Contemporary Hollywood, Transmedia Culture, and Spider-Man
DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2019.11 | Issue 2 | September 2019
Bath Spa University
Across this portfolio I will be analysing the generational reboot strategies of Spider-Man, using Toby Maguire’s, Andrew Garﬁeld’s and Tom Holland’s cinematic portrayals. Using an essay film to demonstrate the industrial reboot timeline of the character, I will explore the marketing of each Spider-Man instalment to pinpoint specific reboot strategies over time. Supported with audience research, I will be conducting one-to-one interviews and social media analysis to highlight the values of Spider-Man consumers, curating and designing posters to re-market the ﬁlms to their opinions. My conclusions will draw attention to the fact that the character of Peter Parker is actually not the unique selling point of any of the three franchises. Labelled as ‘ﬁdelity reboot’, ‘reactive reboot’ and ‘stan culture reboot’, these strategies highlight the generational way in which Spider-Man is constructed and consumed.
This work is the 2019 winner of our Centre for Media Research Student Award, a special prize awarded each year to one truly exceptional Film or Media undergraduate student at Bath Spa University. The winner exemplifies our core graduate attributes of being an exceptional creative thinker and maker, with outstanding skills in research, digital literacy, global and ethical awareness, and creative collaboration.
‘Reboot, remake, revisit? In the end, is there a diﬀerence?’ (Kepler, 2015) The concept of a reboot is very much a grey-area within the ﬁlm industry, one that has produced a plethora of proﬁtable formulas amongst franchise media over the past few decades. Showcasing the modern timeline of industry techniques, reboot strategies have shaped how media is proliferated around the world, highlighting exactly how corporate ﬁlm studios are now constructing their blockbuster instalments. For example, for the last ten years alone, Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has curated its own super-hero formula, producing over twenty reboot ﬁlms that have gone on to become some of the world’s most successful ﬁlm releases, earning over eighteen billion dollars at the box-oﬃce in total (Williams, 2018). However, whilst there is extensive amounts of research and material surrounding industry reboot methods, there is little to justify why reboot strategies have the ability to cater to all generations of audiences, and indeed how they engage different generations of audiences.
A proliﬁc example of this generational ability is Marvel’s Spider-Man. After the release of three diﬀerent Spider-Man portrayals, it is unclear why this protagonist in particular has remained a constant ﬁgure in the history of reboots. First appearing in 1962, Spider-Man has dominated comic-book culture and shot to contemporary media fame, becoming one of the world’s most iconic ﬁctional characters. Subsequently, this character has been rebooted to audiences on numerous occasions and has explored almost every platform of media, ranging from ﬁlm to video-games. My work will analyse the marketing, promotion and unique selling point of Spider-Man, aiming to uncover why audiences have remained devoted and interested in almost every version of the web-swinging protagonist despite his countless regenerations.
Beyond this, and by drawing on research in transmediality, fan studies, and reboots, I will highlight the distinct reboot strategies of each Spider-Man instalment, bridging the divide between audience- and industry-based research to uncover the intentions behind each of the franchises over time. In order to support this investigation, I will be aiding my research visually and via a number of creative media-based research tools, utilising posters designs and essay film conventions in order to highlight the importance of both audience reaction and industrial strategies in the context of changing Hollywood reboot strategies. Following a theoretical context section that outlines the scholarly backdrop for the study, my methodology section will justify my practice-based choices and highlight the eﬀectiveness of my research techniques, whilst my ensuing commentary section will unpack the aforementioned audience reaction to and industrial strategies for the reboot strategies of Spider-Man across three distinct generations of the character. Altogether, my research showcases the way in which diﬀerent reboot strategies or categories can be linked to speciﬁc generational eras, and the way that wider developments in the likes of social media, fan cultures and convergence culture have shaped the face of reboots over the years.
In a world of digital expansion, transmedia storytelling remains a central formula within modern-day media landscapes. A term coined by Henry Jenkins in 2003, ‘to label the spread of entertainment across multiple media’ (Freeman, 2016: 11), transmedia storytelling is deﬁned as ‘a process where integral elements of a ﬁction get dispersed systematically across multiple [media] channels for the purpose of creating a uniﬁed and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium making its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story’ (Jenkins, 2011). In order for this kind of storytelling to be successful, ‘transmedia tale[s] [must contain a] continuous dialogue between the involved publishing platforms and consider [the] creative and consumer spaces that belong to each of them’ (Giovagnoli, 2011: 19). Allowing audiences to be ‘a part of [the] authorship’ (Giovagnoli, 2011: 17) and bestowing them the opportunity to collaborate in ‘creating a participatory and synergistic story’ (ibid.).
