Imagine rewinding the clock to roughly seven years ago and transporting yourself to a board room somewhere. A board room with, say, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige and a few of his top men, and a handful of Paramount Studios bigwigs. Are you there? Good.
Now imagine the looks on the Paramount execs' faces as Feige says, "Okay, so we have this amazing idea. Ready for it? Check it out: So, we want to take a few of our less popular comic book superheroes and make a movie out of them. What? Yeah, no, we know that we JUST made The Last Stand and that Spider-Man is the big thing now, but whatever - anyway, we don't just want to make ONE movie, we want to make FIVE movies, with the first four movies focusing on superheroes no one really cares about now, one of them being a reboot of the big, green ragemonster that bombed in the box office a few years ago. Yeah, so all of those? And THEN we want to tie all of those separate storylines together into one HUGE ensemble movie with a crapload of moving pieces. But wait, there's more! You know how we have a whole comic book universe in print? Well, we want to totally recreate that, except on the SCREEN. What? Yeah, it's TOTALLY going to be crazy expensive and a huge huge risk and will span well over a decade. How awesome is that, you guys?? --What? A director? HAH! Hell no, but we totally think we can maybe score that guy on the cheap because of, you know, the drugs. So do you guys want to give us a bajillion dollars to get this thing off the ground or what?"
OK, so, maybe that's not exactly how it went down, but in my head, I'd like to think it was something similar to that. Comedic satire and conjecture aside, Marvel's painstaking creation of their Marvel Cinematic Universe has been, at best, ambitious and hugely risky, and at worst, the potential for complete bankrupting disaster. I'm a bit of a marketing and branding junkie, and I've found myself as fascinated by how they've gone about packaging this unwieldy behemoth of a creation as I am by the creation itself. It's hard enough to create the branding and advertising for one specific product, let alone multiple products, characters, and sub-franchises.
I mean, they essentially went from banking everything on this guy right here:
And not only has it worked, it's worked beyond anyone's wildest expectations. It has, literally, redefined what is possible, not just for Marvel, but for Hollywood, period. There is no guidebook for what they are trying to build, no map that will lead them directly to the end result, and yet, other Hollywood franchises are scrambling to put their own versions of the MCU into place, most notably Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens and subsequent films, as Disney CEO Bob Iger has confirmed there are stand-alone films for both Boba Fett and Han Solo currently in the works.
In its opening weekend, The Avengers raked in over $200 million. Two. Hundred. MILLION. In one weekend. That's a box office record, in case you didn't know. To put that into perspective, the second highest-grossing opening weekend for a film grossed just under $170 million its opening weekend, and that was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. That's more than a $30 million dollar gap. The Avengers not only joined that exalted franchise in its rarefied air, it then strapped on a jetpack and smoked past it.
So how did Marvel do it? When you boil it down to its essence, it's because they capitalized on two things better than any other franchise: Branding and timing.
Branding only works when a number of factors happen, but the most important is that whatever the campaign, the brand needs to be a unique and clear vision that does not deviate once it's set in stone. With a big project with lots of moving pieces, it's important that everyone involved in the process is all on board with the same vision and all working toward the same goal. Feige has pretty much been at the helm of Marvel Studios since this thing began, and having the same person in charge throughout has shown in the finished product. Consistency is key, and you can't get much more consistent than Feige's leadership.
But Marvel has done an equally good job with the separate branding of each individual franchise, giving each a distinct flavor and tone that ties in to the larger Marvel universe as a whole, but different enough so that each franchise has its own personality. So, too, does each superhero. In doing so, Marvel has done the impossible and created something that appeals to almost everyone: Iron Man's rockstar persona draws in the young dudes who want to be him, Captain America appeals to the older crowd drawn to the classic superhero, the ladies went to see Thor largely because of , and EVERYONE went to see The Avengers.
