“I guess I’m just taking a break…” Marvel’s Self-Reflexive World-Building

Curator's Note

In the age of franchising, world-building, and transmedia storytelling, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a kind of gold standard for media conglomerates: the robust, diverse, audience- and critic-friendly entertainment brand that all its competitors are currently striving for. Over the past decade, the MCU has stretched out across film, television, videogames, and comics, all the while carefully managing its ongoing relationship with its own fandom.

A crucial element in this relationship between Marvel and its most devoted audience has been the cultivation of a specific tone that is deeply self-reflexive. This confident, audience-savvy, and thoroughly playful sensibility, reminiscent of Stan Lee’s Silver Age asides to comic book readers, is on full display in the recent video short “Civil War: Team Thor,” which premiered in July 2016 at San Diego Comic Con, and was later made available to general audiences.

The short presents itself as a mockumentary in the style of director Taika Waititi’s cult hit What We Do in the Shadows, revealing through a collection of brief interviews what superhero character Thor had been up to during the events in the recent blockbuster Captain America: Civil War. So in the most literal and superficial sense, the video contributes further to the fleshing out of the MCU storyworld, comically filling in a gap that many fans had been pointing out. But of course, what makes the video so effective is the fact that it doesn’t take itself at all seriously.

The emphatic silliness with which it presents its own narrative clearly acknowledges what we all know: that Thor wasn’t around for Civil War not because he was “taking a break” from superhero life in Australia, but because of real-world issues of planning, casting, logistics, and franchising. The video’s expansion of the MCU storyworld only sets up some good jokes at the main character’s expense, thereby further solidifying Marvel’s carefully cultivated self-reflexivity.

Thus, through the video’s playful sensibility and Waititi’s obvious sure hand with the mockumentary form, “Team Thor” functions not just as self-reflexive world-building, but also as advertising that plays on multiple levels: it promotes the current home video release of Civil War; it establishes important advance buzz for the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok; and –perhaps most crucially– it further consolidates the Marvel brand as cool, quirky, clever, ubiquitous, and thoroughly reflexive.

Comments

Jayson Quearry's picture

That Purple Guy

As you have pointed out, Waititi’s mockumentary short is such a rich example of reflexivity. Stan’s Soapbox and the Marvel Bullpen have certainly translated to this age of cinematic universes, as the star personas of The Avengers are as important to fans as their characters. The good humored camaraderie of Evans, Ruffalo, Hemsworth, Downey, Jr., and the rest seems to be as much a marketing strategy as as any trailer or merchandising campaign. Fan reaction indicates a desire for a blurred line between the actor and the character within the superhero genre, something the “Team Thor” mockumentary handles so capably. The scene where Thor/Hemsworth calls out the complicated, transmedia narrative of the Infinity Stones is an especially pointed example of not only of Marvel’s willingness to self-skewer, but also another internal bit of reflexivity in response to complaints about Thor’s awkward B-plot in Age of Ultron. It is that sense of shared interest and opinion that really drives Marvel’s success, I would say.

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