Wednesday, November 11, 2015


I wrote a paper on my favourite subjects:  world-building, fan culture, Star Wars and Marvel movies.  I had intended to get it properly published, but film studies journals don’t publish quickly enough or often enough – much of this may go out of date once The Force Awakens arrives in cinemas on December 17th – so I decided to publish it here, for your enjoyment or mystification….


Legend has it that in 1893, when Sherlock Holmes was apparently thrown over the Reichenbach Falls by his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle[1], young men wore black arm bands in London’s streets to mourn his passing.  While the veracity of this has been hotly disputed[2], the public did actively engage with Holmes’ fantastic world in a ground-breaking way.  Historian Michael Saler notes:

[A]dults no less than children pretended that his world was real, inhabiting it in a communal fashion for prolonged periods of time.  Holmes fandom was the template for subsequent fan subcultures dedicated to fictional worlds and characters.[3]
In his essay On Stories[4], C. S. Lewis noted the different pleasures afforded to him and one of his pupils by their childhood readings about cowboys and Native Americans.  While his pupil preferred the danger and suspense of the plot, Lewis was interested in ‘that whole world to which it belonged – the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, warpaths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names.’[5]
Fascination with other worlds is clearly not a new phenomenon, but as physically, sensually and conceptually immersive media[6] technologies develop, they provide more readily-available tools for world-building, and fan practices that were once considered ‘cult’ (for example, role-playing games) have become more mainstream.  The media industries are recognising the power of other worlds to engage fans, and shifting their approaches accordingly.  An article on cult-media news website Den of Geek asks, ‘Why is Hollywood building so many cinematic universes?’[7]  In an interview with Henry Jenkins, MIT professor Ian Condry recounts his experience meeting with the producers of a Japanese anime series:  the producers spent an hour describing the series’ characters and its world without a mention of the story, which in fact hadn’t even been written.[8]  When writer/director siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski auditioned actors for roles in Jupiter Ascending[9], they gave out a 300-page ‘“Bible” detailing the societal rules and regulations and all the technical whatnots of their latest “verse”.’[10]  In a review of the Wachowski’s Matrix franchise, critic Louis Kennedy notes, ‘[W]e should not fall into the trap of calling them bad storytellers.  They aren’t storytellers at all.  They are worldmakers.’[11]
In his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins writes that ‘storytelling has become the art of world building’[12].  He implies that fans’ engagement with a world often results in productive activities that can become as much a part of that world as ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ ones.
Conversely, fan communities may themselves be viewed as ‘worlds’ with which media producers, increasingly, must engage to extend the range or value of their intellectual property.  This has become especially important in the present digital or ‘Media 2.0’ age, when fans’ opinions may be highly visible across digital platforms (social media, for example) and are potentially, therefore, extremely influential.  We might consider these two worlds – the created world and the world of the fan community – as ‘intratextual’ and ‘extratextual’ worlds.  Each world sustains the other.
In the mid-1970s, Star Wars creator George Lucas wrote one long screenplay – too long for one film – telling the adventures of Annikin Starkiller.  He also wrote outlines for several more films set in the same galaxy.  As, according to standard industry practice at the time, only one film had been initially greenlit, he was forced to choose one section of the story[13], which eventually became Star Wars[14].  Although a couple of novels were released around the same time as the original film trilogy, they did not significantly expand the Star Wars galaxy, and little thought was given as to whether they harmonised with or contradicted the developing film canon.  In February 1987, with new stories to hold its members’ interest, the Star Wars fan club shut down.  However, with the release of Timothy Zhan’s popular Heir to the Empire novel trilogy in 1991, the Expanded Universe (the ‘EU’), as it became known, was birthed, and grew at a rate unanticipated by industry professionals[15].  In 1997 alone, 22 EU novels were released.[16]
In contrast, when Marvel Studios released Iron Man[17] and The Incredible Hulk[18] in 2008, those two films were the beginning of an entire ‘phase’ of new film franchises, already planned, and all revolving around different characters living in the same filmic ‘universe’, known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the ‘MCU’).  (Marvel Comics takes this same approach – all its superheroes’ stories exist within the same ‘multiverse’.)  The stories and characters in this first phase would converge in 2012’s The Avengers[19], which for a period was the third-highest-grossing film of all time[20].  Subsequently, Guardians of the Galaxy[21] was the beginning of a separate franchise which also shares and extends the MCU.  Other studios have taken note of Marvel’s successful strategy and are following its lead in creating new franchises within existing ‘universes’.
