As comic book lovers air out sleeping bags and uncap fresh Sharpie autograph markers ahead of the annual San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel Studios is quietly preparing a splashy rollout aimed at generating excitement among fanboys and fangirls for the next phase of “Avengers” sequels and spinoffs.
The superhero content engine, which is still selling tickets to its biggest movie ever, the $2.7 billion-grossing “Avengers: Endgame,” is returning home to an ardent core audience. But Marvel won’t have Iron Man or Captain America on board as it lands its Quinjet in Southern California.
Instead, it’s asking the moviegoers who helped usher in the superhero revolution in filmmaking to embrace a slate of adventures featuring lesser-known heroes such as Shang-Chi and the Eternals.
That a company as powerful as the Disney-owned Marvel would need to set a new table in the midst of such dizzying success is unique, prompted by the narrative aftermath of “Endgame” and a high-pressure production schedule that promises eight theatrical movie releases between May 2020 and July 2022. The most recent “Avengers” film appeared to wrap up the storylines of several key team members, signaling that the franchise is entering a transitional phase.
“This is going to be so pivotal,” says Brandon Davis, contributor to top fan site ComicBook.com and longtime follower of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “‘Endgame’ really concluded something, and the fans have devoted over 10 years to those characters.”
Stars Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans hung up their armor in the events of the last “Avengers” outing, and founding Marvel talent Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo and Chris Hemsworth have undefined roles in future movies and streaming shows.
Supreme Geek and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige is expected to unveil brand-new franchise starters at the convention in late July. Chief among them is “The Eternals,” a series about godlike alien beings to be adapted by indie director Chloé Zhao (“The Rider”), which has widely been reported to star Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani and Richard Madden, as well as “Stranger Things” lead Millie Bobby Brown.
There’s also “Shang-Chi,” the first Marvel film fronted by an Asian lead. Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) will direct the movie, which the studio believes will be the kind of landmark for on-screen representation that helped make “Black Panther” a zeitgeisty smash.
The Marvel presentation will not be entirely void of familiar faces. A sequel to Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Doctor Strange” is also expected to be announced, along with the confirmed third installment of “Guardians of the Galaxy” and a highly anticipated sequel to “Black Panther.” The only title currently in production is “Black Widow,” a stand-alone for Johansson’s assassin character Natasha Romanoff, from veteran TV and film director Cate Shortland. That project is a bit of a curveball, considering Johansson’s fate in “Avengers: Endgame.”
Given that many of these projects are in their nascent stages, Marvel will have to get creative to “feed and water” its audience, says a top executive at one of Disney’s rival studios. Comic-Con is a space known for big stunts, for which studios spend serious money to gain street cred — from $1 million on the low end to as much as $5 million for a multipronged marketing effort, several high-ranking executives tell Variety.
Marvel will also face increased attention due to the absence of its box office nemesis, DC Films, the Warner Bros. label that bailed on the convention despite boasting upcoming projects like “Birds of Prey,” a female superteam film with Margot Robbie; “The Joker,” a dark drama about the clown prince of darkness; and “Wonder Woman 1984.”
“Marvel will of course bring out the stars of its next phase, and that’ll be a moment for it, but you’re also using a presentation in Hall H to break a new piece of content,” says the executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Getting something ready, like footage or a trailer for ‘Black Widow,’ means a VFX acceleration. If it’s up to two or three minutes, that can run you a million bucks.”
In the past, Marvel has trotted out concept art and computer graphics tests to illustrate its vision for a given film. When all else fails, it has relied on pure spectacle.
In 2013, the lights cut out during a standard producer Q&A, and actor Tom Hiddleston stormed the convention hall as his treacherous “Thor” character Loki, delivering a four-minute monologue threatening the humans inside his panel. In 2012, Downey Jr. danced the length of Hall H to Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much” while giving high-fives with his Iron Man glove. Both stunts are seen as iconic moments in the convention’s history.
Comic-Con has also become known for splashy “immersive experiences,” pop-up events that re-create sets and tableaux from TV shows and movies and offer virtual- or augmented-reality-based programming — and in some cases cocktails and swag.
In 2017, Warner Bros. erected a tent the size of an airplane hangar for an experience around Ryan Gosling’s “Blade Runner 2049,” complete with costumes, cars and a video arcade. The same year, HBO spent more than $1 million on a multiroom simulation of a new guest orientation at “Westworld,” from selecting Western garb and weapons to a psychological exam with a team of devoted improvisational actors, says the executive.
It also isn’t cheap to travel with a Jolie-level star.
“San Diego isn’t Cannes, but it’s not too bad,” jokes a top marketing chief at another studio, “but will your talent only fly on a jet? Will they share the jet with other cast? Are you putting hair and makeup in a hotel overnight? Am I bringing diet-restrictive catering from L.A.? It adds up.”
Another easy stunt would be to simply remind fans that Disney now owns Marvel characters, including the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, transferred to it in its acquisition of 20th Century Fox.
Feige and company aren’t sweating, says the marketing exec.
“There’s no one better at that game than Kevin. Remember, Marvel didn’t even go in 2018 and then opened its biggest movie of all time,” the exec says.
Rotten Tomatoes editor and critic Jacqueline Coley says the studio has faced skepticism before and managed to overcome it. “Look at ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ Who would have ever thought that would become what it did? Chris Pratt was the fourth lead on ‘Parks and Recreation.’ Dave Bautista was a wrestler. The most famous person in the movie [Bradley Cooper] voiced a raccoon,” says Coley.
“But from the very first moments of seeing that initial footage, you knew how special that was. The key is in replicating what they did there.”