The Life of Marvel Marketing And The Death of Marvel Story Telling
D23 was this past weekend in Anaheim. It’s Disney’s own Comic Con, and you know what that means: It’s Marvel marketing Christmas time! Lots of internet articles about written descriptions of commercials for movies! Wild speculation about the role of a character that finally gets to be in the MCU- a move that has fans everywhere super excited because one giant corporation was able to make a great deal with another giant corporation as to how they can make a crap ton of money together. You know, like the cable companies do.
Am I being ‘that guy’ right now? Yup. I’m the bitter old man that worked the mines for years and thinks you kids are wasting your time on garbage. Please read the following in a ‘Robert Duvall from Lonesome Dove’ voice: Gather round and let me spin a few yarns about the way things used to be! Back before the bleeblerblarblarblahblah open range as far as the eye could see.
I will admit, there is a tinfoil hat ‘They Live’ part of me that looks at Kevin Feige doing a Steve Jobs style keynote to promise the world that Dr. Strange will be an incredible, integral part of Phase Theta Delta while fans scream and blow loads that feels alarmingly like someone finally chose the form of the Destructor, but for the most part my concern about Marvel’s marketing is much more shallow than worrying about the commercial apocalypse lurking in the shadows.
I think the Marvel marketing machine makes their movies shitty and I don’t want to watch shitty Marvel movies.
Let me rewind, and tell you about the most impactful movie trailer I have ever seen. It was for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
Wait, what? No. Kill it with fire.
There we go. I have no idea what we were going to the theatre to see. I had no idea a Ninja Turtle movie was coming. The internet wasn’t a thing that existed. I have no idea what Harry Knowles was even doing with himself at this point with no dial up. Did he even exist? Did the internet create him? Is Harry Knowles the Lawnmower Man?
I was a kid whose eyes kept getting wider and wider and wider because this movie was not a possible thing. I had that last little ‘blaare bahnawnow’ bass line when the title pops up at the end in my head for months. I will never forget the feeling when I challenged the screen that this was not possibly what I thought it was, and as if to answer that challenge, the trailer responded with the word TEENAGE accompanied by a gong.
I was hooked. I would go see this movie, and only this movie, for the rest of my life. I remember my dad looking down at me and saying ‘so you probably don’t want to see that, huh?’ while my dumb little baby arms quivered.
And I’m pretty sure that it’s the only trailer I saw before that movie came out. If I saw others I don’t remember them and I didn’t need them. I counted down the days for what felt like a year. That trailer had done something weird to my brain. Blaare bahnawnow.
I guess what I’m getting at is that Marvel could save some money on the sheer amount of material they are releasing to get us to come see these movies. I saw most of Ant-Man before I ever bought a ticket. And yes, you can argue that ‘trailer fatigue’ is a symptom of the entire industry but there are a lot of films and properties that do actually have to work for your money. They do actually have to convince you to show up.
Marvel does not have to convince you to show up. All they need is to flash that red title card and most people are in. I don’t need to see most of Civil War in gif form before I see Civil War. I don’t need to see a text description of a teaser for a trailer. Or the teaser for the trailer. Give me a 30 second spot that goes like this: Marvel Red Card! Flash of a few characters! New movie! Cap 3! CIVIL WAR! Blaare bahnawnow. And that’s all we need until the movie comes out.
The amount of footage being released is a minor point, though. Even though Marvel doesn’t exactly have to do the heavy lifting of say, a Man From UNCLE or another stand alone film, I get it. Trailers gonna trail.
But Marvel has blown way past the ‘too many trailers’ problem.
Remember the first Iron Man? It took us all by surprise. It’s a pretty great movie, and Robert Downey Jr. was brilliant in it and all of you know this, and then this happened:
And we didn’t know what to do. How do you even process that? They said the A word. In a movie. We were hooked. We were on board for whatever That Scene Meant.
The best part about it was just not knowing what it meant. Surely we weren’t going to get an Avengers movie. That made no sense. But what if we were? Who would be in it? Do they get movies? What is even happening? I remember me and my buddy Justin seizing up like two children that have discovered a house on their Halloween route that gives out Sour Patch Kids by the pound.
At that point, you could have replaced Marvel Studios’ marketing department like check out clerks got replaced by U Scans. Their work was done. We’d take it from here. At the end of Iron Man, Marvel had the same advantage over everyone as that Turtles trailer had over me when I was a kid: the advantage of the unknown.
When people don’t know something, they want to know more. They want to figure it out. They want to get in line and buy a ticket and see what’s next. And even if they won’t admit it, deep down the last thing they want is to have it handed to them. Part of experiencing a story is processing that unknown and asking our own questions of it, setting up our assumptions and having those assumptions shattered or dramatically confirmed. And Marvel had us all right in that sweet spot.
And then they decided to just go ahead and pull back the curtain.
They announced phases and showed us their roadmap for the next 27 movies. They basically gave us a plot outline of the story they’re telling.
