For Valentine’s Day this year, the KPC team let me write about something I really, really love - the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Over the past thirteen years the MCU has rolled out The Infinity Saga in three phases, with more than twenty films, each telling one chapter in a massive, interlocking story.
In a nutshell, The Infinity Saga follows Thanos’ search for six “infinity stones” and the aliens, men, women, gods, trees, racoons and ants trying to stop him.
So, what does this have to do with charisms, parishes and ministry communication? Through careful planning and strategic marketing, Marvel Studios has built a brand so successfully that the MCU stands alone as the most successful film franchise in cinematic history.
We can draw insights from this “Marvel Model” of good storytelling to strengthen communicating your charism.
Know Who You Are
Last week, Katie wrote about how it can be hard to differentiate a brand, when it seems like every ministry shares a purpose with every other Catholic organization:
Promoting a unique “brand” for a religious institution, such as an individual Catholic parish or school, can seem challenging when the existence of each ministry aligns in purpose with every other neighboring Catholic organization with very little differentiation.
The Marvel Studios team faced the same problem: how do you make a standout superhero movie in a crowded landscape, cluttered with duds like the Batman and Superman franchises?
At first glance, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor all look alike, and look an awful lot like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent. They’re heroes. They’re the “good guys.” But in the world-building that goes into each of the Marvel films, the storytellers don’t center on what makes them good - they focus on what makes them special - and different from one another.
Tony Stark is, in his own modest words, a “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” and, honestly, kind of a jerk. His superpower is money and a dedicated research and development team. He flips the script on the secret superhero trope, announcing “I AM Iron Man,” at a press conference.
Steve Rodgers is the scrawny kid being beat up by bullies in an alley, trying to join the army in WWII and throwing himself on what he thinks is a live grenade to save others. Through the army’s “Super Soldier Serum” he becomes Captain America, and spends the War parachuting behind enemy lines to defeat Hydra - the superhuman soldier, still humble, with a heart of gold.
Thor Odinson rounds out the principal trio. As a long-haired blonde, crown prince and heir to the throne of Asgard, God of Thunder and wielder of the mythical hammer Mjolnir, he’s every inch the Shakespearean archetype, by way of Norse mythology. He spends the series fighting off his siblings’ claims to his throne, because, as he says with a mostly straight face, “that’s what heroes do.”
So, here’s where this good storytelling pays off. As Katie notes: Rather than simply building a brand around the primary mission of the Church that is difficult to differentiate...it is important to understand what makes your ministry unique, what is your “extraordinary power.”
The Marvel storytelling model doesn’t focus on what unites Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. Instead, it spends time, energy and effort building this brand through each of their first films. Every inch of storytelling is dedicated to this effort, from the scripts, to the direction, to the cinematography, carried through the production design and into the soundtrack.
By the time the MCU’s Phase One culminated in 2012’s The Avengers, the groundwork for the entire series had been laid on a rock-solid foundation. The Avengers brought the three principal heroes, and their teams (Black Widow, Hulk and Hawkeye) together to help defeat Loki, Thor’s Asgardian brother wreaking havoc on New York City.
But here was the genius of the Marvel storytelling model: you didn’t need to have seen the first three films, to enjoy The Avengers. Without relying on cumbersome flashbacks, the writing team jumped straight into the storytelling and let the character’s dialogue, costumes, and production elements speak for themselves (think Tony Stark in the helicarrier in a vintage band t-shirt with his snack pack of blueberries, or Captain America laughing at old, corny Wizard of Oz jokes.)
Having clarity around your parish’s charism, your “extraordinary power,” creates a strong foundation from which you can work with others. Whether you’re bridging ministry gaps to create new, transformative solutions, or trying to keep Loki out of the Nine Realms, knowing who you are and what you’re good at builds strong partnerships.
Phases Two and Three continued this model of worldbuilding, with Phase Two beginning to infuse the genre with more intentional comedy through Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man. Phase Three highlighted the conflict of having such vastly different worldviews in Captain America: Civil War and introduced a new slew of heroes: Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and more. As each new world was revealed, the core principles established by the first three films held true.
Last week, Katie wrote about how “intentionally collaborative solutions, rather than competitive alternatives, that we will raise the tide for all boats.” Rather than focus on what makes one ministry “better” than another, work instead to focus on how you can offer strength on behalf of one another.
Let It Go
Okay, here we get into massive spoilers for Avengers: Endgame and the rest of Phase Three, so if you haven’t made it that far yet, come back later.
Through most of Phases One and Two, the threat of Thanos was a looming, vague menace. He was collecting infinity stones, and our ever-expanding team of heroes was each beset by their own character-building conflicts. By the time Avengers: Infinity War was released, the universe had grown crowded and filled with overlapping storylines.
As the final battle with Thanos comes to the forefront of the MCU narrative, we realize that our main characters have changed, growing and regressing as they are shaped by their experiences. Their cores, their “charisms,” their super powers are the same, but the world around them has changed drastically.
By the end of the franchise, each of our three main heroes recognizes that he’s fulfilled his mission, and that it’s time to move on. After defending Asgard’s Throne from various claimants, Thor hands it over to Valkyrie, because he knows she will be the better leader. Steve Rogers entrusts the iconic Captain America shield to Sam Wilson, The Falcon. And Tony Stark makes the ultimate “sacrifice play” in the final battle with Thanos, using the Infinity Stones in the Iron Man gauntlet to destroy the villain and his armies at the expense of his own life.
For many mission-based organizations, it can be difficult to let individual ministries go. In Divine Renovation, Fr. James Mallon makes the point that many of the Church’s outreach efforts, like schools and hospitals, “were a response to the needs of the past; their demise was often a result of their achieving the very thing they set out to do” (46).
By the end of Endgame, the MCU’s three flagship heroes, Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor are unrecognizable from their first incarnations. But that’s what makes their stories so compelling, and feel so authentic. Rather than mourning the loss of these “icons,” fans had been introduced to a range of new characters, different stories, and a massive multiverse that is not a problem to be solved, or a set of data to be mastered, but an ever-expanding mystery to be enjoyed.
Katie reminds us, “We are not in competition with one another, but rather companions on a journey, working cooperatively towards a common goal.” The MCU thrives on the same principles: the clear, strong, well-communicated charism(a)s of its heroes.