The Star Wars and Marvel worlds, two of the largest transmedia franchises, and the fan communities connected with them, are useful case studies.  This paper uses them to examines certain methods of world-building that serve to engage fan communities and garner their loyalty, discuss the mutual benefits to media producers and fan communities of engagement and collaborative world-building, and consider some of the problematic issues that arise from producer-fan collaboration, world-building and transmedia storytelling.  It draws on the work of Henry Jenkins in relation to media fans and production, as well as Umberto Eco’s discussion of cult media, Derek Johnson’s theory of enfranchisement, Will Brooker’s arguments about canonicity and authorship, and Mark J. P. Wolf’s writing on world-building.  It also refers to the results of two qualitative questionnaires which were completed by 80 anonymous, self-identifying Star Wars and Marvel fans, contacted via postings on the website Reddit[22].
As much of this body of academic work relates to fans of cult media, it is necessary to define ‘cult’ and, indeed, ‘fans’, which are both slippery terms.
The Cult Film Reader’s definition of a cult film is too detailed to discuss in full here, but it may be summarised as follows:  a cult film is one that may cross boundaries (moral/technical/aesthetic); inspire a community of fans who are committed to publicly celebrating it and who appropriate its themes to build identity; have ‘legends’ or disasters associated with its production; make use of allegory, counterculture, ideology and/or mythology; and have continuing relevance and value.[23]  A cult film is therefore defined by the community activity that surrounds it as well as the characteristics of its production.
As the following discussions will demonstrate, both Star Wars and the MCU fit this definition.  They are technically, industrially and sometimes aesthetically innovative; they have ardent, active fans who appropriate their themes and incorporate them into their speech, beliefs and lifestyles; they have creators who are held up as inspirational to the extent of having a legendary status (additionally, the set of Episode IV was beset by environmental disasters, and Marvel’s future was threatened by bankruptcy prior to the release of Iron Man); they draw on elements of mythology, make use of archetypes and ideology; and they have maintained market and cultural values over significant periods of time.
The pervasiveness of these franchises would seem to contradict the common application of ‘cult’ to media or fan practices that are not mainstream.  John Fiske provides useful definitions of ‘mass culture’ and ‘popular culture’:  mass culture is ‘mass produced and distributed’; popular culture is a text which has ‘been meaningfully integrated into people’s lives’, regardless of its production and distribution methods.[24]  The two terms are not mutually exclusive.  This definition aligns popular culture with the above definition of cult media (if popular culture were set on a sliding scale of meaningful integration, we would find cult media at the more extreme end), which demonstrates how both franchises, while being part of ‘mass culture’, can simultaneously be considered cult.
The problem of defining ‘fans’ is tied up with common arguments in the literature about which fan activities can be classed as productive, and whether fans are ‘producers’ or ‘consumers’ who are ‘engaged’ or ‘exploited’ (or varying degrees of both).  Fiske writes, ‘Every act of consumption is an act of cultural production, for consumption is always the production of meaning.’[25]  Matt Hills, however, claims that, in order to cast fans as ‘good’ producers rather than ‘bad’ consumers, Fiske and his protégé Jenkins push the meaning of ‘production’ too far – that by their definitions, all fans are being productive merely by consuming media, and everyone who consumes media is therefore a fan.[26]  Jenkins and co-authors Sam Ford and Joshua Green later state that while they ‘respect’ Hills’s objection, they wish to lower ‘the barriers to entry to cultural production’.[27]
In a discussion on gender and fan culture wherein Anne Kustritz and Derek Johnson debate contradictory ideas of how to define ‘fans’, they conclude that ‘the scholarly enterprise of studying fans should strive for contextualization and multiplicity, rather than some unifying theory of fandom.’[28]  Hills, too, takes the position that ‘rigorous definitions’ and ‘clearly definable entities’ are impossible within fan studies, and that definitions should remain fluid and contextual.[29]
For the purposes of this paper, it is perhaps best to define the type of fans under discussion as ‘produsers’.  ‘Produsage’ is a term coined by Axel Bruns[30].  It is a combination of ‘production’ and ‘usage’, and it is helpful for a discussion of collaborative engagement between producers and audiences, as it removes any ‘moral’ divides between production and consumption and blurs the lines between producers and fans.
There is a related debate in the literature over whether or not fans are exploited when producers collaborate with them in world-building activities.  Jenkins, Ford and Green argue that audiences should be considered ‘“engaged” rather than “exploited”’[31], as ‘engagement’ comprehends mutual benefit to producers and fans.
Hills notes that one cannot ‘expect an argumentative position to operate entirely without contradiction.’[32]  With this in mind, many of the discussions in this paper may include contradictory arguments.  Therefore, the author takes a postmodern-relativist position that an attempt to resolve these cannot or should not be attempted.

