Human beings have always been very expressive creatures. Storytelling plays a huge role in our lives, whether it’s a means to escape our ordinary routines, to find inspiration or to communicate complex ideas in simpler ways. One such company that successfully capitalized on its storytelling abilities years into the future to attract audiences through comics, toys and eventually movies is Marvel Entertainment.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe currently comprises 22 films, spanning 11 years over three “phases,” each of the movies’ storylines connected to each other. The MCU is the highest earning film franchise of all time with a revenue of $21.4 billion, surpassing classics such as Star Wars and Harry Potter. The 22nd movie in this franchise, Avengers: Endgame – a thrilling culmination to the buildup and hype created over the infinity stones in the last decade – became the highest grossing film of all time at $2.79 billion (graphics.reuters.com). In comparison, DC Comics was slow in entering the movie business, and much less aggressive.
Producing a series of movies that span an entire decade (and more) demands many things at once, the most important one of them being a sense of consistency, and constantly being able to reinvent yourself in terms of the narrative as well as planning and marketing. Below is an attempt to identify the reasons the MCU saw a constant series of successes which were at least good, and at most a record breaking hit.
Big Picture Stuff Apple is so successful because it didn’t identify itself as being a company that just produces personal computers, Nokia on the other hand was never able to capture the smartphone market because it failed to reinvent itself and match up to changing trends. Marvel chose not to associate itself with just one set of characters, but ambitiously sketched out an arc for several at once, well in advance. Each phase introduces fresh faces, new narratives, and new cultural icons for people to root for, while at the same time developing the stories of the existing characters further.
Power of Continuity Each film contains a post-credit scene which lasted a maximum of one to two minutes created links between different movies of the franchise, sometimes introducing the villain of a future film, or teasing an interaction of two very different characters, sparking curiosity and spurring discussion. Marvel also created what Kristen Daly, a researcher at Columbia calls a “viewser” – “Much like internet users, cinema goers now take information from a number of different mediums, to enhance their experience of any one film” (crackmagazine.net). A person who wasn’t specifically interested in a particular film still might end up seeing it, in hopes that it will drop hints about what will happen in the next one.
Brand Equity Through fifty plus years of publishing comics that have carved a space in people’s hearts, Marvel’s cinematic adventures had a robust backing of its brand name, and have been able to bank on it to create hype about its feature films and TV shows in early years. As the films became successful, the brand’s value grew on its own. A part of this movie-going audience included readers coming to the screen to see their favorite characters coming alive, but also those untapped demographic groups that knew what Marvel comics was, but couldn’t be bothered to read the comics.
They act as “advertising machines” for all other parts of Marvel’s business (Anita Elberse, Marvel Enterprises, Inc). Another important part of Marvel’s brand equity is Stan Lee, For a long time, Stan wrote most of the text for the comics, and is credited to be the creator of some of Marvel’s best performing characters such as Spiderman and Fantastic Four. Stan has a cameo in all 22 MCU films and became the face of the company.
Storytelling Simply put, Marvel is a storytelling genius. It has created a universe of characters that mirrors our own, in more ways than one. The company used the Marvel Universe to talk about problems that many of us face in real life – be it the constant bullying that Peter Parker had to endure by his peers when he was not Spiderman, or Tony Stark’s issues with his father, audiences found it easier to relate to characters who were more similar to them. When an alien army invades New York, it makes a stronger impact on the audience as opposed to a fictional city or town (Marvel Comics: The Untold Story).
Strategic Partnerships and Advertising Marvel was able to expand its reach beyond its traditional offerings and leverage its brand equity to partner with other well established brands, which in turn boosted its own value in the eyes of its target audience. To promote Avengers: Endgame, Marvel partnered with Audi, Google’s Pixel phone which got Avengers augmented reality stickers, and even with brands like Geico and Acura as well as Ulta Beauty.
Due to the success of the films, and the profits it generated, opportunities to spend more on advertising increased. According to an article by the Fast Company (2019), Marvel spent an estimated $200 million to promote Avengers: Endgame, $13.6 million of which was spent only on paid media. It also helps if you are the highest grossing franchise of all times; there were endless options to partner with other brands.
Even though Marvel now has a treasure trove of 8000+ characters, how long will the same underlying storyline of good over evil and over-confident superheroes last? Is this the peak of Marvel’s Cinematic offerings? Will they be able to sustain their existing model and continue to make profits based on the same strategies? It seems that Disney’s new streaming service, and its new content offerings might play a huge role in shaping the MCU’s future. Only time will tell.