WonkComms and the Marvel Cinematic Universe

It probably won’t surprise anyone that I spent my formative years reading a mountain of things about elves and spaceships and superheroes. Yes, I am a nerd. And this nerd is really excited about Avengers: Infinity War.

I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit re-reading recaps of all the Marvel films, looking back through the Infinity War comics, and sharing theories about who makes it out alive.

It’s also led me to do some thinking about just how sprawling the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become. So far, there are 18 films, 10 television series, 5 short films, two digital-only series, 29 tie-in comic books, and 9 video game tie-ins.

That’s an impressive set of outputs. It’s also a lesson for WonkComms.

Some Boring Literary Theory Stuff

I promise we’ll get back to superheroes in a minute. But first we need to know a couple of terms from literary theory.

The first term is paratext.

Roughly, paratext is the set of materials that surround the main text. The term originally referred to books, and included things like the cover, the foreword or afterword, footnotes, etc.

Paratexts also exist for things other than books. A movie trailer or poster counts. So do the director’s commentary on a DVD and all the publicity interviews given by the people affiliated with a film. So do box sets of television shows.

Paratexts don’t need to be official, either. Fan forums and recaps are paratexts, as are things like maps of Marvel’s NYC or charts showing which heroes have interacted.

The second term is transmedia storytelling.

This one is a little trickier, so I’m going to quote communications professor and television scholar Henry Jenkins:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.

That’s a mouthful. But the upshot is that a transmedia story uses different channels to deliver different parts of the story. In practice, that ends up looking like, well…18 movies, 10 television series, 5 short films, etc.

Transmedia storytelling might sound similar to a paratext, but there’s an important difference. A paratext (a trailer or a DVD commentary track) is typically about the story. Transmedia is a way of delivering part of the story.

Or, to borrow a more formal analysis from Jason Mittell’s fascinating book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, paratexts “function primarily to hype, promote, introduce, and discuss a text,” while transmedia storytelling uses multiple channels that “function as ongoing sites of narrative expansion.”

Back to WonkComms and Superheroes

Paratexts and transmedia storytelling also describe two approaches to WonkComms outputs.

The Paratext Model

You might also call this the traditional think tank approach. In this model, the research report is the main text. All the other things that we WonkComms types typically produce—the blog posts, the op-eds, the roundtable forum, the tweets, the media write ups, the infographics—all function as paratexts.

Their job is to “hype, promote, introduce, and discuss” the main text (usually a final report or a book).

It’s WonkComms as ad agency. Your job is to make sure that people buy tickets. Obviously it’ll help if you have a great product. But if you’re really good at your job, you can turn bad-to-mediocre films into giant hits (see every Star Wars film between Empire and The Last Jedi.)

There’s much to be said for this model. For one, policy is complicated. You need a lot of words to prove yours is the right option. For another, we’ve often promised our funders some sort of big deliverable at the end of the project, and we want to be able to tell our funders that they got their money’s worth.

The drawbacks to this kind of approach have been well-covered here at WonkComms.

The Transmedia Model

This is the Content Everywhere model. It’s one in which you create modular content that you can remix and push out across multiple channels. No single output is a “main” thing. Rather, each blog post, each tweet, each infographic, each op-ed tells part of the story.

Each of those channels may well have entirely different audiences. Some completists might read everything. Some will catch all the Avengers but not bother with Inhumans. Others might really like Jessica Jones but not care much for video games. Some may show up only to see Black Panther and never watch another entry in the MCU.

But that’s all okay. Because while transmedia storytelling needs pieces that are all designed to complement one another, you can (and should!) still build each piece to be self-contained. Your audience doesn’t have to care whether Trevor Slattery meets the real Mandarin to get something valuable from Black Panther.

Of course—and you knew there was an “of course” coming; like any good Marvel project, there’s always a somewhat-ominous coda. In this case, the “of course” is that transmedia wonkcomms is a whole lot harder than paratext wonkcomms.

Our tools aren’t really up to standards—though some are getting closer. Our processes are still mostly geared toward print. And our organizational cultures are still (mostly) primed to privilege the big report. Changing that requires a Hulk-sized lift.

But as Marvel shows us, when you do transmedia storytelling well, the results are spectacular. I’m almost as excited to see a think tank pull it off as I am to see Infinity War.



Joe Miller is the Director of the DC studio of Soapbox, a design and digital agency that focuses on creative communications for ideas that matter. He has led digital strategy projects at Eastern Research Group, The Century Foundation, and the Congressional Budget Office. Prior to his shift to content strategy, we was a senior staff writer at FactCheck.org, a copywriter with the Mack/Crounse Group and an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina—Pembroke and the United States Military Academy. He received his PhD in political philosophy from the University of Virginia, his MA in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and his BA in philosophy from Hampden-Sydney College.

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3 comments on “WonkComms and the Marvel Cinematic Universe
  1. Nick Scott says:

    Hi Joe! I finally managed to read your blog….

    So, I *really like* the transmedia/paratext dichotomy and think it is massively useful. However, here’s a challenge from an organisation that often ONLY works in transmedia…

    In my post-WonkComms life, as you know, I’ve ended up at Medicins Sans Frontieres (that’s Doctors Without Borders to you!), Every day we’re churning out a huge amount of content regularly on various aspects of our work. It is a massive, multi-lingual, multi-channel exercise in transmedia storytelling.

    Someone who worked really hard might be able to piece together the story of MSF’s involvement in one place, on one issue or context. BUT it would be hard – perhaps impossible.

    Obviously, we are in a different business from WonkComms people and if we do well, this works more or less fine for us.

    However for a think tank, there is still a huge amount of value in the “whole picture”. Think the number of times target audiences, God Forbid, ACTUALLY WANT TO SEE A METHODOLOGY! (I remember a British MP saying at a WonkComms event she often asked for one). So I would question whether the 100 page report might still not be valuable, in some contexts? And certainly transmedia storytelling would want to think through how the story can all be told in one place…

    Anyhoooo…. fun to have this little foray back into the WonkComms world 🙂


    • Joe says:

      Thanks for the kind words and for the excellent points. I definitely didn’t mean to imply that longform reports shouldn’t still exist! There’s definitely still a place for those things.

      Done properly, I think the sort of modular content you need to create transmedia storytelling is perfectly consistent with creating a big report. (This probably strains the analogy, but arguably you can think of _Infinity War_ as Marvel’s big report, pulling together a whole bunch of different threads into a single product.) For Wonkcomms, you might take all those Twitter- and Instagram-sized charts and graphics and associated text and turn them into figures and captions and pull quotes in your finished report. Or your blog posts might also serve as chapter summaries. That stuff can be packaged together in HTML on your website. It can even (horror of horrors!) be dumped into a PDF template.

      I’ll be the first to admit that our available CMS tools don’t allow for that granular level of recombining content. There aren’t many authoring systems that have that level of flexibility, either. You’ll need something more like a web CMS crossed with a component content management system, but with the editing features of Word and the collaboration features of a Google Doc.

      No one is building anything quite like that just yet, but I think it’s where we should be heading.

  2. […] Joe Miller draws a fantastic analogy with superhero movies. His article ‘WonkComms and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’ not only combines two of my interests, it makes the vital point that our social media posts […]

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