The Marvels Hasn't Killed the MCU, It Proves the Actors' Worth
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The films of Marvel Studios have entered into a new cycle in the post-pandemic theatrical landscape. The release of The Marvels starts that cycle again, but unfortunately, it will be a long time before the typical rebound. If Marvel Studios is "struggling," it's doing it in just as unprecedented a way as it dominated the pop culture landscape for more than a decade as a bulletproof cinematic institution. Whatever box office failures The Marvels may face, all it proves is the actors' worth in promoting the film.
Early on in the 2020s, Marvel Studios releases like Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever all saw varying degrees of success. Later releases like Thor: Love and Thunder and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania were poorly received, while James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 was the MCU's top performer in 2023. While this seems to establish a pattern, one thing that differs about The Marvels is that its stars were prevented from promoting their film as the SAG-AFTRA Union fought the studios for a fair deal. The Marvels opening weekend box office shows just how effective earned media from stars' viral moments can bolster a film's marketing.
The Marvels Didn't Benefit From 'Viral Press Tour' Earned Media
"Earned media" is a term used to describe the press coverage a film gets organically without the help of public relations teams. For example, all the news coverage of the "Barbenheimer" phenomenon came from social media virality, not a strategic media relations effort. The press junket interviews with stars all sitting in the same room aren't earned media, and typically only reach people looking for more information about a given project already. However, viral moments, like when Spider-Man actor Tom Holland or Captain America actor Anthony Mackie goof around, branch out into other areas.
During the press tour for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, the film got a lot of mileage out of discussions about the realistic, lightweight model of Star-Lord that Nebula is seen carrying in the opening of the film. James Gunn apparently kept it in his office after they were through with it. One particular interview has Pratt "misunderstanding" what precisely James Gunn and the visitors to his office are doing with that dummy. It was the kind of naïve yet filthy moment that hearkened back to Pratt's days as lovable dunce Andy on Parks and Rec. It's an algorithm-breaking moment that captures more eyes than a promotional campaign targeted to casual moviegoers.
Of the cast of The Marvels, Iman Vellani has had her share of viral Marvel marketing moments already. Her genuine enthusiasm for Marvel stories and joy at being involved in making them is infectious. From contradicting Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige on what "Earth number" the Marvel Cinematic Universe occupies to freaking out when The Marvelsco-star Brie Larson told her Ms. Marvel was part of an Avengers Disney ride. It's not the junkets or the late-night show interviews that help promote the films, it's the very personalities of the MCU stars.
The Opening Weekend Box Offices of The Marvels, The Flash and Blue Beetle
The Marvels and Blue Beetle were the only superhero films released during the SAG-AFTRA strike. However, The Flash movie was released almost exactly a month before the strike was called, yet due to Ezra Miller's legal troubles the film's star was absent from the press tour. Comparing the opening weekends of these films adds some interesting context to The Marvelsand Marvel Studios' overall predicament. The only thing making The Marvels a "flop" is its budget that's reportedly between $220-$250 million. It was still the number one movie in the United States, and Marvel Studios' other "flops" all landed in the Top 10 box office grossers for the year.
The Flash was unable to use its star for promotion, turning instead to Michael Keaton and a less-than-zealous Michael Shannon. The Flash and Batman are two decades-old characters with other adaptations and large followings. Still, even with the bad press around the movie and the shared DC continuity being a dead universe, The Flash opened at $55 million domestically, beating The Marvels by just eight million. Meanwhile, Blue Beetle opened with half of The Marvels first-weekend gross, a little over $24 million. Even without actors doing any promotion, the Marvel brand was good enough to bring grosses closer to The Flash, a movie with big names, than Blue Beetle, a relative unknown to movies-only audiences.
Meanwhile, both Ant-Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 started their vastly different runs at $104 million and $118 million respectively. Yet The Marvels falls in between the two previous DC Films releases, Black Adam ($67 million, domestically) and Shazam!: Fury of the Gods ($30 million, domestically). This suggests that while audience interest in DC is low, viral press tour moments or not, the Marvel machine still works to boost up those opening weekend numbers. With a proper press tour and marketing campaign, The Marvels could've easily broken a $100 million opening.
The Marvels Was Never Going to Be a Typical MCU Release
The Marvels was not really a sequel to the billion-dollar grosser Captain Marvel, even though it's functionally a continuation of her story. The inclusion of Monica Rambeau and Ms. Marvel changed the dynamic, and with three disparate characters, audiences needed some priming to understand what this movie was and where it fit in the MCU. Once the characters are all together, the film takes off and is as fun as a superhero story can be. The final trailer for The Marvels tried to provide some context, but that part of the marketing campaign is usually taken care of by the actors.
Hearing Vellani, Larson or Teyonah Parris describing how these three heroes arrive at this movie might have been enough to bring tentatively curious MCU fans out to the theater. Instead of "MCU fatigue," there is simply "wallet fatigue," and audiences need to be convinced a film is worth seeing in the theater rather than waiting (at most) three months to stream it at home. This is why the viral, organic Barbenheimer campaign was so successful. Those movies were an event. While The Marvels is a big deal as well, some fans may be content to wait to see it on Disney+.
Viral marketing moments can catch casual audiences, but fans of Marvel would seek out interviews with the cast about what to expect in the movie. These are the people in the audience looking for press junket interviews and other celebrity appearances. Knowing spoiler-free set-up and the stakes at play for the larger MCU might have made all the difference between a $100 million opening weekend "hit" or a "flop" at half that box office gross.
The reason SAG-AFTRA members couldn't talk about projects -- whether upcoming or already finished -- is because promotion is part of their contracted work. People are naturally curious about celebrities, so when they pop up on a talk show or Hot Ones or elsewhere, it can help "sell" a movie to the audience. How much it helped was always a mystery, but The Marvelsopening weekend suggests it contributes more than anyone would guess.
What's most interesting about The Marvels now is the press tour has been underway in earnest since the end of the strike. As the stars do the rounds on talk shows and social media, the movie may enjoy the kind of post-release box office surge not seen for 30-odd years. The Marvels may just be a sleeper hit that continues to earn respectable numbers, maybe even staying in the theater longer than the normal eight to twelve weeks. Still, with the proper press tour, those women would be the reason for any success the film has.
The Marvels is currently in theaters.