Marvel, the Urban, and Authenticity: An Introduction

Courtesy Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki
Since the release of its earliest comics, Marvel Inc. has foregrounded its use of real urban settings to differentiate itself from competitors and market its products in terms of authenticity. This Roundtable explores some of the strategies and consequences of this connection.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion on “Marvel Entertainment and the Urban Spaces of Superhero Authenticity.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In the mid-2000s, as DC Comics and Marvel Studios partnered with Warner Bros. and Paramount to begin producing and distributing the live-action superhero films that have come to define the box office in the past decade, the launch of YouTube also made amateur fan products a fixture in the media landscape. One of the most viewed, a riff on the endlessly recycled and recombined “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” ads, was “I’m a Marvel and I’m a DC.” There are now more than 25 installments of the videos, the most popular of which boasts more than 5.4 million views. Generally, an entry in the Marvel/DC series features one action figure from each company, most often Iron Man for Marvel and Batman for DC, debating the relative merits of their most recent films. In each case, which company “wins” the debate often comes down to which has greater claim to authenticity, which is here defined in terms of tone and content (and only fitfully as relates to the plausibility of plot elements).

The videos’ origins and borrowing of the Mac/PC format suggests, of course, that the contest the videos stage is not an equal one, and that each should conclude with Marvel demonstrating the greater claim to authenticity. However, one of the main sources of humor in the videos is Batman’s unimpeachable, unapproachable status as the most serious, tragic, and therefore most authoritative and authentic, superhero in any medium. Several of the early videos, which tend to contrast the first Iron Man films with the first two entries in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, find Batman, and by proxy DC, as victor. Yet even in the earliest entries, and almost uniformly in the later ones, authenticity is removed from a discussion of character to one of industry, and focuses on Marvel as a corporate entity that is far more successful and “authentic” as a functional production company than DC.

While these objects focus primarily on recent films and a relatively contemporary comic book canon, Marvel’s victory is part of a much longer tradition of the company’s invocation of location, specifically urban locations, as a branding and marketing differentiation tactic tied to authenticity. In a recent article, Martin Lund argues that Marvel’s foregrounding of its use of real-life settings as a claim to realism, particularly in its comic properties set in New York City, has become an unexamined conventional wisdom in need of nuancing and revision. And, certainly, the success of the Marvel Comics Guide to New York City and the more recent web publications it has inspired suggests that Marvel’s brand identity and market differentiation remains tied to its use of extant locations. That equation of real cities as settings with authenticity has been complicated by the ever-expanding comics universe, the importance of location shooting in Marvel Cinematic Universe and Netflix projects, and the use of period settings in broadcast television series. This Roundtable examines how Marvel has adapted and expanded its relation with the urban in its recent properties through a variety of perspectives, moving from an examination of industrial context and company history through considerations of how new platforms complicate that history, and concluding with case studies of contemporary properties that dramatize these changes.

Laura Felschow examines the process by which Marvel’s comic properties are translated to its cinematic universe, focusing especially on the company’s use of New York City as an indication of the relative prestige in which various titles and teams are held, suggesting the diegetic import of geography. Moving from comics and films to the Defenders series on Netflix, Matt Yockey considers how Luke Cage in particular locates, negotiates, and authenticates both the “superhero-ness” and the melodramatic excess of its title character via the spaces of Harlem. Lorrie Palmer then discusses a very different form of authenticity and excess in her dissection of Agent Carter’s use of historical New York City locations such as the Automat. Finally, James Gilmore offers another close reading, this time of Daredevil’s production of the experience of urban space as multisensorial, and how the Netflix format offers Marvel new representations of its characters’ long-standing central themes.

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