It’s a dangerous game to review a trailer, or draw inferences from one. I’ve done it here before and made some (probably) wrong assumptions about a film, as well as some (probably) right ones. (I still haven’t had a chance to see the film in question, The Martian.) But one risks getting it all wrong about a given film, because of the nature of trailers themselves.
Trailers, it must be stressed, are not the products of the filmmakers who made the film. At least, not usually: Paul Thomas Anderson, for example, is famous for cutting his own trailers, producing quirky, off-centre two minute mini-movies and tone poems. But for the most part, trailers are advertising. They’re made by advertising firms to sell a very expensive and carefully considered corporate product, not an attempt by a filmmaker to present an idiosyncratic artistic vision. This tends to give them a certain similarity in tone, music (some trailers re-use cues from other films) and editing designed to appeal to a mass audience. Robert Altman himself once noted with his usual withering cynicism that all trailers are the same, regardless of the film being advertised.
But some properties are so big, and so well-established in the popular consciousness, that the trailers themselves become the topic of conversation and are treated with every bit as much consideration as the films. Star Wars is the obvious example, but this week we saw another sort of trailer for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, the latest effort by DC to catch up with Marvel’s world-building at the movies. Before we consider the latest Zack Snyder-helmed movie, we can think back to Snyder’s previous effort, Man of Steel.
I’m sure that many of our readers remember the first Man of Steel trailer, with Russell Crowe’s voice-over set against a montage of images from the film, with light music in the background, reciting Jor-El’s often-used platitudes about the human race. “They will stumble, some will fall, but eventually they will join you in the sun.” It was an arresting piece of cinema, and as it turns out, was not a very good representation of the film itself. All the heart and yearning and charm of images like a young boy on a farm wearing an improvised red cape were buried under a mountain of questionable ideas, major changes to key characters and violence, violence, violence. I would challenge any viewer to put on that first trailer directly after seeing the finished film and make the argument that there’s anything but the most superficial connection between the two.
Another example of trailer bait-and-switch, and probably the most famous, is the first trailer that gained substantial popularity on the internet: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. I remember watching that on a mac in the computer store in 1999 and feeling almost giddy with excitement about the upcoming film. We had all heard that there was going to be a new Star Wars film, and many of us had seen some set photos, but somehow that trailer, the first shot of which featured strange creatures emerging from a mist (they turned out to be Gungans, alas) made it all real. Suddenly it hit home for all of us: this is really happening! And of course we all know how that saga ended, with an almost spiritual disappointment after the film finally showed its face.
Now we live in an era saturated with media and pre-release clips from films, disseminated on an internet through which we all seem to live a substantial portion of our lives. Comic-cons are venues for showing trailers, and the anticipation for them can be even greater than seeing our favourite creators and celebrities. So any time a major film event, particularly one involving such well-known properties as Batman and Superman, releases a trailer, the internet sits up and takes notice.
This newest Batman vs Superman trailer seems to be a major misstep in advertising, and perhaps indicates some of the major missteps in the film itself. For one thing, it reveals almost all of the plot of the film, such as it is, shows us an awkward introduction scene (in screenwriting school, you’re specifically told never to show one character introducing himself to another and shaking hands – this trailer does that, then repeats the information 10 seconds later – a scene that should have been edited out of the final film, let alone shown in a smash-cut trailer) and revealing the big villain at the end. There’s essentially nothing left to discover by going to see the film. It’s all there on the screen. And moreover, it reveals just how little of the criticism of Man of Steel has penetrated Snyder-land. Even the sympathetic criticism of that film carried the meta-note, “Tone down the violence a bit”, but from this trailer, it’s more violence, more destruction, more lack of concern for civilians. It’s much more Transformers than Superman.
The trailer also goes out of its way to spend time with Lex Luthor, who is performed, by Jesse Eisenberg, with more than a little camp. It’s as if the direction he received (or the acting choices he made) were dictated by Jack Nicholson as the Joker, or even worse, Jim Carrey as the Riddler. Compare that to Kevin Spacey’s spot-on incarnation of Luthor for Superman Returns, which stood out from an admittedly problematic film. Amy Adams gets a couple of lines as Lois Lane, but she seems more of an accessory. But in a film with the names “Batman” and “Superman” in the title, one would expect a little more of Batman and Superman in the trailer. We get some, for sure, like that awkward introduction scene with dead air between the lines, but not much of the sense of the relationship between these characters. And the most egregious misstep is the almost complete removal of the character of Wonder Woman. Even Luthor’s cronies get more dialogue than her. And when she arrives, the boys get all the lines. She’s an object, literally, a statue in a muted costume (all the costumes are essentially maroon and black), useful only for a ham-fisted and vaguely sexist line from Batman, “I thought she was with you,” implying that she has to be “with” one of them.
The clear message I get from this new trailer is that Zack Snyder has learned nothing from his critics, and Warner is doubling down on the dark, deeply artificial-looking vision with an adolescent (or even pre-adolescent) understanding of gender roles. Comics themselves haven’t been this juvenile for quite a while, so the old defense, “Well, it’s just a comic book after all,” holds no water, if it ever did, being as it is a dismissive insult to an entire medium.
But we must provide the caveat that this is indeed a trailer, and therefore the product of an advertising firm. I once again assert: what advertising firm would allow such a sloppy, poorly-paced product to escape, particularly at this prime advertising time of year? The auguries are not good.