With a global gross surpassing $1 billion less than three weeks after it first appeared on any screen, Marvel’s Avengers has blasted through nearly every record in cinema history. But the true miracle behind this superhero mash-up had less to do with mystical hammers and star-spangled shields than it did with a remarkable, singular vision, and the determination to change the way business, technology and creative have always been handled in Hollywood. Even as the industry scrambles to figure out how to emulate this success, here are six hard and fast reasons why Avengers gets it right:1. A Mastermind with a Long-Term Scheme
After raising $525 million from Merrill Lynch (risking the movie rights to his biggest characters as collateral), Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige—a post-Star Wars nerd who was a teen in the 1980s and hasn’t hit 40 yet—decided to buck the system and laid out a multi-year vision for how Marvel’s superhero films could fit together as part of a greater feature film story world just as they have in the comic books for 50 years.
Photo: Getty Images / Kevin Winter
Having set up the Spider-Man franchise at Sony and X-Men at 20th Century Fox, Feige decided to go the distance with Marvel’s remaining crown jewels. He planned to execute a new crop of films to interconnect with one another in a non-linear fashion, with storylines, teaser scenes and character development that would all lead up to Avengers over several films and several years. “Who wouldn’t want to see that?” he thought. “And why does this have to be impossible?”
Just as in the best of the comics, the average person could enjoy the individual movies (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man II, Thor, Captain America) without needing to know how all these threads tied together. But audience members who recognised a grander scheme were quickly validated by subsequent films and became torchbearers—not just comic book fans, but movie fans, kids unfamiliar with the comics, and critics as well. Feige knows that when you do the work of linking things meaningfully in your head, and they make sense, you get a kick out of it. He cleverly rewarded our enthusiasm, and we gave him our loyalty.
2. Insisting the Story Wins Out Over Egos
Marvel Studios has not played to the standard expectations and business conventions of Hollywood, which often works the same way as Congress: “No!” is the easiest thing to say and doing nothing is the path of least resistance.
Along the way Feige had to convince actors like Robert Downey Jr. to commit to four or more films at a time, directors like Jon Favreau to bend his stories in service to other films, and even recasting actors when they don’t work out. Hollywood’s best business development execs and entertainment attorneys can be scarier than Thanos and the Super-Skrull, but Feige was driven in unwavering service to a higher cause: his inner geek. He proved that narrative could win out over negotiations—and actors’ schedules!
3. Homer, Dante and…Stan Lee! Embracing a Mythos of Our Own
Marvel has an intrinsic understanding that over the past five decades, their characters have become woven into the fabric of a greater global popular culture. The potent combo of licensing and digital technology has made characters like The Hulk and Captain America familiar to street kids in Botswana. Only after these past couple of weeks has the media finally caught up, finally admitting that superheroes have legitimately become our contemporary mythology, just as well-told tales of Greek and Roman gods were the blockbusters of their own epochs.
The unusual choice to release the movie in many major international markets before releasing it in the United States, built a “global countdown” buzz for The Avengers.
What’s surprising to those in the know was how Marvel’s (and parent company Disney’s) rivals underestimated how badly people yearn to see these kinds of stories and how the exploits of flawed, but powerful beings, resonates as a touchstone that crosses cultures, countries and languages. And most recently, the advancement of special effects—and a generation of filmmakers and producers who’ve grown up immersed in those heroic adventures—have allowed these kinds of stories to be told on the big screen in a way that truly captures their sophistication, humour and dramatic scope.
4. One Universe, Dozens of Access Points
The tech-savvy Feige did not limit his storytelling vision to the silver screen. He planted Easter eggs and deleted scenes that filled in story points on each movie’s DVD. Disney put out chapter books on each character, familiarising kids with action-packed back-stories. An Avengers animated series took on some of the tone, humour and attitude of the films. Marvel hammered its video game licensees to push formerly dusty Avengers heroes front and centre. This is all a loose version of what is lately being called transmedia storytelling, the coordinated extension of a cohesive story world across multiple media platforms. We’re seeing this technique in action with franchises like Star Wars, but also with elaborate cross-media movie run-ups such as Hunger Games and Ridley Scott’s eerily compelling Prometheus campaign.
With Avengers fast approaching, Marvel zigged wherever Disney’s John Carter had zagged. From dialoguing with fans through social networks, to the use of virtually every Marvel-related content play at hand: Ultimate Spider-Man and Avengers cartoons on Disney’s various cable networks, round-the-clock interstitials profiling each character, aisle-jamming action figure toy lines, even a million-dollar Facebook game that integrates X-Men and other characters from the greater Marvel universe. In short, Marvel reached out to us the way we want to be to be talked to these days, and they made us feel like they were listening to us. Everything fell together to foster the idea that Avengers was going to be an unprecedented event.
5. Incentivizing Rivals to Team Up
Photo: Disney / Marvel
Feige (with some Disney muscle behind him) somehow got mortal foes to play well together. Universal Pictures held the rights on Hulk, Paramount for Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, and now Disney has pulled them all together for Avengers. From the inside, this meant dozens of layers of delicate negotiations, and the seeking of win-win outcomes as opposed to asserting bully tactics. From the outside, this effort generated the cumulative effect of conveying an exciting, immersive and persistent world that somehow makes sense and stands up to closer scrutiny. Again, the results show what happens when your allegiance is place in service to the story world as opposed to the stuffed shirts.6. A Daring, Well-Timed Release Strategy
Finally, the unusual choice to release the movie in many major international markets before releasing it in the United States—a strategy that has also reduced piracy—built a “global countdown” buzz for Avengers. Instead of getting American audiences angry, with each overseas record broken, and every positive review that came in from around the world, anticipation only increased for the film in the U.S.
As with earlier films that became cultural lightning rods (Burton’s first Batman movie, the desire to see Heath Ledger as Joker in Dark Knight, and James Cameron’s Avatar), by the time Marvel’s Avengers arrived, a huge surge of interest had been cultivated across all age groups, compelling us all to see it as soon as possible so we can take part in a major happening; an event made all the more exciting by millions of posts throughout social media.
There are subtleties to Kevin Feige’s process that will almost certainly elude other studio chiefs, and most will be at a loss as to how to apply these techniques to new properties or those gathering dust in various archives. But don’t be surprised to see the studios, at the very least, be less hesitant to join forces like their colorfully costumed assets as a result. X-Men Vs. Avengers anyone…?
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