In the last week, a rumor that had been bouncing around the internet was confirmed when director James Gunn revealed that, yes, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 would have an epic five post-credits scenes. For those of us who feel like most movies could easily lop off 20 minutes or so without losing anything meaningful from the story, it means we’re going to have to wait even longer to OMG get out of the way I need to go to the bathroom.
The number of post-credits sequences has steadily increased since Marvel Studios revitalized the concept with 2008’s Iron Man. That scene featured Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury emerging from the shadows of Tony Stark’s living room and introducing him—and the audience—to the reality that a wider world of superheroes existed, ultimately setting the stage for The Avengers four years later.
Since then, every Marvel release has featured either a post- or mid-credits scene, or both. The practice has been widely adopted in recent years, especially for franchise movies.
As anyone who’s watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Airplane! or many other movies will know, these “stingers” aren’t necessarily a new concept. But their usage in the last nine years has evolved from giving an extra chuckle to moviegoers who don’t run out of the theater as soon as the credits start, to a tool that’s much more integral to the marketing of current and future films in two important ways.
Word of Mouth for the Current Movie
On the one hand, conversations around these stingers serve as talking points for the movie they’re attached to. While Marvel kept a tight lid on the Nick Fury scene that was attached to Iron Man, news of it leaked pretty quickly as soon as the movie was released, powered primarily by Twitter, which was gaining more and more traction at that point.
Anyone who might have been on the fence about seeing it suddenly felt pulled in by the promise of a larger universe being teased. And anyone who might have been waiting to see it a few weeks later, or not until it came to DVD, was pushed to the theater to see what people were talking about.
In the years that followed, “Does X Movie Have a Post-Credits Scene?” has become a mainstay headline in the entertainment press. People have speculated about whether the recently relaunched Star Wars franchise would have stingers. Or how about the Fast and the Furious movies? Bond? Star Trek? That speculation, fueled by writers who cite studio sources or just fans thinking out loud, provides new opportunities for simple conversation, keeping buzz for the upcoming movie alive.
Even if the movie doesn’t have one—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice didn’t—it’s in the best interest of the studio to let that conversation run its course and not deny anything outright. In other words, don’t get in the way of keeping the audience talking.
If fans think there might be a stinger, they are more likely to turn out for opening weekend so they can be among the first to see it and share its secrets with their friends. That’s what makes this practice such a powerful word-of-mouth marketing tool for the movie that’s just hitting theaters.
Marketing Kickoff for the Next Movie
In some cases, post-credit stingers are used to tie up a loose end from the core movie itself, or just add a little gag that’s based on what the audience just watched.
The original Guardians of the Galaxy included two such scenes, one showing the fate of Groot and the other showing the aftermath of a battle that included a fun little nod at another Marvel Character. A stinger in the first Avengers movie famously included the punch line to a joke setup earlier about getting shawarma after this was all over. Deadpool nodded to the granddaddy of them all, the post-credits gag from Ferris Bueller.
For the most part, though, they’re used as part of the marketing for whatever movie is next. Suicide Squad included a teaser that worked to set up this year’s Justice League. Both Avengers stingers have included Thanos, the villain of the upcoming Infinity War movie that will unite both the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Iron Man 2’s stinger set up the first Thor movie.
These sequences and scenes have become just as important a part of a franchise movie’s marketing cycle as teaser trailers and other tactics. We all knew a Thor movie was coming, but that tease at the end of Iron Man 2 gave us a first glimpse at what we might be dealing with in the story. Infinity War won’t have to spend so much time establishing Thanos as a villain because we’ve seen him planning to gather the Infinity Stones in those post-Avengers scenes. They encourage the audience to see the next movie because they’ve already seen the setup, so why not?
It’s actually a tactic borrowed from the comic books from which many of these movies are pulled. Get to the end of an issue of Justice League, Spider-Man, Deadpool or anything else, and you’ll likely find you’re not only in the middle of a story but you’re being prompted to make sure you pick up the next issue. “Discover the fate of Nightwing in Detective Comics #25” is the kind of call-to-action any comic reader will recognize.
Whether it’s just for fun or a very specific marketing tactic, post-credits stingers aren’t showing any signs of going away anytime soon. It’s too important for these sorts of franchise movies that it be clear there’s a story following the story you just watched that you will also need to watch because otherwise you won’t understand the movie after that one.
Studios have found success by using them—or at least allowing speculation to fester and build—and so they’ll be part of our moviegoing experience for the foreseeable future.