9:45am PT by Chris Thilk
How 'Avengers: Infinity War' Is Selling the "End Is Near" for a Neverending Series
It’s hard to miss the sense of finality that pervades the marketing campaign for Avengers: Infinity War. At every turn, Disney and Marvel Studios have made it clear to the audience that this is the end. This is the moment the entirety of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, launched in 2008 when Samuel L. Jackson appeared at the end of Iron Man to mention the “Avengers Initiative,” has been building toward.
As part of this big moment, the movie has also been billed as, to quote Marvel’s press materials, “the most ambitious crossover event in history.” While that claim has certainly provided a rich vein of material for memes and other ribbing, it’s also hard to argue with. Characters from all 18 MCU films will come together, bringing to the big screen the kind of crossover that comics fans always enjoy when the threat to the planet is too big for any one character or team to handle.
Both of those themes have been communicated throughout the marketing to varying degrees. Here’s how.
MCU posters have never been big on expositional copy or other taglines. Instead, they’ve focused on the actors and characters. The designs are usually built around the title character, with supporting players arrayed around that central figure in some way, often with an explosion or fight taking place in the background. On the rare occasion there’s any copy beyond the names of the cast, such as with 2011’s Thor or 2015’s Ant-Man, it’s been in service of making sure the audience understands that the movie comes “From the studio that brought you [name of a previously popular film.]”
That tendency to eschew text means the posters for Infinity War emphasize the massive ensemble that’s been assembled more than the story. After the teaser poster used the same “A” symbol used for the first Avengers movies, the attention turned to the cast.
The theatrical poster leans heavily into the “crossover event” selling point and more than 20 heroes are shown here, their size likely related to both the actor’s contract requirements and the character’s importance to the story and popularity with fans. While Thanos looms in the background, at the center of it all is Tony Stark/Iron Man, reminding us of how integral he’s been to what’s happened over the last 10 years.
Many of those characters were then subdivided over five posters, each one color-coded to one of the five known Infinity Stones. Here’s how that breaks down:
Space Stone (blue)
Previous appearances: Captain America: The First Avenger/The Avengers
Infinity War characters: Captain America, Winter Soldier, Shuri, Mantis, Nebula
Reality Stone (red)
Previous appearances: Thor: The Dark World
Infinity War characters: Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Wong, Spider-Man
Power Stone (purple)
Previous appearances: Guardians of the Galaxy
Infinity War characters: Star Lord, Gamora, Thor, Drax, Rocket
Time Stone (green)
Previous appearances: Doctor Strange
Infinity War characters: Black Widow, Okoye, Hulk, Black Panther
Mind Stone (yellow)
Previous appearances: Avengers: Age of Ultron/Captain America: Civil War
Infinity War characters: Scarlet Witch, Vision, Falcon, War Machine
As you can see, that arrangement is somewhat related to which characters have been tied to which stones in previous films. That’s not consistent, though, and speculation has been rampant about what those misalignments might mean. Finally, each one of the heroes was given their own poster in a series that dropped the Infinity-themed color coding and just showed each one ready for battle in some manner.
In contrast to the character-heavy nature of the posters, the trailers have included both of the marketing's key messages.
It all began with a teaser video preceding the first trailer. Unlike other “the trailer is coming” videos that use snippets of footage from the actual film to whet people’s appetites, this one assembled clips of fan-created reaction videos posted in response to the trailers for previous MCU movies. It was meant to reinforce how long-lived the franchise is, how many movies it has encompassed and how popular each one has been.
The same notion of revisiting the franchise’s history to date is on display in the first trailer, which opens with footage from this movie accompanied by voiceover of various characters each taking a line from Nick Fury’s famous “There was an idea…” speech that encompasses the ideals and goals of the Avengers. From there on out, the audience is shown the massive number of characters coming together from previous movies to all take on the threat presented by Thanos and his mad plans.
“The end is near,” Thanos says midway through the second trailer, and while he’s talking about the end of life as the universe knows it, he’s also communicating the end of the first decade of Marvel films. This one puts across more clearly that the story's stakes are life and death as we see Iron Man beaten down, Thor’s head being squeezed like a Nordic melon and more chaos and carnage. While Tony Stark has always been the head of the MCU, Captain America’s role as the heart of the world is on display as he’s shown fighting back against Thanos, unwilling to bend or fall while there are innocents to protect.
Media, Publicity and Advertising
Those two key messages were evident from the very outset of the media and publicity campaign. In early 2017, Marvel released a video from the first day of shooting the movie that had members of the cast as well as Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige and directors Joe and Anthony Russo talking about the scale of the story. That video was dissected in scores of ways for all possible clues and hints as to the story by the entertainment press.
The next major pop in publicity came at Disney’s 2017 D23 event last July, where the cast appeared and shared details about the upcoming movie. A sizzle reel of early footage showed off some of what fans could expect, including Captain America’s status as the story picks up, the addition of new villains fighting for Thanos and more. That was the dominant theme of press/fan appearances as well as press tours, junkets and other events, right up to a “Family” video that had various actors talking about working together on this and previous movies.
