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The rise of the post-credits scene, explained

Marvel turned its post-credits scenes into a pop culture phenomenon.

The post-credits scene where the Avengers eat shawarma, from 2012’s The Avengers.
Courtesy of Marvel

In October 2021, Marvel was holding prerelease screenings for Eternals, the then-hotly-anticipated superhero romp from newly minted Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao. As audience members filed out of the movie, one journalist fired off what they must have thought was a noteworthy but ultimately harmless tweet about a post-credits scene that included pop star Harry Styles. Within minutes, the mood curdled.

For Marvel fans, this person had ruined everything.

It didn’t matter that Styles had no bearing on the movie’s plot or that the reveal was really nothing more than casting news for a future film. To eager Marvel aficionados, this tweeter was a thief who robbed them of their Marvel moment. There were calls to have critics banned from screenings and to have this journalist specifically banned from Marvel until the end of time.

For anyone who might not be as invested as these fans are, the reactions seem illogical, irrational, wild. But the volatile and voluminous reaction to the Styles spoiler could be seen as a testament to how well Marvel has prepared fans for their signature version of the moviegoing experience.

End credits sequences have been popping up in movies for decades — at the end of 1979’s Meatballs, a character wakes up in his own bed on a raft in the middle of a lake and promptly falls in — but they’ve been on the rise in recent years. Winking or world-building scenes have appeared at the end of everything from The Matrix Resurrections to Don’t Look Up. One studio, however, uses them to the greatest effect, driving this trend, and it happens to be the studio that reset moviegoers’ expectations about when a film is actually over: Marvel.

Despite being the most dominant entertainment force in pop culture, there’s still an unquenchable thirst for more and more Marvel. Part marketing scheme, part reward for loyalty, end credits scenes are a massive part of the fan experience. If you don’t believe me, try spoiling one.

How Marvel turned a credits scene into their signature experience

The first Marvel post-credits scene was attached to Iron Man, the studio’s first movie. After watching Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) become a hero, audiences were treated to a 36-second tease. Tony walks into his home and is greeted by a voice in the shadows telling him he’s part of a bigger world. He isn’t the only super-powered man on the planet; in fact, there’s an entire universe he hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of.

“Nick Fury, director of SHIELD — I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger initiative,” says the mystery man (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson), revealing his true identity. And just like that, in less than a minute, Marvel laid out the first steps to its grand design.

Marvel president Kevin Feige said in a 2018 interview with Entertainment Weekly that it was actually Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that inspired the scene. After the credits roll, Ferris (Matthew Broderick) tells the audience to go home. Feige saw that little moment as a kind of gift.

“It was the greatest thing in the world,” Feige told EW. “I thought it was hilarious. It was like a little reward for me for sitting through the credits.”

Feige’s approach was a little different. Instead of telling audiences to go home, he and Marvel essentially told them that they would be coming back. More heroes were on the way. More villains, too. Iron Man wasn’t a one-off — he was going to be part of the superhero team.

Just you wait.

This was all dependent on Marvel becoming an entertainment juggernaut. Before Iron Man, some superhero movies did well, but Marvel hadn’t put out a hit yet. X-Men and Spider-Man had both been big hits for Fox and Sony respectively, but Marvel had sold off those A-list characters in the late ’90s to dig itself out of financial trouble. That meant the studio was left with characters — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Black Widow — that did not have the same cultural clout. In order to launch the Avengers, its grand design, and its promise of a bigger, bolder universe, Iron Man needed to be a breakaway hit. It was: In its theatrical run, Iron Man made a little over $585 million worldwide, and was the eighth biggest movie in the world in 2008.

“I don’t think we knew at the time that credits scenes would become this really big ingredient in terms of what you come to expect from experiencing a Marvel movie in theaters,” Erik Davis, the managing editor at Fandango, told me. “But that scene, which introduced Nick Fury, teased the Avengers — that was a huge kind of launching pad for what ultimately became the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

Marvel’s first few credits scenes followed this type of cut-scene pattern, and in a way, Marvel started training their audience. Following Iron Man, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk included a scene in which Tony Stark has a meeting with General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) who hints that a team is being put together. Tacked onto 2010’s Iron Man 2 is a credits scene that gives us the first glimpse of the Mjolnir, Thor’s magical thunder-bringing hammer.

Fans began to catch on that if they left early, they would miss out on a tidbit, so they sat in their seats and watched the names crawl by. They expected something to happen every time, and they were rewarded. (To date, the only Marvel movie that doesn’t have a credits scene is Avengers: Endgame. That was done to preserve the movie’s place as a conclusion to a decade of Marvel storytelling.)

“The audience buys in. Like no matter what, they’ve come to expect that it’s part of the experience,” Davis told me. “I kind of think it’s like the cherry on top of the sundae, or even getting the fortune cookie at the end of the meal. We don’t need the fortune cookie, it’s not going to make us even more full. But we look forward to it!”

As they grew in popularity, Marvel began trying new variations, using the scenes to introduce new characters, tease the very next movie, or just land a running gag. The Harry Styles cameo is a good example of a character intro; the Captain Marvel tease that was attached to Avengers: Infinity War was the first glimpse at the project; and the Captain America cameo in Spider-Man: Homecoming’s credits scene was a funny homage to Ferris Bueller.