This categorisation has resulted in the formation of two diﬀerent aspects of transmediality, branded east and west-coast. West-coast transmedia follows the ‘logic of technological convergence, and is made up principally of digital platforms such as email, social media and blogs’ (Phillips cited in Freeman, 2011:14), whilst east-coast produces ‘mass-media pieces of story (via ﬁlms, television series, video-games) which are orchestrated across major US studios and corporations’ (Freeman, 2011: 13). Meanwhile, east-coast transmedia is a vital part of transmedia storytelling; labelled as the ‘Hollywood or Franchise’ model (Phillips cited in Freeman, 2011: 13), this model describes a version of transmediality that connects creative and mass media with ‘big-business commercial storytelling’ (ibid.). As a consequence, the pattern of industrial conglomeration has become essential to the development and continued augmentation of transmedia storyworlds.
An example of this kind of world-building is one of the world’s most aﬄuent conglomerates, Disney. Formed in 1923, The Walt Disney Company is ‘a highly diversiﬁed, multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate’ (Haas and Trapedo, 2018), with an estimated net worth of $150 billion (Forbes, 2015). Owning subsidiary companies such as LucasFilm, Marvel Studios and ABC Network, ‘Disney is responsible for Western culture’s basic perception [of transmedia]’ (Haas and Trapedo, 2018). Representing itself as a ‘dominant player in the entertainment business’ (Wasko, 2013), it frequently ‘takes advantage of globalisation in order to expand abroad and diversify’ (Freeman and Gambarato, 2018: 2). This level of synergy across platforms has resulted in numerous transmedia storyworlds becoming some of the film industry’s most loved franchises, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether it is ‘print, ﬁlm, television, internet, music, radio, retail stores or theme parks’ (Haas and Trapedo, 2018), Disney has successfully constructed their own commercial and dedicated audience ‘that provide a fertile environment for the development of transmedia cultural products’ (Lessa cited in Freeman and Gambarato, 2018: 45).
Given this level of global industrial conglomeration, transmedia branding has emerged as a defining trend. Jenkins notes that not only has ‘Hollywood and the games industry begun to develop more sophisticated tools for modelling and rendering synthetic worlds’ (Jenkins, 2014), but smaller companies have started to necessitate art directors and production designers, who are now frequently participating in the advertisement of screen stories (ibid.). The unmistakable demand for increased development and the involvement of transmedia strategies in and across the media industries has motivated countless companies to request additional creative assistance, and suggests that transmedia marketing/storytelling is becoming an essential element for engaging with audiences across multiple platforms.
An integral feature of this transmedia marketing/storytelling phenomena is what Jenkins describes as continuity versus multiplicity models. Deﬁned as ‘the coherence of a story world in diﬀerent applications’ (Oktan, 2018: 181), continuity point outs franchise media’s ability to ‘build a strong sense of [progression] with features that complement other narratives within the ﬁctional world’ (ibid.). A prominent example of this is arguably Marvel’s Spider-Man, a character that, at least in some media, like comics, has kept ‘vigilant uniformity between all of [his] titles’ (Yockey, 2017: 335) and requires ‘rationality, cohesion and consistency’ (ibid.) between each platform in order to proﬁtably mediate a beloved and iconic character. On the other hand, multiplicity is ‘the presentation of alternative story experiences for active or passive participants’, referring occasionally to ‘mash-ups and user generated content’ (Freeman and Gambarato, 2018). Jenkins refers to the multiplicity model of transmediality as a ‘way for us to think about participatory expression as part of the same transmedia logic’ (Jenkins, 2010) and reinforces the importance of audience’s alternate endings, all of which contribute and enrich almost all transmedia storyworlds.
However, whilst transmedia storyworlds are an integral part of contemporary media growth, transmedia promotion and marketing techniques are vital to the successful engagement of global audiences. In this context, ‘the relationship that has traditionally existed between a brand and its consumer’s emotional repertoire is transformed by developing the brand into a whole made of more narrative storyworlds’ (Giovagnoli, 2018: 251), implying that expansive transmedia promotion can be designed to draw additional and more sustained consumer loyalty. In the modern day, the ‘interactive fruition of stories and brands is leading to the strengthening of the power of the story’ (ibid.), and much like transmedia worlds, the main features of transmedia brands can be turned into narrative matters for participative authors. These consumers can ‘manipulate [chosen] content in order to make it personal, or create new narratives that are independent from the original material’ (ibid.), and in doing so, highlight the importance that branding plays within the proliferation of transmedia texts.
The existence and success of transmedia is highly dependent on the involvement of audience members, one that I believe has not been explored to its full potential. Most broadly, fan culture, or fandom, ‘is a term which describes communities built around a shared enjoyment of an aspect of popular culture’ (Grinnell College, 2018), and involves audiences ‘learning the communities preferred reading practices’ (Jenkins, 1992: 278) and guidelines in order to contribute legitimately to their chosen fandom. This particular level of involvement and input is known as participatory culture, which entails ‘fans acting not only as consumers but also as producers and creators of some form of creative media’ (Grinnell College, 2018).