Compare and contrast that last scene of Iron Man to the post credit scene at the end of Ant-Man. Did you honestly get the same wow factor? How could you? You know it’s from Civil War and you know what Civil War is about. You don’t walk out going ‘oh my God why are they hiding from Tony? I have to see this and find out!’ You have no questions to ask of it beyond some very trivial ones.
You have no questions because Marvel has gone out of their way to give you all of the answers. They’ve announced their movie slate through 2087. When Sam Jackson wanted to talk about the Avengers Initiative, we all went WHAAAAAAAAAAT but when Cap and Falcon were sitting with Bucky in a basement we all went ‘oh this is a scene from Captain America 3, they’re referring to problems leading to the Civil War and Falcon comments that Ant-Man is available because if you recall, Marvel announced that Ant-Man would appear in this movie several months ago.
This ‘show our cards’ approach, in my opinion, leads to lazier storytelling. One of the most important rules of storytelling to me is ‘show, don’t tell.’ If a character is angry, show their anger through action instead of having them say “I am angry.” Or worse, having another character tell you that they are angry.
I know that the firewood cutting scene in Age of Ultron leads to Civil War because I know what Civil War is about. I know because Feige got on a stage and told us. And even though the Avengers sequel didn’t actually show us any real strife in the superhero community, we’ve been told that it exists because the next movie is about a superhero Civil War. We also know that the ramifications of this event will be extremely temporary, because we’ve also been told that on May 4, 2018 Thanos finally shows up to wreck everyone in Avengers: Infinity War. He’s going to wreck everyone by combining all of the Infinity Stones into a gauntlet, even though we haven’t been show the extent of this plan in the movies. We were told that it would happen in 2008 when Marvel put the Infinity Gauntlet prop on the floor of Comic Con.
In a way, that best illustrates this bizarre new brand of storytelling it seems Disney/Marvel is creating for itself. Marvel no longer needs to tell you a complete, satisfying story. They can give broad strokes and bullet points while the audience ticks from a checklist of things they had been told to expect, and anything they don’t understand is filled in by websites that are super eager to explain the significance of that big purple dude who turned around and laughed at the end of Avengers.
In fact, listen to the language used when Marvel promotes their films now. We were told over and over again that Ant-Man introduces concepts IMPORTANT TO THE MARVEL UNIVERSE. Dr. Strange will introduce major components of Phase 8 or whatever. The brand, not the stories, is what you are told to care about. I complained about Age of Ultron’s lack of consequences after seeing the movie to some friends and their honest to god response was that I’d see those in Civil War. You don’t get the story in this one, it’s in the next one. I had watched a carrot on a stick for 3 hours only to be told to go buy another carrot. That’s nuts.
I’m not pulling this opinion out of my ass, either. Enough directors have either walked or expressed a lot of displeasure because of Marvel’s brand of storytelling. Hey Zoolander, listen to your friend Edgar Wright. He’s a cool dude.
Now, I’m not saying that Age of Ultron and Ant-Man were completely soulless and void of any artistic effort. But I will argue that they were soulesser and more voidy than previous Marvel entries, and that things will probably just get worse.
God help me for always thinking of wrestling, but I always think of wrestling, and there is a moment in wrestling that fans make fun of constantly. The company TNA (the name is the least of their problems) Wrestling’s show Impact had a very popular wrestler make a ‘surprise’ debut in the company and their announcer, Mike Tenay, instead of building any sort of drama or trying to help tell any kind of story, simply said “we know who THAT is!” as if to say “you have the information and you know how we expect you to process it.”
The Avengers head to Wakanda. We know who THAT is! Because you’ve been told that Black Panther is in Civil War.
Thor has to go take a bath in a fortune telling cave and sees visions. We know who THAT is! Because you know that in 3 years there will be a movie about these visions.
Mysterious twins are in a Hydra bunker. We know who THEY are! Because after they appeared at the end of Winter Soldier we were told everything we need to know about them by Marvel in gif form about ten minutes after we left the theatre.
We know who that is. We know what that is and we know when that is, and we know how we’re expected to react when it gets here, and now Marvel is not required to put nearly as much effort earning those reactions.
Marvel is now a megachurch. Everyone is crazy pumped and ready to experience God, and a pastor dances around and starts healing people, and they all start falling over and shaking. It’s not because they’ve truly experienced anything great, they’re just caught up in the buzz and are reacting how they know they’re expected to react.
And so we sit with our Marvel bingo cards and checklists, fueled by the buzz and ready to do our part. We’re not moved by the story, because we’re not focused on this story. We’re nudging each other because we know that this scene is a direct commercial, err, reference, for a movie coming out in three years. We’re feeding the brand.
Stop trying to sell me, Marvel. I was sold the minute RDJ took a selfie in that Humvee. It’s time to refocus and make the product I’m buying able to live up to the pitch.
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