Businesses in Bangkok and around the world can learn much from the success of Marvel’s recent movies and the relative failure of DC’s heroes to connect with their audience. A compelling story, consistent tone and keen understanding of what makes your brand special are all essential for CEOs and superhero franchises alike.
There may be no more potent example of the power of branding strategy than the divergent fates of DC and Marvel Studios. While Marvel took care to create a colorful and inviting universe, filled with well-defined characters who have real backstories, DC pursued none of these aims. By dumbing down its conflicts, relying on special effects instead of storytelling, and setting a gloomy tone, it created a universe that no one wants to inhabit.
It’s hard to imagine now, but just five years ago DC Comics was the hottest thing around. Marvel had Spider-Man, but that franchise had petered out after the failure of its third installment. It also made Iron Man, whose origin story had brought new hope – until a dreadfully disappointing sequel that looked even worse when placed alongside DC’s colossal blockbuster The Dark Knight. The other main Marvel movies from that era were the forgettable X-Men: Wolverine and The Incredible Hulk (with Edward Norton), along with the passable Thor.
The writing was on the wall ever since Batman Begins had reinvigorated the genre: DC knew what it was doing, and Marvel was stuck in its own web, scrambling to catch up. Moreover, DC had the two biggest names, Batman and Superman, while with the sole exception of Spider-Man (still in his cocoon, waiting to be reborn years later), Marvel was playing around with second-tier superheroes. Nobody in their right mind would have bet on Marvel to expand and then dominate the comic movie genre so quickly. And yet …
The total reversal of fortune that has since taken place between Marvel and DC has been as fast and consequential as it is illuminating, with lessons that extend far beyond the box office. Working out what happened is as simple – and as complicated – as understanding that intangible, elusive, and defining quality of all art, which we call tone.
As marketers around the world are well aware, it is crucial for companies to identify their target audience, build a demographic profile of them through careful research, and streamline their offering to have it resonate as powerfully as possible with that group. We’ve already written about how Deadpool got this delicate balance just right by harnessing the power of digital marketing.
What DC did not understand is that marketing and branding are not a step that comes at the end of the production process, after the main work of the company has been done. They represent foundational insights which should inform the production itself. In DC’s case, even cursory research should have revealed that comic books are meant to be fun and not gloomy, dramatic but not melodramatic, with heroes honoring the need of the audience for visceral thrills and wish fulfillment.
Having skipped that crucial step, DC learned the wrong lessons from its prior success, and marched with confidence in entirely the wrong direction – proving once again that failing to prepare is indeed the same as preparing to fail.
The Dark Knight
Rises Falls – and DC Goes Tone-Deaf
The best early Marvel movie, Spider-Man II, painted the teenage Peter Parker’s world beautifully – but as far as crossover appeal, the high school hero just wasn’t a natural fit for an adult following. DC’s Batman character did have that potential, and writer/director Christopher Nolan showed tremendous insight and instincts to pull it off. His visionary take on the character was a radical departure from the previous iterations of Batman, which were campy and formulaic, filled with shallow one-liners and aimed at a decidedly young audience.
The success of the first two Christopher Nolan Batman movies was all about setting the right tone. Batman Begins gave audiences a pure mafia movie with some superhero twists, easily making the transition between Bruce Wayne’s isolation in a corrupt world and his decision to confront it with guerrilla tactics. The Dark Knight used The Joker brilliantly to dig deeper into his psyche, letting loose personal demons and political chaos as Bruce Wayne’s world falls apart.
It was no accident that these conflicts were ideal for Batman, who lives in darkness and has always been his city’s lone protector. Unfortunately the third movie in the Nolan trilogy went in several different (and seemingly random) directions – with an antagonist more confusing than menacing, a police force whose motivations are rarely clear, an odd love interest, a Bruce Wayne who is reclusive for no good reason, then stops being reclusive for no good reason, is injured but quickly decides to ignore his injury, gets injured again, spends half the movie locked up in his house or in prison, etc.
