Movie Marketing Madness: Captain America

Very few comic book characters have reached “icon” status. Sure there are some that are well-known and the past few years have proven that even those who hover just below the A-List can become popular among audiences who aren’t constantly evaluating whether or not X title still belongs on their pull list or if a series of creative misfires have made rendered it no longer worth regularly reading.

While he’s never been as instantly and universally popular as his Marvel Universe cohorts Spider-Man and The Hulk, Captain America is certainly an icon of the comics world. Created during the Second World War as a Nazi-smashing figure of the American fighting spirit and then revived during the 60’s as a central component of Marvel’s burgeoning character line-up, Cap has since been a character that not everyone might be completely schooled on but they are certainly aware of.

Now he’s taking his place in the cinematic version of the Marvel Universe in the new movie Captain America: The First Avenger. The movie, unlike the other films Marvel Studios has produced recently, is a period piece that rightly places Cap – first just scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – in the 1940’s. Desperate to do his part for the war but constantly turned away because he’s so undersized, Rogers is eventually recruited into a super-secret program to turn soldiers into the perfect fighting machine. But when Hydra, the science division of the Nazi army, destroys the formula and the process right after Rogers goes through it he’s left as the only one. It’s up to him, then to take down the Hydra’s leader The Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) and save the world.

There have been allusions and references to Cap in just about all the previous movies from Marvel (I don’t know about Thor since I haven’t seen it), including glimpses of his shield in both Iron Man movies and the prominent role the Super Soldier program played in The Incredible Hulk. But Marvel is clearly setting the table for next year’s The Avengers and the role Cap will play in it with this movie’s subtitle.

The Posters

The first poster, which debuted just days before the first TV spot ran during the Super Bowl, presented a gritty portrait of the character. Cap is standing there in the middle of the design with his head bowed and holding his shield in a moment of serious contemplation.

Across his chest is the word “Avenge,” a clear allusion to his future inclusion in the super team of that name. Dirt flies all around him as if in battle, which ties in nicely to the filmmaker’s desire to make this a war picture as much as a super hero movie.

The image is pretty similar to one originally appearing on the cover of Captain America #4 from 2005 and so is clearly meant to appeal to the comics readers in the audience.

Nowhere to be seen on this first teaser is the subtitle “The First Avenger,” though the “Avenge” here does foreshadow that. Presumably that will appear later in the campaign but on this one it’s not just downplayed but non-existent.

There was a promotional poster that was created for the crew of the movie and featured a 40’s-era type of design aesthetic. It was kind of so awesome that I almost don’t want to say too much about it for fear of getting in to a neverending rant on why this kind of cool design concept can’t be used for the actual movie marketing efforts instead of being consigned to this sort of behind the scenes promotion.

The second official poster gave us a better look at Evans as Cap. He’s right up in front of the camera looking off to the side as if evaluating some new threat, his shield taking up most of the lower half of the image space. Evans still isn’t sporting the cowl here, which makes me think that there’s something telling the studio that putting him in that mask is turning people off in some manner. There’s no other reason not to have Captain America fully decked out on the posters for the movie. Aside from that, though, this is still quite good and continues the gritty look of the first one but in more of an action sequence than before.

A final theatrical poster was released just a week before release that brought the whole cast into the picture. Cap stands there (still sans cowl) while Peggy Carter, Col. Phillips, the Howling Commandos and Bucky Barnes are arrayed around him as the Red Skull scowls in the background and explosions fly around everyone. It’s very much a traditional type of super hero one-sheet and indeed is remarkably similar to posters for other heroes like Iron Man and more but gosh darnit if it doesn’t work. It’s also nice to see the poster campaign finally catch up to the rest of the marketing in highlighting the rest of the cast, something that’s been a constant theme of the trailers and TV spots while the posters have just been focused on Cap.

The Trailers

The first full length trailer is kind of fantastic. We meet Steve Rogers as a scrawny, undersized would-be volunteer in the army who’s rejected over and over again. As we see his hard-scrabble life as the kid who’s always picked on (including getting into a fight where he grabs a garbage can cover for protection) we also hear the exposition from Jones’ officer talking about a new “super soldier” program. The footage then shifts to Rogers being put into the capsule that facilitates his transformation into the perfect soldier, including a brief shot of Howard Stark.

Finally we begin to see Captain America in action, barging into Nazi/Hydra outposts (with the Howling Commandos, which is all kinds of awesome in and of itself) and throwing his shield at the bad guys. We get a similar shot of the Red Skull as we saw in the earlier Super Bowl spot and plenty of action, especially in the last half of the trailer.

This trailer is very, very cool. it shows the look and feel of the movie (including the computer-assisted shrinking of Chris Evans) as being something that seems akin to Johnston’s The Rocketeer while also having the action ramped up a bit. It also pulls off the tricky task of selling the movie as being a pretty good straight action flick while also selling it as a fantastic comics adaptation with lots of tips to the mythology of the character. Just great stuff.

