Movie Marketing Madness: Iron Man 2

Expectations were high in 2008 when Iron Man was about to be released. This was, many considered, a second tier comic book character who wasn’t nearly the household name that Spider-Man, Batman and Wolverine were. So a movie starring The Armored Avenger, especially one that was being eyed as the launch of a new and hopefully lucrative franchise, was seen as a something of a wild bet.

That bet was even greater considering this was the premiere release from Marvel Studios, the newly-launched film division of Marvel Comics and its effort to take control of its stable of characters, at least the ones that it hadn’t already licensed out to other studios. So this was the premiere film that would, the talk ran, prove just how viable this venture could potentially be.

With the loose, improvisational direction of Jon Favreau and the equally loose and charismatic acting by Robert Downey Jr. in the role of Tony Stark, the movie proved to be a massive success both commercially and critically as audiences lapped up the mix of action and humor and critics praised the better-than-expected writing, direction and acting.

So the sequel, if anything, has to do more to live up to expectations than the first one. That’s true not only because of the reactions to the first one but also because the intervening time has brought Marvel’s cinematic plans more clearly into focus. While 2008 also saw the release of The Incredible Hulk, the next couple years will see big screen adaptations of Thor, Captain America and ultimately The Avengers, where all these characters come together into, that’s be honest, the culmination of my childhood comic-reading wishes.

While the first movie had the task of setting up the character of Iron Man and largely introducing him to the mainstream audience, this one gets to continue the storyline of how Stark is trying to reshape his image from one of a war monger to one of a more philanthropic playboy super hero. But the machinations of business rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and his alliance with the mysterious villain known as Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) bring complications in to that journey. Aiding Stark, though, are his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as well as friend James Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle), who will wind up taking on armor of his own under the guise of War Machine, a more military-minded version of the Iron Man design.

So with even more on the line than last time let’s look at how Marvel…oh, and Paramount Pictures, which now distributes all the Marvel Studios films…are selling Shellhead’s second cinematic outing to the public.

The Posters

The first teaser poster that was released cleared up a lot of speculation as to whether or not a certain character would make an appearance in the film. Behind Iron Man himself, who seems to be sporting a somewhat sleeker version of his armor, is War Machine, the more heavily armed version of the Iron Man armor that’s worn in the comics by James Rhodes. With Rhodey being part of the film series from the very beginning the debut of War Machine has been long-anticipated and this poster makes it clear that we’ll be getting more than one set of armor in this sequel.

Second came a look at one of the movie’s primary villains, Whiplash. Standing with his electronic whips splayed out on either side of him and with his…what are we calling this, a harness?…glowing on his chest, his appearance is interesting enough. But adding to that is the fact that behind him are all sorts of press clippings about Tony Stark, making it clear that we’re dealing with someone who seems to have a personal vendetta against Stark and who is going to wind up using his technology, or a bastardized version of it, against him.

Two more posters were released a few months later, one with Iron Man and one being War Machine’s first solo appearance in the campaign. In both cases they’re positioned against a giant “2″ and provide the audience with a pretty clear shot of both sets of armor.

The theatrical poster was a nice continuation of the same one-sheet from the first film. Iron Man looms in the background, with War Machine slightly off to the side and a little in front of him. In the middle and lower parts of the design we see the human beings that are in the movie, Tony Stark (striking roughly the same pose he did in the first movie’s poster), James Rhodes, Natasha Romanov and Pepper Potts. The way the characters are arranged, as I said, makes this a nice brand continuity from the first entry’s theatrical poster, which had a similar layout.

Notably – and a lot of people did indeed point this out when it was released – missing from this poster are either of the film’s villains. That’s a little surprising considering what a big component Whiplash especially has played in the trailers. But considering what the campaign is trying to sell are the heroics of the main cast it doesn’t strike me as completely odd.

After that a character-specific poster for Black Widow was teased online in advance of it being available at WonderCon, an event roughly similar to Comic-Con though nowhere near that scope. The poster shows off the Widow’s look, including the skin-tight outfit that’s unzipped just enough to show off Johansson’s best acting attributes and the wrist-shooters that the character uses.

