Great Article on Marvel Comics

I just read a really fantastic article on how Marvel Comics reinvented itself as a film production company after their recent bankruptcy. The author discusses the idea of theoretical idea of “convergence” and how Marvel strategically dealt with the complex industrial issues of adaptation and product licensing. If you’re working on comics for your paper, see if this will work for your annotated biblio.

Here is a link to a pdf of the article, and click below to read the first three paragraphs:

Few companies proved as central to the production of big-budget cinema over the past decade as Marvel Studios. Partnering with established Hollywood firms willing to finance production and distribution, Marvel brought sixteen films based on its comic book characters to the screen between 1998 and 2007, including the Spider-Man trilogy (Sony-Columbia; Sam Raimi, 2002-2007), the X-Men trilogy (20th Century Fox; Bryan Singer, 2000, 2003; Brett Ratner, 2006), the Blade trilogy (New Line; Stephen Norrington, 1998; Guillermo del Toro, 2002; David S. Goyer, 2004), and smaller pictures like The Punisher(Artisan/Lionsgate; Jonathan Hensleigh, 2004). Of these offerings, five remained among the one hundred highest domestic grossing films of all time as of 2011. Following the decline of comic book publishing in the late 1990s and Marvel’s subsequent bankruptcy, the royalties Hollywood paid for use of Marvel’s properties provided an alternative revenue stream to support the company’s tentative rebirth. By 2005, these successes encouraged a stabilized Marvel to finance production on its own and recapture creative control and box-office profit from its studio partners. With Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)—the first of these self-financed pictures—Marvel launched a unique model for cinema production in the age of convergence: an independent company with expertise in a different media industry drove blockbuster film content. Following this success, even video-game publishers sought the expertise of former Marvel executives like Avi Arad to develop original titles like Uncharted (Naughty Dog, 2007) and Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007).1 So valuable to [End Page 1] industries outside of comic books did Marvel’s imprint and content strategies become that in December 2009, Disney bought the company for $4 billion.2 Though no longer independent, Marvel’s box-office success from this initial production slate continued with Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010), Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011), and, of course, The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012).

Marvel’s sustained licensing program in video games and other markets, even during its brief cinematic independence, spoke to the continued centrality of film in converged media economies. In overseeing the production of licensed video games based on Marvel characters, Marvel Studios executive Justin Lambros explained that following the logic of comics was less central to licensed production than ensuring conformity to emerging film styles and strategies. “The film creatively leads,” Lambros explained in reference to the Iron Man game (Sega, 2008). “We take the lead from where the film is going, then take stuff from the comics for the game and filter it through the film.”3 Lambros proposed a creative hierarchy in which Marvel’s filmmaking operations trumped anything developing in other markets—largely as a result of the cinema’s ability to command larger audiences and build greater exposure for Marvel’s characters. For all its success in reframing blockbuster film as a market for comic book properties, Marvel Studios remained a contradiction—a reminder of the continued significance of cinema even as convergence meant redefining the film industry around external content, companies, and creators.

Thus, the brief independence of Marvel Studios presents a compelling opportunity to examine how cinema has been produced in an age of media convergence, as well as how converged production has been conceived and imagined as “cinema” within the culture industries. This reproduction of comics as cinema bears a textual dimension, as a brief summary of Marvel’s house style and narrative continuity shows. However, to intervene at the level of industry organization, discourse, and production culture, this study also examines how converged production is made meaningful as cinema by cultural and critical practices within media institutions. Cultures of cinema production have been reimagined as much as, if not more than, the texts under construction. With Marvel’s independence having delimited studio control over blockbuster film content in favor of economic strategies, creative practices, and labor hierarchies that serve its own interests across media industries, this self-production initiative constituted a significant economic reorganization of Hollywood modes of production, to be explored in detail. Moreover, for such reorganization to make sense to established Hollywood production cultures, the industrial shifts implied by Marvel’s independence had to be managed on a self-reflexive, discursive level. Through specific trade narratives that constructed Marvel’s cinematic independence as commonsense—even as “destiny”—Marvel reimagined the production cultures tied to Hollywood film to accommodate its proposed economic reorganization. As a comic book firm driving a significant share of Hollywood tent-pole production, Marvel Studios needed not only to bring the textualities and creative hierarchies of cinema in line with its external [End Page 2] needs but also to inscribe and give viable meaning to that convergence within existing cinematic production cultures. The case of Marvel Studios forces us, in sum, to consider what the convergence of comics and film has meant for industrial identities and production contexts—as well as to consider how the discursive figure of the comic book fan might play a role in making Marvel meaningful within Hollywood.

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About Kevin L. Ferguson

Assistant Professor of English and Director of Writing at Queens

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