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Sept. 27, 2022, 2:17 p.m.
Business Models

Pageviews, assemble! Why there’s no escaping the Marvel Cinematic Universe online

In 2022, few pop-culture brands move the needle, so newspaper blue-bloods and recipe sites alike rally around Marvel Cinematic Universe content as their last stand.

After a quarter of an edible, a two-bag Seamless order, and a listless afternoon catching up on the latest Marvel slate, I was determined to discover the implications of a post-credits scene at the end of Dr. Strange And The Multiverse of Madness.

I’m not, nor will I ever be, an MCU — that is, the Marvel Cinematic Universe — fanatic. I typically engage with the canon on a nine-month delay, long after the films leave the box office and migrate to Disney+, where they can be consumed on cross-country flights or in hotel rooms. But as a reporter, and someone who never wants to be left behind in the discourse, the spectacle of a major Marvel casting twist — like, say, Charlize Theron appearing in the waning seconds of a Dr. Strange movie — is enough to pique my interest. And so, after the screen faded to black, I typed the words “Multiverse Of Madness post-credits scene Theron explained” into the laptop resting on my coffee table. To my surprise, the first result brought me to GoodHousekeeping.com.

You can read that recap here, if you’d like. In about 800 words, Good Housekeeping illuminates the eldritch wrinkles of deep Marvel lore — knowledge that would once have been reserved for the sweatiest comic-shop habitués, long before even the most inauspicious superheroes became household names. Theron, I learned, is playing a woman named Clea. She is a “sorcerer,” from the “dark dimension,” and she has a complicated history with the maleficent “Dormammu.” It’s a good article; I asked a question, and Good Housekeeping had the answer, but it was downright psychedelic to see a comprehensive summation of the cosmic forces of the MCU on the website of a women’s magazine that has been in print since 1885. (It was founded with a mission to “to produce and perpetuate perfection — or as near unto perfection as may be attained in the household.”)

Good Housekeeping was obviously not put on this earth to report on the fictional biography of Dr. Strange, but within the homogenizing financial realities of digital media, the publication’s overarching editorial ambitions are irrelevant. Apparently someone needs to be on the Marvel beat, regardless of whatever else you want to accomplish with your website. The clicks are just that good.

“Even now, almost 15 years into the MCU’s existence, Marvel content in general — not just movie and TV trailers and reviews — still consistently overperforms, in terms of traffic, for a lot of the sites I’ve worked at over the past decade or so,” said Charles Pulliam-Moore, who covers film and TV for The Verge. “In the same way that Disney’s really learned how to capitalize on the fan hype that builds up around all of its projects, newsrooms have jumped onto Marvel releases as reliable sources of traffic because the eyeballs are just always there, and people are hungry for that content….[The] traffic’s so consistent, and covering the beat pretty much guarantees that people are going to click on a link just to see what’s up.”

The Verge is a company that focuses on technology, cyberspace, and the whole expanse of geek culture. Its MCU coverage is not a bizarre aberration within the texture of its HTML, which is to say The Verge’s Dr. Strange explainer isn’t awkwardly jutted next to, say, “Warm Up With Our Best Fall Soups” on the homepage. The same cannot be said for The Washington Post, GQ, the LA Times, Esquire, The Independent, or dozens (hundreds?) of other reputable media organizations that, in Pulliam-Moore’s words, scramble to fabricate countless “Easter egg breakdowns, explainers, and recaps” to harvest the ambient queries of those curious to know how Theron fits into this steadily expanding roster of quippy demi-gods.

The post-credits explainer has become the backbone of a nouveau content philosophy, one that nearly every media company on the planet seems to participate in. The vast majority of MCU films end with a mysterious cameo featuring the latest famous person to be fitted for tights, hinting that they’ll soon be saving the world alongside Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. These cameos are often left ambiguous — was that Harry Styles? Who is he supposed to be playing? — and the billions of people who watch the films look to their phones in search of more clarity. You can build a cutthroat SEO empire by catching the results. Media companies are determined to mine every possible traffic opportunity within the Marvel sprawl, sometimes to the point of flat-out deception. Alex Abad-Santos, a senior correspondent at Vox who handles the lion’s share of the site’s MCU reporting, noted that if you search for “Avengers Endgame post-credits scene,” you’ll find a ton of results…despite the fact that Endgame is the first Marvel film without a post-credits coda.