Two more posters came later that were specifically aimed at promoting the movie’s appearance on IMAX screens, with one featuring Iron Man wearing the “suitcase armor” and one with Whiplash looking relatively despondent despite the big glowing whips he’s holding on to.

The Trailers

The first trailer debuted in December of last year at the end of an online clue-seeding campaign by Paramount that lasted two or three days. Over the course of that handful of days various sites were sent close-ups of some of the newspaper clippings that appear behind Whiplash with one word in the headline highlighted. When four of those words were put together they led, as expected to a website, in this case StarkSecretConfessionRevealed.com, which resolved to the Apple trailer page for the movie.

That trailer opens with a shot of, of all people, Garry Shandling as a U.S. Senator who’s questioning Stark and making it clear the government is intent on having him turn over the Iron Man armor, something Stark says he has no intention of doing. After that we get a scene of Stark and Pepper Potts flirting in an airplane (Paltrow seductively kisses the Iron Man helmet when Stark requests a smooch for luck, a scene that personally I felt the need to watch three or four times) before he jumps out and lands in the middle of a celebration that includes dancers sporting skimpy Iron Man-type outfits. But that then gives way to a scene of Whiplash making his own armor and talking about how Stark has tried to re-write history and has forgotten the people his family has hurt in the past.

We then get a few quick shots of the supporting cast – Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Don Cheadle as James Rhodes and Scarlett Johansson as both the innocent-looking Natasha Romanov and as the body-slamming Black Widow – before Whiplash reveals himself by cutting Stark’s race car in half with his whips. The spot then ends with Iron Man out-flying a jet and then, finally, with Iron Man and War Machine back to back and fighting against what appear to be robots that look a lot like they’re based on the Iron Man armor.

The spot did a good job of kicking off the excitement for the movie and certainly showed the audience there were lots of good moments in the movie for them to look forward to.

A second trailer was then scheduled to be debuted a couple months later during the broadcast of “The Jimmy Kimmel Show” Downey was slated to appear on immediately following the 2010 Oscars telecast.

That second trailer was pretty cool, starting out with the same shot of Iron Man flying in to the glitzy event with the crowds and the dancers and such. We then get a scene of Pepper Potts letting “the notary” in to see Stark but since the woman who walks in is Johannson we know she’s no simple notary but instead the Black Widow, someone we’ll later see kicking some security guard butt and getting a turn to try the Iron Man glove and fire a repulsor ray. Before we get to that, though, it’s time for Whiplash to get some time in the sun as we see him preparing his costume and it’s whips before then slicing up Stark’s race car with those whips. After a shot of him facing down Stark in prison he’s brought to see Rockwell’s Justin Hammer – his first appearance in the campaign – who tells him he can provide the resources to make Iron Man a thing of the past.

After that it’s time to showcase War Machine a bit, starting with Cheadle as Rhodey telling Stark he doesn’t need to be a “lone gun slinger” anymore, a scene that gives way shortly to the sequence of Iron Man and War Machine back to back against a host of, presumably, Hammer’s mechanized menaces.

The two best shots in the spot, though, are where Stark is face to face with Nick Fury and reading a report which labels him as having traits of textbook narcissism, to which he simply responds, “Agreed” and the last sequence, which debuts Stark’s “suitcase armor,” something that’s been around for quite a while in the comic books but which is making it’s cinematic debut as, apparently, a stripped down version of the Iron Man armor that Tony uses to battle Whiplash after his race-car attack.

An interactive version of that second trailer was later released that allowed people to view some of the geekier details of what they were seeing, something that was especially helpful if you’re not completely steeped in Iron Man comic mythology.

A later trailer was released that specifically promoted the movie’s appearance on IMAX screens, with footage that combined bits from both of the previous trailers.

Online

After the main landing page of the official website loads it becomes clear what the intent of the site is pretty immediately. There are prompts to not only watch the trailer and get showtimes but also nice full color graphics of all the movie’s promotional brand sponsors right there below Iron Man’s glowering visage. That’s pretty nice placement for those brand logos, which are usually relegated to a page well within the site where only the most dedicated and interested are going to find them. And it’s a statement to how powerful those promotional partners have become that they can command such placement.

