Note: This post contains no explicit spoilers as to the events of Infinity War, so as long as you know that it ends with a new status quo, you’re pretty safe here.
Walt Disney’s Avengers: Infinity War got off to a roaring start this weekend, opening with (as of this writing) $250 million domestic and $630m worldwide, above The Force Awakens and The Fate of the Furious. The film is another huge notch in the belts of Marvel and Walt Disney. And with mostly positive reviews and solid audience polling, the skies look bright for the 19th MCU flick in just under 10 years. That must be a slight relief since much of the marketing campaign was built upon a lie.
In October 2014, Marvel invited journalists and fans to the El Capitan for a “Here’s our slate for the next six years!” presentation. They confirmed that Captain America 3 would be Captain America: Civil War and that Phase Three would have feature Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel and Black Panther. But the big reveal, aside from announcing Chadwick Boseman, fresh off 42 and Get On Up, as the star of Marvel’s biopic about the king of Wakanda, was the reveal of a two-part Avengers: Infinity War movie.
The plan was to release part I in May 2018 and part II in May 2019. But then, Lionsgate’s Hunger Games’ last two chapters took a dive and Lionsgate’s Divergent didn’t even get to finish its two-part finale. Over the next 3.5 years, little by little, especially after Hunger Games: Mockingjay part II ended the franchise with “only” $653 million worldwide and an under-$300m domestic cume, you started hearing and reading about how Infinity War part I and part II were just working titles and not to be taken literally..
The sell was not that this third Avengers film was indeed Avengers: Infinity War part I, but the fourth Avengers flick would A) go untitled and B) exist as its own movie. Whether by coincidence or design, Marvel and the Russos went into overdrive to avoid the impression that Infinity War was “half a movie.” This all could have been as intended from the start. Either Avengers 3 and Avengers 4 were always intended to be viewed as septate movies, or the explicit connection was undone after the media kept pushing the myth that audiences didn’t like the whole “split the last book into two movies” thing.
And yes, it is something of a media-created myth. Critics and pundits may cry foul, but audiences don’t mind.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part I made more than any prior Twilight movie worldwide ($712 million) and about as much ($281m) as the first two sequels ($296m and $300m). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part I earned just over/under ($295m) the last three Harry Potter sequels ($290m in 2005, $292m in 2007 and $302m in 2009) and is the third-biggest Harry Potter film worldwide. Hunger Games: Mockingjay part I still made more worldwide ($755m) than the first Hunger Games while Mockingjay part II earned $653m.
Artistic integrity notwithstanding, it would be corporate malfeasance not to break up the final book in a popular YA franchise into two movies if possible. You think Lionsgate would rather have one Mockingjay movie that earned $755 million worldwide or two Mockingjay movies that made $1.409 billion at merely twice the price? Being upfront about the episodic nature of these last two Avengers movies may not have hurt the reception.
It wasn’t the cliffhanger endings that marred the reception to The Matrix Reloaded or Back to the Future part II (my pick for the best cliffhanger in modern cinema history), and Breaking Dawn part II still topped $812m worldwide. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II earned $1.34 billion six months after Deathly Hallows part I. If audiences like part I, cliffhanger or not, they’ll show up for part II.
Yes, there is a case to be made that Marvel lied to the press/fans to preserve the film’s “Buffy stabbed Angel right after he reverted from his Angelus form… sob!” finale. As someone who has told white lies in a pre-release review or two to avoid a spoiler, I have no moral objections to this. Marketing is about getting folks into the theater, preferably on the opening weekend, not about preserving the theatrical experience or selling an objectively truthful version of the movie in question.
Marvel and Disney led the general audiences to believe that Avengers: Infinity War was the MCU’s answer to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II when it was actually Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part I. From the first teaser (with that haunting ensemble recitation of Nick Fury’s big “There was an idea” speech) to the deluge of “Where will you be when it all ends?” TV spots, to the “MCU at ten” nostalgia featurettes, Infinity War was sold as the culmination of the MCU.
The final showdown against Thanos for the fate of the world, a battle which would cost the lives of any number of beloved superheroes, was positioned as the literal end game and Infinity War was the end of the path Tony started us on. Marvel and Disney smartly used the tenth anniversary of Iron Man (and thus the tenth anniversary of the MCU) to sell franchise-specific nostalgia to market the movie without giving much away in terms of concrete story beats. And it worked.