With these confused ingredients, The Dark Knight Rises ends up feeling disjointed and inconsistent, leaving audiences vaguely disappointed but hard-put to say exactly why. It was a bad omen for the next string of DC Comics movies, each of which had good elements and strong scenes but just did not come together because as a whole they lacked a consistent and compelling tone.
The idea of tone is understudied and underappreciated, even though the cost of overlooking it has caused bigger properties than DC to crash and burn. Is the visual and emotional arc of the characters clear, consistent, true to the material and easy for an audience to relate to? Do the actors, set designers, composers and filmmakers all share the same vision, or are their different angles on the material pulling the production apart?
These aren’t questions of talent; there is no doubt that The Dark Knight Rises, and the later Man of Steel and Batman v Superman had both skill and resources to spare. But if everyone in a boat is trying to row in different directions, or the captain doesn’t know which way to go, the entire vessel will drift aimlessly – or simply capsize.
Again, the lessons here will be familiar to businesses in any industry: Victories are won in the planning stages, after carefully defining goals and accurately analyzing the business’s own strengths and weaknesses. The value of that preparation period hinges on determining project goals that will best fit in with the wider company strategy – and it bears repeating that if a team has no clear direction, it will soon cease to resemble a team at all.
Even Superheroes Crash to the Ground If They Lose Touch With Their Strength
The recent Batman v Superman is an indelible – and yet, completely forgettable – example of how talent alone amounts to nothing without the right vision. As a character, Superman works best in brightly-lit, open spaces; these reflect the freedom his powers grant him as well as his sweetly innocent nature. Batman’s haunted past and modus operandi make dark, enclosed spaces his natural environment, just as his costume would suggest. By day he is, after all, only Bruce Wayne. Already a challenge awaits any filmmaker who attempts to have these two superheroes square off. What setting could work for them both?
In fairness, audiences would surely follow these two anywhere if the film had inspired an emotional investment in their lives and in the unfolding storyline. But with a storyline that no one on earth can relate to, mindless action sequences (see below) and an utterly silly resolution to the conflict in the film’s title (spoiler: both of their mothers are named Martha, a fact which makes them suddenly forget their differences), the initial curiosity surrounding the film soon gave way to mockery. Worse still, this incarnation of Superman is especially moody and morose, prompting one horrified Lexicon staff member to shout during a screening: “My god, he’s an emo kid!”
(With no characters worth caring about, and special-effects battles waged with CGI, what were audiences supposed to relate to?)
Uneven visuals were another problem. DC recently admitted that it got the wrong tone for the movie, but the worse sin was that the tone itself was inconsistent. Dark content doesn’t work with slick production and smooth, cartoonish computer effects. If the tone was meant to be “gritty”, why was the music so loud and overdone, rather than atmospheric and down to earth?
The earlier Man of Steel had many of these same faults, but audiences cut that movie some slack because a beloved franchise was looking to find its feet in a new movie landscape. With Batman v Superman, DC broadcast to the entire world, in the loudest voice it had, that it did not know what on earth it was doing. And that made a Sad Affleck out of us all.
As DC has learned, a lousy cook can still ruin a dish even if he has the very best ingredients to work with. Marvel, on the other hand, is living proof that a master chef can prepare a gourmet feast, even with lesser materials – as long as he has a clear vision of the end product and knows exactly how each flavor can best complement the others.
A creative talent like Ben Affleck would find a better outlet for his abilities on a team that has a consistent brand image and puts storytelling first. These are the attributes that truly inspire the artistically inclined, allowing them to reach into the hearts of their audiences and fill them with moments that truly shine.