Chapter 1:  Intratextual and Intertextual World-Building

Writing or production techniques used in building worlds that effectively and, indeed, affectively engage fans may be ‘intratextual’, in that they work within a text, or they may be ‘intertextual’, in that they work by referencing other texts.  This chapter looks at how various techniques work to engage fans and garner their loyalty to the created world.
Every creative writing student is taught what Mark J. P. Wolf calls ‘one of the cardinal rules’ of writing to engage your audience:  eliminate anything that doesn’t ‘actively advance the story’.[33]  Building a valuable world with a dedicated fan-base, however, requires the inclusion of additional elements that inspire produsage.
Umberto Eco states that a cult text ‘must provide a completely furnished world….’[34]  Matt Hills refers to this ‘furnishing’ as ‘hyperdiegesis’[35] – providing small details that stimulate the audience to imagine something much larger going on ‘off screen’.  Hyperdiegesis creates an immersive world that audiences can believe (to quote Will Brooker) ‘was alive before we arrived, carries on in the background while we focus on the main characters, and continues after we leave.’[36]
Hyperdiegesis creates ‘gaps’ in the text that encourage on-going speculation by audiences.[37]  This speculation results in produsage and, importantly for the media industry, repeated viewings (or readings).
One of these ‘gaps’ appears in The Avengers.  During a battle, Black Widow comments, ‘It’s like Budapest all over again’, to which Hawkeye replies, ‘You and I remember Budapest very differently.’  The history is never explained, leaving fans to speculate about what happened in Budapest (Figure 1).

Figure 1:  a fan-produced poster for an imaginary film about the mysterious events in Budapest.

Eco calls this type of text ‘ramshackle, rickety, unhinged’, and adds that ‘only an unhinged movie survives as a disconnected series of images, of peaks, of visual icebergs.’[38]  These ‘visual icebergs’ are often the elements that are echoed in popular culture, as they encourage parody and play.  They are examples of what Jenkins, Ford and Green have labelled ‘spreadable content’ – media content, usually digital, that is easily appropriated, recreated or repurposed, then shared by fans.[39]  Spreadable content reflects a shared fantasy (often nostalgic), or contains humour, parody, intertextual references, mystery, timely controversy or rumour.[40]  For example, at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, there is a short, comedic scene where a character, who became known as ‘Baby Groot’, dances joyfully to The Jackson Five’s I Want You Back (1969) (Figure 2).  Audiences considered it a highlight of the film, and a social media ‘buzz’ grew around it soon after the film’s release.  Marvel, recognising this, quickly uploaded the scene to the internet in an easily-sharable video format[41].  (It also added a ‘Dancing Groot’ to its toy range.)  Jenkins, Ford and Green call this type of video a ‘quote’ which is ‘grabbable’ (made ‘easily portable and sharable’ by the producer).[42]  Producers who create content with ‘spreadability’ are ‘generating audiences through heightening popular awareness’ and ‘sustaining audiences through fuelling ongoing conversations.’[43]

Figure 2:  Baby Groot’s joyful dance proved extremely spreadable.

