04 May 2012

The Road to a Blockbuster: The Avengers and a Complete Lack of Subtlety

Last year we went through this with THOR (2011). I went into detail about how hard THOR tried to become an EVENT - that big cultural phenomenon that focuses the entire nation's energy for a few hours on a single movie. Lately it seems as if this has been a more obvious trend, or perhaps I'm just older and more cognizant of it. Studios through marketing, word-of-mouth, and carefully crafted hype and viral campaigns attempt to position themselves artificially as the next big thing, even if the film is wildly off the mark. This essentially happened with THOR, at a final tally of $181 million, it's far from a flop, but not necessarily the $300+ million expected after Iron Man (2008) proved to be a game changer.

This year has been really interesting with the kind of ruthless advertising studios have done to re-position their products against each other. The goal here is to not only rule the Box Office, of course, but to be the topic of conversation on every tongue in America. March 2012 saw the debut of two films that couldn't have had more different set-ups and more different pay-outs. Indeed, the hype was so huge that it seemed like Summer was here already.

Disney advertised John Carter (2012) ridiculously, and sought to make it a tentpole film, one that could spawn an entire franchise of sequels and toys and pictures of Taylor Kitsch on slushies. Ultimately this was due to the fact that Disney knew what it had on its hands - an absolute flop, the reasons for which are too complex to get into here, although, in true Avengers fashion, the Hulk does a fine job describing why. John Carter was set up to be that national talking point, unfortunately the only thing people talked about was how poorly it performed at the Box Office.

The Marvel equivalent to LeBron, Wade, and Bosh
We can contrast this with The Hunger Games (2012), which is has been the most successful film to secure for itself a spot in the national consciousness in years. On a budget nearly a third of John Carter's it has crossed over five times as much cash. More than that though, for four weeks all anyone talked about was The Hunger Games. Its characters, setting, and basic plot elements have seeped into every corner of American culture. I have not seen the film but I know that in a dystopian future United States named Panem, Katniss Everdeen volunteers in place of her sister to represent District 12 in the annual Hunger Games, falls for two other dudes, gets mentored by Woody Harrelson, and eventually wins the thing without really killing anyone, because you know, THAT would be just wrong. That is what all movies want to be - so huge that someone not even in their demographic, who has not even seen the film or has a desire to see the film knows everything about it. Every film this summer should seek to do what The Hunger Games has done.

This brings us to The Avengers (2012). No matter how well this film does, it should make Blockbuster history. Never before has there been such a simultaneously disparate and connected shared cosmos between films as big as this or a lead-in so long and devoted. Let's get back to Iron Man, though. Even though Superheros have dominated the movies for the better part of a decade, only two have really stood out as huge earners - Spider-Man and Batman. Iron Man is the quintessential B-Hero, mostly known in the great debate of whether or not he wore underpants underneath his Iron Suit. When he flew to $300 million, virtually tying Indiana Jones in 2008 it seemed as if more of these B-Heroes, when handled properly, could be the key to a great fortune.

Iron Man was followed by The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), THOR, and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). Everyone outside of Iron Man has done alright, none unprofitable, but it's clear that Robert Downey Jr.'s charm was driving a lot of Iron Man's success. The Avengers have done a nice job of highlighting his role over Chris Evans' or Chris Hemsworth's, but it still seems like they haven't positioned themselves as neatly as they could have. Sure it has plenty of buzz, but where's the cheap sell-outs, the constant video spots, the intrusion in the national conscious? Where's its Mazda ads?

The agnostic's delight
It's there. The Avengers have done a spectacular job of infiltrating our minds and culture without us even realising it. My favourite may be the Avengers Hero Bologna. Seriously. It's also notable that F/X has been getting us into the mood by playing non-stop Marvel Superhero movies, mostly Daredevil (2003) and Ghost Rider (2007), but nevertheless it's priming us toward those superhero beats and expanding our spirit of disbelief. F/X has also been airing AVABAR (2009) every night this week, but that's besides the point.

It does have a Dr. Pepper line, thank goodness. I was worried about that one. You need a Dr. Pepper line. I'm thinking at this point along the same lines as The Hunger Games. Lionsgate didn't hammer us over the head with advertising. They just knew their product was going to be huge after years of hype. It wasn't a disappointment. The Avengers will be the same way. There isn't a need to saturate the market with advertising and buzz because we're already there. We've had four years of anticipation and budding interest. Also, apparently it's the tits. It has also seeped into our talk in other ways, such as these very cool Black Widow and Hawkeye posters. In a sense, The Avengers almost seems like it has come out already - there is plenty of fan speculation, art, excitement, and energy surrounding the production, and it feels as if it's been bulging and bubbling for years. That's really because it has, and despite a dearth of talk, there has never really been a question of its success.

The big showdown this Summer when we get down to it, is between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Can one Batman do what it takes seven Avengers to do? Probably. He's done it before. More importantly though, who will leave the greater cultural imprint? The Avengers have always been a cheerier story than Batman, and Christopher Nolan's vision has always hinged on a darker and realistic environment that has influenced just about every Superhero portrayal since (actually, except for the Marvel tie-in films). The big questions with The Avengers is simply whether or not it will be able to balance its disparate elements, provide a catharsis as satisfying as its build-up, and deliver a product that will make all the crap that came before it worthwhile.

As of right now the film should be in the midst of its midnight premiere. What are you doing sitting here?!

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