This month, Moon Knight joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). 

Even though the MCU is sprawling (at this point spanning 14 years, 28 films, and at least 40 major characters), the TV shows are still relatively new. And their introduction has allowed Disney to take big creative swings, explore new themes, and offer new takes on characters. 

They’ve also changed Marvel’s relationships with its fans. 

The Disney+ shows are released in a serialized format. Those who watch in real time get seven days to dissect each new episode and speculate on what’s to come. Podcasts, message boards, and blogs recap each episode and offer a place for fans to find each and deepen their community. It’s an environment where fan theories thrive. 

Some of those theories bear out. Some of them don’t. But the discussion — and anticipation — create a loop that deepens the fandom for huge numbers of watchers. 

There are limits, of course, to how much the filmmakers and television creators can engage with the fan conversation. No one is reshooting scenes for the series finale because of a brilliant message board thread. 

And yet, there are clear examples of Disney and Marvel making creative decisions because of ideas that originate with their audience. Fourteen years ago, Marvel launched the project that became the MCU with Iron Man because focus groups of school children identified Tony Stark and his suit of armor as the action figure they’d most enjoy. More directly, in my screening of Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the single loudest response in the theater came when a particular actor, long promoted for the role by fans, appeared on screen as an iconic hero for the first time in the MCU. 

Disney, arguably the largest entertainment company in the world, is eagerly finding ways to show how close they are with their core audience and how much they value the hopes and dreams of their fans. 

Why do so many grassroots organizations struggle to do the same? 

Today, in our world, even high-performing advocacy organizations often feel hesitant to bring their activists into their process for making decisions: 

  • We’ll ask supporters for their opinion but not apply that feedback to our work on a consistent basis.
  • We’ll ask for supporters to vote on a t-shirt design but not on our institutional priorities for the year to come. 
  • The things we set aside for activists to do are often highly-scripted and repeatable by design. 
  • We seldom give activists the autonomy to own a problem and deliver a solution (though distributed organizing is starting to provide a model where that might change). 

Connection to a real constituency is a durable vehicle for building power. Accountability to your base is, quite often, the most sustainable way to achieve anything meaningful.

 Amnesty International, for example, builds member-driven decision-making into its programming up and down the organization. Inputs from members and youth leaders were even a driver of their new global brand story. Organizations like LUCHA in Arizona have launched major advocacy campaigns in the face of strategic opposition from allies because their membership demanded that they not wait

A different model is possible for all of us. No super powers necessary.

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