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 films: Warner Bros.’ 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, fails, but then becomes the hero he is meant to be after all. Civil War just took care over the introduction part, warming 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 secured. 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 years 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 new found 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 came 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 favourite 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 armour.
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?