I’m always fascinated by how films are sold. The way that studios set up the story–the ideas that they convey, the things they foreshadow, everything. It’s fascinating. Recently, The Avengers 2 trailer came out and slipped into a familiar marketing trope: the heroes are falling.
And this time it struck me in quite a different way. Why is this the way movies are sold? The original Avengers didn’t get painted as that sort of story, and yet did phenomenally in terms of monetary gain. It’s obviously not necessary to pull audiences in. So why is this where studios decide to go? It’s happened before, too. Think of Iron Man 3, and all the marketing for that. Every single trailer was about Iron Man meeting his match, apparently, and falling. Of course the film was nothing like that, and I’m sure Avengers 2 won’t be anything like a “heroes falling” story. But yet why sell it that way?
The Dark Knight Rises was sold this way explicitly, especially with the tagline for the film: The Legend Ends.
In a sense, the marketing of movies seems to me to be a story before the story. The studios tell a story about the story. The story before the story of Iron Man 3 was, “Iron Man is meeting his match and will fall.” The story The Dark Knight Rises marketing told was, “Batman will have to give up his life to save Gotham.” Avengers 2 seems to be, though we’ll have to wait for the rest of the trailers, “the heroic team has created their own demise.”
So why? Why do audiences come and see this type of story?
Of course, there’s the obvious answer: audiences love these characters and want to see if they’ll defeat evil. Honestly, though, this seems to fall short for me. How many of us actually think that Captain America, or Thor, or Iron Man are going to die in Avengers 2? How many people really bought that Iron Man 3 would have a tragic ending for the hero? I’d be willing to wager that very few actually thought that.
But yet studios tell that story. Why? “The mighty are falling” stories can be quite good, but why must the mighty fall?
Aren’t superheroes supposed to be the saviors? Aren’t they supposed to rise above evil and triumph? A lot of people in writing about the superhero movie trend, have observed that these films are almost an extension of our desire for a hero–for someone to save us. The superheroes seem to be able to save us, ergo we go to see these films.
So then, if we love superheroes stories because they seem to display our saviors, why sell the superhero films as “the mighty are falling?”
In my thinking about this over the days since The Avengers 2 trailer came out, I haven’t firmly come to a conclusion. I’m glad I haven’t, because I don’t think a few days can really answer the question. But a possible answer did arise, and that is that the mighty fall, or at least we go to see films sold as that, because we want to make sure the superheroes can triumph.
Or, to put it a different way, we’re afraid that perhaps our heroes won’t be the saviors we need. We don’t want to think that Iron Man can’t defeat evil, we don’t want to think that Batman will ultimately fall. That threatens our hope, our longing, for a savior that these superheroes might be. This type of marketing threatens our faith in these saviors, and so we go to these films hoping that our faith won’t really be destroyed.
To propose another answer that follows from the same basic idea, perhaps we go to these films because we know our heroes won’t die. We know Batman, and Iron Man, and the Avengers won’t fail, and so we go to see them triumph over the “death of the hero” story that’s been sold to us before the film. We go to see our faith in the superheroes reaffirmed. I’m really going out on a limb here, but I’ll throw this out: maybe we go to see the heroes triumph, not just over the story of death, but over death itself.
That’s what happened in The Dark Knight Rises–both in the marketing and the actual film–metaphorically speaking. Batman “dies” and rises again. Quite literally, he descends into the pit of death and defeats it by escaping. As his father tells him in flashbacks over the trilogy, he falls into the pit for the explicit purpose of defeating it. “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves back up,” his father says. Of course, the villain defeats the pit of death by rising from it as well, which throws a wrench in that theory.
So why do the mighty fall? The obvious answer is, “well, they don’t actually” and that’s true in the actual story. But in the story before the story–the story the marketers tell us–the mighty do fall. And so the question remains. And to put it in a slightly cheesy, but hopefully illuminating way: why do we go see movies where the heroes seem to be falling? Is it because we are scared the heroes will fall? Or is it so we can see them pick themselves back up?