When you opt to Enter the Site you’re given the option to experience the Iron Man or War Machine versions of the site, though I doubt there’s any difference in the actual content that’s subsequently available.

On the first page upon entering you’re shown a close up of whichever armor you chose, with little swirling circles that you can click on to find out more about that part of the armor technology. As you navigate through the site different sections of the armor become available and more of the features are detailed. Off to the right are boxes that make available various video content, including the Trailers, some of the TV Spots and a Clip or two.

Finding the Nav bar to the opposite side of those video clips, the first section is “About the Movie” and the first section there is Cast, which is where you can read an overview of the characters in the movie as well as the biographies and career histories of the actors who play them. A similar tack is taken with the Filmmakers sub-section, which explains who all the folks behind the scenes are. There’s also a Story area that gives a quick synopsis of the movie’s plot.

“Videos” just recreates the same video content selection that was available earlier in the site navigation. There are about 28 stills from the movie in the “Gallery” section. A collection of Wallpapers, Buddy Icons and a Screensaver are all found under “Downloads.”

You’ll find out all about what those other companies have done to help promote the movie – and their own products as well – under “Partners,” which includes not just the consumer brands but also links to all of Marvel’s various stores and content hubs as well.

Finally, “Extras” has links to the Interactive Trailer, the Stark Expo site (more on that below), an Augmented Reality site that allows you to put yourself in the Iron Man or War Machine armor and the Whiplash Slash and Burn game.

The movie’s Facebook Page (note the re-branding that’s gone on there as the network no longer uses “Fan Page”) is a pretty standard affair with photos, videos and updates on the movie’s reviews and such being posted to the wall.

The online portion of the campaign kicked off a week or so after Comic-Con 2009 with the launch of a website for Stark Industries. The site was pretty bare aside from a job application and a scan of a napkin with a note from Tony Stark written on it saying “For Immediate Release: We no longer make weapons” with a directive to Pepper Potts to post this “exactly as is.” It’s a fun little tactic that starts and extends the movie’s story in a nicely concise way.

Just a little over a month before the movie’s release a site launched for Stark Expo 2010, an event begun by Tony Stark’s father and which Tony, as he says in an invitation letter, wants to restart. The site features concept art for the expansive location the event will be taking place on – on a date that matches the release date of the movie – and a brief promotional video. There’s even a promo video for the 1974 event that shows Howard Stark – now played by John Slattery from “Mad Men.” At the bottom of the page there’s a 360-degree view of the building wire-frames and clicking on one of them shows you which supporting company is sponsoring that pavilion, a list of companies that closely resembles the promotional partners for the movie itself. This is an interesting way to get those partners some extra screen time while at the same time fleshing out a part of the movie that has appeared in much of the campaign to that point.

One of the fictional companies taking part in Stark Expo 2010 is AccuTech, a subsidiary of Stark Enterprises that got its own website on the event’s site and so which, it could be safely assumed, figures somehow into the story, at least a bit of it. The AccuTech site also features a video that shows the same sort of sonic weapons used in The Incredible Hulk, which actually takes place continuity wise after the events of this movie.

The second spinoff company was CordCo, which along with the debut of a website also premiered a trade show demonstration video of a new sonic blaster for fighting forest fires. After that Stark Fujikawa showed off their innovative heads-up display technology.

A pretty immersive iPhone game was also created that let you play as either Iron Man or War Machine. It also featured promotional material (MediaPost, 5/1/10) such as posters and character profiles, as well as functionality that let users buy tickets for the movie from within the app itself.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

The first TV spot appeared during the “Kids Choice Awards” a little over a month before the movie’s release and while it featured the same opening as the trailers there was a bit of new dialogue from Cheadle, Jackson and Johannsen as well. Future spots would expand on footage we were initially shown in trailers and carry the same format, essentially, as those trailers in how they open and their general pacing.

