Black Panther passed the $1 billion mark at the box office, Avengers: Infinity War is expected to have a $215 million opening debut in North America and Kevin Feige is starting to tease audiences around the world with what lies beyond the 2019 Untitled Avengers Movie. Marvel Studios’ sowed the seeds for their Cinematic Universe before any other studio followed and they are now raking in their cash. Together, we have granted them $14,5 billion of our hard-earned pocket money in just under a decade and we are already marking new release dates in our calendars to give them a bit more.
Marvel Studios’ movies have been accused of lacking in diversity, being too repetitive, and hosting underdeveloped villains, but generally speaking, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a critical and financial success. Though much of this comes from the hard labor of the film studio’s cast and crew, a major unseen player in the success of the MCU – and our resulting addiction to it – was orchestrated by the studio’s marketing department. Throughout the decade, a series of marketing strategies have made the MCU the juggernaut franchise it is today.
1: Traditional Marketing
The most obvious form of marketing Marvel Studios has entailed is the use of traditional marketing. The release of production photos and behind-the-scenes shots, teasers and trailers, teaser, character and “final” posters, TV show and festival appearances, and a host of corporate advertisements. Nowadays, each new piece of marketing material that the studio releases is reported on by a host of different websites, creating more and more traction for their upcoming film(s).
Now that Marvel is gearing up for the release of Infinity War, their marketing team’s strategies become all the more clear, showing that the use of cross-franchise marketing lies at the heart of the MCU’s success.
In July 2017, Marvel Studios released footage of Infinity War at San Diego Comic-Con International. With the release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Thor: Ragnarok insight, the footage focused heavily on Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, making those two movies must-see events for those awaiting the release of Infinity War. Several months later – and only a few months before the release of Black Panther – the first international trailer for Infinity War heavily featured Black Panther and the nation of Wakanda, boosting the hype for both films within a single trailer. The trailer was viewed 230 million times in its first 24 hours online, serving its purpose majestically.
Soon, the new trailer for Infinity War will arrive. Questions are asked every day as to when this will happen, but looking back at Marvel’s previous marketing strategies, it’s not too hard to guess when it will land. The first Infinity War trailer was released after Thor: Ragnarok to not distract attention from Thor’s solo outing, and the marketing department carefully waited two weeks for the fallout of the release of Justice League to blow over to make sure their trailer wouldn’t be snowed under by articles and reviews concerning Warner Bros. ensemble film. Now, several weeks after Black Panther and with no other superhero release standing in its way, the marketing department is surely ready to release Infinity War‘s second trailer.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we will also see a rise in corporate advertisements for Infinity War. Marvel previously paired up a host of companies for cross-branding campaigns, such as their team-ups with Audi and the NBA for the marketing campaign of Spider-Man: Homecoming. For Homecoming, Marvel brilliantly produced the Audi-sponsored short film Driver’s Test and the NBA-inspired short Watch the Game…
The corporate short films produced for Homecoming bring us to the marketing strategy Marvel Studios truly excels at… storytelling.
A movie can be a form of advertisement in itself. Some film series, such as the Cars and Star Wars franchises, earn their existence in great part to the sale of merchandise. The concept of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, allows its owners to market films with films.
It all started with the post-credit scene in Iron Man, where Nick Fury approached Tony Stark to “talk about the Avenger Initiative.” This led to an improvised cameo of Stark in The Incredible Hulk, a movie that additionally featured a host of small Easter egg references to Stark, Nick Fury, the Super-Soldier serum, and other (past and future) MCU elements. Iron Man 2 expanded the framework and even included a small reference to Wakanda; the character of Phil Coulson offered further connective tissue; and the Tesseract’s role as Phase One’s MacGuffin was felt throughout Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers. Stingers attached to the end of the Phase One films teased audiences about what’s to come, and the step-by-step introductions of new characters, objects, and places eventually led to 2012’s megahit The Avengers. The Avengers brought fans of Iron Man together with fans of Thor and turned those who previously didn’t care much for the Hulk or Captain America into loyal followers.
Every release after The Avengers then got bumped by the critical and financial success of the studio’s ensemble epic. In Phase Two Easter eggs were supplemented by a host of cameos. Where in Phase One Steve Rogers’ shield popped up in a scene, in Phase Two Marvel Studios could actually afford to have Rogers himself pop up for a cameo. Iron Man 3 tagged on the Hulk, while Thor: The Dark World saw the introduction of the Collector. Captain America: The Winter Soldier paired Captain America with Iron Man 2‘s Black Widow and Nick Fury and introduced von Strucker, List, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, and Avengers: Age of Ultron brought everyone together again.
Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War amplified the effect of marketing-through-storytelling by upping the synergy between the movies. Phase Three has been characterized by the pairing of characters to amplify box office results: Captain America and Iron Man shared the screen in Civil War, Spider-Man and Iron Man teamed up in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor and the Hulk went on a space adventure in Thor: Ragnarok, thus turning the concept of the “solo movie” upside down.
The connective tissue and framing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe serve more than just the delivery of great, long-term stories: it is a powerful marketing tool that makes it rewarding for audiences not to skip any of the studio’s releases. This is what brings us to the third overall marketing strategy: the carefully planned introduction of new (secondary) characters.
