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Marvel’s multi-billion dollar IP business is eating up the movie and streaming market – but the metaverse offers new opportunities and creates a whole new market.
Marvel is valued at nearly $6 billion for movies alone, $40 billion for streaming and about $3 billion for consumer products, according to a 2021 Forbes analysis. While the media giant dominates the lion’s share of graphic novel IP in film and streaming entertainment, the metaverse provides new possibilities for graphic novel IP. The ‘metaverse in entertainment’ market share is expected to grow to $28.92 billion by 2026.
The entertainment market essentially expands with the creation of the metaverse, and therefore provides opportunities to replicate the lucrative success that Marvel has enjoyed. But what made Marvel so popular, and why is the multiverse primed for the metaverse?
Since the beginning of the metaverse as a concept, some of the earliest explorations have included the creation – and adaptation of – graphic novels for this new virtual environment. From the Method Man comic MEFaversto the adaptation of Dan LuVisi’s iconic Last Man Standing: Killbook of a Bounty Hunterto Killtopia catering to Japan’s ‘Otaku’ community of manga and animé fans.
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But why is graphic novel IP so attractive to directors writing for a digital medium with interactive audiences? And what opportunities are potentially left on the table? To understand the appeal of graphic novel IP, we only need to look at the formula for success that Marvel and DC have built.
A world in constant expansion
Marvel’s IP is not one story, but a universe that continues to expand. Recent editions of Marvel’s screen world include She-Hulk: Lawyer, Ms. Marvel and the coming Secret Invasion. The stories that come to life in film and television are often based on specific heroes in that universe — or, more appropriately, the multiverse.
In film, appearance-changing costumes, special FX makeup, and visual FX (VFX) enable directors to cast different actors to play the same character in the franchise. The most popular and talented actors, with the strongest following in the target demographic for the box office, can get their turn to play the hero. In fact, actors no longer have to sign long-term multi-film contracts with Marvel.
The metaverse offers even more creative diversity. Graphic novel characters can be customized according to the themes of different concept artists, and the same character can travel through a manga world to one that is photorealistic. Perhaps a good interpretation is Dr. Strange’s journey through the multiverse, as we see him enter a number of different stylized worlds until he finally finds himself surreally realized as a colorful gelatinous form.
One of the main differences between a virtual world and a game in the metaverse – or what will be the metaverse – is this interoperability, the way an avatar can be used in different virtual worlds. The way avatars translate stylistically in the different worlds is a central focus for metaverse builders. And that’s something Marvel has done well for a while. People love the graphic novel style of Marvel movies and how they not only pay tribute to the original art form but also enhance the cinematic experience with state of the art VFX.
For example, LMS: Killbook of a Bounty Hunter being translated for the metaverse after gathering a core fanbase. LMS is at once a scrapbook-style graphic novel, a character bible for the anti-hero Gabriel, and an introduction to the colorful but deadly world of “New America”. Originally released as a series of artworks, LMS soon amassed a solid fan base that demanded more of Dan LuVisi’s world. The rights to LMS were purchased by Section 9, who approached metaverse-as-a-service company Sequin AR with the idea of creating an LMS metaverse. With a rich world and an existing community, Sequin believed that LMS was the perfect property for a metaverse environment.
The appeal of graphic novel IP
Sequin AR CEO Rob DeFranco explains why the graphic novel IP was so appealing: “The world that Dan created is vibrant, imaginative and full of pop culture references with a sharp satirical tone that makes it a model property for the metaverse. There is already a large community in place for LMS. For example, a special edition Comic-Con toy of Gabriel, made by popular brand Funko, sold out on the first day of the convention. Since the book was launched 10 years ago, there has been a cultural shift in how we interact with the properties we love.”
Graphic novels rely on captivating images, along with compelling stories. The community building the metaverse is a mix of creatives, technologists and storytellers, similar to the teams that produce the Marvel Universe. For example, the team behind Method Man’s MEFavers includes Method Man himself, and acclaimed graphic artist Jonathan Winbush of Winbush Immersive, with Xsen’s motion tracking technology helping them translate real-world movements into the digital world. It’s no coincidence that Winbush built his own brand as a creator from his time at Marvel.
“The trajectory of the NFT/Web3 space as a whole has, in my opinion, only one direction to go: up,” says Method Man. “I see no reason why it shouldn’t, as brands and individuals realize the unique opportunities and potential this space offers, as well as the utility it provides. That said, my hope is that it can continue to grow while being aware of values such as inclusion and positivity, both of which are its pillars MEFavers society.”