Meanwhile, the paid TV campaign has hit both of the primary messages. The “Big Game” spot features lots of heroes scowling and talking about getting ready. Similarly, a "Gone" spot from late March has everyone talking about coming together to fight against Thanos while the "Legacy" one recaps the history of the MCU in consolidated fashion.
Meanwhile, Marvel launched a comics event that wasn’t tied specifically to the movie but which did feature the Infinity Stones and the Guardians of the Galaxy. There was also an official comics prequel announced, the story of which would lead directly into the movie. That’s a tactic the publisher has executed with previous MCU movies.
The countdown to the end continued with a massive February “class photo” featuring almost every actor and director who’s been involved in any of the MCU films. A later short video thanked the fans for their support over the course of a decade and almost 20 films.
Another video had various members of the cast talking about how fun it was to work with each other. At the end of February — very close to release for such a big shift — Disney announced the movie was moving up a week from early May to late April. That was widely seen as the studio wanting to get out of its own way a bit and give Solo, coming just a few weeks later, a bit of breathing room.
Of course, the movie isn’t solely reliant even on Disney’s substantial advertising budget. It’s received cross-promotional help from Geico, Quicken Loans, Infiniti and a number of other brands, all of them running tie-in campaigns in an effort to get some of that sweet Avengers halo effect. Disney promoted the movie through the Noovie preshow package for National CineMedia with clips, behind-the-scenes footage and more.
The Black Panther Factor
If you were paying attention you may have noticed that since early March or so, the TV campaign has featured a lot more characters pulled from the super successful Black Panther. TV spots such as "Chant" not only have T’Challa giving an inspiring “We’re fighting for the whole world” speech but also shows M’Baku and other citizens of Wakanda chanting their war cry as they prepare to storm the battlefield and meet the enemy head on. There’s even a moment at the end where Okoye jokes about how she was hoping opening up to the world would mean less fighting and more Starbucks.
It makes complete sense that this is a direction the studio is taking. Black Panther is now firmly placed among the top-grossing movies of all time, has inspired athletes and artists to share the “Wakanda Forever” crossed-arms salute and has produced toys that retailers can’t keep in stock. It has been a big cultural moment that hasn’t died down yet. Even though that movie didn’t directly mention Infinity Stones, Thanos or anything else, it’s clear by the way Wakanda features in the trailers there’s a connection. Infinity War isn’t quite being sold as a Black Panther sequel, but it’s close.
The cast for the film has traversed the globe — with stops in Tokyo; Seoul, South Korea; London; Mexico City; and Sao Paulo — for fan events in anticipation of the film's worldwide late-April release.
But there have been a number of questions that have not been answered in the campaign, keeping fans and entertainment writers busy over the last several months. Those questions include:
Where’s the Soul Stone? The orange Infinity Stone has been glimpsed only briefly via flashback in Guardians of the Galaxy and wasn’t included in the color-coded posters or anywhere else in the marketing.
Where’s Hawkeye? The total absence of the Avenging Archer in the campaign has generated a number of theories as to his whereabouts and how it might relate to the story.
Who dies? At some point or another every member of the cast has been rumored to be the one destined to perish at the hands of Thanos and his army. The smart money is on Tony Stark (thus closing the book on the first decade of stories), but you can take your pick.
Even more than those story-based questions, it remains to be seen where the MCU goes from here.
The movies aren’t ending anytime soon, of course. Ant-Man and The Wasp comes out later this year, Captain Marvel hits in 2019 and there are Guardians, Black Panther and Spider-Man sequels in different stages of development.
There’s also the issue of Avengers 4, scheduled for release in 2019. It’s presence on the calendar kind of pokes a rather large hole in the “That’s all, folks” message sent by this campaign. It’s unclear if this movie ends with a stalemate between the heroes and Thanos that has to be resolved in the next installment or if in some other way the good guys have to fight back to reclaim the win.
If you look back at how Warner Bros. sold the two parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the studio used the “It all ends here” message directly but also made it clear the finale was being presented in two parts. So audiences knew from the outset that the first film would not contain a conclusion to the story.
That message isn’t being shared in the Infinity War campaign. Because of that, it will be interesting to see how audiences react when they realize that nope, they have to come back next year to see how it really wraps up. Many likely already know that if they follow the entertainment press, but a good portion may not. And it’s unlikely Marvel will be able to sell the same round of “It’s all been building to this” recap stories to the press a second time around.
For now, we’re being told that this is it, this is what it’s all been building toward. By positioning it as the “most ambitious crossover event in history,” a claim that sadly overlooks the multiple appearances by the late Harry Anderson on Cheers, the studio has built up audience anticipation, presenting it as a can’t-miss theatrical event. It has to be seen immediately so you can discuss the answers to all those questions and the fates of all those characters with your friends.
But seriously, where’s Hawkeye?
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer with 15 years of experience in the social media and content marketing industry.