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How Superhero Films Have Changed Trailers

What’s the perfect kind of pleasure? Oscar Wilde quipped that a cigarette is most exquisite due to its leaving one unsatisfied afterwards. The having of it immediately leads to wanting another. Now Hollywood has taken a lesson from Wilde and made the business of promoting a film as entertaining as watching one.

The upsurge in popularity of superhero and comic book films has been welcomed as a validation of comics themselves. In 2015 an Oscar winner will be donning the Bat-ears, movie studio giants Warners and Disney will be going head to head with their respective tent pole films – both superhero flicks – and the next five years have already been staked out.

I am already exhausted at the prospect of that much delayed gratification.

The movie trailer has evolved into a particularly virulent symptom of this anticipatory rite of passage for major blockbusters. Every frame is pored over; briefly glimpsed characters on the laptop screen are compared to Marvel and DC’s respective wikis (I was a fan of the hefty Official Guidebook of the Marvel Universe myself growing up); and then there are the fan-site and forum speculations as to what the story will be.

The movie trailer is an entertainment, transcending its original status as advertorial.

The trailer has changed, as movies have changed. Once, a movie had to sink or swim on its own appeal and the marketing collateral was designed to intrigue audiences into coming along to see for themselves. Today the film franchise model brings together the long-time fans with the increasing number of moviegoers sucked into the continuing adventures of Superman or Captain America. The trailer builds on that sense of familiarity. There is no need to explain the plot, simply feature quick cuts to known faces and hints for the fans. These films do not stand alone, they are a cog in a massive pop culture dynamo.

The recent trailer for The Avengers: Age of Ultron was a perfect example of this. A general sense of calamity dominates the footage that was leaked online before the intended release date, with various members of the cast looking upset or weeping, as that honey-voiced yuppie demigod James Spader narrates. Who is Ultron? What is his connection with Tony Stark? No idea, and frankly it doesn’t matter. Bums will be on seats for this sequel to one of the most successful cinema releases of all time regardless.

In a sign of the changing times, millions viewed the trailer from a google drive upload, as opposed to the incidental box office success of Kevin Costner’s Thirteen Days due to Star Wars fans buying tickets just to see footage of Attack of the Clones. The cinema itself is a contested space, with the rise of piracy blamed by industry figures for the decline in a greater variety of productions and general attendance. It is the home computer, or the mobile devices of bored commuters looking for a morning thrill, that plays host to the latest Hollywood teasers.

While the Marvel machine has successfully embedded in popular consciousness the ‘must-watch’ status of Iron Man and the rest, the surprising success of Guardians of the Galaxy, pitched as a more dysfunctional Avengers films, proved the studio itself is the brand. Guardians was cavalier in its promotional approach, juxtaposing the de rigueur science fiction shots of exploding ships, brawling aliens and climactic reaching of hands, with ‘Hooked On A Feeling’ by Blue Suede. There was a perversity to the choice, a pushing the envelope of just how far the fandom was willing to commit to the brand by openly mocking the pomp of space opera.

Needless to say it worked, but the name Marvel first caught the attention and director Gunn’s gamble on the madcap tone of the film paid off by capitalizing on that established investment.

Contrast this with the revamped Mandarin heavily featured in the Iron Man 3 trailers, played by Sir Ben Kingsley as a 21st century terrorism guru. The central reveal of that film, and the acerbic script by Shane Black, was less warmly received by fandom. Was that because they felt tricked by the trailer? It did suggest a plot that the finished film ignored for the most part. Instead Iron Man 3 was a study of propaganda, media manipulation, oh and a principal character frozen by PTSD following The Avengers.

The merits of Iron Man 3 as a film were ignored by fans who felt the storyline was an exercise in bad faith, a piece of fan service gone wildly awry. Is it any wonder Age of Ultron is vaguer in its declaiming of the plot?

The audience will come, fan-sites and social media accounts will be humming with anticipation for months yet. The best kind of promotion is the free kind offered by expectant audiences tantalized enough to spend the time in between the release of the first teaser and the film’s premiere speculating.

You might notice I have not mentioned Warners much and that is simply because Marvel is better at this game. So far. The cohesive movieverse is clearly established territory for Disney, with Warners/DC having failed to launch several properties, circled the wagon too long on others and then finally lumped every ingredient to hand into the gumbo pot that is Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

How can a much-delayed prospect of a cinematic Wonder Woman compare to Katniss Everdeens and Lisbeth Salanders and Sarah bloody Connors? Where is the audience excitement in a Batman explicitly characterised as older and world-weary – is this expected to be the Unforgiven of the capes set?  How about the returning Henry Cavill, now sharing the bill with an assortment of heroes from Aquaman to Cyborg – is he in danger of being crowded out of his own film?

There is a sense of the ad hoc here with Warners/DC, for example the chaotic spitting out of casting details. In terms of baiting the intended audience, this approach is just as likely to be two years of frustration capped by double as much when the finished film drops.

What is clear is that this continuous teasing of fans principally online with trailers, snippets of footage or set gossip is quite a delicate balancing act. Marvel has their strategy down pat, even turning the damaging leak of the Ultron trailer into a promotional coup (“Dammit, Hydra”). It is that overarching communications strategy that recognizes how important marketing collateral has become in informing and tantalizing fandom, and ensured Marvel’s continuing dominance.

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Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance writer, critic, and podcaster based in Melbourne.

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Also by Emmet O'Cuana:

Waxing and Waning: Essays on Moon Knight


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