The metaverse and the story of good vs. evil
The Metaverse has the potential to be many things, good or bad. Most metaverse evangelists also recognize how human influence tends to invade—and sometimes destroy—the utopian promise of future technology.
For example, Aragorn Meulendijks, Chief Metaverse Officer (CMO) of Your Open Metaverse, a distributed metaverse for streaming Web3 content, recently shared his candid thoughts on Elaine Pringle Schwitter’s HeadsTalk podcast. According to Meulendijk, the mission of those who build the metaverse must be aligned with the reality of flawed human nature. This sentiment is ubiquitous in Marvel; the premise of superhero movies is that good and evil always coexist, and even heroes are flawed.
While there are inevitable flaws, the multiverse can also be used altruistically. Representation and connection are frequent themes in graphic novels, often speaking to those who don’t feel part of mainstream pop culture. This links back to Winbush’s work with MEFavers.
“We wanted to create multiple ‘metamasks’ or PFPs with different properties to represent our community,” he explained. “Method Human motivation in creating MEFavers would show fans their powers, the unique qualities that make them who they are, but in the superhero realm. Method Man wanted everyone who was excited about MEFavers to have a mask that truly represents them. He wanted his community to be shown their unique powers in a superhero realm.”
The building blocks of film production are used to build the metaverse
The technology underlying film production drives metaverse creation. For example, motion capture is harnessing and translating movement into avatars, while Unreal Engine is used to create the worlds themselves.
Charles Borland, founder of real-time studio Voltaku explained: “When I was an actor in a video game called Grand Theft Auto IV, I would spend a lot of time in a mocap suit, and I had been on a lot of TV and film shoots and seen how inefficient the production process in Hollywood is. I remember thinking, holy cow, when this technology and economics get to a certain point, all this gaming technology and real-time technology is going to revolutionize filmmaking and how you create content.”
Talking about the use of technology in Killtopiaelaborated Charles: “If we’re going to build this in a game engine, like Unreal Engine, then [had]to do things like set up a camera inside Unreal. We knew we were going to have an actress and we were going to try to do this in real time, but one of the things we were looking at was real time ray tracing, and pushing the envelope on that. We couldn’t go into the studio and do full camera tracking, so we wanted to find something inertia-based. Using the Xsens suit, capturing the raw mocap data, we were able to create the avatars”.
From an investment standpoint, it’s clear how Marvel’s magic formula for success translates into the metaverse. But IP in the metaverse goes far beyond a franchise of characters. Fans build on these worlds themselves, becoming creators in their own right. And to create, they must feel invested. And that’s where the technology that underpins interoperability is key.
Killtopia’s Charles Borland explains: “In order to invest in interoperability, stakeholders and project owners need to know that the assets they’re building for aren’t going anywhere. Of course, that is if by ‘decentralized’ you mean you’re using blockchain. The good thing about it is that it is immutable and public. So I know if I build around a project, even if it tanks, my pipeline will remain. Because the things I’ve referenced and viewed are going to stay online in this decentralized file hosting system, which is great.”
This is an example of how the technology used in metaverse creation improves the entire production pipeline. Accelerating the content production workflow, and securing the assets for future use, is a challenge even Marvel faces.
Culture shift between content creators and consumers
Borland highlights the cultural shift in how we interact with the properties we love. COVID-19 drove the rapid acceleration of digital experiences, helping us make real connections when real life wasn’t possible. The convergence of these behavioral changes and technological advances is now paving the way for the metaverse of the future, with live mixed reality performances – which became more prevalent during the recent pandemic – offering a hint of what to expect.
Brett Ineson, founder of Animatrik Film Design, which has hosted mixed reality shows for Justin Bieber, Pentakill with Wave XR and even virtual circuses with Shocap Entertainment, says: “Nailing the look and feel of a world will be critical to deliver the illusion of reality, and this is where capture technology will come into play. Motion capture will be critical to creating lifelike animation for characters and creatures in these virtual worlds, so that players feel like they are interacting with real beings.”
Technologists and storytellers help unlock the potential of new IP in the metaverse. Right now, the reality is that the metaverse doesn’t exist, but it represents the next step in immersive and engaging entertainment. The more engaged a community is, the more invested it is in history. Powered by motion tracking, performance capture, interoperable avatars, virtual worlds and hip hop artists turned superheroes, the metaverse is prime property for the next Marvel enterprise.
Rob DeFranco is CEO of Sequin AR.
Brett Ineson is the co-founder of Animatrik Film Studios.
Remco Sikkema is senior marketing communications manager at Movella and Xsens.
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