For more than a decade now, Marvel has been one of the pre-eminent forces in popular culture, sharing stories about superheroes that could be enjoyed by young and old on big screen and small, as well as every week in comic book form… but this year, things look like they’re changing. Whether it’s the result of a delayed post-lockdown wanderlust, or something altogether different, one thing’s for sure: 2024 looks like it’s going to be the year of Marvel… After Dark.
If it takes three things to make a trend, then last week’s announcement that the upcoming event series Blood Hunt will also be released in Red Band editions, polybagged and labeled with 'explicit content' warnings for adults only made it official: Marvel is going after the grown-ups this year. The Blood Hunt Red Band edition announcement came just a couple of weeks after the debut of Echo, Marvel Studios’ first project with a TV-MA rating, and just six months before the release of Deadpool 3, Marvel Studios’ very first R-rated movie.
So… what’s going on here, exactly? Why is Marvel suddenly making a bid for the adult market in multiple areas?
The answer is, unfortunately, likely less exciting or salacious than some might want it to be. (I’m sure there are many out there hoping for some grand conspiracy theory centering around an immoral Disney forcing Marvel down a road of depravity; sorry, friends.) To some extent, Marvel Studios basically inherited Deadpool 3 as an R-rated project, after the first two hugely successful R-rated movies in the series made headlines and built a specific fanbase that expected any and all future installments would carry on the tradition. Had Marvel announced that the new movie — its first as the studio responsible — was not going to be R-rated, it risked losing the franchise’s core audience, and coming off as stuffy and uptight in comparison to 20th Century, which had previously controlled the movie series.
Similarly, while Echo is somewhat of an outlier with its TV-MA rating, it’s worth noting that Marvel’s TV efforts have experimented with darker tones before this, and also that Echo very deliberately shared tonal and narrative DNA with Netflix’s Daredevil series… a show that was also rated TV-MA. In that respect, it’s not too surprising that Marvel Studios went in this direction for Echo, especially given that it used the series to debut a new brand banner to differentiate it from other, more family-friendly fare; it becomes a bridge to pre-existing mature audience material and a reasonable business decision as much as an artistic choice.
Where does this leave Blood Hunt, the newly-upgraded comic book event crossover? That’s a good question — as, seemingly, the one choice that has nothing to do with pre-existing projects or commitments, the decision to double down on violence in an Avengers-centric summer crossover event comic is… an odd one. While there are certainly aesthetic and artistic arguments to be made for including a harder horror edge in the vampire-centric storyline, the creation of the Red Band variant editions might have something more to do with the fact that they will cost $2 more than the regular editions of the comic, for just 8 pages more of content — a prospect that will almost certainly guarantee a significant amount of sales from a completist marketplace, especially with the sensationalistic “explicit content” positioning and promotion.
(Imagine the sales from a fanbase buying both editions!)
This apparent shift towards mature storytelling on Marvel’s behalf might simply be more of a coincidence than a trend, based on the current evidence. Does this mean that things might change if each of these projects proves to be massively successful? Well… of course; Marvel has always left space to move towards the money wherever possible, after all. For now, it looks as if Marvel’s mature lean is a happy confluence of unrelated events, but who knows? Perhaps by the end of the year, we’ll have an announcement about that racy Night Nurse reboot that someone, somewhere, has been waiting for.
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