Above any other kind of fan culture, ‘media fandom, in particular, encourages creative expression and artistic production by its participants’ (ibid.). This fandom is one where ‘members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another’ (Jenkins, 2009: 3). In this case, ‘participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement’ (Jenkins, 2009: 7), and disregards the former limits of audience interactivity. Henry Jenkins further deﬁnes this culture as one that constructs relatively low barriers of creative expression, and works to form communities that oﬀer strong support for creators and the creations of others and a populace that provides mentoring for fandom novices with lesser knowledge than those with more experience (Jenkins, 2009: 7). In a given fan culture, these creations and relationships ‘take the form of fan ﬁction, fan art, fan videos, cosplay, folk songs, and other interactions with a person, group, or ﬁctional universe’ (Grinnell College, 2018), allowing fans to express themselves, and their adoration for popular culture, in an artistic manner. However, it has been established that ‘the nature of fan creation[s] challenges the media industry’s claims to hold copyrights on popular narratives’ (Jenkins, 1992: 279). Subsequently, ‘once […] characters enter into broader circulation [and] pervade the fabric of our society, they belong to [the] audience and not the artist who originated them’ (ibid.).
Matt Hills continues this debate from a fan perspective, affirming ‘that fans [of popular culture] expect adherence to established tenets, characterisations, and narrative backstories’ (Hills, 2002: 4), suggesting that the ‘expressed hostility within cult fandoms’ (Hill, 2002: 4) demands producers and media companies to ‘revise [content] at their [own] peril’ (ibid.) or suﬀer commercial backlash from the fandom for deviating too far from what is expected. In the past, fandoms have been known to be ‘highly suspicious of the corporations […] and [thoroughly] contemptuous of products that that appear to be solely for proﬁt’ (Brookey, 2010: 69), disregarding narratives and actively attacking the media industries about developments that they do not see ﬁt, such as boycotting Ghost in the Shell (2017) as a result of what was deemed by many to be culturally insensitive casting (The Guardian, 2017). In turn, this behaviour has constructed very confrontational environments amongst fandom ‘utopias’ (Jenkins, 1992: 283), with fans becoming more active and biased (Pustz cited in Brookey, 2010: 69).
An example of this kind of fan behaviour is linked to the formation of the Marvel universe. After director Sami Raimi successfully presented the world with an accurate rendition of comic-book icon Spider-Man in his blockbuster ﬁlm trilogy (2002, 2004 and 2007), audiences everywhere, lifelong fan or not, were largely satisﬁed by the commercial growth of the character, with each of the ﬁlms hitting box-oﬃce triumphs respectively (The Numbers, 2018). However, as a result of industry growth and copyright, the role of Peter Parker was restored once again, creating uproar amongst the character’s comic-book fandom when Tobey Maguire was recast with British actor Andrew Garﬁeld, in Marc Webb’s subsequent reboot. The following two ﬁlms, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and its sequel The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), despite their relative success (ibid.), did not progress the narrative of Spider-Man, largely repeating what had already been explored in Raimi’s trilogy. Consequently, fans struggled to remain a solid, uniﬁed fandom, forcing the Garﬁeld versus Maguire comparison to become a debate topic for many years to come (CinemaBlend, 2012), and which divided the Marvel fan-base in a generational manner. This particular generational approach to understanding audiences and their engagement with media fandoms is not one that is explored in Hill’s work, and hence I plan to investigate the divide in opinions between audiences and their favoured renditions of popular character’s – namely Spider-Man.
Before doing so, however, first we need to understand the context of the reboot itself. In the modern day, the spread of popular ﬁlm and television – particular their characters – across multiple platforms has resurrected in many beloved stories from ‘the cinematic graveyard’ (Proctor, 2012: 1), and has marked a ‘groundswell of franchise activity that spawned a set of texts increasingly referred to as the ‘reboot’ cycle of ﬁlms’ (ibid.). The term ‘rebooting’ suggests ‘that franchises have died’ (Scahill, 2016: 317) and seeks out to make ‘a familiar modern narrative within a more contemporary cinematic style’ (ibid.). This procedure, if you will, has prompted large Hollywood conglomerate companies into ‘resuscitating, recycling, and regenerating age-old but dilapidated franchise[s] by returning to a recognisable and iconic product range rather than original, untested material’ (Day cited in Proctor, 2012: 1).
Economically, the use of popular franchise characters ‘protects investment by reducing [likability] risks’ (Balio, cited in Neale, 2000: 237) and minimises audience disinterest by presenting consumers with identiﬁable content that will ensure ‘eager and loyal fans’ (ibid.) who will form the core audience. This method ‘has become a popular way to promote ﬁlms and other media forms’, allowing producers, writers and directors to ‘revisit familiar narratives with an altered origin story, narrative approach or artistic aesthetic’ (Scahill, 2016: 317) without consequence of repetition. However, utilising high-concept narratives and characters does not underpin the creativity and longevity of franchise storyworlds, instead only conveying their basic algorithms and proﬁtable techniques to the public eye.