Star Wars is a benchmark for all of these aspects of world-building.  Although Star Wars contains many ‘icebergs’, both visual and aural (fans can and do utilise anything vaguely tubular to recreate lightsaber battles), its textual ‘gaps’ are what has really granted it longevity.  When Episode IV was released, fans were left pondering mentions of ‘Jabba’, ‘the Clone Wars’ and ‘the Kessel Run’.  The near-extinction of the Jedi went unexplained.  The Force was an elusive, largely undefined power that could be shaped to fit comfortably with almost any community’s belief system.
The EU rushed to fill these gaps.  As previously mentioned, the Star Wars fan club shut down in 1987, due to a lack of new stories, but interest was reignited in 1991 with the birth of the EU.  Since then, the supply of new stories (in novels, the prequel films, three animated television series, and various comic books and games), and fans’ produsage in response, have been relentless.
If new ‘official’ stories are not provided, fans will likely lose interest over time, and the world will lose its value as an intellectual property.  This can create other problems.  Derek Johnson notes, for example, that in 2003, games publisher Activision sued Viacom, the owners and licensors of Star Trek, for devaluing their exclusive games licence by ‘failing and refusing to continue to exploit and support the Star Trek franchise’[44].
New stories or, as Jenkins calls them, the ‘raw materials for playful re-workings’[45] keep fans interested, but there is a catch – they also fill the gaps that allow for fan engagement, eventually bringing the world to a ‘saturation’ or ‘breaking’ point.  Jenkins writes, ‘There has to be a breaking point beyond which franchises cannot be stretched…We just don’t know where it is yet.’[46]
Brooker, writing in 2009, suggested that Star Wars had reached this point.[47]  Lucasfilm apparently agreed.  Following its purchase by Disney in 2012, the company announced that the EU (in other words, everything except Episodes I-VI and two of the animated series[48]) would no longer be considered canon, and would be relabelled Star Wars Legends.[49]  This reopened the gaps and gave Lucasfilm more freedom when planning new films.  An alternative to ‘de-canonisation’ for worlds that have reached a saturation point is to ‘reboot’ them, as was done with Star Trek[50] in 2009.  Either option, no matter how carefully done, will likely divide fans’ opinions and loyalties.
Brooker[51] and Jenkins[52] both use the character Boba Fett as an example of how new material can shut down engagement.  Fett is first seen in Episode V, receiving a stern warning from Darth Vader against disintegrating main characters.  We are told nothing about him other than that he is a particularly ruthless bounty hunter.  His armour completely covers his body and face, and his voice, when briefly heard, is distorted by his helmet.  The mystery surrounding Fett caught fans’ imaginations and provided plentiful opportunities for speculation, invention and play.  His popularity led Lucas to feature him as a boy in Episodes I-III, but by doing so, Jenkins points out, Lucas ‘closed down those possibilities, pre-empting important lines of fan speculation even as he added information that might sustain new franchises.’[53]
There is another difficulty associated with the provision of new material:  to meet the current demand for transmedia storytelling, the world’s creator must relinquish a certain level of control to other producers, whose products may be significantly different in tone, or of poorer quality (several questionnaire respondents were pleased that the de-canonisation of the EU would remove ‘the bad stuff’ from the canon).
In any discussion of world-building, transmedia storytelling cannot be ignored.  There are pros and cons to a transmedial approach.  Jenkins says, ‘[T]ransmedial extensions are designed to serve one of three tasks:  explore the world, expand the timeline, or flesh out secondary characters.’[54]  They provide multiple entry points for engagement, catering to different interests.  They provide a deeper level of immersion as fans hunt for and share new information, building communities in the process.  The more details that fans know, the more they are rewarded by their recognition of ‘Easter eggs’, in-jokes and intertextual references (these are discussed below).
Not every fan will be interested in every aspect of transmedia storytelling.  However, director Ed Sanchez notes, ‘The people who do explore and take advantage of the whole world will forever be your fans, will give you an energy you can’t buy through advertising.’[55]
The publication of what historian Michael Saler calls ‘paratexts’ – ‘making of’ documentaries, maps, technology guides – helps fans to visualise the world and render it, he says, ‘not only more “real” but more “alive” or virtual.’[56]  There have long been jokes about ardent Trekkies (or Trekkers, if you prefer) investigating the location of the bathrooms on the Enterprise.
Different texts also engage different age groups.  Guardians of the Galaxy, an adaptation from Marvel’s comic book series, has in turn its own Lego comic book, which would appeal to much younger fans.
However, the market will be smaller for a transmedia world that demands a heavy investment of time and energy to be understood.  Neil Young, a digital arts executive, suggests that audiences need to be eased into a ‘deep love of the story’, which means ‘you might need to express it sequentially…rather than trying to put it all out there at once.’[57]
The release or viewing order of individual texts can affect fans’ experiences of the world.  Someone viewing the Star Wars films in chronological order (Episodes I-VI) will experience the world very differently to someone who views them in release order (Episodes IV-VI followed by Episodes I-III).  The former viewer may find the special effects in Episodes IV-VI ‘clunky’ after the slick CGI of Episodes I-III; conversely, the latter viewer may find the CGI in Episodes I-III objectionable and feel that it is not as ‘real’ or ‘substantial’.  The former viewer misses the surprise when the Skywalker family connections are revealed in Episodes V and VI, as it is spoiled by Episode III.  But fans will also experience the world differently depending on which type of media forms their entry point to the world.  A young child playing a Star Wars Lego video game will know essential plot elements of the films before they see them.
Another difficulty is distribution timings.  In 2014, Marvel set a precedent by linking its Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.[58] television series with the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier[59].  In the USA, episodes of the series that fitted narratively before and after the film were scheduled to air a week either side of the film’s release date.  However, simultaneous world-wide releases are not always possible, despite a growing need for them in order to combat piracy and the appearance of ‘spoilers’ online, and to meet the demands of fans and transmedia storytelling.
Finally, licensing agreements can cause headaches for transmedia producers wishing to create a cohesive world.  Two of Marvel’s most valuable properties, Spider-Man and The X-Men, exist in the same Marvel Universe as the Avengers.  However, licencing agreements made with Sony and Fox when Marvel was facing bankruptcy meant that they could not co-exist in the MCU (see Figure 3 for a fan's commentary on the situation).[60]