Plenty of outdoor advertising was done, with Shellhead being plastered all over New York City as well as, one would suspect, other major cities. Indeed while walking through downtown Chicago recently I noticed a bus shelter that was completely draped in movie posters, both inside and outside, featuring both Iron Man and War Machine.

Also noticed were some cool digital billboards that I spied along I-294 on the way to O’Hare. The billboards recreated the movie’s poster key art, but in two segments. First the pictures of Downey, Paltrow and the others appeared and that was then replaced by the images of Iron Man and War Machine. Along with the armored characters was a big display showing the number of days until opening, which is a great thing to include and is much more dynamic – and therefore engaging and noticeable – than the standard “In theaters everywhere XX/XX/XX.” Very cool.

Of course there was also a ton of advertising done online, both for the movie itself and for the promotional partners that were part of the campaign. For the movie itself, most of the ads simply took Iron Man, either by himself or with War Machine depending on the size and layout of the unit and placed him alongside a prompt to get tickets or find out more about the movie.

Continuing a tradition begun with, really, Spider-Man 2, Marvel used the cinematic debut of The Black Widow to give the character a starring turn in the comics. The publisher announced – around the same time first pictures of Johannsen in costume were released – that the Widow would be getting a new mini-series that reworked parts of her origin and reintroduced the classic costume (not her original but the later one that is similar to what’s featured in the movies). The first issue of that series even featured a variant cover that used one of the publicity stills of Johansson in costume.

There was also the “Iron Man Vs. Whiplash” limited series that not only pit the two characters against each other and re-did some of the details of their previous relationship but it also refashioned Whiplash’s costume a bit to fit more closely with how he would look in the movie. Of course this was before the full costume from that movie was revealed, so this acted as a sort of teaser for that look.

Marvel also brought more direct tie-ins to their lineup, launching a new limited series title called Iron Man 1.5 that took place within the movie universe’s continuity and which filled in the story between the first and second movies. Indeed Marvel’s April lineup was lousy with Iron Man tie-in and launches, including that month’s issue of his ongoing title being the debut of newly designed armor. Two other series were created that existed within the movie’s world as well, “Public Identity” and “I Am Iron Man,” both of which extended the story between the first and second movies.

That was complemented by Marvel running Iron Man Month on its website and focusing on the character in the updates it published. That included histories of the many incarnations of the Iron Man armor, a list of the must-read trade paperbacks that include essential stories, a look at the rivalry between Stark and Justin Hammer and more.

There was also a tie-in in the form of an Anime version of the character that revisits the character with a completely different artistic spin on him that is used in a direct-to-home video release that also was teased at Comic-Con along with the rest of the film.

Usually I don’t write about soundtracks, but in this case I’ll make an exception. That’s because the soundtrack to the film is, essentially a AC/DC greatest hits album. Featuring 15 of the band’s biggest hits, the selection is obviously meant to cement the film’s appeal among hard rock crowd, starting with an announcement that included the debut of a new music video for Shoot to Trill that featured footage from the movie.

The second batch of teaser posters were re-purposed slightly to act as an in-theater standee of Iron Man and War Machine that was pretty cool.

Diesel was one of the first corporate promotional partners to get press for their efforts, which involved the release of a men’s cologne that came in a bottle shaped like one of Iron Man’s gauntlets.

Car-maker Audi provided five cars for the movie’s production, including its new R8 Spyder which is featured as one Stark drives. TV spots such as this one were created as well as in-theater commercials and more as part of the company’s overall promotional campaign (MediaPost, 5/28/10). That campaign also included a microsite where people could upload videos detailing their invention ideas, with the idea receiving the most votes receiving $15,000 in funding to make it happen.

If you go into a Verizon Wireless store you’ll see in-store ads from LG, which for this movie is expanding the scope of its partnership from just being the Mobile division to their entire Electronics sector. That includes more LG products being shown within the movie. The effort will be supported by TV commercials and placement of Iron Man shots in printed and digital ads. A limited edition Iron Man 2 comic is also being given away with purchase of select models of LG handsets.

