Dear Marvel: Fix your posters

With the new Black Panther poster out–and already memetic thanks to some PhotoShop problems–I wanted to look back at what doesn’t work with the Spider-Man: Homecoming poster…not _that_ one–the earlier one, the one with Peter just hanging around…without actually hanging around.

We all laughed at the newest Spider-Man: Homecoming poster for being busy with a random explosion put in. I’m more upset that a Spider-Man film has more Stark than it needs–and that Sonic the Hedgehog version, which looked more like a Sonic Adventure box cover.

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But posters have been a problem for Marvel Studios for a bit. Back in March when another Homecoming poster came out, while talking with friends about the poster, I brought up why this poster was not working: it’s upside down. A poster showing Spider-Man can emphasize that he hangs around–so, why have him right-side up? The only reason was so that the New York skyline with the Avengers Tower is visible to remind viewers, “See? Sony can now use Disney stuff. PLEASE LOVE US!” But that is an insult to viewers: treat them like they are smart. Instead, we get Peter Parker in his suit with headphones to remind us that he is the typical high schooler.

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My solution: have the background upside down to make viewers stop and look at a poster for yet another Spider-Man film and say, “Wait, where is he–Oh! He’s upside down! Oh! And they even snuck Avengers Tower into the background! That’s so cool!” He’s Spider-Man: have him hang upside down like a spider can! We retain the message, that Peter Parker is both Spider-Man and a typical high schooler, with the added benefit of making viewers pause to analyze the poster. Sure, there is the problem that Peter probably can’t be at that angle, upside-down, without some Venom symbiote abilities–but, hey, rule of cool.

I photoshopped this in less than a minute–it’s not that hard to make this change. (But it’s evidently too difficult for me to post this in March when, hey, I can procrastinate for 2 months…)

The problem is that film posters, in the shift from paint or photo to largely digital, have less tangibility or grounding in the real world. Even the most unrealistic story is always grounded in reality by how characters who are like us would operate in a fantastic situation. In animation and comics, all that is needed is a consistent style: the audience can sympathize with any character no matter how unrealistic they are designed, so there is more flexibility in exaggerating proportions. If, however, you are insisting on grounding in reality, as Marvel has with its films (and I have considerable frustrations with that approach–putting the fantastic into a realistic setting for the sake of appealing to a wider audience rather than telling a good story), then the poster is stuck having to be either realistic or, thanks to the effects-heavy practices of PhotoShop, uncanny and hyper-real.

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Granted, I’m not always bothered by having highly stylized choices in visual content. I’m less bothered by the stylized revisions in the Black Panther poster than I am in insisting on having T’Challa unmasked. Granted, for pragmatic reasons, the king does not need to wear his mask when on his throne–but why would he be in the full suit anyway? If I was designing the poster, I’d have it tell a story: show T’Challa looking haggard, injured, maybe even parts of his supposedly impenetrable vibranium suit chipped away. There is also the problem of having T’Challa unmasked. That’s one advantage Captain America: Civil War had over previous Spider-Man films: he kept his freaking mask on throughout the fights, not removing it so the lead actor could get facial screen time. Unmasking T’Challa for the poster would come across as a cynical attempt to have Chadwick Boseman’s face present on the poster to sell on his fame and to give him visual credit rather than having him hidden away–if it also was not showing a black man as the main character in a superhero film, long lacking at Marvel.

The joke is that, with the power of an entire comic book production company behind them, you’d think Marvel has enough artists to make anything. After Disney purchased Marvel, they had their illustrators draw football players for an ESPN tie-in–because what the world really needs is two-dimensional Tim Tebow.

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This is not to suggest that over-photoshopping is a bad thing: it’s about context, message, and significance. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had its poster defended because it’s supposed to be over-the-top, so being off-model and PhotoShop effects-heavy is appropriate. What is the context? Guardians is loud, brash, and unconventional–this poster suits that tone. What is the message? “Look at us!” That is accomplished. What is significant? The supposedly poor qualities of this image help sell the product.

Marvel, you got to fix this: your audience is smarter than you’re giving them credit. In my rhetoric and writing classes, I pull these examples from current pop culture to draw upon students’ investment in visual culture and their keen analysis of these details. These primary texts are excellent at drawing out discussion from students who are often less confident in their skills at analyzing words on paper. While there are considerable differences between visual analysis and textual analysis, the point for those introductory rhetoric and writing classes is to train students on how to think critically, how to put that analysis into words, and how to persuade an audience why that analysis is significant. This kind of analysis then leads well to analysis of comics and graphic novels, then to exclusively word-based texts. And if teachers, largely dismissed as “those who can’t do,” can figure this out–and do it to fix these errors–then that means teachers are going to be teaching students about these flaws so that they spot them, see these posters, and likely become more reticent to give up their money to see a film with this kind of marketing.

Or just hire us lit and philosophy nerds to do your advertising. It worked for Roland Barthes.

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