Viewers Suckered Into Watching a 125-Minute Commercial

Remember when you couldn't sit through 90 seconds of ads?

I recently watched an exceptionally long trailer. It was for the upcoming Avengers film, and ran about 125 minutes. Since it had some extra time, it also tried to sell me Norton antivirus, a donut, and a couple of motorcycles. They managed to work in some of the plot of Captain America too.

I left the theater feeling a little bemused. What had I just watched? Was it a movie? Was it a commercial? The only answer I could hit upon was yes. I’d seen a feature-length film that existed solely to set up another film, and along the way developed an inexplicable urge for a Dr. Pepper.

The product placement aspect is nothing new in films. Since their inception, movies have incorporated brands into their plots, from Groucho Marx tossing Life Savers candy to the drowning Thelma Todd in Horse Feathers, to Hershey’s paying $1 million for Reese’s Pieces to be featured in E.T. In 1999, Star Wars Episode I paved the way for extreme cross-marketing with themed advertising that branded products, food and services with Star Wars characters. It even brought us the “Dark Vador” burger, complete with black bun.

The marketing team behind The Avengers has taken a page from this same book. They’ve joined with dozens of advertisers, and created so many cross-marketing platforms that you can have Avengers-themed everything, from lunchmeats to hotel room stays. “We’re building a thematic universe [with The Avengers films] and the [brand partners] are very much a part of that.” Marvel’s executive VP of marketing, Bob Sabouni, told Variety. That’s code for “there is a lot of product placement in these films.”

This is fine, and unremarkable in the current industry. Advertising, integrated or no, makes entertainment possible. But when the entertainment itself is advertising, things get murky. Because it’s not just the stuff in the films that Marvel is trying to sell us on; it’s the stable of Avengers films themselves, and every other past and future film in the series. They’re using advertisements to sell advertisements, and blending the line so far between marketing and entertainment that it in essence no longer exists. The film is there to entertain, yes, but it’s mostly there to sell.

This is underscored by the sneaky teaser trailers appended onto the ending of each Avengers film. Theater-goers will actually sit through the full rolling of the credits (of which there are roughly infinity) to see a 30-second trailer for The Avengers. It’s as if the film isn’t a film in its own right, and the real payoff comes after it’s over.

Marvel proffers each individual movie not as a stand-alone product, but rather as a step on the escalator toward the final film. It promises that that final film will be not just better than what we’ve just watched, but incredible. So good, in fact, that it’s worth watching any number of build-up films, just to prepare ourselves for the gift of The Avengers.

As I sat and watched Captain America to the bitter end, its pointed mediocrity really hit the point home for me. If it had been a good film, an engaging film, even a weirdly bad film, it would have given me some indication that the people involved with it were trying. I would have been able to say, “well, I was pandered to, but I also enjoyed myself, or at least saw something new.” The line between entertainment and marketing might have been discernable.

As it was, none of the films, save perhaps the first Iron Man, managed to be anything more than unexceptional. With their generic characters, lackluster plots, and over-the-top, computer-generated action sequences, the movies are simply serviceable, nothing more, as if they were engineered to be just good enough to escape universal pans, without being great enough to eclipse any of the other films in the stable. It’s as if the movies didn’t exist to be entertainment at all. They are expensive, empty vessels for advertisements, and aren’t trying to be anything more.

And why would they need to? With a combined domestic box office intake of more than $1 billion, the Avengers movies are the most profitable trailers of all time.

It’s a shrewd piece of marketing. A single Avengers film, released alone with the simple fanfare of an individual film, would have done fair to middling box-office business. But by creating this incredible, over-the-top event, with years of expensive ramp-up films that undersell on quality, Marvel has self-engineered an Event. An event that I’ll be more than ok with missing out on. I’ve seen enough of the trailers to last a lifetime.