7-Eleven jumped on once again (MediaPost, 4/9/10) for a promotion that ran for two months and included not only the convenience store’s Slurpees, for which there were special cups and straws, but also a contest that sent the winner on a lavish trip to Hollywood and advertising for the movie on its in-store video network. The retailer has also bought some co-branded TV time.

Soft drink brand Dr. Pepper supported the movie with the usual movie-branded cans – 14 in all – as well as a TV spot that featured Stan Lee himself as one of the janitors cleaning Stark’s workshop, a nice touch that extended the spot’s word of mouth into the movie and comics blog worlds. The Dr. Pepper promotions page also let people enter to win an LG Arena Multimedia smartphone.

Reese’s, a movie tie-in case study in and of itself, created (MediaPost, 4/13/10) movie-branded packaging and co-branded TV spots for its candies and ran a sweepstakes that awarded a trip to the set of a future Marvel movie, which is kind of cool. It also sponsored a competition between three teams of students at MIT to see who could drive more traffic via online promotions to the tie-in campaign’s page, something I’m interested to see the results of should the be published later on.

Technology company Oracle ran a pretty massive campaign that included print and TV ads featuring Iron Man, most of which used the idea that while Iron Man was the perfect combination of man and machine, Oracle is the perfect combination of software and hardware. I saw the co-branded commercial for this partnership *a lot* while traveling as it was everywhere in airports, both on TVs and on other digital signage. Combine that with the print ad on the back of Wired and, presumably, elsewhere, and you can see the company was targeting the IT manager crowd.

Also on the technology front is Symantec, which co-branded its 2010 Norton AntiVirus with movie imagery and included an exclusive comic in boxes.

Burger King was once again on board with Kid’s Meals that featured eight movie toys, some of which appealed to boys (the action figures) and some that were meant to appeal more to girls (the Black Widow’s bracelet and others), as well as a “Whiplash Whopper” that takes its name from the movie’s villain. The chain supported that with a decent TV campaign as well as the usual in-store signage.

Land O’Frost lunch meats ran a sweepstakes, supported by TV, print and in-store advertising, that awarded people a Marvel-centric prize package including trips to exclusive Marvel events and more.

Taking advantage of the fact that racing plays a prominent part in one of the movie’s key action sequences, motor oil company Royal Purple showed off cars at select races that featured heavy movie branding, an effort that was also supported by TV and in-store ads.

Overall the promotional partners for the movie spent over $80 million in media buys that were part of a $100 million total effort (AdAge, 4/19/10) when you take contest prizes and other efforts into account.

Media and Publicity

The initial media coverage (outside, of course, of the stories in early 2008 about Cheadle replacing Terence Howard as Rhodey) started in earnest in early April, 2009, as online geeks converged around every update director Favreau put on his Twitter stream. He started the updates toward the end of pre-production on the film, which coincided with the release of I Love You, Man, which he had a supporting role in, and really kicked into high-gear when the production itself began. He posted updates about sets being completed, actors reporting to the set and more.

Also coming via Twitter was an announcement that the first approved publicity shot from the movie would be debuting in USA Today at the beginning of May.

That first image turned out to be pretty darn cool. The image of Downey as Stark sitting in his lab surrounded by previous iterations of his armor isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire in terms of showing stuff off, but for comics fans it was a direct homage to various scenes from those comics of Stark in his Hall of Armor or whatever it was called – the place where he kept copies of all the different prototypes and versions of his suit that had been worn and tested over the years. This was all about getting people to not only write about it but also place it in context of the comic mythology and history, which is exactly what most people did.

Another round of publicity was created around the release of yet another image, this time a first look at Mickey Rourke as Whiplash. The shot showed him in costume, which Scott Mendelson at FilmThreat was good enough to point out remained relatively true to the feel, if not the actual detail, of the character’s costume in the comics.