A style of ﬁlm that continuously presents consumers with reboot narratives is the superhero genre. Over the past ten years, Disney and its subsidiary Marvel Studios have ‘transposed the comic book model of continuity to the cinematic arena […] becom[ing] the largest serial construction in ﬁlm history, operating within a matrix of interconnectivity’ (Proctor, 2013) and subsequently forming one of the world’s largest fan-bases. Having accumulated over twelve billion dollars in worldwide gross since its beginnings in 2008 (Cain, 2017), the franchise has rebooted numerous narratives from the past few decades, taking inspiration from the likes of Captain America (1990), Spider-Man (2002) and Hulk (2003). All of which have become global reboot phenomena in the hands of Disney and has contributed to the rise in new generations of fans becoming invested in emerging transmedia products around these characters, such as the Captain America trilogy (2011 to 2016, which grossed a total of two billion worldwide and has one of the biggest followings in ﬁlm history.
However, despite Marvel demonstrating the concept of continuity and constructing several extremely successful and coherent narratives that span multiple media, there are several limitations to these works, particularly concerning copyright laws and associated legalities. Unbeknownst to audiences, the portrayal and construction of superhero ﬁlms are in fact an intense amalgamation of legal bindings and studio copyrights, presenting several obstacles that have subsequently limited the extension/promotion of reboot strategies massively. A recent example is Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), which was ﬁnanced and distributed by Sony Pictures, but with Marvel Studios operating as the ‘creative lead’ (Chitwood, 2017). I plan to tackle this grey-area of Hollywood ﬁlmmaking in my research; specifically, I will investigate the diﬀering marketing techniques of superhero ﬁlms, making reference to the studio decisions that have aﬀected the continuity of popular franchises and their characters.
The character that I will use as a case study to demonstrate this research, and one that has been at the forefront of the Marvel franchise since its ﬁrst publication in 1962, is Spider-Man. After being recast a total of three times since his ﬁrst appearance on screen in the twenty-first century, the web-swinging protagonist has been developed, sold and rebooted across multiple platforms for almost two decades. Each instalment, whether it is a part of a multi-billion-dollar universe (i.e. Spider-Man: Homecoming) or the fastest selling video game of the year (i.e. Spider-Man, PS4 (2018)), has escalated the inspiring narrative of the character immensely, demonstrating the seemingly endless transmedial scope of Peter Parker, all the while drawing attention to ‘Marvel’s commitment to continuity and ontological order’ (Yockey, 2017: 342). In addition, and crucially, over time the cinematic tales of Spider-Man have worked to categorise its fans into three eras: the Maguire era, the Garﬁeld era, and the Holland era, with Marvel utilising diﬀerent marketing techniques to eﬀectively target the speciﬁc age group behind each ﬁlm at the time of their release. In broad terms, Holland’s most active audience is primarily millennial whilst Maguire’s is almost entirely generation X. To be rebooted and altered so frequently within the space of just sixteen years, then, the case of Spider-Man underlines Marvel’s successful continuity methods, even if each generation represents a multiplicity to the character, identifying different values, as will be seen shortly.
In order to successfully discuss and investigate the vast transmedia storyworld of the character, speciﬁcally looking at reboot strategies, branding and social media, I will need to research both industrial and audience perspectives to draw together an accurate conclusion. My social media research, comprising an online ethnography of fan responses and creative practices, will be divided up using the diﬀerent actors who have recently portrayed Peter Parker in twenty-first century film: Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garﬁeld, and Tom Holland. By doing so, my online research will identify patterns and opinions of several diﬀerent audiences, highlighting the divide between generations of viewers.
To gather more personal and intimate opinions, however, I will be conducting several one-to-one interviews that will question a range of diﬀerent age groups about their opinions on each generation of Spider-Man and what they value from each rendition. The next aspect of my research will involve looking at examples of ﬁlm marketing, paying attention to the campaigns surrounding each movie from the three generations studied, exploring their level of success. These materials will allow me to understand why certain transmedia products of Spider-Man did not successfully engage with their audiences to the same degree as others. Finally, and in order to identify the approaches underpinning each reboot, I have categorised each of these generational reboots, starting with the ‘ﬁdelity reboot’ (Maguire), followed by the ‘reactive reboot’ (Garfield), and ﬁnally the ‘stan culture reboot’ (Holland). These three sets of terms will be outlined in the ensuing section as well as in the later essay film, but to suffice to say that these terms work to identify and conceptualise the industrial reboot strategies of Spider-Man’s transmedia journey over the last twenty years.