Would an Avengers 3 telegraphed as a penultimate episode have played differently this weekend? I can’t say, although it would have been challenging to explicitly admit to a fourth Avengers flick coming next year without hinting at how Infinity War ends. But a part of Infinity War’s massive debut weekend came from the “You beat death, Arvin, but you couldn’t beat me” series finale pitch when in fact it was merely the penultimate episode before the “Not Penny’s boat!” third-season finale.
And that’s okay. If you need to cut a trailer to make Drive look like more of an action movie, go for it. If you want to sell Frozen using Olaf at first before slowly introducing Elsa, Anna and the “Let It Go” right before the first batch of rave reviews, neat. If Paramount/Viacom Inc. needs to sell Annihilation on Blu-Ray with a cover that gives prominent placement to barely-there male co-star Oscar Isaac, well, where were you when the critically-acclaimed all-female ensemble sci-fi chiller bombed in theaters?
I had no objections with television spots for Inside Llewyn Davis that centered around the adorable orange cat. I have little qualm with Sweeney Todd trailers that hid the singing. I was impressed by the marketing campaigns for Kangaroo Jack and Snow Dogs that tricked people into thinking that their title animals talked throughout the respective films. I still chuckle at the memory of the theater that put up signs warning audiences that the dogs in Snow Dogs did not talk.
I have little complaint with the various tricks of the trade to convince audiences that Reign Of Fire had many helicopters, that Leaving Las Vegas was a sweet romantic dramedy, and that The Prestige was a supernatural thriller about a stage magician pit against a dark wizard. As icky as it may be, I understood the Italian marketing for 12 Years A Slave that gave Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender their own posters. I sighed a little, but the Chiwetel Ejiofor masterpiece earned 69% of its $152m global cume overseas.
If audiences are taken aback by misleading marketing, including money shots from the trailer that aren’t in the movie, then they will make their displeasure known after opening weekend. But if they show up to Frozen thinking it’s a glorified Ice Age sequel and fall in love with the movie, who cares how you got them into the theaters? If audiences are truly displeased with the bait-and-switch offered in Avengers: Infinity War, then they will make their displeasure known after the opening weekend or on the debut weekend of Avengers 4.
Judging by the weekend multiplier and the strong Cinemascore grades, I’m guessing they didn’t mind. But, to be fair, here’s the downside to this “sell Deathly Hallows part I like it’s Deathly Hallows part II” strategy: They can only do this once.
The MCU has built is legacy on somewhat connected franchise pictures that work on their own as well along with crossover Avengers flicks that mostly operate as sequels to themselves. They don’t want a reputation for movies which require an additional installment for the complete cinematic experience. Avengers: Age of Ultron leading into Captain America: Civil War was arguably already pushing their luck on this score.
Moreover, they can’t sell “everything that has a beginning has an end” twice in a row. They already played their “series finale bump” card with Infinity War, so they’ll have to find a new game for next year. There is a chance Avengers 4 will take a hit due to folks feeling burned by how Avengers 3 turned out. However, A) Marvel has earned enough goodwill to get away with this the first time, B) it was a calculated risk arguably driven by a desire to not spoil Infinity War’s finale.
More importantly, history shows (again) that fans will still show up for part II if they liked part I. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II earned $1.3 billion six months after Deathly Hallows part I, Breaking Dawn part II topped $800 million worldwide a year after Breaking Dawn part I. Mockingjay part II and Matrix Revolutions took hits due to viewer dissatisfaction with the franchise direction (audiences were wrong, but I digress), not because they ended on a “to be continued.”
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End made less than Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, but Marvel will be okay with 73% domestic and 90% worldwide of whatever Infinity War earns. If Avengers: Infinity War earns $1.3 billion (and it may well earn a bit more than that), a dive comparable to Mockingjay part II still gets Avengers 4 to $1.1b global. A plunge like Matrix Revolutions ($427m from Matrix Reloaded’s $742m) is the exception rather than the rule.
We’ll see how this gambit plays out over the next two or three weeks. But I will admit being amused and pleased by the chutzpah on display from Marvel and Disney’s marketing departments over the last two-to-three years, convincing the world that something we all knew to be true (Avengers: Infinity War was half of a two-part movie) wasn’t the case at all. They sold the beginning of the end as the end of all things and (for now) got away with it.
They’ll have to figure out a new game for next year, but I have an idea or two.