The second trailer starts with the setup as we meet Steve Rogers and see what kind of character he has as well as how he’s finally accepted in to the Army. There’s a key scene on this front where Jones’ character throws a dummy grenade in a group of recruits and Rogers jumps on it to try and save the others, a moment that tips the scales in terms of his being selected for the Super Soldier program. We then see his transformation, which is followed by Hydra destroying Erskine’s lab.

Then the action shifts into high gear as Cap starts taking the fight to Hydra and their Nazis, taking down their bases and hitting lots of them with his shield. We finally, at least in this part of the campaign, get to hear the Red Skull speak as he confronts Cap about what makes him so special, to which he replies “Nothing…I’m just a kid from Brooklyn,” a line that bookends the trailer nicely and brings it back to his humble beginnings.

If anything the trailer works even better than the first, showing a more complete and more linear story arc and really selling the all out action of the film while still very much making it a character-driven story. There are a few bad jokes in there but that’s alright.

Online

When the official website first loads you get one of those “site lite” sort of deals. You’re prompted to watch the Trailer and view a Story synopsis. The Video section here has both trailers as well as the Super Bowl commercial and finally there’s a bit over a dozen stills in the Images section.

Finally Entering the Site things load like the beginning of a filmstrip showing some sort of military program.

The first section there is “About the Film” and there you’ll find a short Synopsis of the movie’s story as well as Cast and Filmmaker bios and Production Notes – at least those sections are listed there despite the fact that each one is currently (less than a week from release) still tagged as “Coming Soon.”

The same 14 images that were on the front page are here in the “Gallery” and the “Videos” section also just has the same three videos. “Downloads” then just has Wallpapers and Buddy Icons.

The “Experience” (which is also universally accessible via the “Dossiers” navigation on the right) has information on all the major characters and organizations in the movie, ranging from Cap himself to Hydra to the Howling Commandos.

The movie’s Facebook page has updates on publicity, promotions and marketing as well as video and photos and more.

Those watching the trailer online and then later seeing the movie could check-in to GetGlue and earn exclusive stickers. There was also an iPhone/iPad app that featured a 24-level game where Cap had to kick the hinders of Hydra agents and other baddies.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Marvel, as they’ve done with other films of theirs, created multiple lists of essential readings and other comic promotions to take advantage of how the character is (hopefully) at the top of people’s minds. There was also, as many had been predicting, a relaunch of the main Captain America title that included not only a new #1 but also the new #1 that featured the return of Steve Rogers to the shield, thereby not confusing all those new potential readers with a Cap who’s not Rogers.

The comic tie-ins also included a prequel digital book that was set in the world of the movie and filled in some of the story elements from the film, giving readers a sneak peak into that story.

There was, of course, a video game that’s being released around the same time as the movie that doesn’t necessarily share a plot or tie directly in to the film but, again, is part of the overall spotlighting of the character that’s being done across all platforms.

The first look at any actual footage from the film came when Paramount ran a 30 second commercial for it during Super Bowl XLV. It starts off by showing us skinny, scrawny Steve Rogers (what appears to be a heavily computer-modified Evans) who is then placed into a chamber and emerges a moment later much taller and much stronger. We then see him in full uniform and with his shield leading troops into battle, swinging through an enemy stronghold and more. It ends with a bit of humor as Peggy Carter proves that the shield works in a very effective way. The spot includes mention of this being our introduction to the first Avenger and, most importantly, shows that the costume looks pretty darn cool on screen and in motion, which was my and others biggest fear.

Further TV commercials would play up the transformation of Steve Rogers from a frail weakling who’s beat up in city alleyways into the super soldier who takes on the bad guys single-handedly, with some showing the transformation sequence and other just hinting at it while showing lots of footage of Cap throwing his shield at various things and otherwise plowing through the enemy ranks. More commercials would feature more character moments and even feature the first look at on-screen dialogue from the Red Skull and more.

Some TV spots such as this one would include footage of Cap being found in the modern day, frozen in a block of ice, something I didn’t think was going to make it into the movie. That’s a pretty big reveal of a pretty major part of the movie and I’m more than a little surprised it’s shown so prominently here. I had kind of assumed that if this

Out-of-home standees were placed in theaters that reproduced the movie’s key poster art.

Despite the period setting of the film there was some activity on the cross-promotion front as well.

Norton security software was on board, not only with product promotions but also with a video they produced called “Behind the Shield” that featured interviews with Evans, Johnston and some of the Marvel creators and executives talking about the character and its history, focusing of course on the creation of the shield for the movie. That video premiered on Norton’s Facebook page and required people to Like the page to view it, though how Norton thought they would convert comic/movie fans to customers I’m not sure.

Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins engaged in some retail promotions of their own, with star-shaped donuts being available at the former along with red, white and blue Coolata drinks and the latter offering lots of new tri-colored and movie-themed ice cream treats. There was also an “Unlock the Lab” feature on the Dunkin’ website that featured exclusive movie content and chances to win prizes ranging from a trip to the premiere to movie soundtracks and other swag.

Media and Publicity

While people had obviously been talking about this movie for a while – mainly about casting and costume design but also speculating as to tone and story – the reality started to kick in around Comic-Con 2010. Not only was Evans in attendance there but just prior to the convention a very cool and artistic piece of concept art was released that showed the character in battle in WWII. Also in attendance at Comic-Con was Cap’s shield from the movie, giving everyone their first real-life look at the prop and serving to get people excited when combined with the brief bit of footage that was shown as part of the movie’s panel presentation.

