Let’s not mince words: The most recent Spider-Man Homecoming poster is awful. It’s overcrowded, messy on a basic design level, and it doesn’t capture the mood or tone of the film or its main character. Indeed, he is barely the central feature, as your eye is more drawn to glowing Tony Stark in the top-right corner or Iron Man on the opposite side. This proved especially disappointing since the teaser posters for the film were so striking in their simplicity, showing Spider-Man himself, front and center, both on the job clinging to the side of Avengers HQ and relaxing on the city’s outskirts with his headphones on. You immediately know the two sides of Peter Parker from these posters – the crime fighting superhero and the teenage boy with dreams on his mind.
For the vast majority of moviegoers, the quality of the poster isn’t going to influence them on whether or not they’ll see the film – at this point in time, the output of Marvel Studios is essentially review-proof, let alone shoddy photoshop-proof – but this does highlight an area where the company has slipped in terms of marketing. For a company so precise and calculated in every element of their promotional campaigns, Marvel can’t be pretty bad at making movie posters.
So many of Marvel’s problems on this front can be traced back to a simple need to market to the widest possible audience. While the studio can now basically slap their name on anything and make a billion dollars, that wasn’t always the case, and they had to drive home at every possible moment exactly what they were selling to prospective audiences. That means slapping everything on the poster for maximum coverage, so, to use the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an example, you don’t just get Iron Man front and center, but you get the now iconic suit to the left, with the serious faces of the most bankable stars on the right, including Robert Downey Jr, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, and the top half of Gwyneth Paltrow’s body to the backdrop of soaring jets chasing Iron Man into the skies, while Obadiah Stane’s giant metal suit is surrounded by flames. There’s a lot going on here. Iron Man himself is featured no less than three times in one sheet if you include Stark. On top of reminding potential viewers of the big stars in this shiny new film, it hints at the plot of the story. It’s on the nose, but effective, which is all it needs to be.
Arguably the messiest example of this Marvel has created is their main poster for Avengers: Age of Ultron. The “everything but the kitchen sink” approach is in full effect here, with nine major actors in action mode vying for your attention (expectedly, Iron Man is in the center), and a sea of debris and bodies flying in the backdrop. There’s no cohesion in terms of the color scheme, nor is there anything truly interesting to look at. It’s Advertising 101, which has its benefits, but fails to create the necessary sense of scope beyond “more people equals more epic”.
This is hardly a problem unique to Marvel. For many decades, poster design was considered a criminally underrated art, with the work of acclaimed designers and artists like Saul Bass and Drew Struzan pioneering the field. Struzan, who is responsible for some of the most famous film posters ever made, including but not limited to Star Wars, The Thing, the Indiana Jones series, and Big Trouble in Little China, is beloved by icons of the film world, including Guillermo Del Toro, who said of him, “There is one artist for every couple of decades that encapsulates what the film experience was for a couple of generations, and I think for my generation and for the generation right before me, Drew Struzan was the movies.” There’s even an entire documentary about Struzan’s work, entitled Drew: The Man Behind the Poster. In that film, Struzan provides arguably the most succinct explanation for why his artform is dying off in the modern film age, as he discusses the cost cutting measures most studios take on marketing.
A process like Struzan’s, which is detailed and time-consuming, is not worthwhile for a studio that can simply photoshop together a few actors’ faces (preferably to a blue and orange contrast background) and call it a day. They just won’t allot the time or funds to such ventures unless it’s a special situation, as was the case when Struzan himself was asked to design a poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, thus allowing him to complete the set (that beautiful poster took around seven months of work, which also explains why studios are less willing to invest in such work nowadays).
That doesn’t seem like it would be a huge problem for Marvel, who, as part of the ever powerful Walt Disney Company, are hardly short of a few dollars. Yet it’s clear that the studio has to be more focused with their cash, particularly when it comes to the ever-important marketing. With an international market remaining a key area, especially in Asia, posters are less effective in spreading the message than television and online campaigns. Marvel has never been shy about going for the biggest audiences possible, such as the Super Bowl, where, at this year’s game, a 30 second slot in the ad break cost a whopping $5 million. That’s a worthwhile investment, as it not only provides a captive audience but immense social media buzz in the aftermath, as was the case for this year’s release, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. A nice poster can do its job well enough, but it’s not going to be the trending topic the trailer will.
That’s not to say that all of Marvel’s posters suffer from this issue. While most range from perfunctory to every graphic designer’s worst nightmare, there are some that are striking in their simplicity and establish a mood with little fuss. The recent teaser poster for Black Panther is an excellent example of that, at least in conception, giving audiences a taste of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in costume and alone on his throne to the backdrop of the Wakandan Kingdom. It’s a crisp, clean design that’s still full of little details for the discerning viewer to analyze (and a brilliant historical parallel), and it introduces something very new to the Marvel slate. Then again, the lack of budgeting is once again apparent, as poor photoshop work shines through and the color balance and lighting of T’Challa’s head clearly clashes with the rest of the poster – imagine what a proper artist could have done with that concept. There’s no doubt that in a couple of months time we will also get a more crowded poster that will slap on the floating face of every major name in the movie, just to remind you of its impressive star power.
That’s obviously a good idea for any film, so it can hardly be dismissed as merely rushed marketing. Still, it’s a shame that a studio that is so excellent at making this franchise and packaging it for maximum efficiency seems to view the art of the poster as a frivolity. So many fan made posters have more accurately captured the tone and genre trappings of the series than anything the studio themselves have released. Perhaps this is one area where Marvel could learn a thing or two from its supporters. Poster design is a dwindling art in the industry, and it would be a shame to see its creativity become solely a fan pursuit.