What campaigners can learn from the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Pete Moorey
Apr 30 · 9 min read

It’s finally here. “Avengers: Endgame”, the culmination of 10+ years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – a film franchise that has conquered the movie universe and captured geeks hearts – mine included.

But what, I hear you all asking, can campaigners learn from the MCU?

Having watched Endgame twice in the last few days, here’s some SPOILER FREE thoughts on what the world of Thor and Iron Man and Captain America and Black Widow can teach those of us obsessed with change.

Lesson 1: Start somewhere

For those who don’t know, the MCU has interwoven a set of characters and stories unlike any other film franchise before it.

Endgame is the 22nd movie, coming 11 years after the MCU’s first release in 2008.

And it draws on a huge set of source material. Decades of Marvel comics. Hundreds of different characters and story lines.

For the main man behind the MCU – Marvel studios president, Kevin Feige – the task ahead must have been overwhelming.

But the answer was to start somewhere. Pick a character – in this case Iron Man – make your movie – and see what the reception is.

It’s hard to believe that Kevin Feige knew just how big the MCU would become in 2008 when he launched that first Iron Man movie. That it would become the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, grossing over $18.7 billion at the global box office.

To take a campaign comparison, when Greta Thunberg started her first school strike on climate, she cannot possibly have expected that the idea would spread in such an incredible way across the globe.

And often, when we as change makers sit down to consider our next campaign, the task feels so big.

Too big.

Tackling homelessness. Making headway on the environment. Addressing the inequality that too many in our society and across the globe face.

While it’s right that we take the time to think through our campaign strategies, sometimes all we can do is to start somewhere.

As the old military adage goes: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Our strategies and plans will inevitably have to change as they come into contact with the people we need to convince.

And so we need to test and trial our campaign ideas to see what works.

Start somewhere – and you never know how big your campaign might get.

Lesson 2: See the big picture

Even though the MCU had to start somewhere, it’s incredible success has been the ability to see the bigger picture from the off and to have a plan to connect up these 22 movies in a way that hasn’t been achieved before.

The MCU is famous for its post credit scenes, teasing fans with where the movies may go next.

And if you go right back to movie #1, right at the end of Iron Man, Nick Fury appears and talks to Tony Stark about his plans for the Avengers Initiative – something that would only be realised 5 movies later.

As campaigners, can we keep an eye on the bigger picture? The bigger transformational wins? The opportunities to collaborate with others and to achieve a bigger impact?

Or will we get sucked into only thinking about the quick wins, what seems realistic, what’s right in front of our noses?

Campaigning, change, is about romance and realism. And that requires us to dream big. And, as SMK’s Sue Tibballs writes here, to be system-change thinkers.

Lesson 3: Ride your losses

The story of the MCU isn’t one of unadulterated success.

They’ve messed up. The early days included some lower quality films (IMHO) and some miss-steps when it came to casting.

Take movie #2, the Incredible Hulk. Not the MCU’s finest hour – and a mistake in casting Edward Norton as the big green guy.

But the MCU rode those losses. Recast Norton and have gone from strength to strength.

The same is true for campaigners. To quote Michelle Obama: “Change is hard. Change is slow.”

Things go wrong. Mistakes are made.

But as the Sheila McKechnie Foundation has outlined in its brilliant 12 habits of effective change makers, persistence and resilience are a key part of being a campaigner.

As is evaluating our campaigns – and learning from our losses.

Lesson 4: Keep high standards

Mistakes happen.

But that doesn’t mean that we have to lower our standards.

The incredible thing about the MCU has been their ability to keep standards high – even if that means parting ways with directors or writers who don’t share their vision (look at departure of the brilliant Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish from making Ant Man, for example).

How do we maintain a similar level of standard setting for our campaigns?

How do we know what’s good enough?

Take comms on our campaigns as an example. All too often campaigners are satisfied with reaching the same audiences – an article in The Guardian, perhaps. Or backing by the same set of influencers on social media.

The challenge for campaigners who want to achieve meaningful change (that goes above and beyond what we usually expect to achieve) is how to set new and higher standards.

This requires us to have some difficult discussions. To push each other about what is good enough for our campaigns. To jettison things that aren’t working.

Are we ready to have those conversations? And to strive for new approaches that really will help us to make change happen.