Figure 3:  licensing can stymie world-building – Spider-Man is part of the Marvel Universe, but he has not, until recently, been allowed to ‘play’ with the Avengers in the MCU, as he is licensed to Sony.

Even producers who resolve these issues cannot eliminate all of the potential problems associated with providing new stories.  There is always a risk that fans will react negatively to new ideas, as they did when Lucas wrote mentions of ‘midi-chlorians’ into Episode IStar Wars chronicler Chris Taylor notes that ‘long-time fans revolted’ against the introduction of a ‘rational, scientific component’ to the mystical Force.[61]
One way for producers to avoid negative reactions is to recognise from the beginning which aspects fans are emotionally invested in, and make efforts to maintain consistency in those areas.  Jenkins explains that a fan’s ‘closeness’ to a world ‘can only be sustained as long as the imagined world maintains both credibility and coherence, and hence the importance the fans place on even the most seemingly trivial detail.’[62]
When inconsistencies are introduced, fans often feel a sense of betrayal.  A similar ‘betrayal’ occurs when stories are poorly adapted from one medium to another (novel to film, for example), or when stories are ‘retconned’.  ‘Retcon’ stands for ‘retroactive continuity’, and applies when changes are made to a work after (sometimes long after) its release, usually to increase a world’s continuity, but occasionally for other reasons.  Wolf notes, ‘If a work is embedded in cultural memory, retconning can damage the relationship that an audience has with a work….’[63],[64]
Midi-chlorians are not the only problem that Star Wars fans have had with new material.  In 1997, Lucas released what he called the ‘Special Editions’ of Episodes IV-VI (the ‘SEs’), which were heavily retconned versions – digitally enhanced and re-edited.  He has since made several sets of further changes, and repeatedly refused fans’ requests for the original theatrical-release versions (the ‘TRVs’) to be remastered for DVD and Blu-Ray.
In the fan community, opinions are sharply divided in relation to the SEs.  The prequel trilogy was also poorly received by many fans.  The author’s interactions with fans suggest that this division is largely to do with the site and time of a fan’s original, emotional investment in the world.  Fans whose first experience of Star Wars was through the prequels or the SEs, or fans who first viewed them at a young age, are more readily accepting of them.  Many older fans, however, simply refuse to watch the SEs, resorting to grainy VHS copies of the TRVs or the poor-quality versions that Lucas grudgingly included with the 2005 DVD release.
Intriguingly, Lucas gave a testimony in Congress in 1988 against the colourisation of classic films such as John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon[65].  He said, ‘People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians.’[66]  Taylor concludes that Lucas would not have objected if Huston had made the changes himself.[67]  This raises the issue of ownership, which will be discussed in Part 2.
There are three areas where maintaining consistency is vital:  the look and ‘feel’ of the world, which we will here call its ‘aesthetic’; the canon; and the characters.
Discussing his intentions for Episode IV in 1975, Lucas said, ‘I’m trying to make a film that looks very real, with a nitty-gritty feel….’[68]  This aesthetic is often referred to as the ‘used’[69] or ‘lived in’[70] universe and was identified by several questionnaire respondents as an element that attracted them to Star Wars.  The overt, heavy use of CGI is one of the most common objections fans have to the SEs and the prequels.  Producer Gary Kurtz felt that Lucas’s digital retcons in the SEs did not ‘fit in with the mechanical style of the original film.’[71]
Significantly, J. J. Abrams, a long-time Star Wars fan and now director of the upcoming Episode VII[72], in an effort to secure fans’ support for the new film, has made conspicuous (through images released during filming) his use of physical sets and practical effects to echo the TRVs’ ‘used universe’ aesthetic (Figure 4).