“At this point in Marvel’s trajectory, now that we’re past the aggressive world-building that was characteristic of the first phase of MCU movies, I look forward to post-credits scenes as a bonus — as a fun tease of what’s to come or just a fun gag,” Brett White, senior reporter at entertainment site Decider, told me.

Marvel turned credits scenes into their thing, while simultaneously building a loyal fan base by rewarding viewers with these tidbits. Considering these moments aren’t particularly intensive or effortful, the payoff — getting the audience interested in upcoming projects, hyping up lesser-known characters to casual fans, creating buzz among diehards — is exponential.

Marvel’s credits scenes are a clinic in marketing

Every Marvel project — especially in its credits scenes — includes references, ranging from subtle to purposely heavy-handed, to the original comic books. It might be a logo (see: the aforementioned Captain Marvel credits scene), or a mysterious object (see: Eternals’ post-credits scene featuring the Ebony Blade), or some unexplained character (see: the Harry Styles cameo). These references come from a six-decade-old archive that’s still being written today. Given the extensive and sometimes loopy nature of comic books, audiences not picking up these references, especially on the first viewing, is a feature, not a bug.

“It’s a way to keep the fun of the movie alive a little longer. Like, there is absolutely no reason for any human being to care about Starfox, but put him in a post-credits scene played by Harry Styles and suddenly people are looking up obscure mid-’80s Avengers comics,” White says. “I think it’s because it gives people who like these movies an activity to do — like when Lost had people going on internet scavenger hunts between episodes.”

Marvel created an incentive for its fans that simultaneously benefits the studio. The more fans know about a comic book character, the better informed they’ll be of the upcoming release. If the problem is not knowing enough, consuming more and more Marvel becomes the solution.

Still, this can be confusing for casual watchers, and require a great deal of investment. A good example is the recent Spider-Man: No Way Home (a collaboration between Marvel and Sony) credits scene that references the iconic Spider-Man villain Venom, the multiverse, and what it portends for the future of the character. It relies on a fan watching both Venom movies, staying for the credits scenes, having a working knowledge of what’s going on with the MCU and its multiverse shenanigans, and having some kind of idea about Venom in the comic books.

In response to the demand, there’s now a premium for people who have extensive knowledge of comics to explain to normies how the things they just saw will fit into the puzzle that is the MCU. Dissecting Marvel ephemera is a mini-industry of its own — I should know, as I’ve written plenty of these stories, breaking down credits and characters for new or confused fans. Similarly, White specializes in Marvel, and has a running feature about all the hidden references (i.e., Easter eggs) in the studio’s movies and shows. And we’re not alone.

End credits sequences have “totally become their own conversation,” Ian Carlos Crawford told me. Crawford runs the Slayerfest98 podcast.

Initially, Slayerfest98 focused on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but recently shifted focus to include Marvel, discussing the company’s movies, TV shows, and credits scenes. That Marvel discussion relies on Crawford having a working knowledge of the comic books and distilling that knowledge for casual fans. “Folks like hearing the comic background,” he explains.

In a way, Marvel has created the perfect cycle for itself. The articles, online discussions, podcasts, and everything in between ultimately feed the company and keep it in conversation until the next release. It’s not unlike Marvel’s previous business model, with its interlocking comic books that promised a new adventure each month. Given Marvel’s aggressive schedule, which now features multiple series streaming on Disney+, those releases are coming in more rapidly. And even with the content free-for-all that streaming has introduced, Marvel remains the clear-cut constant.

Why no one else has really captured the post-credits magic

The success of this well-oiled machine raises the question of why more studios haven’t taken notes and tried something similar. It isn’t for a lack of trying. Warner Bros., which produces superhero flicks from DC’s comic books, attached scenes to the end of Wonder Woman 1984, Shazam!, and Aquaman. Like Marvel, these scenes have occasionally ventured to expand the mythology of the DCU (while some others are just gags). But the payoff for Warner Bros. hasn’t really manifested the way it has for Marvel, perhaps a testament to Marvel’s release strategy, its success, and the luck needed to pull this off.

“Every other studio has spent the last 10 years shamelessly trying to copy Marvel’s formula without putting in any of the work. There are post-credits scenes that have no chance of payoff, and post-credits scenes for franchises that go nowhere,” White told me.

Sony, which collaborates with Marvel on Spider-Man, has also used credits scenes in Venom and Venom: Let There Be Carnage. The latter benefited from the tease and speculation that Spider-Man’s nemesis would be joining the MCU. So perhaps, if you can’t successfully copy or beat Marvel’s strategy, joining them might be worth a shot.

And some movies have included post-credits scenes that really have no bearing on the movie or any promise of a continuation, much like the Ferris Bueller gag that sparked Feige’s imagination. Both The Matrix Resurrections and Don’t Look Up have jokey, tangential send-offs that seem more in line with that original spirit of the post-credits gag: namely, letting the audience absorb the names and jobs of people who worked on a movie, rather than hyping them for the next big release.

“I think that the positive that comes out of that, for anybody that’s not instantly checking their phone throughout the entire credits, is that you’ll be able to see the names of all the people,” Davis, at Fandango, told me. “I feel like there’s a certain amount of respect for all these people that worked so hard on this film.” After all, that’s what credits are there for.