Marvel's Marketing Always Explained The Heroes... Until Now
The accidental genius of the MCU comes from all their banner heroes starting off as B-list at best characters. When Marvel became solvent after bankruptcy in the 1990s and looked to start making their own movies, the movie rights to their best-known properties - Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four - were locked away at other studios, so they had to make do with what was left. The likes of Captain America and Iron Man were, in the mid-2000s, lesser known: they were viewed as a propaganda holdover and a laughably named robot respectively. Every aspect of Marvel Studios' now tried-and-tested formula worked to fix that, with smart balance in comic reverence, astute casting and appealing stories overriding a lack of name recognition. But a key to it all was the trailers.
Marvel trailers aren't just selling the movies, they're selling the characters, and a key part of that is simply explaining their heroes. From Thor to Guardians of the Galaxy to Black Panther, the marketing campaigns for MCU movies strives to provide an overview of who they are, what their powers are and how they got them (if applicable) so that even if you've never heard of Ant-Man, you understand exactly what his deal is after two minutes. Even Spider-Man, the most popular superhero in the world, was sold in this manner; Spider-Man: Homecoming's trailers gave an earnest, straight view on Peter Parker, not letting his real-world stature get in the way of the proven (this is also why he and Black Panther debuted in Captain America: Civil War - it's more shorthand).
This means never having picked up a comic book is no excuse to not watch a film about a character, and also helps serve the shared universe as a whole: an audience member can follow Doctor Strange's arc in Avengers: Infinity War based on what's shown in his solo movie's trailer alone; and Black Panther can outgross almost all other films by bringing in an underserved audience. Trailers are such big events for Marvel because they're as important as the films.
Captain Marvel's trailers are actively working against twenty movies' worth of knowledge. They're not leading with any of the information up-front, instead teasing things only die-hards will know, with clarifications coming months later. The trailers act like the film is subverting something known, when all it's doing is rewriting a far-from-legendary origin. There may be an argument that the mystery is baked into the story and that makes selling Captain Marvel hard, but again considering that this is the corporately-owned Marvel's 21st rodeo, such obvious concerns should have been addressed in the scriptwriting stage. After all, there is one rule bigger than their own...
Mysterious Marketing Rarely Works
That final point about secrecy gets at the heart of one pitfall Marvel's consistently avoided. There's a very fine line when it comes to story reveals in trailers, with audiences typically wanting everything up to a specific, and then nothing at all. However, going too far one way is considerably worse than the other: if a trailer shows too much, audiences may grumble at having the film spoiled after seeing; if a trailer shows too little, audiences won't bother buying a ticket.
Sometimes, holding back massively in the marketing works. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the premier example, with the plot of a pretty standard reboot of the saga given a veil of immense secrecy by J.J. Abrams' mystery box marketing, and the hype for Episode VII vastly increasing as a result. But not every movie is Star Wars 7. Equally restrained trailers are widely believed as the cause for Star Wars: The Last Jedi's backlash and Solo: A Star Wars Story's box office bomb, and the same is true of films like Blade Runner 2049. Within all this, there is an argument about story preservation, but when we're dealing with $150+ million behemoths, a compromise is needed.
Ironically, it's Marvel that normally strikes the best balance. Their trailers start off as teases, gradually revealing more good stuff and providing audiences with a subliminal sense of narrative while holding just enough back (at least one big twist per movie) so that the eventual first viewing is surprising yet familiar. This can be best seen with Avengers: Infinity War, where, daughter murder and finger snapping aside, the story was broadly all in the trailer.
What they're doing with Captain Marvel, then, is more in-line with Solo than it is Thanos. There has to be a reason, but one that justifies working against every understood rule in marketing (not to mention leading to two so-so trailers that keep the audience at arm's length) has yet to emerge.
It's foolhardy to say Captain Marvel risks being a box office bomb. What Carol Danvers represents as the first solo female superhero in the MCU overrides any lack of recognition, and the whole Marvel machine is so conditioned now it will take a genuine misstep to slow down. However, in the marketing, Marvel has nevertheless taken a rather rogue step that could hurt what's set to be an all-timer 2019.
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019