Figure 4:  Episode VII director J. J. Abrams on set, filming a video for the charity Force for Change.

Maintaining aesthetic consistency also applies when a book or comic is translated to film.  Fans’ conceptions of Middle-Earth (the world of The Lord of the Rings novels) had long been influenced by illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe.  When Peter Jackson adapted the novels to film, he brought Lee and Howe in to help with the production design, in order to ‘get it right’ for the fans.
A consistent canon is enormously important to fans.  Debates rage all over the internet about the canonicity of different texts, along with attempts to explain away problems (such as Han Solo’s boast that the Millennium Falcon ‘made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs’, a parsec being a unit of distance, not time).  Improbable explanations given by producers to explain canonical changes are also problematic.  Jenkins quotes one frustrated Star Trek fan:  ‘[Eventually,] the fans will refuse to keep on “buying it” and will “check out” instead….’[73]
Despite the debates, an examination of the questionnaire responses suggests that each fan ultimately establishes his or her own ‘personal canon’, to use one fan’s phrase[74], examining the ‘truth’ of each text by weighing it against various factors, particularly its authorship, its quality and conformity to the existing canon[75], its age[76], and the consensus of the fan community.  Unfortunately, this does tend to splinter fan communities, making it harder for producers of new texts to please a majority of the fans.
The most infamous debate over a retcon has made its way into the zeitgeist as ‘Han shot first’ (Figure 5).  Brooker explains,
In...A New Hope, Han slides his gun from its holster while cornered by the bounty hunter Greedo, shooting his antagonist dead with a shot under the table.  In the Special Edition, Greedo fires first by a split second and misses, justifying Han’s retaliation.[77]
The problem with this retcon was that it altered Han’s character arc.  Han progresses from selfish, wily smuggler and ‘scoundrel’ – exactly the type of man to shoot before he is shot at – to self-sacrificing, team-playing general.  To ‘justify’ one of his more roguish actions is to flatten his character arc, not to mention make him look rather inept.[78]

Figure 5:  changes made to the canon of a world, including retcons, can splinter fan communities, as each individual fan will tend to adopt his or her own ‘personal canon’.

The Marvel fans who responded to the questionnaire overwhelmingly placed importance on character consistency for a good comic-to-film adaptation.  Comments from Star Wars fans in relation to the de-canonisation of the EU also show the importance of the characters.
If they want to toss away the events that’s fine….  But, please, some of the characters have been bigger fan favourites than some of the movie characters.  Adapt some of the characters to the movies and I’ll be happy (Mara, Han and Leia’s kids), because they’ve felt like canon for the last 20 years.[79]
Many fans feel that future diversions from the EU (now Legends) stories are acceptable, as long as their favourite characters appear.  The ‘Mara’ referred to above is Mara Jade Skywalker, Luke Skywalker’s wife, a character created by Timothy Zahn.  Many fans have read about Mara for so long that she is as established in their personal canon as Luke.  Other EU characters, such as the Skywalkers’ son, Ben; Han and Leia’s children; and Grand Admiral Thrawn, who led the Empire after the Emperor’s death, are spoken of by fans in a similar way but, to date, indications are that none of them will be written into Episode VII.  This may present a stumbling block to fans’ engagement with the new direction.
One final technique important to fan engagement is the inclusion of intertextual references.  ‘[M]edia fans take pleasure in making intertextual connections across a broad range of media texts,’ writes Jenkins.[80]
Intertextual references heighten or maintain the visibility in popular culture of the texts referenced.  As Wolf notes, H. P. Lovecraft encouraged other authors to use the ‘gods’ he invented, to create verisimilitude.[81]  The presence of an Alien skull (from the Alien franchise) in a trophy case in Predator 2[82] was responsible for years of speculation among fans of both franchises – which they now knew existed in the same world – about a ‘crossover’ film.  This extended the value of both franchises when, due to the demand, two crossover films were made after the viability of the individual franchises had waned.
Each MCU film refers to the already-existing world, but with successive releases, audiences became aware that MCU films also had ‘stingers’ – additional short scenes during and after their credits rolls – that gave hints of a future film’s storyline (Figure 6).  Johnson writes, ‘Dangling scenes and quick character teases in Marvel’s films foster not just narrative expansion but also an audience participation that extends the commercial viability of the films….’[83]