The Right Stuff: Assembling the Avengers
No matter how many reboots, reimaginings and reinventions sweep through Hollywood, audiences are going to need characters they care about above all else. In Marvel movies, those characters exist independent of their superhero outfits. “What are you without your suit?” Captain America asks Tony Stark in the first Avengers movie. Stark’s answer is characteristically cocky, memorable and substantive: “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”
Stark talks straight, knows he’s one in a million and lets the whole world know it too. Captain America is an unshakeable soldier with an uncompromising worldview as well as the heart to lead and to persevere. Bruce Banner (Hulk) is an unstable element and has to live with that reality 24 hours a day. We learn who they are by watching what they do and the decisions they make, especially the ones that put them in conflict with each other. Those decisions have real consequences which merit thought and debate even after the end credits roll.
By contrast, what are DC’s heroes – or antiheroes, if we include Suicide Squad – without their suits? Very little, it seems. There is a difference between character and characteristics. DC’s heroes have a lot of the latter.
The Kind of Universe We Want to Live In
Good science fiction and fantasy authors start with a version of reality, alter just one or two variables in it, turn the result into a thought experiment, populate their new fictional world with three-dimensional characters, and then let the resulting drama play out.
Alter too much and the audience will dismiss the exercise because it feels like the storyteller is inventing new rules whenever he wants to, just for the sake of convenience. Each time DC uses CGI to paint yet another implausible character or scene, their efforts merely block the audience from making any emotional connection. When literally anything can happen, events start to lose their meaning.
Besides being colorful and clever, the universe in which Marvel characters live is a coherent and consistent one, complete with flaws and shortcomings everywhere you look. Governments and intelligence services still rule the world, along with all their bureaucratic structures that are ripe for infiltration. Media and public opinion also play a role, and can be manipulated for good or evil.
It’s easy to develop an interest in a genuine parallel universe alongside our own, provided that world is as fun and exciting as Marvel’s. This is the essence of fantasy: As we experience the frustrations of everyday life, or mourn the injustices we see on the news, we want to imagine Iron Man flying in with a wisecrack or two, putting the world to rights and looking like a star while he’s doing it. These idle moments of hope and gratification are the reason why comics captured our imaginations in the first place.
Every business should be searching for that moment, image or narrative arc that can make its audience’s eyes light up with joy and satisfaction. Finding the right market and delivering what it truly wants and needs – these are the successes that have their origins in brand research, and their realization in marketing skill and knowhow.
Putting the Pieces Together
Marvel Studios’ biggest achievement was bringing together a huge cast of actors, filmmakers and technical staff for The Avengers, and keeping them all on the same page. With a fun and lively screenplay to maintain an exciting pace, the actors were able to land both punches and jokes from start to finish. What felt cool and irreverent to the viewer was in fact a result of a carefully orchestrated buildup, spending years to familiarize audiences with the Avengers team and the universe they belong to. At the center of that vision is the president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, whose strong grasp of Marvel’s strengths and potential makes him an ideal overseer and director for the brand.
DC has no equivalent, and as a result it lacks a coherent identity and any holistic vision of the universe in which it wants viewers to invest their emotions. DC has expected audiences to adapt to its own half-baked style, not the other way around. Now instead of launching Phase Two from a solid foundation, it finds itself back at square one, having to pick up the pieces of its own broken reputation.
DC can escape this situation by installing a knowledgeable branding head to draw hard lines around the type of content required, and the target audiences they are actually aiming to reach. There needs to be a complete style guide and framework for how DC characters and movies will look, feel and evolve through various stages of their existence. Every act of the drama should be crafted with a clear eye towards achieving the desired audience impact, while contributing to the larger narrative arc.
After that framework is settled, any director invited to helm a DC movie ought to keep the tone consistent and within the style already prescribed. Production teams must work with the same goal in mind, and if they use their talents toward the right ends, titans like Batman and Superman will escape the ridiculous position of being clear underdogs against anyone.
Don’t count out DC forever. If there’s one type of person who can still win against all odds, it’s a superhero. In the movies, they rise up by coming to terms with their mistakes, following the wise path and relying the rest of the way on heart and hard work. Whether DC – or any other company in a similar position – will actually do so is their decision alone.
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