Lesson 5: The MCU belongs to Black Panther and Captain Marvel

The first 10 years of the MCU was dominated by Iron Man and Captain America and Thor. But the future of the MCU will be less white and less male.

The MCU now belongs to Captain Marvel and Black Panther.

This shift came far too late. It’s incredible that we had to wait 11 years for a movie fronted by a female superhero.

We’re still waiting for an MCU film fronted by an LGBTQI+ superhero. We’re still waiting for Ms. Marvel and Shang Chi to join the MCU.

Thankfully this shift is happening and has to happen in the world of campaigning and social change too. But like the MCU, we’ve still got a long way to go.

Lesson 6: Have fun

I like Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman and the other DC superheroes.

But the key for me on why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has flourished, while the DC Cinematic Universe has struggled, is humour.

MCU movies are funny. Wisecracks. Beautifully funny characters like Korg. Hilarious plot twists and inside jokes.

The DC movies feel po faced in comparison. Oh so serious. Weighty. Dull.

I worry that the latter description could all too often be used to describe campaigners.

We can be a bloody serious bunch. And as we seek to reach out and involve and engage more and more people in our mission for change, that can put people off.

Extinction Rebellion – with their pink boat and soundsystems – seem to have avoided this characterisation.

So what can we do to make our movement for change as attractive and fun for people to get involved with?

Lesson 7: Honour your founders

A highlight of every MCU movie is that moment when you spot Stan Lee’s cameo.

The main man behind Marvel Comics always wanted to be recognised in the movie versions of his beloved creations.

And the MCU has embraced this, finding new ways to recognise the genius of Stan Lee with a funny appearance in each movie.

Campaigners love new things. We love to think that we’re campaigning on something for the first time.

Thinking that we’ve developed a completely new strategic approach – or that we’re doing something at the cutting edge.

And that’s great. But it’s vital to recognise those people who established our charities.

The people who first highlighted the causes that you’re now campaigning on. Who had to do the hard slog of establishing your issue as a critical concern for the public or the media or politicians.

A great joy of working first at Which? and now with the Sheila McKechnie Foundation has been the opportunity to work in the shadow of Sheila McKechnie.

Sheila was a pioneering and truly inspiring campaigner – whether seeking to tackle the housing crisis at Shelter or taking on the financial services industry or car manufacturers at Which?.

And honouring Sheila and revisiting her campaign triumphs is a constant source of inspiration. And it makes sure that we hold firm to our mission.

Lesson 8: Love your supporters

The MCU loves its fans. From surprise appearances by the cast and crew at screenings through to lots of online engagement, Marvel Studios know that these movies belong as much to the fans as to the big name actors and hot shot directors.

As campaigners, we need to show just as much love for the people that are getting behind our causes.

And we need to recognise that our campaigns belong to them, not us— and listen to them and meaningfully involve them as we plan where next.

As Buzzfeed’s Editor in Chief has recently written, the new movements in politics and the social change arena look a lot like social media fandoms — of Beyonce and Drake and the MCU.

He says that these fandoms don’t come and go:

“They’re eternal, as long as their protagonists provide a steady stream of content and mutual affirmation to growing groups of supporters. This is a snowball, not a narrative.”

Some campaigners and change agents already see this kind of snowball effect on their causes.

Many more are still at the beginning of the shift needed to meaningfully involve and hand over their campaigning to their passionate supporters.

And this process starts with loving your supporters. Just like the MCU loves its fans. You can’t see them as an irritant. Or a distraction.

Where next?

As the credits rolled on Avengers Endgame, I left the cinema extremely satisfied.

But I also left excited about where next. Where will the MCU go next, now that we’ve come to the end of this historic phase of movies?

Thank God, we only have to wait until July, when the next Spider-man movie is released. But beyond that, I have so many questions about the next phase of the MCU.

How can we leave people wanting more when we come to the end of a phase of our campaign?

What are the things that we need to do, so that when we secure a campaign win, we make sure that the change is not rolled back?

The job of a change maker is rarely done.

And to keep on, achieving change, requires us to be like Marvel boss Kevin Feige and to always leave people wanting more.

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Pete Moorey

Written by

Campaigns and Comms consultant. Working with nonprofits and more to make change happen. Ex-Director @WhichUK. SE19 resident. Jazz obsessive. All views my own.