Figure 6:  a Lord of the Rings meme, appropriated by fans to comment on Marvel’s use of ‘stingers’

The MCU films, especially when in the hands of writer/director Joss Whedon, are full of intertextual references, and they come in many forms besides stingers, including in-jokes, cameos and ‘Easter eggs’.  Tony Stark makes frequent pop-culture references.  Stan Lee, creator of many popular Marvel characters, has an amusing cameo in every MCU film.  Whedon’s fans will recognise several actors who have worked with him on other projects in cameos or guest roles in The Avengers and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D[84].  Easter eggs – partially-hidden details that will appear significant only to viewers familiar with the comics – are included as a way of saying to comic-book fans, ‘We haven’t forgotten you.’  In-jokes bring pleasure to the select few who ‘get it’.  Sharing and discussing these types of intertextual references helps to build and strengthen the sense of community among fans.

(C) Danica Issell, 2015

[1] Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘The Final Problem’, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894; London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2005), pp. 277-300.
[2] Peter Calamai, ‘A Reader Challenge and Prize’, The Baker Street Journal, (accessed 8 November 2014).
[3] Michael Saler cited in Henry Jenkins, ‘“From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds”: An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part One)’, Confessions of An Aca-Fan (11 December 2013), (accessed 27 October 2014).
[4] C. S. Lewis, ‘On Stories’ (extract from Of Other Worlds), (accessed 27 October 2014).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds (New York & Oxon: Routledge, 2012), p. 48.
[7] Mark Harrison, ‘Why is Hollywood building so many cinematic universes?’, Den of Geek (13 October 2014), (accessed 27 October 2014).
[8] Ian Condry cited in Henry Jenkins, ‘“Media Mix is Anime’s Life Support System”: A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part One), Confessions of An Aca-Fan (8 November 2013), (accessed 27 October 2014).
[9] Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowskis, 2015).
[10] Ian Nathan, ‘The World Is Not Enough’, Empire 302 (August 2014), p. 89..
[11] Louis Kennedy cited in Wolf, op. cit., p. 13.
[12] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture (New York & London: New York University Press, 2006), p. 116.
[13] George Lucas cited in American Film Institute, George Lucas on How STAR WARS Got Made (30 October 2009), (accessed 16 November 2014).
[14] Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977).  The individual Star Wars films (Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, 1999); Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002); Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, 2005);Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977); Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980); and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983)) are hereafter referred to by their episode number; for example, Episode IV.
[15] Chris Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 2014), p. 289.
[16] Ibid., p. 290.
[17] Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008).
[18] The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008).
[19]The Avengers (UK title: Avengers Assemble) (Joss Whedon, 2012).
[20] The Numbers, ‘All Time Highest Grossing Movies Worldwide’ (2015), (accessed 16 November 2014).
[21] Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014).
[22] ‘/r/Marvel’, reddit, (accessed October 2014); and
   ‘Star Wars’, reddit, (accessed October 2014).
[23] Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik (eds.), The Cult Film Reader (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2008), pp. 1-11.
[24] John Fiske cited in Henry Jenkins and Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media (New York & London: New York University Press, 2013), p. 200.
[25] John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1989), 35.
[26] Matt Hills, Fan Cultures (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 30.
[27] Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media (New York and London: New York University Press, 2013), pp. 154-155.
[28] Derek Johnson cited in Henry Jenkins, ‘Gender and Fan Culture (Round Thirteen, Part One): Anne Kustritz and Derek Johnson, Confessions of An Aca-Fan (30 August 2007), (accessed 27 October 2014).