Also right around the time of Comic-Con director Johnston made it clear that the story was about one man’s character and his quest to remain a good person as opposed to be a “flag-waver” (Los Angeles Times, 7/21/10) who was unquestioningly patriotic but was still a guardian of America and her people. While some people read a lot in to this, it’s clear Johnston is simply saying they had to come up with a definition of the character that would fit in the movie, which doesn’t have the luxury of changing writers in six months.

In terms of mainstream press coverage, one of the first major salvos came when the first official photo of Evans wearing the uniform and carrying the shield – but still not sporting the mask – appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly (10/28/10) with more photos and an interview with the star on how he overcame his fears around taking on the role inside. This first look, of course, got picked up everywhere and discussed in countless blog posts and other stories, which is exactly what the studio was hoping for.

Early interviews with Evans would focus on how he was excited to be part of the character’s history, the obstacles he knew he’d have to be overcoming and how he’s dealt with fan reaction both positive and not-so-much about him donning the flag as well as how he saw the larger Marvel Universe playing out on film.

Entertainment Weekly continued to be a significant source of early looks at the movie, later on debuting the first decent picture of Captain America in full uniform (EW, 1/13/11), including the helmet.

Atwell also become the focus of some press, even if it was just a photo shoot (Esquire, 8/11) that emphasized how beautiful she is.

The tie-in toys and other products for the movie were also among those debuting or otherwise making a big show at the annual Toy Fair convention (Hollywood Reporter, 2/10/11), an event Evans was in attendance at to check out toy-afied version of himself and so on.

Johnston spilled quite a few details about the plot in an interview (EW, 3/3/11) that also featured the first full look at Weaving in full Red Skull garb. And he continued talking about the thematic connections the movie does and doesn’t have to Raiders of the Lost Ark (LAT, 3/29/11) and how that movie was used as an initial template when they were outlining the story.

This was one of the movies Marvel/Paramount brought to the CinemaCon trade event, showing off about 20 minutes of the movie in a couple different segments to the theater and exhibition executives in attendance.

In the wake of reactions to the first full trailer that were generally positive but which did include some skepticism as to the quality of the effects, particularly those that involved turning Evans into a scrawny youth, the actor came out and talked about how those effects had improved (LAT, 4/27/11) and that everything was looking really good and would be in great shape by release.

The movie was one of those brought to the Hero Complex Fest, where Evans was able to do some glad-handing and the second full trailer debuted to the receptive audience, which was a mix of industry players, press and comics/movie geeks.

A feature length profile of Evans (GQ, June, 2011) seemed to be more about how charming and charismatic the actor was as opposed to anything movie-related, but that was probably the goal all along since it could potentially have the effect of bringing more female attention to a comic book movie.

There was a lot of speculation and mulling done in the early days of the movie’s production that the title would be changed for international markets where the idea of someone who is 100% American cheerleader might not be such a great idea. Ultimately, though, the decision was made (New York Times, 7/3/11) to retain the full “Captain America: The First Avenger” title in all but a handful of countries where such sentiment was most virulent since brand recognition was seen as being more important than anything else.

While the movie is opening *during* Comic-Con 2011 and no panel was being planned reports began to surface (THR, 7/5/11) that there would be some sort of presence there that would likely involve Evans. Eventually it was revealed that a special Comic-Con screening of the movie hosted by Evans would be taking place so that the assembled geeks could see the movie while they were in San Diego for that event.

Shortly before Comic-Con the theme returned to Evans’ wrestling with the decision to play the character in the first place (NYT, 7/10/11) and how he got over his nerves and jumped on board.

Overall

I’ll admit right off the bat that I’m completely in the bag for this movie. During my early comic-reading years I was always a huge Avengers fan and since Cap was an integral part of that he was constantly on my radar. I never read his solo book with any regularity (outside of a brief time around ‘88/’89 or so) but always more or less knew what was going on.

So with that being said this campaign works really well for me. The posters, the trailers and everything else come together very nicely and create something that makes me want to see the movie even more than I did before.

Even more importantly there’s nothing here that is actively discouraging me from seeing the movie. So many times these movies have built in audiences like myself that are 98% likely to see the film and the only thing that is going to turn off their desire is a campaign that shows the movie just completely botches the character, even if that’s not the case in the full film. But there’s nothing here that dampens any enthusiasm and that might just be the biggest hurdle that the campaign had to clear.

PICKING UP THE SPARE

  • 07/21/11 – Wired has some details on what exactly the movie’s Comic-Con promotions amounted to.
  • 07/22/11 – Both the LAT and the AP have takes on the challenges of selling this movie outside the U.S.
  • 07/22/11 – Christina Warren at Mashable goes a little overboard in trying to make the case that social media was a big part of the movie’s campaign. By that I mean “using YouTube” and “having a Facebook” page doesn’t exactly signal great marketing innovation in 2011 from my perspective.

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