The Infinity Saga saw the average box office of the MCU continue to grow even as Marvel Studios increased output from one film per year to three. They’ve maintained this quality and growth to this day with five additional streaming series on Disney+. This is a result of how this studio approaches its overall innovative process. Yet while these shows have attracted much of the cultural and critical appraisal this year, Marvel Studios collaborated on a massive project, which paves the way to a future frontier of engagement with fans that is, at the moment, unparalleled, the Avengers Campus.
Avengers Campus is an MCU-inspired theme park area created in collaboration between Marvel Studios and Disney Imagineering “that will grow and evolve as [the] cinematic universe grows and evolves” according to Kevin Feige at the opening ceremony. Less than a week after Avengers Campus’ opening alongside Loki’s premiere episode, there were already sightings of Loki Variant L1130 in his TVA arrest costume alongside some Hunters. This continued to progress as the show aired.
Although it doesn’t take place in the MCU itself, Feige noted that the “studio’s filmmakers, artists, costume designers, and production designers have worked in lock-step with the Imagineers and the Parks team to create” much of what visitors experience, suggesting there is a certain amount of coherence between the two types of storytelling worlds. The fact that Marvel Studios have devoted some of their resources normally used in their films and streaming series to an interactive area suggests that they are aware of interactivity and engagement as a key aspect of evolving with their fans.
Marvel Studios’ work on Avengers Campus recognizes their fans “yearning to stimulate the other four senses outside of the visual.” That is according to Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner, a transmedia production company he co-founded with Fabian Nicieza, where they have consulted on worldbuilding for the theme park area Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge as well as the films Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean. Gomez knows what he’s talking about in regards to the rise and fall cycle in the public consciousness of these story world franchises and suggests there is a “five-stage cycle” of how both projects are made and received.
It goes through stages of experiments, classics, refinements, reflexives, and deconstructions, where “if we get to stage five … it’s very hard to go back, which means we’re near the end” which is similar to comparisons to the decline of the Western film genre. When talking about where the MCU is in this cycle “if multiple actors show up as a Spider-Man,” referring to the Spider-Man: No Way Home rumors, as a “reflexive element” which Gomez suggests is nearer the latter end of that cycle. While he also refers to WandaVision having self-reflective elements, it’s clear that Wanda Maximoff’s appearance in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will be a narrative experiment, as subsequent film appearances from characters in Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Loki and What If…? will also be part of the same experiments.
Kevin Feige has repeatedly said that the Disney+ series “will tie directly to MCU feature films” and that Marvel Studios is learning as they go with Disney+ their experiments, meaning we can likely look forward to more classics and refinements in the TV-film narratives in the years ahead. All of this is to say, while it seems distant that Marvel Studios has interactivity as a key part of their narrative experiences, they’ve shown they are prepared to integrate new media formats into the main narrative, in order to keep their experiments fresh.
Given the standards, Marvel Studios always aims to improve and it opens up the question of what next media frontier they might explore next after entering streaming? The answer might well be in the clue of collaborating on the updating interactivity of Avengers Campus. Matthew Ball, a venture capital investor, notes that the amount of hours of engagement Fornite attracts probably dwarfs that of the MCU (it would be a hard maths challenge to actually try and work out the monthly engagement hours of the MCU). In a 2019 earnings report, Netflix stated “We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO” suggesting the competition for attention goes beyond the so-called streaming wars. Marvel Studios cannot afford to overlook this type of engagement.
It’s likely these kinds of things won’t happen until the art forms and the technologies have matured, just as Disney did not immediately dive into streaming. But what might the MCU crossing into the frontier of interactivity look like? Narrative space would have to be left for the films and streaming series, but I’ve thought of a couple of ways participants could interact with the MCU outside of those visual experiences.
Firstly, an in-MCU game of sorts could act as an Interactive Live Event (see #8 here) where participants don’t play as main characters but watch the computer generated heroes interact with their storyworld and vote upon their activities concurrently. This kind of integration would lend itself to the kind of behavior in interacting with video game streamers. Another route could take inspiration from The Marvels comic storyline, as players take on the roles of non-heroes amongst a graphical MCU New York, taking part in small activities at The Daily Bugle, Stark Enterprises, or Hellfire Trading Company.
They get to contribute to heroic missions and occasionally meeting our heroes, while witnessing what happens in the world above like Fortnite Events. The outcomes in both of these set-ups could lead to missions participants see play out, and also outcomes that appear in films and series which would allow fans to experience the MCU in an unprecedented way in contributing to the stories of our heroes.
There’s no guarantee that an interactive MCU integration would end up happening either of the ways mentioned above, just as Avengers Campus exists in a Marvel Theme Park Universe so could an online Marvel Gamerverse exist as part of the multiverse. Perhaps we could see existing franchises integrate into the overarching narrative in some way. Even before such a narrative integration could take place there would have to be a breakthrough in computing power, as well a storytelling maturity that is in its earliest stages as streaming competitors like Netflix just starting to move into gaming.
There is however a clear and constant fan desire to spend time in fictional storyworlds, and the excitement around the interactivity of Avengers Campus shows that a Marvel fan that spends many hours a week in a digital theme park contributing to the stories of their heroes is way more valuable to Marvel Studios than even the most regular rewatcher. This kind of evolution toward a Marvel Transmedia Multiverse seems at the start of a journey to that interactive horizon.