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Comic books were once as radioactive as the spider that nips Peter Parker. But mainstream audiences are no longer fearful of the cultural stigma surrounding superheroes – and, just like Parker’s Spider-Man, brands have learned that with great power comes great revenue.

Today, no media conglomerate would dare be caught dead without a stable of superheroes. Disney owns Marvel Studios, Warner Bros has DC Films, Netflix has Millarworld and Amazon Prime Video has relationships with Chris Kirkland of The Walking Dead.

But it wasn’t always this way and only after a decade of superhero success has Hollywood been emboldened enough to take risks. Marvel’s varied output now includes a talking tree and a sociopath raccoon as tent-pole characters, 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool cussed a path to the top of the charts, while DC’s filmic universe will sink or swim on the performance of Aquaman later this year. 

A decade and 19 movies after Robert Downey Jr first donned his Iron Man suit, audiences still hunger for superheroes at the box office. And earlier this year Infinity War surpassed $2bn at the box office, just two months after Black Panther accrued $1.3bn. All of this has been achieved by treating each hero as an individual brand.

In particular, Marvel’s success has followed from housing each story within a unique genre. Captain America has already starred in a period drama, a spy movie and a political thriller, while other titular characters have popped up space operas, fantasy epics, Guy Ritchie-like heists and psychedelic trips. It doesn’t make superhero movies – it makes movies starring superheroes.

David Born, who is head of Born Licensing, has helped bring nostalgic properties like He-Man, Skeletor, GI Joe, SpongeBob and The Muppets to TV ads. He understands the power of the “long term strategic planning” exhibited by the major studios and says Marvel and DC have created intricate universes. “They plan years in advance where they’ll take storylines and characters, how characters are introduced and how they are developed beyond the box office.”

The studios have benefited from “a major fear of missing out effect” among audiences, but fear itself is also a factor, he suggests. “With terrorism, climate change and political instability looming, consumers are looking for an escape – even if just for a few hours – and what better way than to see good triumph over evil?”

Comic maestro Mark Millar, formerly of DC and Marvel, sold his Millarworld to Netflix in 2017 after the Kickass, Wanted and Kingsman movies found success. Still in the business of plot and character creation, Millar says he knows why audiences needs heroes. “These characters are always big in economic recession, war, bad news headlines and financial crashes. Sales are terrible during an economic boom. 

“The Clinton years were a nightmare with everyone feeling good about themselves. Nobody needed a superhero. They are created for when people think, ‘I cannot handle the real world’.” 

According to Millar, this is best illustrated by Superman, which was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. “In 1938, two Jewish kids were hearing bad news out of Europe so they created a hero to make themselves feel better. They created Superman.”

In later decades, Marvel hit upon a rich creative seam during the Cold War. “Marvel characters usually have a radioactive origin because nuclear war was scaring everyone. The writers transformed fear into something positive. I hate to sound like a war profiteer, but I think we are facing some dark times.”

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Meanwhile, Mark Frith, the editorial director of The Radio Times, sits on a deep-rooted vein of superhero fandom that was present before the cinematic superhero invasion. “The perception that fans were dweeby or geeky and not mainstream no longer happens. Marvel, Star Wars and Doctor Who are all now the biggest brands in entertainment.”

He says Marvel has benefited from “the best people working on its projects”, as well as a blank canvas. In contrast, the work of newcomers to old roles, like Jared Leto’s take on the Joker, has been frequently overshadowed by the cinematic legacies of Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Cesar Romero.

“Marvel has a self-made universe. It does what it wants. Characters have less of a restraining back-story; it adapts character facets, not character baggage. They exist as a sketch and are not fully formed, which is a big advantage. You can build upon that.”

Frith concludes: “People are very close to the characters they like, that is the challenge. The movies that have succeed are those without baggage, that have the right scripts and the quality team.”

It all comes back to pleasing fans. Grandesign creates extravagant experiences at San Diego Comicon. To stand out it must exhibit a deep understanding of fan culture. Robert Ridgeway, who is the events agency’s chief operating officer, says: “They are fanatics about their favorite brands.”

