Using the Marvel Cinematic Universe to build a defined research line

Cody T. Havard

Rhema D. Fuller

Timothy D. Ryan

University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee, United States

Frederick G. Grieve

Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, Kentucky, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Researchers can use the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to link their research to build a defined line of study. The MCU can teach researchers about authorship and the review process, as well as how to link individual studies together to build a defined research line, all while learning about the publishing process.

[0.2] Keywords—Authorship; MCU; Publishing; Research; Scholarship

Havard, Cody T., Rhema D. Fuller, Timothy D. Ryan, and Frederick G. Grieve. 2019. "Using the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Build a Defined Research Line." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 30.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)—the interconnected network of movies, television, comic book, gaming, and internet content that began with Iron Man in 2008, and owned by the Walt Disney Company since 2009—has taken popular culture by storm. Much like the grand battle scenes prominently displayed in the movies, Marvel and the MCU have attracted people from different backgrounds with varying interests to consume the movies, comics, books, and related merchandise. For evidence of the MCU's success, look no further than the opening weekend box office numbers for Avengers: Endgame (2019), which brought in more than $1 billion globally, or the fact that it recently became the highest-grossing movie of all time (not controlling for inflation).

[1.2] The complex storytelling and connected nature of the texts also means that the MCU offers many positive outcomes to people and society, along with people working in education, business, and other areas, as outlined in recent edited volumes (Chambliss, Svitavsky, and Fandino 2018; McSweeney 2018). These qualities make the MCU a good exemplar text to illustrate how researchers can and should conduct research that fits into a clear line of analysis that allows for further understanding of a phenomenon, field, or area of inquiry. We use the stand-alone, team-up, and event movies from the MCU to discuss the different lines of research team members might pursue. We also discuss the review process by comparing it to the hero's peril, as well as the importance of future research directions (compared to the MCU's famous end credits scenes) in forming a defined research line before providing concluding remarks.

[1.3] A final introductory point is in order. From time to time, we will use Cody T. Havard's research on rivalry for illustrative purposes. This is done to provide consistent examples and because we all have worked in this area and therefore have been able to see the connections between studies and findings over the last decade. However, our strategies, which use a fannish understanding of canonical texts, are meant to help people from any discipline.

2. MCU's stand-alone or origin movies

[2.1] Many of the characters in the MCU have been introduced in stand-alone or origin movies. Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Ant Man, and Captain Marvel were introduced in stand-alone movies before interacting with other MCU characters. In addition, Black Panther and Spider-Man, who were introduced in Captain America: Civil War (2016), received longer introductions to the MCU audience in separate stand-alone movies.

[2.2] Just as many of the MCU characters were introduced one at a time, researchers should maintain their own primary lines of research. For example, Havard researches the phenomenon of rivalry, and Rhema D. Fuller primarily focuses on intercollegiate athletics and the intersection of race and sport. Timothy D. Ryan investigates role conflict as his primary line of inquiry, and Frederick G. Grieve primarily investigates the impact of sport on participants, student athletes, and fans.

3. MCU's team-up movies

[3.1] In the MCU, team-up movies are used to both introduce new characters and story lines, and to show beloved characters working together to save the day. For instance, Black Widow was first introduced in Iron Man 2 (2010), Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and viewers saw Hope van Dyne become the Wasp in Ant Man and the Wasp (2018). Characters such as Thor and the Hulk worked together to save Asgardians in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and both Nebula and Yondu teamed up with the beloved misfits of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). Even within movies and teams, characters have had to rely on others with diverse backgrounds and skill sets to complete missions. After all, Peter Quill needed Drax, Gamora, and Rocket Raccoon—Groot had already sacrificed for the team—to hold onto the power stone in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). (Also, the team of raccoon/trash panda/rabbit and tree is pretty diverse, but it definitely works.)

[3.2] Within academia, team-up movies are those projects in which a small group of researchers work together to investigate a topic that intersects their respective lines of research. For example, Fuller and Havard teamed up to produce a case study for college students (Havard and Fuller 2018) and are currently working on a project to measure how African American fans relate to their rival teams. Havard has teamed up with Ryan on a number of projects in which they studied how variables such as gender and conference realignment influence rivalry (Havard, Eddy, and Ryan 2016; Havard, Wann, and Ryan 2013, 2017). Grieve and Havard teamed up to test how promotional messaging influences rival perceptions (Havard, Wann, and Grieve 2018), and are now working on a project investigating how fandom and rivalry differ between sport and Disney theme parks. Finally, when researchers team up to investigate a topic, the result is often a product that is not only of higher quality but also an enjoyable collaboration. After all, who can forget Thor's encounter with the Guardians in Avengers: Infinity War (2018)?

4. MCU's event movies

[4.1] Event movies are typically the movies that avid and casual fans alike look forward to, leading fans to discuss, debate, and attempt to predict character story lines and battle outcomes. The first event movie was The Avengers (2012), when the original six Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye) teamed up to defeat Loki's attack on Manhattan. Fans have also enjoyed seeing MCU characters team up (or battle each other) in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame.

[4.2] In academia, event movies provide a metaphor for the major investigations that require multiple researchers to lend their collective expertise, or the all-hands-on-deck projects. For example, the importance of this piece—teaching and encouraging young researchers to clearly develop a research line and to enjoy the research process—required that the four authors come together to discuss, debate, and produce a clear message. Another example is a large external grant that requires multiple researchers to work together to pursue funding.

5. The heroes' peril

[5.1] Throughout the MCU, our beloved characters have had to pick themselves up, make lemonade from lemons, and look for silver linings. In other words, the characters of the MCU have repeatedly had to deal with adversity. After all, Thor lost his eye while saving his fellow Asgardians in Thor: Ragnarok, Stephen Strange had to come to grips with no longer being able to conduct surgery in Doctor Strange (2016), Iron Man had to both learn to live with a heart condition and handle the aftermath of a Chitauri attack, and Captain America continually had to live in a world past his time throughout his story arc. (To avoid any potential spoilers, we will stop here.)

