Now, although the idea of giving your loved ones a chocolate egg to celebrate Easter has only been around since the early 19th century, the practice of gifting decorating eggs has actually been around for thousands of years, predating even the concept of Easter. Similarly, although Easter Eggs as we now know them — subtle nods to fans within movies and other media — have largely become popular over the last decade, they've actually been around for a whole lot longer.
The first modern Easter Egg, after all, turned up as long ago as 1979, in Atari's Adventure. Designer Warren Robinett added in a secret area to the game within which, if you looked in the right place, you could find the line "created by Warren Robinett." This isn't quite R2-D2 and C-3PO turning up in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but this was 1979, so fans had to take what they could get.
In the years since, however, Easter Eggs have rapidly grown from carefully hidden jokes relating to the names of game designers to a key part of a multi-billion dollar industry.
One of the most important elements of that growth?
Marvel Studios Has Turned The Use Of Easter Eggs Into A Key Commercial Strategy
Pixar may have perfected the use of Easter Eggs as an art-form — carefully sneaking references to the company's upcoming, as-yet unreleased films into each movie — but it was another iconic, Disney-purchased brand that turned the Easter Egg into the foundation of something grander.
Through a conscious, careful and systematic blitz offensive, Marvel Studios transformed the humble Easter Egg from a fan-pleasing rarity to an essential part of viewing any Marvel movie. Where, back in the years BMCU (Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe), you could easily spend two hours watching a comic book movie with little more than a Stan Lee cameo to show for it, Marvel demanded that you pay attention to every last detail of each of its films, lest you miss out on your favorite character's first and only appearance on screen, or worse, a tease of what was to come.
This Escalation Essentially Redefined Easter Eggs For A Generation
One of the most intriguing side effects of Marvel's hyper-referential strategy? The very idea of what a cinematic Easter Egg has been changed, likely forever. Where once an Easter Egg was a carefully hidden secret — a nod to those fans willing to go over the movie with a fine-tooth comb — its definition quickly expanded out to incorporate some of the other key elements of Marvel's Egg-based game plan.
Post-credits sequences (and eventually mid-credits sequences), the near constant presence of Stan "The Man" Lee and future plot line establishing cameos all soon fell under the Easter Egg umbrella; but it was a more revolutionary introduction that ultimately changed the way the entire blockbuster game was played. After all, other studios had thrown Stan Lee into the cameo mix before, so what did Marvel do that was so different? Well...
The MCU Turned Its Easter Eggs In On Itself
Specifically, the Marvel Cinematic Universe began to spend a whole lot of each film's running time referencing other parts of the franchise's overarching, largely coherent whole. When Avengers: Age Of Ultron sees a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier turn up unexpectedly, it acts as little more than a plot device — unless you've also been watching Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, in which case it becomes a direct reference to that Marvel connected show. Similarly, references in Netflix's Daredevil and Jessica Jones to "the incident" aren't simply geeky in-jokes at this point. Instead, they're a key part of something more or less unprecedented: cinematic world-building on a massive scale.
In other words?
Marvel Has Used Easter Eggs To Create A Cinematic Universe
That, after all, is why the company didn't simply have Nick Fury turn up at the end of Iron Man and goof around. Instead, it chose to use his appearance to begin the process of establishing The Avengers; much as the later crossover appearances of the Falcon, Hawkeye and Iron Man himself were used to consolidate the burgeoning Cinematic Universe's interconnected unity. Gone, in other words, are the days of Stan Lee cameos being the only thing that tied Marvel-based movies together (and even he might secretly be The Watcher).
Meanwhile, every fan-focused tease within the MCU — from the tiniest of nods to Fin Fang Foom to the bluntest nods to Adam Warlock — is now more than simply a reference. Each and every one of them has become part of the larger, interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe — one primarily connected by those very same references. In essence, Marvel has ensured that a large chunk of its core audience treats each movie not as a standalone adventure, but as the continuation of a larger story, one seemingly impossible to abandon at the box office.
And as it turns out...
Marvel's Formula Might Just Be Changing The Movie Industry Forever
Take a look at Warner Bros.' plans for the DC Extended Universe, for instance. Not only is the company actively basing its plans on Marvel's interconnected, referential model, but it might just be set to double down on the use of Easter Eggs as a means to consolidate that connectivity. Take The Joker, for instance; the once-planned appearance of the Clown Prince of Crime in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice seems to have been largely replaced with a series of Joker-referencing Easter Eggs — with the eventual message being pretty much the same: To get the full picture, you need to watch Suicide Squad.
Heck, there's even an argument that the very existence of Suicide Squad — a movie largely made up of relatively obscure fan-favorite villains — is the ultimate extension of Marvel's Easter Egg-based approach. Instead of surrounding a clear cut protagonist with fan-pleasing, future movie-establishing references, Suicide Squad has cast those selfsame references as the movie's main protagonists. In other words? The inmates have taken over the (Arkham) asylum.
This Change Looks Set To Go Way Beyond The Superhero Genre
While DC's Extended Universe and Fox's rapidly-expanding X-Men movie series may well be the most famous adopters of Marvel's basic strategy, they are very much not the only ones.
Universal's "Monsters" franchise is taking a similar path, with Dracula Untold surprising many by hinting at a wider world beyond its cinematic borders, and we can expect to see the Star Wars franchise grow more and more referential as it expands its borders beyond the core saga. Even the new Ghostbusters reboot is attempting to mimic Marvel's approach, with the filmmakers evidently aiming to set into motion a (highly-referential, and cameo-filled) franchise. What's more, as long as interconnected cinematic universes keep making vast sums of money at the global box office, they won't be the last.
All because we loved watching Stan Lee cameos, and Marvel worked out how to turn that love into billions of dollars.