Thor Beats X-Men in Movie Marketing Smackdown

LOS ANGELES ( TheStreet) -- If Thor, the young X-Men, Captain America and the Green Lantern all fought, who would win? Their marketing partners.

Including the film adaptations of Tokyopop's Korean comic Priest next week and Platinum Comics' Cowboys vs. Aliens slated for July, there are six potential comic book movie blockbusters on the slate for late spring and early summer of this year -- seven if you count the latest installment of a Transformers franchise that hasn't been considered a hot comic property since the Reagan administration.

Marvel Comics ( MVL) alone is responsible for half of that total, as its Paramount Pictures ( VIA.B)-released Thor opens Friday, its 20th Century Fox ( NEWS)-partnered X-Men: First Class follows on June 3 and Captain America: The First Avenger finishes the trifecta July 22. Still a year away from its next Batman movie, D.C. Comics has to make do with Ryan Reynolds' Green Lantern on July 22.

So who'll win the much-awaited match-up of the month between Thor and X-Men: First Class? Our first guess would be Marvel Studios, which has made a habit of turning its stable of comic titles into heroic onscreen efforts whose lone superpower is the ability to turn marginal acting and megadoses of CGI into Galactus-sized mounds of money. With notable exceptions including 2008's Punisher: War Zone, 2005's Elektra and each of the three Blade films, the Marvel Studios movies have each been good for more than $100 million in box-office receipts alone -- which is largely why Disney ( DIS) bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009. The lone film released by Marvel last year, Iron Man 2, pulled in $318 million at the U.S. box office on its way to more than $623 million worldwide.

"You can't pay money to be in a films like these, but what these companies can do is pledge their media dollars," says Jeff Greenfield, chief operating officer and co-founder of media analytics group C3 Metrics, describing Marvel's peculiar approach to merchandising. "If you're a car company and you plan to spend $20 million this quarter on a campaign, if you spend $5 million of that to integrate Thor into it so that part of the ad has 'Be sure to see Thor, opening in theaters Friday' at the end of it, in return they'll do big things for you, like exclusive footage for ads or licensing deals for in-store promotion and purchases."

As marketers noticed during Iron Man 2's run last year, superheroes have pretty broad shoulders for carrying a stable of brands to success right along with them. Among the brands attached NASCAR-style to Iron Man's armor last year were Burger King ( BKC), 7-Eleven, Dr. Pepper Snapple ( DPS), LG, Oracle ( ORCL), Symantec ( SYMC), Hershey ( HSY), Audi, racing-oil producer Royal Purple and Chinese clothing retailer Semir. Yes, it was easier for marketers to jump on a known commodity such as Iron Man, whose first movie alone made $586 million globally, but it's not as if Thor and X-Men: First Class marketers are dealing with some mysterious masked entity.

"They said that a Batman film couldn't be made and after Batman was made and it was successful, there was concern over Spider Man," Greenfield says. "Most people know that they're getting involved with a successful franchise and it's going to do well."

In this case, Thor is just one of the films Marvel's using to build to its 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, which requires appearances from Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and The Hulk. While the Captain America film hasn't been released yet, 2003's Hulk was considered disappointing and still grossed $243 million worldwide. Marvel's apology film, 2008's The Incredible Hulk brought in $263 million. Even if Thor doesn't end up on par with Iron Man 2, which opened on the same weekend last year, it's still a coup for marketers.

The same holds true for X-Men: First Class, a prequel to 2000's X-Men and part of a franchise that has made a total of $1.5 billion on its own and hasn't made less than $300 million at the box office in more than a decade. X-Men took in $296 million worldwide, while its two sequels in 2003 and 2006 made $407 million and $459 million, respectively. Even when Marvel decides to make a prequel, such as 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it still brings in more than $373 million.

That tips the scales toward X-Men: First Class, but let's look at how the films' marketing matches up before hammering the God of Thunder too harshly:

Thor
Studio: Paramount
Budget: Roughly $150 million
Marketing: When your strongest weapon has a name like Mjolnir, it might be best to introduce yourself to audiences early. The marketing for Thor started at the tail end of Iron Man 2, when a scene after the credits featured a secret government organization coming across what looked like Thor's hammer. From there, Thor was introduced to America in just about the broadest way possible: Through a $3 million, 30-second ad during Super Bowl XLV.

From there, the marketers jumped aboard as Acura ( HMC) announced that its vehicles would appear in Thor as the official car of super spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D., which already appeared in Hulk and Iron Man films and likely means more partnerships for films leading into The Avengers. 7-Eleven, meanwhile, jumps on with Marvel for the eighth time to provide 10 Thor-themed Slurpee cups. Burger King, true to form, will pack Thor toys into kids meals, while Dr. Pepper will feature the Norse god on its cans. Visa ( V), meanwhile, is being a little more adult about its comic book business and letting Visa Signature cardholders get ticket deals through Fandango.com. Sega, meanwhile, already released a video game for the film earlier this week, while Hasbro ( HAS) has released a line of Thor-themed toys.

"There's always a risk of a sponsor getting lost in the mix, but there's a greater risk," Greenfield says. "The biggest issue is not being lost in the white noise, but a product breaking my suspension of disbelief even for a moment, like in music videos where the screen pauses on an object to get it more screen time."

The gamble's worked out for the sponsors so far, as Thor has made $116 million before even setting foot in the U.S.

X-Men: First Class
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $120 million
Marketing: When Fox execs named this film X-Men: First Class, maybe they were referring to the first Photoshop class their marketing department took before making the movie's much-maligned posters.

That's pretty much been the story of how the marketing for this film has proceeded so far: Lots of mystery, little information. We know that Hasbro's creating a toy line for the film, so that's good. We also know British singer Robbie Williams and his relic of a British boy band Take That are contributing a song to the film's soundtrack. Knowing this film's geeky and primarily male target demographic, that move's understandable, but still likely ill-advised.

The problem is that Marvel's treated this film like its redheaded stepchild almost from the jump, preferring to keep its marketing and publicity behind Thor and the upcoming Captain America to the point that those two films share many of the same sponsors. In contrast to Thor, whose first theatrical trailers appeared in December, X-Men: First Class' Web teaser didn't appear until February and its full trailers didn't crop up until the end of April.

Even if Marvel regulars such as 7-Eleven, Burger King and Dr. Pepper were jumping aboard for X-Men, the month between the two films doesn't leave a lot of room for turnaround time or a lot of leeway if Thor is an Iron Man-style success. We'll just disregard the fact that First Class shares little with the previous X-Men films besides a common ancestry, that two years after X-Men Origins: Wolverine may be just a touch early for a series reboot and that fans who know of an X-Men Origins: Deadpool film in the planning stages and a potential third sequel to the original X-Men film in the works might just take a pass on this loosely associated one-off. The fact that Marvel and 20th Century Fox themselves have put so little weight behind it shows why marketers have been so tight-lipped about potential tie-ins.

The winner: Thor, by a hammer-to-the-temple knockout

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.