To present both my marketing timeline and audience research, I have produced an essay film that works to communicate my findings using both visual and audio aids. The structure of the essay film will be generational, i.e. using my aforementioned actors as a kind of time-line. My choice in this method is inspired by previous essay films and documentaries that I have witnessed and learnt from. Deﬁned as ‘the expression of critical, analytical, and theoretical work using the resources of images and sound in montage’ (Álvarez, López and Martin, 2014), essay ﬁlms demonstrate both ‘audiovisual creativity and reﬂective research’ (ibid.), attributes that are vital to the demonstration of what I call the Spider-Man reboot timeline. I believe that this approach to communicating research is the most eﬀective way to highlight the generational characteristics of Spider-Man’s audience using visual aids. This visual approach has yet to be fully explored by academics, and I know that my research will shed a vastly diﬀerent light on the purpose of reboot strategies and transmedia storyworlds.
Furthermore, I will use my audience research as a basis for re-constructing and re-styling each of the three Spider-Man ﬁlm posters from each era. Specifically, analysing social media and conducting my one-to-one interviews will allow me to bring to light what audiences really valued within these different eras of superhero ﬁlms and what they felt is an integral part of the ﬁlm itself. Using this information, I will re-market the previous posters to target actual audience values and what each ﬁlm is prioritising marketing wise, further solidifying the results of my essay film and the generational patterns of Spider-Man’s consumers.
Essay Film – characterising the reboot strategies of each Spider-Man reboot
Posters – visualising how audiences articulate value for each Spider-Man reboot
In this commentary section of the portfolio I aim to theorise and unpack my three categories of generational reboot strategies in conceptual terms. Speciﬁcally, I will tease out what research related to notions of ﬁdelity, reactivity, and stan culture can contribute to deﬁnitions and understandings of Hollywood reboots. This means not only talking through ideas raised in my above essay film and posters in relation to my Spider-Man case study, but also complementing these ideas with additional scholarship from the ﬁelds of adaptation studies, media studies, and fan studies respectively to demonstrate how my three generational reboot categories work in conceptual terms.
Deﬁned as ‘source material being faithfully translated onto a new medium’ (MacCabe, 2011: 5), ﬁlm adaptation has become a fundamental element of successful contemporary media. Drawing from literary origins, large conglomerate studios ‘choose to transform pre-existing cultural texts into ﬁlmic texts’ (Scholz, 2013: 10) to construct and promote a world of recognisable storytelling, where the ‘source-texts are a part of the appeal and the attraction toward the ﬁlm’ (MacCabe, 2015: 5). Through this lens, in order for a style of ﬁlm to be deemed successful, the spirit of a work or an artist has to be captured or evoked throughout the adaptation (Cutchins, 2010: 79), essentially translating the original storyworld onto a cinematic screen by re-contextualising its source texts across media (Leitch, 2017: 49).
Indeed, when conglomerate studios draw from canonized pieces, works that are ﬁrmly represented within popular culture, their ‘prime concern is the faithfulness to the original’ (Somigli cited in Brooker, 2012: 48), ensuring that their content keeps informed consumers ‘tolerant of the small, inevitable diﬀerences between original and adaptation (Jeﬀries, 2017: 10). This notion of strict adherence stems from the conceptual importance of ﬁdelity within adaptation studies. By ‘reproducing a literary original’ (Scholz, 2013: 2), ﬁlmic adaptations that demonstrate accuracy are implying a greater respect for source over feature, whereas unfaithful adaptations, that are departing from an inﬂuence that would generate consumer interest, are doing so at their own peril (Leitch, 2009).
However, adaptation theorist Robert Stam argues that the choice to depart from the original material and the paraphrasing tropes of ﬁlm adaptation produce ‘losses and gains typical of any translation’ (Stam, 2000: 62), denoting that source-accurate ﬁdelity on a cinematic scale is a near impossible task, one that should not be endorsed as an ‘exclusive methodological principle’ (ibid.). Therefore, this debate raises the question as to whether or not adapted narratives can truly be recreated and produced on another medium successfully.
So, how do the theories of adaptation diﬀer from the concept of a reboot? Described by William Proctor as ‘wiping the slate clean and beginning the story from a point of origin’ (Proctor, 2012: 4), cinematic rebooting does not, it would seem, to attempt to provoke feelings of ﬁdelity, instead it ‘restart[s] a serial entertainment universe that has already been previously established, and […] disregard[s] the original writer’s previously established history’ (Willits, 2009). Accordingly, the notion of source-text ﬁdelity and authenticity within reboots becomes a kind of contradiction in terms. Indeed, after researching, evaluating and assessing industry approaches and audience values within the cinematic timeline of Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man, I have underlined the contradictory reboot strategy of Sam Raimi’s iconic superhero trilogy.
