Movie marketing: Marvel’s movie poster problem

Ok, so a couple of things before we start. First off, Marvel doesn’t really have a movie marketing problem. In the last ten years, its films have racked up an estimated 687.2 kazillion* dollars and its success doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon. Secondly, I’m aware Spider-man: Far From Home isn’t strictly speaking ‘a Marvel movie’. But trust me, any film marketing decisions being taken here are being signed off by Feige’s team.

But it was the arrival of this new teaser poster above that reminded me of a problem I’ve always had with the movie marketing that surrounds my beloved Marvel flicks. Namely, that they start out with such strong creatives when they are teasing the release… only to abandon them later in favour of something much safer and well, duller. And its been like this from day one.

Take 2008’s Iron Man, the movie that kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It’s been well documented it was a massive gamble, with Marvel borrowing $525m against its entire catalogue of characters as collateral to get it going. It’s also been noted that, at the time, Iron Man was a low-tier property. So to put out a teaser like the one below was ballsy. But then, look what they followed it up with…

Today, you might say Iron Man is an ‘iconic’ character, but in 2008 this was far from being the case. And yet, Marvel took the bold decision to treat him as one – with mysterious, interesting and visually arresting teaser that said something was not only coming, but had been assembled and activated. Sadly, the one sheet that came after it just wanted to the names and faces of the actors up front, with some background explosions to let you know it was an action flick. It’s a tried and tested film marketing technique… and I’d have to guess it works. But as a creative approach, well, it’s just no fun is it?

After another Hulk movie and an Iron Man sequel, Marvel wanted to introduce audiences to another of its less prominent, well-known and tested characters in Thor. And guess what? They did the same thing. Kick it off with something dramatic that aspires to be iconic, then follow it up with the ‘heads, names and explosions’ film marketing formula. Also, while we’re on the subject of formulaic movie marketing… ‘courage is immortal’? Jesus, is that the best tagline they could come up with for this?

The trend continued over the rest of the first phase of the MCU with Captain America: The First Avenger, which launched with a teaser poster that showed an unmasked Cap stood over his shield with the statement ‘AVENGE’. It didn’t really make much sense in the context of the film, but it was a good introduction to another character people predicted wouldn’t work on film. Marketing the movie carefully to allay these fears was essential and I’d say they succeeded… but again, the ugly default follow up was what would hang around in cinema foyers the longest.

When the time came to promote the first team movie, marketing for The Avengers came thick and fast. And once again, the initial poster used existing Marvel iconography wider audiences might not have been aware of – with the Avengers ‘A’ that had adorned the comic for decades and the rallying call of ‘ASSEMBLE!’ so often used in its pages. Unlike the film, a masterclass in event cinema that gives everyone enough breathing room, the final poster was a mish-mash of tones and characters fighting for space.

I’d like to say things got better, but they didn’t. With every new Marvel film, an initial teaser would set the mood, introduce the iconography of a character (or characters in the case of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie marketing), then ruin everything with a heads and explosions shot that would go on to be the defining poster, DVD/Blu-ray sleeve and thumbnail image for digital streaming and downloads for the rest of its life.

The Guardians of the Galaxy film marketing took a beautiful shot of the gang casually hanging out, and replaced it with a wild Photoshop-fest (something Marvel repeated for Vol 2 as well). But worse than that is how Marvel handed one of its potentially weakest properties some stellar movie marketing magic – then took it away.

Ant-Man had been, to a degree, a troubled production. Having parted ways with geek culture favourite and Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright in 2014, fans were concerned. Many predicted that Marvel had decided Edgar’s comedic stylings wouldn’t fit with the wider MCU and were worried Ant-Man would end up being just another dude in a suit. We knew Paul Rudd would still be the man in that suit, but was the humour and light touch promised by Wright’s shepherding of the project gone forever? Well, when the first posters arrived, we got our answer…

Not only did the Ant Man posters acknowledge this character didn’t have the capabilities of Iron Man, the might of Thor or the spirit of Cap, they actively celebrated it as what set him apart. Using the established iconography of the MCU (instead of the comics now), they were introducing a new, plucky hero with a heart of gold. And while the designs of the posters worked for all audiences, the tagline doubled down – establishing a tone that said to the viewer: ‘Hey, come see this. It’ll be fun’.

Things did get better more recently when it came to feature posters. In particular, 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok matched the energy of the rest of the film marketing that accompanied it, with a one sheet that was incredibly vibrant and aligned with the psychedelic tone of its truly thrilling first trailer. And while I’m less of a fan of 2018’s Black Panther poster, at least the designers had the chance to incorporate elements of the film’s production design that would allow it to stand out on its own.

So where does that leave us today? Well, like Homecoming before it, which set out its stall with some delightful teaser posters featuring Spidey hanging about around the streets of New York, we’ve now been given a brand new poster for Far From Home that does something similar.

Sadly, Homecoming was also responsible for, in my opinion, the worst poster in Marvel movie history (below), so I don’t hold out much hope for the one-sheet that will eventually end up as the face of Far From Home in the longer term film marketing. Dear god I hope they prove me wrong.

Seriously, I had to double check to see if I had this wrong and it was fan-made.

*I made this number up, obviously.

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