San Diego Comic Con 2019 has wrapped up, and with it we saw the whole line-up for the MCU’s phase 4.
Although it was a bit confusing not to see any Captain Marvel 2 or Spider-Man 3 (Not the Rami one), Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder got my attention.
Moreover, we’re seeing a full transmedia integration between their Disney+ series and their theatrical releases, made evident by the upcoming Wanda Vision tying in directly with the upcoming Doctor Strange movie.
Naturally, I’m psyched. For the first time we’re really using our multi-platform to create more immersive experiences and maintain a steady and sustainable audience base.
But what really intrigued me was their announcement of What If – a Disney+ animated series based on the Marvel comic of the same name. Here we see possible alternative outcomes for MCU events, which again ties into their “Multiverse” concept very neatly, with Uatu the Watcher – first featured in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – serving as a narrative device for the series (much like in the comics).
Moreover, we have just about every Marvel actor confirmed to reprise their roles in animated form. It’s really quite impressive, adds an authentic level to the series (making it feel more like an MCU property) and looks to be a standout series on Disney+.
We haven’t really seen this happen before. More often than not animation is just the ‘kid stuff’ – the spinoff series designed to sell action figures and merch. Not really important to the plot.
But, what if that could change …
WHAT’S WRONG WITH ANIMATION?
I feel like animation has gotten a bit of a bad rep as of late – at least in the West.
Disney is increasingly releasing “live action” (the quotation marks couldn’t be bigger) adaptations of the animated classics.
Just recently we got their new take on Lion King which received negative reviews due to the lack of expression from the animals.
Again, their animals. They don’t necessarily communicate through facial expressions, and it can’t translate to film the same way.
Having a black soulless warthog sing “Hakuna Matata” just doesn’t have the same impact as lovable hand-drawn characters.
Then you have something like the Cats trailer, giving us semi-realistic uncanny valley humanoid felines with a whole host of A-list movie stars and celebrities.
Again … it looks bizarre.
What’s funny is that both of these are marketing themselves more to adults. They present themselves as “mature” because they use advanced CGI technology – regardless of the uncanny impact they have.
It’s funny, because Cats really could lend itself to full animation. Of course, you’d sacrifice the ballet-aspects of the Broadway show, but that’s sometimes the cost of changing mediums.
As for Lion King the original animated version seems to have endured – but the perception hasn’t.
When it comes to franchises, usually the animation will be reserved for TV series and remain a “spin-off”.
It isn’t the animation that needs updating, it’s the cultural perspective.
When it comes to the MCU more-often-than-not we’ll see a form of “transbranding” occur between the films and their animated counterparts.
There isn’t a consistent narrative, rather the aesthetics will change to create a more cohesive identity.
Characters will adapt to serve new releases. Either they’ll change costume, personality, or environment to better reflect the dominant medium – in this case the films.
Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for example drew more from the comics with their team and stories – pre-dating the MCU’s forming of the Avengers. As such, they were able to take more risk and deviate from the films.
Of course, it was a separate continuity – Thanos was defeated in that show years before he ever went up against the team in Infinity War.
It was the second post Avengers (2012) series Avengers Assemble that really pushed themselves as a spin-off to the films. “You’ve seen them on the big screen, now watch the series!!!” – that sort of thing.
We got further spin-offs of Guardians of the Galaxy and their own TV series, as well as Ultimate: Spider-Man – which then got replaced by Marvel’s Spider-Man because of the then up-coming film Spider-Man: Homecoming.
After having seen a few episodes, I’m not sure I can recommend these series. The biggest disappointment for me is that they don’t tie-in to anything or enhance our understanding of the characters or universe of the MCU.
It really does feel like the modern-day version of the “straight-to-video” sequels of the 1980s and 1990s.
Marvel’s Spider-Man especially felt a little cynical to me. It positioned itself more as promoting science to young kids, but the suit draws inspiration from Homecoming, and it feels more focus-grouped than a passion project.
But animation can work in the transmedia space, and tie-into major franchises in creative and meaningful ways; even prior to the media convergence we’ve seen amidst the rise of streaming.
There are two case studies I turn to when it comes to transmedia animation: Star Wars and The Matrix: Animatrix.
Star Wars already functions phenomenally well as a transmedia franchise, incorporating everything from comics, to books, to video games to better enhance and develop their universe.
As a tie-in to their prequel trilogy, we got Star Wars: Clone Wars, detailing the events between Episodes II and III. We got more character development, more world-building, more … everything.
It was a series that was able to use the most of the animated medium to give us action scenes that we couldn’t otherwise get in CGI live action.
With Disney’s acquisition of the property, we also got Star Wars: Rebels set between Episodes III and IV, with character development continued on from Clone Wars.
These series can be placed in the Star Wars timeline and should be held up as an example of moving beyond the transbranded spinoff.
As for The Animatrix this is more of a personal pick. I’m a big fan of the Matrix franchise, as it was arguably the first property to be conceived as a multi-platform experience – with films, games, and comics being used to flesh out the universe.
The animated film – The Animatrix – features a series of shorts of life in the Matrix, the history of the world, and stories about others fighting for their freedom in their machine dystopia.
Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this and figured out they that had fully detailed an origin and timeline prior to the first Matrix movie. To say it was mind-blowing is an understatement.
It was good … if not weird. Having a robot uprising start out of economic turmoil and robophophia was interesting, but you could still enjoy the Matrix films without that knowledge.
This shows it can be done, and animation can be more than just a spin-off; it can actually add to the world-building and character development.
Instead of just a promotional spin-off of a successful film.
WHAT IF …
Back to Marvel’s What If, I like to think this could do what series like Clone Wars has done before it.
We have a great chance to flesh out the Marvel Multiverse – and it really is a multiverse for those familiar with the comics.
Perhaps it may be too much of an ask for it to tie into the original Spider-Man trilogy and Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Verse, X-Men, Fantastic Four etc. but I like to think the potential’s there.
The difference now boils down to platform neutrality. Animatrix and Clone Wars were in some ways ahead of their time – media was more fragmented.
The downside was that obsessive fans had to be very active in engaging with the story world.
But now, we can watch just about anything, anywhere, anytime.
From your phone, you can read a comic, watch the animated series, watch the previous films, buy merch, and then buy your ticket for an upcoming theatrical release.
Technology has made it easier than ever to engage in storytelling, and I like to think that we can see a resurgence in animation as a result.
And with Google Stadia and 5G rolling out in the coming years, the possibilities are seemingly limitless for producers.
For now, the question remains … what if …