While RDJ as Iron Man is clearly the ringleader of this motley crew, no one superhero is seen as expendable (Okay...maybe Hawkeye, whose role I hope will grow stronger in the next Avengers movie). All brands and franchises are balanced so as not to alienate any one group. All demographics feel "their" guy is getting equal screen time and that individual attention is being paid to each. Ensemble casts only go as far as the writing does, and each character has been well fleshed-out and sympathetic. Rather than it becoming the "Iron Man with a few other superheroes movie" (which it very well could have been), it was "the Avengers". That is incredibly hard to do with an ensemble cast fielding such iconic roles, and Marvel did a damned fine job of bringing it to the screen.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to marketing for blockbuster films, particularly comic book- or novel-based ones. The first is the DC//Batman method of keeping everything tightly under wraps, leaving only the tiniest of clues for fans until just before the movie drops, which has worked out well for the Dark Knight franchise. The other is to go all out, no f$&@#s given, and just hype the shit out of it generating crazy fan engagement. The latter has clearly been the Marvel approach to, well...just about everything ever. And it's worked. Boy, has it worked. I can say with certainty that the articles that generate the most fan interaction, speculation, and passion for Moviepilot are the ones that revolve around Marvel movies, and that is not by accident.
The other ingredient necessary to create a perfect box office pie is timing (Yes, a two-ingredient pie. It's a magic pie. Not all of my analogies work, so shut up). Marvel simply read the writing on the wall a few years ago and swam out in front of the wave.
See, it's not enough to be an actor anymore. You have to be an actor or actress with a franchise. You have to own an iconic character. A decade ago, it was the name in the role who mattered, and to a large extent, that's still true. But the shift over the past few years has been that the name OF the role matters more. The cultural revolution spurred by the Harry Potter franchise in both print and screen turned the lightbulb on over Hollywood's collective head. Suddenly, studio execs were looking at each other going, "You know, there just might be some money in this massive franchise business." And if they already have strong, preexisting characters with huge fanbases from novel or comic book origins? Even better.
Then came along and was Captain Jack Sparrow. I don't mean he played Captain Jack, I mean he was Captain Jack. He completely owned that role right down to its atoms. He became Jack Sparrow and Jack Sparrow became real, and the two were so closely intertwined that they seemed to be one and the same. And that was it. The bar was set. It was no longer about the actor, but about the character that reinvented the actor. It's the complete opposite of how it was even a few short years ago.
Simply put, the age of the movie star is dead. No longer do actors become stars in their own right. If they want to reach that level of fame and stardom, they need to be in blockbusters and those blockbusters need to have the leverage and box office bank of franchises. An actor or actress needs an iconic role as a launchpad for a new career or to revive a struggling one.
(Sidenote: Sarah over at Lainey Gossip wrote a pretty fascinating article about this very idea a few months ago, and it's well-worth a read if you are like me and a culture/branding nerd.)
Bringing this back to Marvel, from what pool can you draw more deeply on more ready-made iconic characters than a comic book universe? Name one. Go ahead, I'll wait.
Exactly, you can't.
Marvel has also recognized the time as being ripe in another way: We are living in the Golden Age of the Nerd. If you are a geek, a dork, or a nerd (or one of those truly obnoxious souls that argues about the semantics between the three), then this is the best time of your life, pop culturally speaking.
The nerd is king, awkward sells, and suddenly, now that the geeky pastimes of our youth are raking in dough, they're not looking quite so unappealing to notoriously cautious studio execs (Strap in, gamers, 'cause your pastime is the next thing to be pillaged by Hollywood).
And because of this, all the indie, almost auteur directors who would have NEVER been allowed to get within a stone's throw of directing such huge blockbuster movies are the ones that the studios are climbing all over themselves to sign to be at the helm of their next big comic book movie. What does this mean? This means no more Batman and Robin, that's what this means. Comic book movies are now no longer seen as campy schlock with shoddy direction. They are now THE movies to direct, and amazingly talented directors with clear visions and the hearts of nerds are finally getting to do what they've dreamed of since they were kids.
The result is that comic book-based movies are seen as legitimate films now, not just cheesy flicks, with some being praised by critics just as much for their stories and character development as they are for their action (I will argue until my dying day that The Dark Knight deserved a nod for Best Picture, but I digress).
Marvel saw this shift in the cultural zeitgeist coming and got ready. They used it as a springboard for their grand project, blending the timing of audience's often fickle desires with strong branding and a steady dose of hype to create a perpetual motion machine that has gone all Doc Ock's sun in Spider-Man 2, and now it can not be contained. The uncool is cool again, and Marvel's Cinematic Universe is now the standard by which all other franchises will be compared.
I, for one, am ready to welcome our spandex-wearing overlords.