[29] Hills, op. cit., pp. ix-xv.
[30] Jenkins, Ford and Green, op. cit., p. 183.
[31] Ibid., p. 60.
[32] Hills, op. cit., p. xii.
[33] Wolf, op. cit., p. 29.
[34] Umberto Eco, ‘Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage’ in Mathijs and Mendik (eds.), op. cit., pp. 67-75, 68.
[35] Hills, op. cit., p. 137.
[36] Will Brooker, BFI Film Classics: Star Wars (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 30.
[37] Wolf, op. cit., p. 60
[38] Eco, op. cit., p. 68.
[39] Jenkins, Ford and Green, op. cit., p. 3.
[40] Ibid., pp. 202-204.
[41] Yahoo! Screen, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Clip: Baby Groot’ (2014) guardians-galaxy-clip-baby-groot-234613832.html (accessed 27 October 2014).
[42] Jenkins, Ford and Green, op. cit., p. 188.
[43] Ibid., p. 188.
[44] Legal complaint cited in Derek Johnson, Media Franchising (New York and London: New York University Press, 2013), p. 44.
[45] Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 75.
[46] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, op. cit., p. 131.
[47] Will Brooker, BFI Film Classics: Star Wars (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp. 32-33.
[48] Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Lucasfilm, 2008-2014); and  Star Wars Rebels (Lucasfilm, 2014—).
[49] Graeme McMillan, ‘Lucasfilm Unveils New Plans for “Star Wars” Expanded Universe’, The Hollywood Reporter (25 April 2014), (accessed 27 October 2014).
[50] Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, 2009).
[51] Will Brooker, Using the Force (New York and London: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002), p. 18.
[52] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, op. cit., p. 117.
[53] Ibid.
[54] Henry Jenkins, ‘Building Imaginary Worlds: An Interview with Mark J. P. Wolf (Part Three)’, Confessions of an Aca-Fan (6 September 2013), (accessed 27 October 2014).
[55] Ed Sanchez cited in Jenkins, Convergence Culture, op. cit., p. 105.
[56] Michael Saler cited in Henry Jenkins, ‘“From Imaginary to Virtual Worlds”: An Interview with Historian Michael Saler (Part Two)’, Confessions of an Aca-Fan (13 December 2013), (accessed 27 October 2014).
[57] Neil Young cited in Jenkins, Convergence Culture, op. cit., p. 130.
[58] Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (ABC Studios, 2013—).
[59] Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2014).
[60] Following several box-office disappointments, however, Sony recently reached an agreement with Marvel to allow Spider-Man to appear in future Avengers films.
[61] Taylor, op. cit., p. 58.
[62] Jenkins, Textual Poachers, op. cit., p. 115.
[63] Wolf, op. cit., p. 213.
[64] See Hills, op. cit., pp. 131-143 for a discussion of the psychology behind this.
[65] The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941).
[66] Lucas cited in Taylor, op. cit., p. 315.
[67] Taylor, op. cit., p. 315.
[68] Lucas cited in Brooker, BFI, op. cit., p. 43.
[69] Brooker, BFI, op. cit., p. 33.
[70] Wolf, op. cit., pp. 43, 135 .
[71] Gary Kurtz cited in Taylor, op. cit., p. 312.
[72] Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015).
[73] Jenkins, Textual Poachers, op. cit., p. 103.
[74] Questionnaire, Respondent 18.
[75] Wolf, op. cit., p. 266.
[76] Ibid., p. 273.
[77] Brooker, Using the Force, op. cit., p. 75.
[78] Ibid., p. 76.
[79] soulblade64, ‘What parts of the EU do you think will survive Episode VII?’, reddit, (accessed 27 October 2014).
[80] Jenkins, Textual Poachers, op. cit., p. 36.
[81] Wolf, op. cit., p. 190.
[82] Predator 2 (Stephen Hopkins, 1990).
[83] Derek Johnson, ‘Cinematic Destiny: Marvel Studios and the Trade Stories of Industrial Convergence’, Society for Cinema and Media Studies 52, 1 (2012), http://filmadaptation. (accessed 27 October 2014), p. 5.

[84] Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (ABC Studios, 2013—).

Figure 1:   Artist unknown (2014). Available at: Accessed 13 October 2014.
Figure 2:  Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) screenshot (2015).
Figure 3:  Mauricio Abril, Poor Spidey (2014). Available at: Accessed 13 October 2014.
Figure 4:  Star Wars: Force for Change - A Message from J.J. Abrams (2014) screenshot (2015). Available at:
Figure 5:  Sean McLean, ‘Who Shot First?’, Underwhelmed Comics (2011). Available at: Accessed 25 January 2015.
Figure 6:  Artist unknown. Available at: Accessed 13 October 2014.

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