“Like, why? How are there posts about post-credits scenes for a movie with no post-credits scenes?” says Abads-Santos. “That seems pretty brazen.”

The answer, unfortunately, is pretty obvious. One source who works at a major media company told me that a standard, 1,000-words-or-fewer post-credits breakdown article reliably harnesses between 100,000 to 200,000 pageviews. That’s about as efficient as digital media traffic can get, which has made the MCU a paramount fixture of any publisher’s business model. They may not feel that they have a choice. The walls are closing in on entertainment coverage relevant to a mass audience, which Charles Holmes, host of The Ringer’s nerd-culture podcast The Midnight Boys, believes is a symptom of the slow, painful death of the monoculture. Orthodox thinking states that the slew of competing streaming services has partitioned consumer attention into a whole constellation of tiny micro-communities, and when you look at the metrics of, say, “Desperate Housewives” — a network comedy-drama that averaged a now inconceivable 23 million viewers in its first season back in 2005 — that logic seems pretty sound. In 2022, there is few pop-culture brands move the needle, so newspaper blue-bloods and recipe sites alike rally around Marvel content as their last stand.

“[The MCU is a] relic of a time where fandoms were large enough to sustain various media ecosystems,” Holmes said.

Holmes believes that a Devil’s bargain should exist at the heart of any publication in the business of entertainment news. The breathless, frame-by-frame analysis of a Black Panther trailer can satiate traffic goals, which, ideally, can then be used to underwrite coverage of “Reservation Dogs,” or “The Bear,” or the scores of other serials that bloom and die in total anonymity while Thanos blots out the sun.

Holmes’ thinking is indicative, I think, of a creeping exhaustion among those who have chiseled out a living by talking and writing about superhero movies. There is somehow more Marvel to sift through than ever before — a web of Disney+ shows dovetailing into movies, shorts, and now, whole alternative universes, making the release cycle dizzying and inescapable. It’s hard to catch a breath before there’s another She-Hulk episode to recap, another Daredevil cameo to comb over, another post-credits scene to explain. This is underscored by the fact that the critical appraisal of the MCU has swooned over the last two years, while its mainstream popularity — perhaps animated by inertia alone — has chugged along undeterred. Often, it feels as if the tastes of fans and critics are splitting off in opposite directions while still being bound, acrimoniously, by the sheer force of business.

I wondered how that affects someone like Pulliam-Moore, who got in on the ground floor as a humble fan of comic books and then watched Marvel mutate into an unprecedented, omnivorous behemoth — pulling the levers of the entire entertainment press; sustaining entire websites with a single trailer. Pulliam-Moore sometimes needs to reset his polarities. Wouldn’t you?

“A lot of reporters who cover genre entertainment, especially, get into it because it’s stuff we enjoy as consumers and fans, but once you really get into it, your relationship to it all changes quite a bit, because it’s work,” he said. “When critics — myself included — talk about being bored with Marvel projects, I think it usually means that it’s time to take a step back and dip into what other studios are doing more generally with stories that have nothing to do with spandex and capes. A lot of the stories these things are based on have always been derivative and sort of cyclical, in a way that can make binging them an exhausting chore if you’re not switching things up regularly for some variety in what you’re watching.”

That sense of exhaustion becomes more ominous when you consider how desperate the rest of the entertainment industry is to replicate the Marvel zeitgeist. Disney itself is already trying it with Star Wars, which is being mounted with a rolodex of new shows and crossovers that will surely expose every conceivable angle of the Rebel Alliance left unseen in the original trilogy. Warner Bros. has attempted, and failed, to engineer a DC Comics renaissance several times over, and Amazon surely wants to extrapolate its Lord of the Rings license all over the Prime Video imprint.

It’s the brutal reality of an increasingly fallow, top-heavy box office: You either singularly dominate every conversation, or you effectively do not exist. So media companies will continue to ask their reporters to supply oxygen to the MCU, and make sure no post-credits scene is left uncovered. They couldn’t do their job any other way.

“I don’t think you can have a culture or entertainment section of a site and not have a person covering and explaining Marvel. They’re the biggest story in entertainment,” Abad-Santos said. “It’s like having a politics section and not covering the Supreme Court.”

Luke Winkie is a journalist and former pizza maker in New York City. He has previously written for Nieman Lab about crossword puzzles, digital media companies going public, female video game journalists, Mel Magazine, Stat, Newsmax and OAN, and Study Hall.

POSTED     Sept. 27, 2022, 2:17 p.m.
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