As superhero film geeks (myself included) psych up for the Christmas Day release of “Wonder Woman: 1984,” I had to ponder once again why the comic empire that owns my favorite superhero characters – Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman – does not make my favorite superhero movies.
The last decade has been something of a golden age for superhero movies. Just as Westerns define 1950s cinema and mob movies define the 1980s, the 2010s were the superhero era. But that’s not due to DC – it’s largely due to DC rival Marvel.
When Marvel launched its Avengers franchise with “Iron Man” in 2008, arguably its most popular characters were Spider-Man and The X-Men. Unfortunately for Marvel Studios, Sony owned the rights to Spider-Man and Fox owned X-Men.
So Marvel hung its hopes on Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, SHIELD, and The Incredible Hulk. By and large, non-comic fans had little more than a passing familiarity with this group.
Today, even people who don’t watch superhero movies can recognize these characters. As of April 2020, there were 23 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has grossed a mind-boggling $22.55 billion.
DC tried to follow The Avengers’ success with a similar formula based around its iconic Justice League. Though “Wonder Woman” generated some great buzz, by and large the eight films in the DC film universe have enjoyed neither the financial nor the critical success achieved by the MCU.
There are many reasons Marvel has soared where DC has stumbled. But what lessons can we as marketers learn and apply to our content efforts?
Have a strategy.
One of the most remarkable things about the MCU is its web of connections. Each film stands on its own, but also contains references and ties to other movies in the universe.
Tony Stark’s father worked with Captain America and with Hank Pym. Bruce Banner was trying to duplicate Captain America’s super serum when he turned himself into The Hulk. The Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, and Vision all had Infinity Stones in different films.
Watching the MCU is like playing Six Degrees of Separation.
The marketing lesson? Don’t throw out a series of one-off pieces. Have a strategy that ties everything together, with each piece building to your own endgame. Echo themes in different pieces so they all connect back to one another.
If you understand your audience, you will choose the right voice. Use that voice consistently, and your audience will trust you.
Know your voice.
When I go see a Marvel movie, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to get. Every movie in the franchise includes characters developing through inner conflict; fast-paced action; a blend of serious and lighthearted moments; and a focus on relationships.
When I go see a DC movie, I’m going in blind. Will it be bright and funny like Aquaman? Dark and gritty like The Dark Knight? Will it have a well-developed character like Wonder Woman or thinly plotted caricatures like Suicide Squad?
Your voice is more than the words you use. It’s your style, your tone, and the way your audience feels after they consume your content. Dove has a very different voice from Nike. But both have a style their fans will recognize.
If you understand your audience, you will choose the right voice. If you use it consistently, your audience will trust you. DC’s haphazard style hasn’t earned that trust.
Have a clear story arc.
Remember what I said about every movie in the MCU tying in to the next? There’s a clear story arc, from “Iron Man” in 2008 all the way up to “Endgame” in 2019.
Your customers are also on a story arc. They don’t just pop into being ready to buy from you.
Their journey begins when they discover you – or maybe even earlier, when they first become aware of the problem they need you to solve. They move through several stages before they are ready to buy. The purchase is just the midpoint of the arc; the journey continues through how they use the product and if they are satisfied by it.
Don’t leave customers at a loss for what to do next. Create content for each stage of their journey. Give each piece a clear call to action that leads them to their next phase.
Include character development.
Customers want to see your story arc, too. Now more than ever, people are hungry for a relationship with brands. They want to know who they are giving their money to and how you are using it.
DC’s characters may be iconic, but onscreen they tend to fall flat. My sons realized it was no fun to play Superman games because Superman always wins. It’s boring. Batman is flawed, but he’s generally content to remain that way. He makes no effort to grow through his experiences.
Marvel’s characters, on the other hand, are three-dimensional. They grow and change through their struggles. The Tony Stark who lay gasping in Pepper’s arms at the end of “Endgame” is not the same as the one who announced, “I am Iron Man.” And because audiences had spent a decade watching him develop, his loss was felt all the deeper.
Let down your professional façade, just a little. Show customers the people behind your brand. Tell them your origin story. Give them a glimpse into your vision for the future. Humanize your brand.
The Marvel vs. DC film rivalry is proof it’s not enough to have an iconic property like Batman or Superman. Your customers want good stories delivered in a consistent style. That’s what will elevate them from passive consumers to loyal fans.
Need help figuring this out? Never fear. I’m here to be the Professor X to your X-Men. Get in touch to start building a content strategy or developing a brand voice.