Various faculty, scholars and comic book fans gathered inside 1341 Humanities Gateway last Wednesday for “My Hero?: The Practices and Politics of Sharing Worlds in Marvel’s Media Franchises with Derek Johnson.” The idea came forth when Catherine Liu, the director of the UC Irvine Humanities Collective, and Michael Szalay, the director of The Creative Economies Center, brainstormed together on critical approaches to culture and history before ultimately settling upon the topic of franchise culture.
As the author of “Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries” and assistant professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Johnson’s current research centers around identity and hierarchy in the production culture of media in child entertainment.
“He takes a production culture approach that understands industry in not just economic terms, but also as meanings, values and communities that emerge around media work,” Liu said.
Johnson began his lecture by establishing what the term “franchising” entails, defining it as a site of struggle and industrial tension. Referring to Marvel and the success of its box office hits such as Iron Man and The Avengers, John referred to how the term is used as shorthand to describe media projects that entail sequels and spin-offs in popular discourse.
“Central to this idea of franchising is the idea of multiplicity, that what the franchise is going to do is support ongoing multiplied production where intellectual properties are going to be extended across multiple moments and contents of production within media and across media,” Johnson said.
However, Johnson noted that there is not a clear singular definition of franchising in place, citing the more narrow Wikipedia definition of franchising as “the exchange of trademark intellectual property between different corporate entities via licensing agreements” and as the one he gravitates more closely toward.
Although the term franchise also applies to retail stores and fast-food chains such as McDonalds, John emphasized that there is a crucial difference between a media franchise and a retail franchise. A retail franchise essentially creates a new outlet that simply redistributes a product, whereas a media franchise creates new outlets of production that molds the intellectual property into something new and different altogether.
By studying retail franchising, Johnson gained further insight into the world of media production and how franchising often struggles between the various participants in the system. Both the franchiser and franchisee seek to earn a considerable profit, but franchisees are often placed in a position that gives the franchiser greater autonomy and net gains, hence it’s evident that they do not possess a shared agenda.
“Each participant in this franchising has their own positions in that system and their own understanding, so they behave accordingly,” Johnson said.
Since franchising involves the sharing of resources and trademarks, the relationships between the companies involved often involves tension and negotiation over a company’s identity and the usage of trademarks. For example, by using a homogenized yellow face for all of its pieces, Lego has created a “corporate brand identity for itself that’s unsullied by considerations of racial politics and inequality.” However, drawing on characters from screen media such as the heroes of Marvel’s Universe, Lego has begun making non-yellow figures that disavow its notion of a race-less universe, stating they were forced to do as a result of their relationships with other companies.
“Lego is crafting a guilt-free post-racial brand identity by pointing to its partners as this industrial other. Franchising is this partnership that produces this new product but it is also this struggle to identity or disavow authority for the production,” Jonhson explained.
From such relationships arises the question of how such decisions are made and whether those who yield such authority and power are worthy enough to do so. Fittingly enough, the matter of one’s worthiness is a reoccurring theme across several movies in the Marvel Universe.
Johnson then proceeded to launch into a narrative recounting the history of Marvel, from its humble beginnings as a comic book publisher to the widespread success it has enjoyed in the last decade with its film release before ultimately being sold to Disney. In its former years, Marvel learned to be content with licensing its trademarks to other companies, as it created more visibility for the company and incurred far less capital risk.
According to Johnson, the creative license that Marvel currently holds is much more restrained, as its intellectual property now must meet the satisfaction of Disney and its affiliates before being produced. Additionally, several other companies now hold license agreements with Marvel, causing the production of Marvel’s trademarks to be decentralized and dispersed across several cross media platforms.
Amidst this complex network of industrial relationships, Marvel must find a way to exert their authority over its product and impose it in a natural manner. From a paternalistic perspective, Marvel should retain control as they alone have a duty and responsibility to protect their characters as they created it. Additionally, they have an obligation to fans and consumers to ensure that their intellectual property is not used in an effective manner.
Joe LeFavi, a visiting researcher at the UCI Humanities Collective and founder of Quixotic Transmedia, served as a respondent to Johnson following his lecture, praising Johnson for his analysis and insight.
“It’s interesting where the industry is going and what is happening and how people are looking at the intellectual property as not just an idea and a story but a franchise and who does retain that control and who should wield that power,” LeFavi said.
“I think that dialogue is ever changing and evolving by the day and it’s an exciting world to be playing in right now because everything is up for grabs.”