Marvel Opens Access to Its Superhero Universe with new API

by Rob Salkowitz | January 31, 2014

Three of our favorite subjects – Big Data, open collaboration and comics - collided in an unexpected way this week with the announcement that Marvel Entertainment is creating an open API to enable developers to build apps based on its massive database of characters, storylines and creators.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. Marvel has a uniquely complicated content management challenge. The company has been publishing stories about its characters in periodicals since 1939. Those characters have also been spun off into other media: animated cartoons, videogames and recently, blockbuster movie franchises. Over the years, creators and company policy have taken familiar characters like Spider-Man, The Hulk and the X-Men in multiple, sometimes contradictory directions. Fans who come to the Marvel Universe through films or other mass media can easily get confused by the vast number of versions of each character that ripple through decades of comics and graphic novels.

Data on a cosmic scale. Recently, Marvel began building a massive database to capture all the information and complex relationships between the characters across all media, including how those characters are represented by different writers, artists and actors. The project was spearheaded by Peter Olson, VP of web and application development. If you are a dual-threat data and comic nerd like me, you will love Olson’s presentation about this from last fall.

The company experimented with some visualizations that map out how storylines develop over time and how the various Marvel properties are connected across media space, discovering some unexpected insights along the way.

 

Open says me. By publishing an open API that gives outside developers access to the database, Marvel is capitalizing on the trend of crowdsourcing part of its brand experience to tap into outside sources of insight and creativity. Fans of comics tend to be obsessive categorizers and encyclopedic record-keepers. The Internet has been littered since its earliest days with websites, wikis and collaborative projects to track this kind of information, but not at this scale or with this kind of rigorous infrastructure behind it.

By publishing an open API that exposes data from Marvel’s systems, the company gets the best of both worlds: fans innovating, using the same officially-sanctioned and structured data that is used by story architects inside the business. As we’ve reported in our Future of Marketing series, a few big brands like Home Depot and Kraft Foods are taking this approach to speed development of new capabilities and conveniences. It’s encouraging to see Disney (Marvel’s parent), a company not heretofore known for openness with regards to its systems and IP, taking a leading role in this area.

Read the fine print. That said, it’s important to clarify exactly what’s going on here. Fast Company broke the story of the API in a kind of confusing way. The way we read it, Marvel is opening up its data store, not its content library (in other words, developers won’t have open license to build apps featuring Marvel characters, so we won’t be seeing an authorized, fan-created Hulk vs. Punisher deathmatch anytime soon).

What we are likely to see are apps that make it easier for casual and hardcore fans alike to track their favorite characters across different media; custom infographics that turn the data into beautiful visuals; and the opportunity for retailers to package specific storylines and data more easily on their websites.

The catch, according to the terms of use, is that opportunities for third party developers to commercialize the data through paid apps, ads or in-app purchases are significantly constrained, and Marvel has final say over how developers can promote the apps. Considering Marvel’s historical reputation of grasping tightly to its IP ownership claims, terms like these raise suspicions in the creative community.

Are they are reasonable enough to foster the kind innovation Marvel is hoping for from this announcement? I guess we’ll have to wait for the judgment of the crowd.