I’ve got an idea about why the Marvel Universe is rocking movies, TV, and comics right now. But whereas fans are quick to point at the lovable characters, the relatable plots, and the special effects as the reason for Marvel’s success, I think the real reason is something more interesting.
The Incredible Bulk
What does Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter have in common?
Yes, they’re all powered by multi-billion dollar corporations with enough resources to rehabilitate small countries. But no, that’s not what makes them so special.
It’s scope. Marvel has released something like 40,000 comics, 48 TV shows, and 44 feature-length movies thus far, and its not showing any sign of stopping. Think about just how much content there is for interested fans to explore. It would take over two years of non-stop consumption to make it through, and only if you were willing to forgo eating, drinking, sleeping, and work. And by the time you’d finished, there would be even more for you to consume.
But it’s not sheer bulk that makes Marvel special, and I don’t want to suggest that it is. After all, Harry Potter made J.K. Rowling the richest women in the United Kingdom, and there are only seven primary books and a handful of spin-offs.
The Power of Scope
It’s not bulk that makes Marvel, Star Trek, and the like special. It’s scope. It’s the feeling that if you could just tilt your head at the right angle, the painting would continue on past the edge of the frame. It’s the sense that Middle Earth existed long before the Lord of the Rings, and the sense that the story continued long after. It’s when a fan feels like they could just keep swimming and never reach the other side, and that they can just keep diving without ever reaching the bottom.
J.R.R. Tolkien and the Star Trek’s Marc Okrand both invented languages that people in our world now speak. Elvish in the former case, and Klingon in the latter. J.K. Rowling invented a sport that now has a formal league in the real world. How could that be possible unless fans of these universes believed so strongly in that reality that they had to experience it in full?
Roll for Initiative
When I was younger, my friends nominated me the permanent dungeon master in our frequent Dungeons and Dragons marathons. And as anyone who’s played D&D knows, it’s not easy to run a successful campaign. It takes dedication not to the rules of the game, but to the rules of the universe.
I consistently discovered that campaigns with flimsy universes fell to pieces, while campaigns with vibrant, dynamic worlds lasted years. But the very same thing that makes for a great role-playing game campaign makes for a successful narrative universe. (Or “franchise” in the parlance of our times.)
Naturally, a story will not and cannot succeed if it sucks, but it’s also not guaranteed to take off as the aforementioned universes have. The question then remains, how do you do it?
How to Do it
For that, we need only look to what makes us like these universes so much. I believe it comes down to these three qualities:
It seems that all successful narrative universes are highly detailed. And the details the storytellers offer go beyond simple sensory qualities. Yes, it’s important to wow a fan’s senses. But it’s more important to tickle their curiosity with cultures, histories, science, magic, and politics that are both consistent, yet otherworldly.
Human beings are wired to experience narrative in very same way we experience the world. All we need do to inspire fans is tickle those same cognitive systems with the complex, yet novel worlds of our stories.
Successful narrative universes must be realistic. This isn’t to say that they obey the laws of our universe. Rather, these universes must simply obey an unbreakable logic of their own. A logical that fans can rely on.
This is why we see fans gripe over inconsistencies with such fervor. People still talk about that time Spock tried to cover a vent with a pillow during the third season of the original Star Trek series. It was so obviously illogical, and Spock is supposed to put logic above all else.
Distinction has two meanings, and I mean both.
In one sense, a narrative universe needs to be good. You can’t just shit out a universe and people to love it.
But on the other sense, a narrative universe must be distinct from others. It has to be entirely novel. Yes, lots of universes share lots of common elements, but the constellations are what matter. Star Trek and Star Wars both take place in space, but they are two very different universes. Battlestar Galactica only succeeded in joining the race because it was sufficiently different from both, and it still remains to be seen if that particular universe will endure.
Do you think these universes succeed for different reasons? If so, contact me. I’d love to hear what you think.