Allow me to explain. Under the guidance of Sony and Columbia Pictures, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series became ‘a grand tribute’ (Speelman, 2017) to the classic character, demonstrating a wealth of comic-book inﬂuences and ‘achieving unprecedented amounts of popularity’ (Burke, 2015) during its ﬁve year run. However, whilst this trilogy was constructed as an homage to the comics, becoming the ﬁrst mainstream portrayal of a cinematic Spider-Man, it remains unclear whether Raimi’s works were perceived as adaptations or reboots. To answer this debate, it was vital of me to consider both audience and industry perspectives, taking into consideration what elements consumers valued from this trilogy and how Sony marketed the immense transmedia storyworld of Spider-Man.
Following its initial release, Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man represented the golden age of superheroes, ‘replaying the popular comic-book trope of the origin story’ (Flanagan, 2010: 139) and mediating the character ‘with nostalgia in order to enact [the] timelessness [of his source texts] (Walderzak, 2016: 153). With a marketing campaign that never stemmed further than narrative themes, highlighting the Spider-Man brand at every turn, it was clear that Sony sought to promote Peter Parker’s story over anything else, leading audiences to believe that what they are being presented with was nothing but a faithful adaptation. Nevertheless, through my audience and industry research I have coined Raimi’s trilogy a ﬁdelity reboot.
A fidelity reboot, at least in the case of Spider-Man, works on the basis that throughout the course of the series, the source text of Spider-Man is reiterated on numerous occasions, repeatedly referencing the styles that made this character an icon and generating a loyal, youthful response from its audience. However, it can be argued that the strategies of these particular Spider-Man ﬁlms, and other high concept franchise instalments of the period, such as X-Men (2000) and Blade (1998), have been updated and even Americanised to conform to the standards of mainstream Hollywood in the early twenty-ﬁrst century, straying from their source material in the process. Consequently, this ‘nostalgic adaptation’ must be deﬁned as a reboot, a story that has restarted and refreshed its narrative to include traces of comic-book adherence, all whilst presenting audiences with the illusion of an adaptation, one that simultaneously contradicts and promotes source-text ﬁdelity.
In 2012, convergence and participatory culture became a deﬁning contextual influence behind Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man series (2012 to 2014), challenging the concept of a reboot that is inﬂuenced by its surrounding competitors. Describing the ‘ﬂow of content across multiple media platforms’ (Jenkins, 2006: 2) and the shift of focus from literacy to individual expression, to community involvement (Jenkins, 2009: 13), convergence and participatory cultures have established the trend of media products innately beginning to inﬂuence one another. Representing ‘a cultural shift [where] consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content’ (Jenkins, 2006: 3), convergence trends have highlighted the ‘blurring [of the] lines between media’ (ibid.), the intersection of styles that are no longer challenging, but mirroring their predecessors to proliferate recognisable content.
During the era of Andrew Garﬁeld’s portrayal as Spider-Man, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy (2005 to 2012) and Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008 to present) were at the height of their success, demonstrating distinct authorship and contemporary styles that would later alter the position of franchise media in cinematic landscapes for the foreseeable future. With Nolan and Disney constructing extensive campaigning, audience interactivity and content convergence of their own, Sony sought to replicate this strategy within their Spider-Man universe, focussing on the concept of an ‘active audience’ and how consumers can now more naturally interplay with media conglomerates (Jenkins, 2006: 2). Consequently, The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel began to replicate these contrasting methods, establishing themselves as a combination of unoriginal, pre-existing styles that included Disney’s comedic inﬂuence and Nolan’s resolute realism. As such, Garﬁeld’s Spider-Man portrayal represented the height of repetitive media convergence, ‘an old concept taking on new meanings’ (Jenkins, 2008: 6) that cannot be named an original reboot. Instead of building its own styles and themes, Webb’s ﬁlmic presence in the timeline of Spider-Man responded and constructed itself around the franchise techniques that encircled it, failing to recreate a unique impact that would stand the test of any precursor or foreseeable reboot.
Constructing its own website, www.thedailybugle.com, and releasing the ‘Property of Peter Parker… Lost’ scavenger hunt, The Amazing Spider-Man attempted to incorporate and demonstrate ‘a strong support for creating and sharing creations with others’ (Jenkins, 2009: 5) across a broad range of platforms, highlighting ‘the complex interactions between fans and producers’ (Jenkins, 2013: 22). However, whilst Sony generated a creative and stimulating narrative-based campaigns, the studio also embarked on bridging the divide between non-ﬁction and ﬁction, drawing attention away from the iconic storyworld of Spider-Man. Between 2012 and 2014, co-stars Andrew Garﬁeld (Peter Parker) and Emma Stone (Gwen Stacey) were involved in a highly reported tabloid relationship, one that resembled and complimented their on-screen chemistry, an element of the ﬁlms that ended up carrying the otherwise ﬂawed Amazing Spider-Man series to commercial and critical success.
