Marvel Studios has films planned up through 2028, so when I say “Marketing Strategy,” I mean how Marvel is structuring their films to keep people engaged until the next big team-up. Marvel just beat out the Harry Potter franchise for most profitable film series and you can bet that they won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Creating a comic book universe for the big screen has to be counted in the history of cinema as one of the ballsiest maneuvers you can make. They have effectively nullified possible “reboots” because everything remains canon, which means they also need to plant the seeds of other films, secondary and tertiary characters within existing franchises because you can’t simply rotate a roster willy-nilly. Luckily, since Phase Two has already surpassed Phase One’s profits, you can bet we’ll be seeing contracts for newcomers to the series increasing from six to nine movies (see Chris Evans vs. Sebastian Stan). Then all the criticisms of, “Why isn’t (hero) in this movie?” will finally subside.
I have a lot of respect for the company since they are trying something unheard of by building movies the way most do television series. And, like anything that’s successful, it’s fascinating to read it, analyze it, and pick out patterns when you see it.
Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase One
If you look at Marvel’s Phase One films, they’re all the story of the hero and we see that most clearly in the pairs: Iron Man & THOR (hereafter referred to as Thor); The Incredible Hulk & Captain America: The First Avenger (hereafter referred to as Cap1).
(I’ll touch on Iron Man 2 later.)
On a bare bones (outline) level, Iron Man and Thor share plot/character progression which follows the Hero.
- Man blessed with great power (intelligence or strength)
- Great power used for the wrong purposes (warfare or ice giants)
- Loss of former self (stops developing arms or loses strength)
- Recreates self to clean up former self’s mess (Obadiah Stane or Ice Giants/Loki)
Similarly, The Incredible Hulk and Cap1 share plot/character progression which follows the Underdog.
- Underdogs blessed with greatness (intelligence or willpower/sense of justice)
- Experiment causes the government to use them for warfare — a belittlement of their true merits (Hulk or super soldier are both raw strength)
- Rejection of intended use (Bruce Banner rejects warfare or Steve Rogers rejects military propaganda ads)
- Takes control of own powers to fight back (Banner uses intelligence to reclaim the Hulk to fight the Abomination or Rogers uses his leadership to be in the field and fight Red Skull/Hydra)
Fittingly, the average movie-goer is more interested in Heroes than Underdogs (sorry, Malcolm Gladwell).
So, in a brilliant marketing move, Marvel chose the most popular character (i.e. Iron Man) as a vessel to connect the MCU in Iron Man 2. The result was widely disdained because people came to see “Iron Man” and he was loosely at the center of it.
So, for Phase Two, they took the least profitable standalone character, Captain America (no way could they do Hulk), and decided to make him a tie-in because it would give people incentive to see the movie.
Iron Man 2 and Cap2 feature Black Widow, Nick Fury and more than enough S.H.I.E.L.D. which makes the titular characters of both films underplayed except where action is concerned.
And I’d wager if Captain America: The Winter Soldier grosses more than Thor: The Dark World. We’ll see Thor 3 as the tie-in to Avengers 3 — which would also serve the “galactic-ness” they seem to be tying in anyway.
Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase Two
In Phase Two, Marvel has taken each character’s niche (or “draw”) and exploited it masterfully.
Iron Man’s biggest draw is its titular character’s alter-ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). This is one of those rare superheroes that translates so well to film because you have more fun watching the “man” than the “suit”. (I’d provide concrete evidence from the action of the first two films, but I don’t think anyone would disagree with this statement anyway. We love Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark.) Fittingly, Iron Man 3 features little, actual “Iron Man”. The majority of the film is Tony Stark. Bravo!
Moving onto Thor, his biggest draw is the fact that he’s from another world. Although Asgard was a bit too pristine in the first film, no one can deny that what transpired in Asgard and on the other worlds was far more interesting than anything that happened in Podunk, New Mexico. Therefore, in the sequel, they hire a director renowned for his production design and make a veritable “game” out of traveling to the different worlds.
Of course there’s the added draw of Loki (F. Scott Fitzgerald) who, for whatever reason, has a huge following. I’m happy for the guy, but the fact that they went back to reshoot footage to incorporate Loki more shows that Marvel Studios knows their audience and how to market to them.
So then there’s Cap2 and what is his biggest draw?
I for one, saw Cap1 because I enjoy period-piece films and indeed, Cap2 is also a period-piece, but not one we would be driven to see because it’s “now.”
When writing any story however, the first few things you assess are character, setting, and theme. Because each of these films are puzzle pieces, you can see where these features of an individual story align with multiple entries:
Out of all the heroes, Captain America makes the most sense to exploit a theme because it’s in his title: America.
The parallels to Edward Snowden and his leak of mass information that infringes upon privacy for security is topical.
In addition, Cap is a superhero that’s most akin to man’s abilities being that Cap isn’t outrageously superior to other humans — it’s his willpower, leadership, and sense of justice that make him a hero; the steroids give him the title of “super”.
Meanwhile, Nick Fury’s fate is paralleled in Maziar Bahari and the reason we should fear an infringement of privacy. In Then They Came for Me: A Family’s Story of Love, Captivity, and Survival, Bahari — who you probably remember from The Daily Show — writes about how they used that satirical bit in The Daily Show as evidence that he (Bahari) was a terrorist. The film does this beautifully with Nick Fury, where they tie his history and background with that of a pirate to illustrate that he’s a terrorist and a threat.
But this is also where the marketing aspect comes in.
Each trailer for these Phase Two films try to make you think that Iron Man 3 is going to be dark — when it was hysterical. Then, they advertised Thor: The Dark World is going to be… well, “Dark” but it also turned out to be like Mr. Thor’s Wild Ride.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is actually dark. The villains are f***-ing evil! Bucky kicks a dude into a jet turbine. People get shot; Nick Fury gets a collapsed lung; Steve gets blown up; Widow gets shot; it is dark, dark, dark… but all of that evidences my point. The previous two Phase Two films bore the marketing campaign of Cap2 because he’s the theme!
This makes it hard to determine where Guardians of the Galaxy falls on this map, but from the marketing it looks like a Phase One film, but the team is already established, making it similar to a Phase Two, but I’ll judge what that is when it gets here.
This is just some food for thought.
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