3: Character Introductions and Spin-offs
After Iron Man 2 rolled out, no less than four new spin-off movies were put in production: Black Widow, Nick Fury, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and War Machine. The first still hasn’t found its footing yet, despite writers having handed in their first drafts even before The Avengers hit the big screen; the second is now being rebranded into a Captain Marvel movie; the third went on to become a television series; and the fourth never got passed the initial writing stage. Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers led to similar announcements. Though hardly memorable, both The Warrior’s Three, The Winter Soldier and Hawkeye spin-off movies were considered. We all know what happened to the former characters; Bucky Barnes reincarnation was obviously better suited to present himself in a Captain America movie; and Hawkeye might just wind up sharing a movie with Black Widow. In the years since Phase One, however, spin-off announcements have been kept mostly under wraps. After The Avengers, it was obvious that making spin-offs based on all those formerly mentioned characters was unrealistic at best, even when producing three films a year. Though Kevin Feige discussed the spin-off possibilities of Black Panther this week, mentioning the potential of an Okoye spin-off series, these kind of remarks – whether scripts are actually ordered or not – are often no more than promotional speeches for the movies the “spin-off characters” appear in.
It wasn’t until 2016, eight years after the start of the MCU, that a new character was introduced in an ensemble film, with fixed plans for a spin-off film: Warner Bros.’s Wonder Woman. Of course, Marvel Studios soon followed with Captain America: Civil War, which laid the groundwork for Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther. Though presented as “not another origin story”, Spider-Man: Homecoming was an origin story in absolutely every single way, except the fact that the first fifteen minutes where Peter Parker is introduced and he gets bitten by a spider are missing. In the film, Peter tests his powers, struggles with them, learns, and fails, but then becomes the hero he is meant to be after all. Civil War just took care over the introduction part, warmer audiences for yet another Spider-Man reboot.
As I discussed back in 2015’s Sexism and Racism in Hollywood: The Black Force Awakens, the early introduction of these characters was intended to carefully lower the risks of the new heroes’ solo outings. By familiarizing audiences with these characters before giving them their own films, the financial stakes became more secure. Whether the success of Wonder Woman – and the future success of Captain Marvel – will actually lead to the production of a Black Widow movie remains to be seen, but if it does, expect her to be the headliner in a movie shared with at least one other character, much like Thor’s team-up with the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok.
A second form of Marvel’s spin-off strategy is the creation of Marvel’s television department, and their output: from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to this year’s Cloak & Dagger, each series co-promotes the MCU brand. Add the Marvel One-Shots, the digital series WHIH Newsfront, and the Team Thor sketches, and you begin to see the vastness of the Marvel Marketing Machine.
4: Sameness vs Diversity
People eat what they like, and film studios know it. Marvel has often been criticized for a lack of diversity in its characters and stories, but this has not stopped audiences from showing up at the box office. Strip away the details of every Marvel Studios release and you’ll see that the backbone of each solo film is exactly the same: the main hero comes to terms with his or her newfound powers and is forced into conflict with an adversary with similar powers to his or her own. The personalities of Tony Stark and Stephen Strange are pretty hard to distinguish and Scott Lang often seems like a poor man’s version of Marvel’s billionaire inventor. This sense of sameness within the main narratives, however, allowed Marvel to greatly expand its cinematic universe. By offering audiences the same story wrapped up in a vastly different package every time, they were able to grow their universe and expand their output significantly, adapting more and more obscure comic book heroes to film.
Phase One staged a world where heroes were grounded in reality. Only slowly, over the course of ten years and eighteen movies, did Marvel push their audience towards the more obscure corners of the Marvel universe. Thor brought the concept of aliens into the mix and The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy expanded on this. Ant-Man introduced the quantum realm and Doctor Strange took things a step further. Through slow, but steady world-building, Marvel allowed their target audience – who had just come off of Christopher Nolan’s grim, reality-based Dark Knight trilogy – to ease back into the realm of miracles and magic, while at the same time catering to general audiences as well.
After balancing sameness and diversity for over ten years, Marvel can now do whatever they want. Back when Thor was released, many articles were written on whether such a fantastical character could find its place within the previously established, reality-based MCU. Nowadays, such a thought seems almost laughable. Yet, had Marvel released Doctor Strange or Captain Marvel right after Iron Man, the MCU might have looked like the DCEU at this point: disjoint, confusing, and tonally completely off-beat. Instead, the money is pouring in and fans can’t wait to empty their wallets to see the purple scourge Thanos throw planets at our favorite Avengers.
Marvel also utilizes their own merchandise to advertise its movies. Rather than offering glimpses of characters and events in a new trailer or poster, (previews of) tie-in comic books, LEGO sets, collectible figures, video games, and others are released online to tease audiences of what’s to come, while at the same time marketing the toys and games themselves.
Infinity War again offers a few prime examples of this: the Infinity War LEGO sets, for example, reveal several scenes and team-ups from the movie and several previewed action figures offered fans their first look at the new costumes some heroes will be donning in the movie, such as Peter Parker’s Iron Spider costume and Tony Stark’s bleeding edge armor.
Marvel’s Avengers: Reunion
Together, all Marvel Studios’ marketing efforts mentioned – and the dozens that are still unmentioned – have created a powerful, well-rounded marketing machine able to overwhelm its audience over and over again, until the end of time. Because watching The Avengers come together on the big screen, or seeing Thor and the Hulk bumbling through space, has become like a reunion of old friends. These friends – our friends – were carefully placed in our midst, in our theatres, in our homes, and in our collective minds. And really, aside from those critics who scream and yell “superhero fatigue” is on its way, without ever watching superhero movies themselves, who would let their friends hanging at the box office?
You can also read this article on Flickering Myth.
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Content creator Pim Razenberg is an experienced traveler who’s been roaming the planet for many years. After a stint in the Dutch film industry, he lived and worked in Romania, the United Kingdom, and Thailand. Pim is currently working in the Netherlands, bringing creative new projects to fruition and writing a novel detailing his journeys across the world.