He compares his target audience to hardcore sports fans who know “every player, every stat, wear their favorite jerseys”. He says: “They really care for authenticity, so when we have a Marvel-related activation we make sure it’s as real as can be.”
His colleague Kelly Reynolds, who is vice-president of experiential marketing, says the spectrum of fans is expanding and that stories are reaching a broader audience, spanning “mothers, tech gurus, kids, business professionals and millennials”.

On the draw she adds: “There is something attractive about imagining a universe without the normal limitations. Where the sky is truly the limit, where you can save the damsel in distress, you can live beyond your constraints of gravity or disappear into the night.”

Tom Muller, who is a comic book artist as well as a creative director at Possible, likens the industry to a well-oiled machine that will keep adapting heroic IP as long as profits remain constant. To keep the cogs turning, Muller says studios retain the “essence” of heroes while “making them accessible and fun”. This formula services the mainstream audience and existing fans without “condescension” or “shame”.
As art, the superhero movie has ascended into a higher plane, he says: “Now a lot of serious actors are realizing it’s a boon to appear in a comic book film instead of a blemish on their career.” 

Speaking as an ad man and a comic artist, Muller sees parallels between each industry. “In many ways they cling to old models of communicating with their audience. Comics have only been available in specialist stores for 30 years and digital consumption has been slow because of the collectability element of the medium, despite digital primarily being the main channel for media consumption.

“Even though it’s 2018, we still see brands vying for traditional TV and print campaigns and digital banner ads. Innovation is happening, but we’re trying to turn oil tankers so it’s going to be slow.”

They can learn from each other, he concludes. “They should embrace current technology and media platforms, advertise beyond core audiences and invest in proper marketing, advertising, design and comms that don’t use stereotypical comic book language.”

The world’s biggest brands particularly enjoy associating with the mighty heroes of the Marvel and DC universes, and partnerships, endorsements and product placements have come to help fund heroes.

Karen Boswell, head of innovations at Adam & Eve/DDB, explains the dynamic: “It’s the borrowed equity model – why do the hard branding work when Marvel has done it all for you? The bottom line is that superheroes are awesome, and awesome positively affects the bottom line. Whether it’s The Incredibles shifting Sky products or Wolverine promoting milk, it’s a proven model for sales.” 

This risks the hallowed authenticity that hero fans require and Boswell admits there will likely be a point of saturation. But, as with all advertising, “if done well it will live on”. 

She says she only hopes brands don’t take control or that superheroes start asking for endorsements. “The comic artform is one of the most powerful storytelling mediums on the face of the planet. This is because the narratives, visuals and characters are timeless. If a brand can learn to move from one generation to the next in the same manner, they will move from penetrating a pop culture to creating their own. In doing so, they create a legacy that lives rather than a campaign that dies.”

To stand out from the crowd, many superhero movies benefit from purpose. Wonder Woman championed a strong female role model, Black Panther wowed audiences with a fully-realized Afro-futurist world and the ‘mutation’ that drives the plot lines of the X-Men series has long functions as an allegory for civil rights and persecution of the LGBTQ+ community.

Boswell echoes Millar’s “dark times” point, saying: “We are living in times that are in need of leadership and direction. Consumers will look to trusted brands for direction, so if a brand can stand for something with meaning then I believe it should.”

Marvel and DC have built global audiences that flex to consistently break $1bn at box office. But where can they find the next billion? One way could be to create compelling stories that represent groups never represented before. Data from audience intelligence consultancy EntSight found 44% of Marvel’s fanbase is female and DC’s 38%. This audience is increasingly coming into focus, with Marvel bringing forward female-led movies like Captain Marvel and Black Widow up against DC’s Birds of Prey and Batgirl.

On the spot, Boswell pitches a character fit for our times. “She’d be compelling and stand for empowerment. In today’s world, giving everyone a way to identify with how to become stronger and more confident feels like a widely relevant starting point.  

She concludes: “I’d listen to the audience and start to build narratives, characters and worlds around their needs and desires, and in doing so build an intuitive franchise that runs on intelligent insight.”

Let’s hope the studios are listening. There’s only so many times audiences will watch the same thing over – and over – again. Right?

To find out more about the world of marketing for and with kids, grab a copy of The Drum's November issue, where we learn about the trials and tribulations facing a generation growing up in today's pixelated world, the value of the 'kidult' market, and discover what children really think of advertising.