The Marvel Movie Graph — 5 Years Later

In 2013, while working in the Digital Media Group at Marvel Entertainment, I wanted to see how the movies featuring Marvel’s characters worked as a network. What were the interesting and unexpected interconnections between the movies that have skyrocketed Marvel as a cultural force?

You can’t go home again (or at least you probably shouldn’t), but with the upcoming release of Black Panther I thought it would be fun to look at how the landscape of Marvel movies has changed since the original graph. (I haven’t included Black Panther yet. I haven’t seen it and I am not going to spoil myself just to make a visualization.)

Here’s what the network looked like in 2013:

So what’s going on here? First, a bit about how this graph is constructed. There are four types of entities in the graph — three of which are pretty straightforward:

  • Movies: The movies themselves, any live-action, theatrical releases (so no television or direct-to-video) starting with 1998's Blade
  • Characters: A character, like Thor or Elektra
  • Actors: An actor who plays a character, like Chris Evans or Famke Janssen

Actors and characters, of course, don’t appear in movies in isolation. An actor will always be playing a character (even if that character is her- or himself). Thus actors and characters are not connected directly to movies, but are instead passed through entities called Roles. Roles are a distinct combination of an actor and a character.

How actors, characters, roles and movies relate

Actors can play more than one role — Chris Evans has portrayed both Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies and Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and characters are sometimes portrayed by multiple actors. Movies can’t connect directly but can be connected through shared roles, such as when a title character appears in several movies in a franchise, or by shared characters or actors. So the Thor movies can be connected to the Ghost Rider movies via Idris Elba, who appears in both franchises.

The 2013 graph clustered into several tightly connected communities that (roughly) corresponded to character franchises:

The X-Men family is divided into three groups — the original X-Men trilogy, the Wolverine Origins solo movie, and the (at the time) single movie of the X-Men First Class franchise.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe breaks down more-or-less along the lines of who the lead character was in each movie, with characters like Nick Fury and Phil Coulson providing a set of shared connections between franchises. Marvel’s The Avengers clustered with the Thor movie, due to the characters shared between them (including Thor, Hawkeye, Erik Selvig, Coulson and Loki).

Despite having two franchises with relatively large casts, neither the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies nor The Amazing Spider-Man shared any common characters or actors with the rest of the network making the Spider-Man movies their own disconnected island. (Well, there is one connection, but we’ll get to that later.)

So what does the Marvel movie graph look like today? Well, it’s larger, denser, and more connected with some big changes in how the communities behave.

The graph is now a lot denser. As more movies have been produced, there are more opportunities for the them to interconnect. The communities are also tighter. As franchises have grown they have become more and more tightly interconnected.

The X-Men Mega Community

The X-Men family is now a single huge mega-community, mainly due to X-Men: Days of Future Past which explicitly connected the family of the original trilogy with the First Class generation. Even Wolverine’s solo movies are pulled into the new community, with the exception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which remains isolated from the rest of the X-community. Despite its connections to the X-Men franchise, Deadpool remains a one-off community, and I’m sure he’d have something snarky to say about that.

The “core” MCU

The Marvel Cinematic Universe breaks down into several families — a core cluster consisting of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, and satellite networks for Spider-Man: Homecoming and the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Each of the three core families contains its central character’s movies plus one or two extraneous ones. Thor’s family contains Doctor Strange (based on the reciprocal cameos of the title characters in each other’s movies), Iron Man’s contains the Avengers movie (which has defected from Thor) and Cap contains Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant Man.

The Spider-Man region

Spider-Man: Homecoming now connects the isolated Spider-Island to the rest of the network. It is its own neighborhood, despite sharing roles extensively with the Iron Man and Captain America movies, and despite Spidey’s introduction to the MCU in Captain America: Civil War.

Centrality in networks is a measure of how connected a thing is to other things. There are many ways of measuring centrality, but one of the most interesting is to look at betweenness — that is, how much does an element in the network act as a connector for different communities.

Which nodes connect communities?

Resizing the elements in the graph to emphasize betweenness, we can see that the different portrayals of Quicksilver are most pivotal in connecting the X-Men mega cluster with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (With Josh Brolin’s upcoming roles in both Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2, we’ll see if Quicksilver retains his primacy as a connector.) Within these clusters, the Age of Ultron, Civil War and Days of Future Past movies all serve as key intra-community connectors.

Fans may have noticed that there’s a big component missing from all these graphs — Stan Lee. Stan Lee’s cameos have appeared in 30 of the 45 movies since 1998, and as such he’s the most powerful connector in the graph. In fact, in 2013, Stan was only connection between the Spider-Man community and the rest of the network.

Five years on, Stan occupies an even more central position in the network, connecting all the franchises — even Deadpool.

The role with the most appearances in the network is Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, appearing in 11 of the 45 movies. There is a three-way tie for second between Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X, at 9 each.

The character with the most distinct portrayals is William Stryker — having been played by four separate actors.

Ryan Reynolds and Bruce Campbell have each portrayed 3 different characters.

Nicolas Cage has, so far, only played one role.

Over the next 10 months, six more movies are slated for release: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, Ant Man and the Wasp, Venom, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix.

The graph will continue growing more connected.

Engineering manager at Amazon, alumni of NBC, IDEO, and Marvel. I kind of invented digital comics. I study how technology affects organizations and systems.

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