Described as ‘audiovisual media designed to position individual and collective skills within professional worlds’ (Grainge and Johnson, 2015: 36), promotional surrounding content is often ‘designed to circulate and be circulated, to be repurposed across multiple sites and platforms, and to be interacted with or even co-created by audiences’ (ibid.). The intense tabloid coverage of Garﬁeld and Stone’s relationship became a prevalent example of this kind of behaviour. Providing audiences with ‘a service or function that supports an aspect of contemporary media’ (ibid.), this relationship drew immense amounts of attention to the role of the Amazing Spider-Man ﬁlms within the public-relations sector, constructing a real-life narrative that coincided with the events of Sony’s industrial choices. Accordingly, the co-stars’ relationship became an integral part of Sony’s marketing approach, paying close attention to what consumers were actually talking about in relation to the ﬁlms, and utilising this public conversation around the tabloid narrative to help target audiences who may not have been initially inclined to interact with the storyworld of Spider-Man.
For that reason, it can be argued that The Amazing Spider-Man ﬁlms do not represent the originality of conventional reboot strategies and have aﬀected the legitimacy of future high-proﬁle reboots, such as Man of Steel (2013) and Suicide Squad (2016). Instead, the Garfield series represents the participatory inﬂuence of its audiences and surrounding franchises of its period, which have shaped Webb’s storyworld and its style. Thus, The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel can be identiﬁed as examples of reactive reboots – that is, reiterations of popular narratives that are highly controlled by its audience values and other forms of surrounding media. By choosing to highlight both reality and ﬁction within its marketing, this reboot strategy demonstrates the importance of consumer engagement and the diﬃculties of building entirely unique storyworlds in an industry that thrives oﬀ the success of others.
Stan Culture Reboots
In the modern day, social media and the Internet more broadly are ‘tool[s] for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people’ (Grossman cited in Han, 2012), constructing a ‘global intellectual economy’ (ibid.) that has formed a wider awareness of online consumer landscapes, such as Web 2.0. Becoming a vital element of participatory culture, the concept of Web 2.0 is ‘characterised by [the] interactive applications that allow users to participate in contributing, organising, and creating their own content’ (Shelley and Frydenberg, 2010:1), encouraging innovative behaviours amongst its consumers. As such, Web 2.0 content has begun to push the boundaries of audience landscapes.
For the past few decades, for instance, participatory behaviours and new trends have upheld the foundations consumer culture and have branded themselves as fundamental elements of proliferating franchise media. However, after conducting extensive social media research, and investigating prevalent marketing strategies within Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, I have observed what can be seen as an updated and extended form of audience participation.
A combination of the terms ‘stalker’ and ‘fan’, this updated and extended form has been coined ‘stan culture’, and which represents the ever-closing divide between celebrities and their online audiences. Formed of Millennial and Generation Z consumers, this expression describes fandoms evolving into a culture of intense media following, idolisation and even protectionism; this category of audience is one of extreme dedication that can destroy or amplify the careers of celebrity idols. Built upon the foundations of consumers creating and circulating their own content (Burgess, 2013), stan culture refers to the unexpected outcome of celebrities interacting and engaging with their audiences on a regular basis, constructing artiﬁcial, interpersonal relationships across multiple platforms with millions of online users.
Accordingly, this profound level of devotion has been presented to large conglomerate studios, forcing their marketing departments to update their strategies and to pay closer attention as to how these particular consumers are drawn so heavily towards celebrities and their fictional character counterparts. A notorious example of this kind of overt industry reaction is the casting of British actor, Tom Holland, as Disney’s latest iteration of Spider-Man. Cast at the age of eighteen, Holland represented a new and refreshed era for the iconic character, appealing to the demographic of stan culture and the types of celebrities it supports. As a result, within a month of his ﬁrst cameo in Captain America: Civil War (2016), the actor became perhaps the most successful rendition of the protagonist to date.
Using Holland’s physical appearance and approachable personality to their advantage, Disney constructed an example of perfect-ﬁt casting, erasing the thin-line between the celebrity and the fictional protagonist they portray by ensuring that the character’s traits match that of the stars (Dyer cited in Gates, 2012: 71). Much like the Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., actors that have also accumulated stan culture success within the MCU, audiences responded positively to Holland’s rendition. Naming him the living embodiment of Peter Parker (Wilding, 2015), the favourable audience reception pushed the actor’s modest social following of 50,000 to well over 14 million in the space of three years.
However, due to the previous success of the character and the rising fame of Holland, Disney saw it ﬁt to place the storyworld of Spider-Man in the proverbial backseat of the recent campaigns, contrasting massively against Raimi’s original trilogy where aforementioned ﬁdelity were the driving forces of the franchise and its celebrities.