The first look at Scarlett Johansson as The Black Widow came when she, along with Rourke and Downey, appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly just before Comic-Con 2009. Within the issue was a clearer picture of her donning the character’s tight black leather outfit, complete with the little shooter wrist-bands she wears,

At Comic-Con – which marked a triumphal return for the filmmakers, who kicked off the buzz for the first flick there two years ago – representatives of Stark Industries were manning a booth where they were recruiting new employees. That booth included a recreation of the “Hall of Armor,” including all three versions of the Iron Man suit from the first movie and the Mark IV version that would presumably be featured in the new one. There was also the requisite panel session with Favreau, Downey, Cheadle and Johannson as well as a sizzle reel of footage from the movie – just enough to get people excited and provide super-fast looks at not only the heroes but also the villains.

Giving us a first look at Whiplash in action and continuing the trend so far of behind-the-scenes being the campaign’s focus to date was an “Entertainment Weekly” set visit that everyone on the internet was talking about after it aired. It provided a few good looks at the characters and there may even have been a clue or two as to some unknown plot elements contained therein.

Around the time the AccuTech site appeared online Paramount also sent out a handful of swag packages with items bearing the AccuTech logo – mouse pads, coffee mugs and such, the kind of thing you’d expect from a company like this. Even marketing trade pubs picked up (ClickZ, 4/12/10) the AccuTech effort as the latest online effort for a movie that more fully extends the film’s story in an effort to keep fans engaged and thinking about the movie well in advance of its release.

Some wind was taken out of fans’ sails when an interview with Favreau (Los Angeles Times, 4/14/10) had him saying the film was more or less self-contained and didn’t have a big cliffhanger that would be followed-up in a third movie. That restrictor plate was put on due to the plans for movies featuring Thor, Captain America and ultimately The Avengers (all of which were generating their own press just prior to the release of this movie), which would bring all of those characters together. That’s not at all a bad thing, though, since a sense of continuity is exactly what Marvel has been shooting for since taking back control of its properties and anything less would have left fans feeling frustrated.

Favreau also weighed in (LAT, 4/19/10) on how AC/DC has become a thing in the Iron Man movies now, with “Shoot to Thrill” playing a big role in the second one after “Back in Black” was featured prominently in the first movie.

The publicity tour – and a cloud of volcanic ash over much of Europe that prevented the cast from appearing at the London premiere – brought Favreau and Downey to the Alamo Drafthouse, where they showed a group of eager critics and blog writers the movie and had some fun with their appearance.

Overall

Much like the feeling I had after reviewing the campaign for the first movie, I look at this marketing push and see something that’s simply too big to fail. Not that I don’t think there are issues with some of the individual components, but…actually I kind of don’t I really like this campaign pretty much from top to bottom. The posters are sharp and effectively show off characters both old and new, the trailers are fast and slick and do likewise, as well as throwing in bits like the appearance of Nick Fury that are going to have specific appeal to fans who are excited about the expanding cinematic Marvel Universe. The advertising is full-bore and contains the same attitude as the trailer and the publicity is well placed and effectively messaged.

The sheer scale of the campaign, though, is one of those things that’s quite impressive to behold. There’s just a ton going on here, from the trailers to the cross-promotions and more. Even more impressive, though, is that all these individual elements manages to stick with a consistent sense of branding, both in objective measures like use of the title treatment and such and in more subjective areas such as attitude. The spots for partners like Dr. Pepper and 7-Eleven all have the same playful spirit as the studio-created materials, meaning when the audience comes across each element they’re going to get the same brand perception experience they did when they saw something previously.

As an admitted geek, especially one whose favorite super hero comic when he was a kid was The Avengers, I’m predisposed to liking this campaign just as I was the campaign for the first one. I’m very much one of the target audiences for this movie. So if there’s a problem with the marketing I’m not seeing it because it looks to me like Paramount and Marvel have put together another strong campaign for Shellhead’s continued adventures.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 05/11/10: There were even more comic tie-ins Marvel published as digital editions that go into the backstories of Agent Coulson, Natasha Romanov and Nick Fury.
  • 05/14/10: Adweek takes a look at the brands that signed on for promotional partnerships with the studio for this movie and measures how much buzz they got for their cross-promotional dollars.
  • 06/23/10: An augmented reality app for LG Mobile users put them inside the Iron Man armor so they could see what Tony Stark sees when he’s wearing the helmet.