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Using Constraints to Understand the Success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Of the thirty highest-grossing films of all time, 10 are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Please read this sentence a second time to make sure you understand how extraordinary this is 😊. The success of this franchise is so big that it has been criticised for displacing other forms of cinema from the market. Their story is even more remarkable considering that sequels in franchises usually present a high risk of failing, whereas MCU has created over 27 successful movies by now. Also, the superhero genre is famous for dealing a blow to the artistic reputation both of directors and actors, but MCU has had the opposite effect on the careers of its main personnel. One way of looking at the methods by which they achieve this is in terms of constraint management. 

Constraints are the limitations of what is possible in a system – the edges of the playing field. They can be loose, allowing for much leeway, or they can be tight. In this example we can see how a balance of loose and tight constraints are essential to MCU’s success.

At first sight, constraints are rather tight. All movies belong to the superhero genre, all are connected to the original comics, and the plots are connected in some way or other to each other.

Still, in comparison to other successful franchises such as James Bond and Star Wars, the MCU stands out for a high degree of variety. Artistically each movie brings in the aesthetics of other genres: Ant Man and the Wasp is a heist movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier a spy movie, Thor: The Dark World alludes to Shakesperian drama. Think about Black Panther and how it revolutionised the superhero genre by placing it on new territory in many sensitive social topics, most of all race. This is not what one expects of a corporation-designed, “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted and re-vetted” production, as Martin Scorsese (wrongly, I think) criticised the MCU.[i] How then do you organise a franchise to make something like this happen? The principles have been explored by a team of researchers.[ii] 

It starts with an intelligent balance of tight and loose constraints in the staffing of each project. A film is defined by a core group of about 30 positions: director, producer, screenwriter, the main characters, director of photography, etc. In this group, in average 25% are taken over from the previous film to the next. They stand for continuity. You can see that this choice is motivated by a desire to influence the nature and quality of the film and keep it level with the franchise, because for the rest of the vast crew, the average overlap is only 14%.

These tight constraints are then balanced by some carefully chosen areas of untypically loose constraints. Some of the essential roles, and most importantly the director’s seat, are in most cases occupied by somebody who is not only new to MCU, but to the superhero genre at large. Many directors come from independent movie production and bring with them habits of working completely differently. They have diverse experience in filmmaking but are inexperienced in the particular setting of big budget blockbuster production and effects-heavy superhero genre, and this creates the constructive friction to challenge the existing formula.

This friction can only play out if the directors are given sufficient artistic license – loose constraints. As Jeff Bridges said about Iron Man: At times the set felt like a 200-million-dollar student movie. The artistic license, the invitation to let in uncommon points of view infused with vast, diverse professional experience and high artistic standards, is extended to the actors, too. Cate Blanchett reports that she was allowed to influence the project, on levels of scripting and costume design, in ways that are not usual in such expensive, box-office driven productions.

Then again, these areas of loose constraints are balanced by equally intelligently chosen sectors where constraints are kept tight. Not surprising for superhero movies, the technical capabilities and aesthetic language of special effects, of computer-generated scenery, are kept much closer to the studio’s attention, both because of the specific savoir-faire of the teams, and the high budgetary risks involved. 

Seen through the lens of constraints, the MCU is an example for any series of projects, organisational units, or pods, to use Dave Gray’s term.[iii] You can also apply the terms of bridging and bonding, to point out the difference between what happens in tightly and less tightly woven networks, and to strike a balance between the two.[iv] What this example shows us is not a recipe for success to be copied. But it shows how the term constraints can be used to point out how the emergent behaviours of a system can be influenced and, yes, channelled to leverage its capabilities. 

[i] Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain. The New York Times, November 5, 2019

[ii] Spencer Harrison, Arne Carlsen, Miha Škerlavaj, Marvel’s Blockbuster Machine, HBR 4/2019

[iii] Dave Gray, Thomas Vander Wal, The Connected Company (2012)

[iv] Nicholas Christakis, James Fowler, Connected (2009). See also for an interactive game to explain the working of networks and crowds. 

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