Minus the inclusion of the MCU iteration’s formulaic trailers and posters, Spider-Man himself remained a largely non-existent entity amongst the 2017 ﬁlm’s marketing campaigns; instead, Disney constructed Holland as the deﬁning face of the movie and all that it encompassed. Signing the actor to take part in NBA sponsorships, Lip Sync Battles with co-star Zendaya and Buzzfeed content, it was apparent that Marvel was no longer focusing on the traits of Spider-Man as a brand. By placing the actor himself in entertaining settings, Holland began to draw in audiences, personifying a relatable and attractive celebrity ﬁgure in contemporary (online) media that audiences will want to idolise, especially those involved within stan culture dynamics. As such, Tom Holland has become a prevalent example of a micro-celebrity within transmedia franchises. Deﬁned as ‘creating an easily consumable persona, responding directly to readers and sharing personal information to enhance emotional ties with fans’ (Marshall and Redmond, 2015: 341), the British actor is the perfect formula for today’s contemporary stan culture to consume and cater to.
As a result, Tom Holland has become the brand of Spider-Man in the MCU era. Engaging audiences with a relatable personality that matches the styles of Peter Parker, Holland’s superhero highlights how the monumental impact of social media and stan culture has begun to alter what audiences value the most from their franchise and reboot content. Instead of prioritising its ﬁctional sources, Holland’s Spider-Man reboot has focussed all of its attention onto its stars and made no attempt to draw audiences in via the intricacies of its fictional storyworld. Ironically, this comes at a moment when rich interconnected universes have never been more popular. Therefore, and in contrast to the earlier work of Webb and Raimi, Spider-Man has since evolved into a less fictionalised commodity, by which I mean one that is now driven within the industry by its actors and their online audience impacts. Consequently, Disney’s updated reboot strategy, one I call a stan culture reboot, has become a crowning example of what consumers prioritise in an era that is dominated by social media. Carrying the actor and his ﬁlms to commercial success, Holland’s Spider-Man portrayal is indeed a shining example of a stan culture reboot, a reboot that is not driven by an original, source-text narrative, but the devotion of stan culture and conventionally-attractive casting.
In conclusion, the results of my investigations and research have highlighted the changing trends of Hollywood reboot strategies, bringing to light what kinds of transmedia brands the media industries are mediating to global audiences. Using marketing research, social media ethnography and one-to-one interviews, I have discovered that each generation of cinema’s Spider-Man in the twenty-first century is not necessarily conveying or selling the character. Instead, each portrayal over the past twenty years has been carefully catered to appropriate trends and the values of the generation that coincides with each cinematic release.
Specifically, and as was communicated via my earlier sets of posters, whilst Maguire’s era in the early 2000s was a representation of the villains that made the character such a success with its audiences, Garﬁeld’s two ﬁlms in the early 2010s underlined his off-screen tabloid relationship with co-star Emma Stone. Holland, on the other hand, became the brand of Spider-Man himself in the late 2010s, combing the relatable traits of the protagonist and the actor himself to sell a cohesive marketing strategy to his dedicated consumers. It is this latter example that underlines not only wider technological transformations of social media and its impact on fan and celebrity culture, but altogether indicates an interest hypothesis: are we now, after all these years, seeing a return to the prominence of the star within in Hollywood?
Regardless, what my research demonstrates is that contemporary Hollywood reboot strategies are veering further and further away from the ﬁction of intellectual properties, such as comic-book source texts, and instead leaning heavily on the real-life behaviours and impacts of its stars and a character’s more extra-textual materials. Thus, it can be argued that Spider-Man is not actually the selling point of any of the three eras studies throughout this portfolio, at least in brand terms, and instead operates as a kind of branded marketing facade to appeal to what audiences are initially drawn to. And if this is the case, then is it worth asking if reboot strategies are as simple or at predictable as we might have believed them to be? Is it true that global consumers have been targeted with an unknowable brand in a mask, as it were? Or are we actually being sold exactly what we value the most about the actors and storyworlds without even realising? As a result of my research, I can now answer these questions and understand exactly what carefully calculated reboot strategies are actually presenting us.
Reﬂecting back on my central aim and research question, I believe that this topic would beneﬁt from being explored across more than just one media platform. For example, investigating Spider-Man’s ﬂourishing timeline of video games may produce similar results or simply disband the extensive techniques used within the ﬁlm industry, bringing to light an entirely new strategy to understand the proliferation of Spider-Man content and wider reboot techniques. However, with the recent reboot of Hellboy (2019) and what might be described as a ﬁdelity-driven story, one ‘that remained faithful to the comics’ (Sandwell, 2019), we can begin to question whether or not industry patterns are returning to Maguire’s fidelity-driven beginnings and if there is a certain amount of longevity to each of my reboot strategies.
Nevertheless, I believe that my conclusions have shed an entirely diﬀerent light on reboots and their generations of audiences, underlining how consumer values are often widely diﬀerent to what franchise producers intended to foreground, and that neither producer nor audience-led values centralise the character of Spider-Man speciﬁcally. Instead, they reﬂect the wider trends stemming from the aﬀordances of new digital platforms and emerging trends within fan cultures.
All clips in this project’s essay film are taken from the following works: Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). All of these works are produced/owned by Sony Pictures/Marvel Enterprises.
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