I have something shameful to admit here, in front of God, my country, and the Internet: Last night, without any outside coercion, I stood in line to watch a two-minute-and-13-second trailer for a movie that won’t come out for almost an entire calendar year. The trailer in question happens to be readily available on the Internet. In fact, I’ve watched that trailer at least 30 times on various devices. I’ve watched it on my phone. I’ve watched it on my computer. I’ve watched it on my iPad. I’ve watched it on my TV through Google Chromecast. I’ve acted it out with salt-and-pepper shakers and empty toilet paper rolls while my wife is asleep. I’ve translated the dialogue into semaphore in case I get stranded on a desert island and want to attract the attention of passing cargo ships with some thrilling voice-over about the nature of existence. I am enough of an unrepentant fanboy that I have gladly let myself get run over by the DC Comics hype train for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Well, in this case, it’s less a train and more an overturned big rig filled with deadly, deadly bees.
The first rollout of footage from the sequel to Man of Steel was doomed at the start. From the minute Warner Bros. announced its grand plan to stage a nationwide series of IMAX screenings of the trailer, it was clear that someone would risk prosecution to leak it and prove to the studio who’s boss. A shabby cell phone camera video popped up on YouTube and quickly spread all over the globe. It was so shaky and so blurry that I thought the cameraman was either trembling from fear of getting caught or was silently being administered electric shocks by some wacky 4-D movie theater contraption designed to mimic the conditions at a CIA black site.
The day of the leak, the trailer was met with a mixture of derision and befuddlement online, and despite Warners’ best efforts, the bootleg couldn’t be totally wiped off the planet as people raced to copy it and upload it elsewhere. The only solution left was to release the trailer days earlier than planned. Everyone had the same gripes as before, except they could see all the things they hated in full 1080p this time. The reaction was unavoidable. The vibe around this film has been mixed to negative since the credits rolled on Man of Steel. Critics and a certain segment of the audience are immensely wary of Zack Snyder, a director who has become one of the most polarizing figures in filmmaking. His track record is spotty, to say the least. Sucker Punch made me yearn for a steel-toed work boot to the jaw. Before that, he blunted the anarchic edge of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and chances are good that he’ll do the same now that he’s mucking about with The Dark Knight Returns, another classic ’80s comic book satire. With the trailer out and taking body blows from every corner, the IMAX theater plan seemed completely redundant. Except it was too late to pull back. The theaters had been booked. The commemorative mini-posters had been printed. The show had to go on. And go on it did last night.
The TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood hosted the closest screening to my house. Its capacity is 932 patrons and was about two-thirds full, far more than I would have guessed a few hours earlier. A free mini-poster will make a man do crazy things. A shy, young theater employee read a letter from the director/the studio publicity department thanking the attendees for coming out to see their commercial in IMAX, “as it was intended.” The letter also informed us that if we wrote our email address on the back of a coupon we received on our way in and left said coupon on our way out, we’d get a special pass to see the movie a week early. That’s right, we get to see the movie a week early … almost a full year from now. I’ll have finished translating the entire shooting script into semaphore by then.
We were told firmly and plainly not to record the trailer. I thought they were joking, but no one laughed except for me. Why the fuck would I record this thing when it’s already on the Internet? Do these marketing people think we’re remote-controlled automatons who simply must document everything on our phones so we can put it on the Internet later? OK, maybe we are, but this would have been a whole new level of irrational behavior. Part of me wanted to record it just to see what the outcome would be. If I were to be punished, the media would have a field day. “Man Records Trailer That Is Already on the Internet for No Goddamn Reason at All,” Gawker might write. Or maybe the headline would be “Idiot Stands in Line to Watch Old Commercial.” “Local Man Throws Away Mini-Poster”?
Finally, the lights dimmed and Zack Snyder’s face appeared onscreen. At last, I would see this trailer for the 31st time AS IT WAS INTENDED! Behind him sat the muscular new Batmobile. His message was clearly filmed before the leak, as he talked about how we were seeing the trailer early. He said that there would be extra footage, which would make this sojourn worthwhile. The sound of Charlie Rose’s mellifluous voice signaled that we were under way. Having seen this thing 30 times before, I ventured to suss out exactly why people hated it so much through a shot-by-shot analysis.
I assume this is Metropolis. The skyline is too generic to be Gotham City. Plus, there’s a Superman statue in the center of the frame, so I think my inference is sound. Voice-overs explain that the world does not trust Superman. This is the first red flag. Yes, it is totally reasonable to assume that the world would be immensely skeptical of an alien with superpowers who just took a Krypton-size dump on an entire downtown business district. In fact, I’d be the first person in line to throw a wadded up ball of trash at Superman. Who does this guy think he is, anyway?