[5.2] For researchers, the heroes' peril represents the review process. When researchers finish and submit a paper, they typically believe it is the next gem in academic research that will fundamentally move forward understanding in the academy and beyond. Then, after a few months, the reviews are returned and reality sets in. Sometimes it almost feels like Thanos has snapped his fingers and half the paper has been dusted. However, just as our MCU heroes overcome adversity, we researchers, typically after a period of self-pity, take a look at the paper and begin the revision. If or when a paper is accepted, we sigh in relief, then rejoice. Not only is the paper usually substantially improved because of peer review, but also we as researchers feel a greater sense of accomplishment for successfully navigating through the process.

6. The end credit scenes

[6.1] As MCU fans well know, a major reason why viewers typically do not leave the theater when the credits of an MCU run is that no one wants to potentially miss the all-important end credit scenes. MCU launched this tradition with the first-ever end credit scene, in which Nick Fury informed Tony Stark he was part of something larger than himself and wanted to discuss the Avenger initiative. Throughout the first eleven years of the MCU, end credit and mid credit scenes have played important roles in introducing characters (e.g., Thanos in The Avengers, the Collector in Thor: The Dark World [2013], and Captain Marvel in Avengers: Infinity War) extending story lines (e.g., Thor and Loki staring at Thanos's ship in Thor: Ragnarok), and tying single stories into the broader universe (e.g., Hank Pym, Hope, and Janet van Dyne being dusted and leaving Scott Lang in the quantum realm in Ant Man and the Wasp, and Spider-Man's true identity being revealed in Spider-Man: Homecoming [2019]). Even as some end credit scenes seek to convey the fun nature of movies through light-hearted material, the MCU has effectively used these scenes to promote future projects, characters, and story lines.

[6.2] As we are sure most reading this have surmised, the end credit scenes represent the directions for future study presented at the end of academic papers. If handled correctly, researchers can make great use of these sections to discuss and derive new ideas for future investigations. On this matter, it should also be noted that many ideas for future research come from the peer review process. Additionally, a well-thought-out and well-presented "future directions" section helps to illustrate a research line. The "future directions" section is thus as important to a researcher as the end credits scenes are to the MCU.

7. Learning from the MCU

[7.1] The MCU, through its popularity and exemplary storytelling, as well as its fan base of both dedicated and casual fans, making most North Americans at least casually acquainted with the franchise, may be used to teach researchers of various disciplines important lessons. Our main point here is that just as we have watched the MCU develop over the last eleven years and can see where story lines and characters connect, researchers should likewise be able to draw a clear path through their research line and discuss how a single project further informs their knowledge, leads to other projects, or leads to significant findings. Whether under stand-alone, team-up, or event conditions, researchers should be able to show how one study is linked to the rest of their research line.

[7.2] Another important application from the MCU to the academy: even as Marvel wraps up story lines in the MCU, the overall connected story will continue to move forward in new and interesting directions, as hinted at in the announcements Marvel made at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con regarding upcoming MCU movies and Disney+ content. Similarly, researchers who seek to identify potential answers and outcomes never really reach an end; instead, they seek to continuously discover and investigate new questions and areas. Disney's acquisition of Fox brings a slew of new characters like the Fantastic Four and X-Men back into the MCU; likewise, researchers' lines of inquiry may mature and move into potentially new areas. For instance, we are beginning to apply the principles and findings from our research on rivalry to investigate the phenomenon and group behavior outside of the sport setting.

[7.3] We hope that this essay not only informs people on how the MCU can be used as a metaphor to build a clear research line, but also alleviates some of the stress associated with research and the publishing process while encouraging people to better enjoy the research they conduct. To that end, we believe that this piece will help those who either follow the MCU or like to view the research process from a unique perspective. We encourage researchers everywhere to find ways to enjoy the research process—possibly by adopting individual and group aliases. Therefore, please refer to us—Rivalry Man (Havard), Renegade (Fuller), Hawkeye (Ryan), and Captain Research (Grieve)—as the Researchers!

8. References

Chambliss, Julian C., William L. Svitavsky, and Daniel Fandino, editors. 2018. Assembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Essays on the Social, Cultural and Geopolitical Domains. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Havard, Cody T., Terry W. Eddy, and Timothy D. Ryan. 2016. "Examining the Impact of Team Identification and Gender on Rival Perceptions and Behavior of Intercollegiate Athletics Fans." Journal of Applied Sport Management 8 (2): 33–49.

Havard, Cody T., and Rhema D. Fuller. 2018. "Civil ConFLiCT? A Case Study of the Created Rivalry between the UConn and UCF Football Programs." SAGE Business Cases.

Havard, Cody T., Daniel L. Wann, and Frederick G. Grieve. 2018. "Rivalry Versus Hate: Measuring the Influence of Promotional Titles and Logos on Fans." Journal of Applied Sport Management 10 (2): 1–13.

Havard, Cody T., Daniel L. Wann, and Timothy D. Ryan. 2013. "Investigating the Impact of Conference Realignment on Rivalry in Intercollegiate Athletics." Sport Marketing Quarterly 22 (4): 224–34.

Havard, Cody T., Daniel L. Wann, and Timothy D. Ryan. 2017. "Reinvestigating the Impact of Conference Realignment on Rivalry in Intercollegiate Athletics." Journal of Applied Sport Management 9 (2): 25–36.

McSweeney, Terence, editor. 2018. Avengers Assemble! Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. New York: Wallflower Press.