films and flesh out the universe" but the MCU failed to do that. The series did present some of the consequences the film had on the show's characters, such as the fall of SHIELD, but ultimately, the series showed no impact on the films. The same problem persists in the MCU's Disney+ series. Phil Coulson might as well still be dead to you if you never watched Agents of SHIELD and you do not have to watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to know that Sam Wilson is taking up the mantle as Captain America after Endgame (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Still from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: The Star-Spangled Man (Season 1 Episode 2), (2021)

Another drawback in building this vast transmedia universe is that having so many creative minds working behind different films, series, podcasts, one-shots, etc., results in some discrepancy in the interpretation of characters, such as the characterization of Thor in his first movie where he is characterized as a straight-laced god compared to his characterization in Thor: Ragnarok where he is characterized as a goofy jokester, and important plot devices, such as the physics of time traveling in Avengers: Endgame compared to that in Agents of SHIELD, which contradicts the laws of time travel in the Avengers film.

What is more, Marvel has now confirmed that all the series pre-Disney+ have been removed from canon despite them being based around the universe the films have created, leaving the world-building in shows such as Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter, and the Defenders irrelevant. This is clearly seen in Avengers: Endgame, where Steve Rogers travels back in time to marry Peggy Carter, rendering her whole character arc and the plot of Agent Carter completely irrelevant and useless to the future of the MCU.

The Marvel Legacy and decanonisation

These drawbacks are all connected to the MCU's canon continuity, which is the backbone of its success. But what exactly is a 'canon' in relation to modern media? According to Parrish (2007), 'canon' refers to the material that is considered 'official' in a fictional universe. Parrish contrasts this to works of fan fiction, which is then considered 'non-canon' and proposes two meanings of the word. The first "refers to the overall set of storylines, premises, settings, and characters offered by the source media text" (Parrish, 2007). While the second is considered "a descriptor of specific incidents, relationships, or story arcs that take place within the overall canon" (Parrish, 2007). This means that some incidents and/or relationships can be referred to as 'canon' or 'non-canon'.

With that being said, a plot point or, in Marvel's case, a whole plot can be 'decanonised' if a franchise changes companies (e.g. MCU changing from an independent company to Disney), or if the newer media contradict the continuity of the past work, or if a franchise gets rebooted (e.g. the three Spiderman trilogies). Decanonisation works in a way that the official canon of the fictional universe—and subsequently their fans—disregards the things that had happened in that specific piece of media. This is demonstrated by Disney, who recently moved shows such as Agent Carter, Agents of SHIELD (Figure 4), and Jessica Jones to the Marvel Legacy, rendering their plots irrelevant to the continuity of the Marvel cinematic universe as they do not correspond with the continuity the newer creators have made for the MCU.

Figure 4: Still from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Ghost Rider Lockup (Season 4 Episode 5), (2016)


What is next for Earth’s mightiest franchise?

Despite all the trials and tribulations that the MCU went through as they established their transmedia empire and with the decanonisation of the old Marvel series, they are finally free and on their way to flesh out its world the way the executive producers envisioned it with the Disney+ shows. With Disney's help, the MCU was finally able to flesh out the Scarlet Witch's origin story in WandaVision, introduce new locations such as Madripoor and the state of the world post-Avengers: Endgame in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and it will explore what happened to the Marvel space-time continuum after Loki stole the tesseract in Endgame in Loki

It looks like [the Disney+ series] still suffer the same fate as the likes of Agents of SHIELD, which is that they do not seem to have a massive impact on the films' continuity.

However, despite the fresh new take on transmedia Marvel has introduced with these Disney+ series, it looks like they still suffer the same fate as the likes of Agents of SHIELD, which is that they do not seem to have a massive impact on the films' continuity. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier may have explored Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes's trials and tribulations after Captain America gave up the shield and retired, but its ending still puts Sam Wilson back to where he was at the end of Endgame, assuming the mantle of Captain America. Furthermore, despite all the turmoil and character development Wanda Maximoff went through in WandaVision, its ending shows Wanda leaving Westview as if nothing happened between Endgame and the time she will join Stephen Strange for the next Doctor Strange film.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe may not be the perfect transmedia project it set itself out to be and it still has a lot of kinks to sort out, but this does not take away from the fact that they have been pioneering and will continue to innovate transmedia storytelling and the ways in which we experience the Marvel universe for years to come.


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