The guiding principle of the DC movie universe is cribbed straight from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but rendered even more explicit through Snyder’s indelicate touch. It asks the question, “What would our real world be like if superheroes existed?” It takes the idea of Superman rather than the established character from the comics and extrapolates that across every facet of reality. Only the nerdiest among us wants to see Superman as an undergrad thought experiment. Most people would prefer to see him beat up robots and save cats from trees.
This is not the Marvel method of translating its characters to the screen as faithfully as possible without much in the way of theoretical deconstruction. Sure, Thor doesn’t wear that dorky helmet in the movies, but he’s still Thor. He speaks in a Shakespearean word soup and flies around carrying a magical hammer. The important part is that he possesses a magical hammer, not the philosophical implications of possessing a magical hammer. The DC movie strategy has been pilloried for months now over its insistence on making its product as pretentious as possible, and yet this trailer still leads with grandiose, full-of-itself material.
The most effective trailers, such as the Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser that dropped the same day as the Batman v Superman leak, provide simple comforts. They’re ads, after all. They offer up the assurance that what you want is what you will receive if you purchase a ticket to the movie being sold. Star Wars shows us hints of classic characters, iconic ships, familiar locations, and echoes of previous films. There’s very little that’s familiar or comforting about the trailer for Batman v Superman. Instead, it takes what you know and subverts it at every turn.
Here, Superman lifts what appears to be a piece of Russian space equipment — a rocket or a satellite or some sort of capsule. Except, the music and voice-over just make Superman seem like a scary monster who is going to throw a piece of space junk at you.
After Superman strikes his favorite “flying Jesus” pose and blocks out the sun, we get the reveal of the statue, defaced with graffiti. Clearly, much of this film will be dedicated to Superman earning the trust of humanity. Again, this is an incredibly logical plot choice. We’re talking about a man who could systematically murder every human being on the planet, and there wouldn’t be anything we could do about it.1 But I should mention for the record that this movie is for kids. Even if it’s PG-13, children will see this in droves. There were kids at the trailer screening, and they’re at every blockbuster that gets released. How would you like to answer the question, “Why does everyone hate Superman?” to a 5-year-old? Would you like to answer that with, “Because he accidentally killed hundreds of innocent people during a street fight”? Or would you prefer, “Because humanity is ill prepared to accept that they are not alone in the universe, gods walk among them, and they are mere pawns in an intergalactic drama they can’t even hope to understand”? Good luck, parents!
Remember, no one is aware that Kryptonite can kill Superman yet. For all they know, he’s immortal.
Then Ben Affleck shows up as Bruce Wayne and stares at his Batman costume while wearing a face contorted with anger. This is easily one of the best Batman costumes ever committed to screen, if not the best. It has weight, but it doesn’t look cumbersome. It resembles the comic book outfit as much as possible, down to the pouches on the utility belt. Affleck looks convincing and terrifying while wearing it. Unless you irrationally despise Ben Affleck, this portion of the trailer should work perfectly for you. Unfortunately, it creates the impression that Superman is cameoing in a Batman movie rather than one in which the two characters’ worlds melds seamlessly. Part of the appeal of seeing these heroes share the screen is to see their very different milieus mix. They’ve nailed Batman, but Superman feels off. By the time the two minutes and 13 seconds are up, you want to go into one of those hugging machines that Temple Grandin invented to treat extreme anxiety. The last shot they showed us is the previously announced “extra footage,” which consists of about five seconds of Superman and Batman running at each other. It’s all over so very quickly. To prevent the crowd from feeling cheated, they screened the trailer again, but not before Snyder came back to thank us further and remind us how lucky we were to have seen five extra seconds of men in rubber sprinting. I dropped off my coupon so that I could see the finished film a year from now AS IT WAS INTENDED, rolled up my mini-poster, and walked back to my car filled with the knowledge that it was all worth it.
This trailer does something not too far removed from its job, which is to sell the movie the way the studio planned. This is a serious, dark piece of work that portrays the DC heroes as pseudo-biblical figures. The choices are perplexing, but not egregious on the surface. The true problem lies with Snyder. His fans adore him, but nothing short of a film for the ages will change the minds of his detractors. His movies are unrelentingly macho. They lack subtlety. They’re glorified video game cutscenes with shabby performances. This trailer confirms all of that for the audience. And yet there are moments of real emotion buried inside Man of Steel worth remembering as we prepare ourselves for the next 11 months of promotion for Batman v Superman. Just about every scene with Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent exceeded my expectations and elevated Man of Steel well past its overall quality level. It was the closest we’ve gotten to the Superman myth again being treated with anything resembling the awe, respect, and sincerity of the 1978 Richard Donner classic. In some ways, those scenes surpassed the Smallville scenes from that movie. I think someone needs to put Zack Snyder in one of those hugging machines until he can crank out moments like those consistently. Until then, the world will remain as skeptical of his work as they are of Superman in this trailer.