Warning: This article contains minor spoilers about a very old Steven Seagal movie you likely don’t care about.
I guess I could understand the excessive blogging and general speculation that took place after that first Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens teaser hit the Web last Thanksgiving. After years of fanboy/fangirl anticipation, there was a feeling that maybe the world would finally the first worthwhile Star Wars movie since, arguably, The Empire Strikes Back. I admit that seeing the Millennium Falcon back in action gave me goosebumps, and I’m not even a huge Star Wars fan. Twitter exploded (not literally), and if Kim Kardashian’s butt didn’t “break the Internet,” the new Star Wars footage certainly did.
My prequel PTSD came back, however, not because the trailer offered a glimpse into a movie that has a fair shot at being watchable and, dare I say, good—unlike the last three films by George Lucas, the series’ creator. The Austin movie theater chain, Alamo Drafthouse, hosted a panel discussion after the release of the teaser wherein they played the 88 second “short film” 17 times, parsed with discussion after each viewing. The whole thing seemed tedious to me. What could a panel of superfans and movie bloggers possibly glean from under 90 seconds of hastily edited footage?
Moving beyond the nerdgasm, however, there’s something about the ways in which popular media (and the Internet, in particular) increasingly treat movie trailers as a things in themselves. I understand the economics of clickbait and Web traffic, and everyone’s got to make a buck, but there are ways to talk about trailers that don’t include adding excessive analysis to a movie or TV show that likely hasn’t even wrapped production. A trailer is, after all, just a marketing tool, not the movie itself. It’s like picking apart a Neutrogena commercial.
What could a panel of superfans and movie bloggers possibly glean from under 90 seconds of hastily edited footage?
The trailer review most likely stems from the ubiquity of trailers themselves. When movie trailers first reached an audience, they were simply brief title cards cut with stills tacked on to the end of features. As the Dissolve’s Mike Fear explains, the practice began with the first cliffhanger serial, 1913’s “The Adventures Of Kathlyn”—which, at the end of the program, would tease viewers about whether or not the damsel would escape her distress in next week’s installment. Around the same time, Broadway’s The Pleasure Seekers began using short promotional films to entice audiences into the theater. Fear calls 1913 the trailer’s “Year Zero moment.”
Thus, trailers were always meant for marketing and hardly newsworthy, certainly not important enough to attract the notice of their own brand of critic; there was no Pauline Kael of movie trailers. However, with the explosion of movie trailers on the Internet creating instant accessibility on YouTube, there now are thousands of film and TV trailers to sift through, creating a desire to make meaning out of the chaos. We want to know not just what products we can expect in theaters but what we should think about them. (Because let’s be real: TV shows and movies are products.)
So much virtual ink is spilled over the trailers themselves that it inevitably leads to a flurry of armchair criticism on the Internet, sound and fury signifying nothing. The best example of this happened this May when CBS unveiled the preview for its upcoming Supergirl series.
When the Supergirl trailer hit the Web, it generated a plethora of op-eds and commentary focused on the first half of the six-minute preview. In the teaser, Kara Zor-El (aka Superman’s cousin) also fled Krypton, landing in Metropolis. She’s introduced as a clumsy personal assistant to Calista Flockhart doing her best Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada impression. As io9 observed:
This is depressing. Why must this big, awesome female-led superhero series cater to the most generic part of the presumed female TV market place? It’s a girl show, and what do girls like? Dating, having it all, boys! I half expected Supergirl’s heel to break and Jimmy Olsen to catch her. We like the cast behind this series, and the second half of the trailer (when it is focused on actually kicking ass) has a glimmer of promise. But the whole first half really felt like He’s Just Not That Into Your Bride Wars Lose A Guy In 10 Days.
Sure, the first half of that first trailer looked like something straight out of the postfeminist late-90s, infused with Spice Girls-style “girl power.” (It also feels like there’s a Pepsi commercial somewhere in there.) But it was the second half of the trailer that offered a counterpoint to the rom-com stylings initially introduced. The latter half of the Supergirl includes plenty of superhero butt-whooping, explosions, and flying.
Initial criticism likened the trailer to the Saturday Night Live trailer for a fictional Black Widow movie, where the Marvel superspy assassin didn’t just have to battle the forces of evil—she also had to face two and a half decades of sexist rom-com tropes. The parody was released the weekend prior to Supergirl‘s debut, so the comparisons were inevitable.
But the lesson of the SNL sketch was that if such a movie starring a female superhero were to exist, and so far there is zero indication that it will, it would be completely mishandled. While I think it was odd to release the teaser for Supergirl so soon after the Black Widow sketch (you’d think there was someone in the boardroom who paid attention to these things), there simply wasn’t enough information to determine whether or not there would be a balance between the trailer’s contrasting elements in the full context of the series.
Despite the flurry of criticism on the Internet, it’s been nothing but a win-win situation for CBS. The trailer generated enough Web buzz that millions are more than likely going to tune in when Supergirl premieres, and early reviews of the show’s pilot (which leaked on the Internet last week) are surprisingly positive. MoviePilot’s Christian Meeder writes, “I would say that I have very little, if any, complaints.” Io9’s Rob Bricken called the episode “pretty super.” Bricken assures readers, “If you were put off by the show’s six-minute preview from last week, I can assure you the show is significantly better than that. It still some of the same issues, but it’s far more charming than problematic.”
This shows the inherent problem with trailers: They are inherently misleading. I may be showing my age here, but when the 1996 airplane hijacking thriller, Executive Decision, was released, Steven Seagal was a main feature of the theatrical trailer. When I finally made it to the movie, super pumped for some ponytail-clad action (Hard to Kill was my favorite movie for a long time), I was extremely disappointed. Executive Decision was very much a Kurt Russell-John Leguizamo feature, while Segal dies, rather hilariously, within the first half hour.
Had I reviewed the Executive Decision trailer, I probably would have been way off in my preemptive analysis of it.
On the other hand, Selma’s trailer caught flack for its anachronistic song choice, as the makers used Public Enemy’s “Say It Like it Really Is” to illustrate how the problems facing black Americans in the 1960s still permeate today. Although I feel Selma was one of the best movies of 2014, the trailer still felt like a traditional biopic, while the film was actually a strong ensemble piece that focused on the movement rather than the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
As the old saying goes, it’s hard to judge a book by its cover, and even harder to judge a movie based on two minutes of material. Trailers can throw viewers curveballs, like Executive Decision, Selma, and the tonal inconsistency in Supergirl’s trailer, or they can be better than the movie we actually get. If reviewing trailers were a sound practice, Tron: Legacy, Prometheus, Pearl Harbor, and Sucker Punch would be on everyone’s list of favorite movies. The Phantom Menace would be the Star Wars film that taught us to dream of the force again, instead of the impending franchise killer its now known as.
I’m all for roundups of trailers, but I’d rather wait until the actual release of the TV show or film to reach any decisions about how I feel. It really isn’t worth speculating over a blog post because, in the end, we’re all going to be wrong. Watch the trailer, enjoy it, but let’s put less stock in what the trailer actually says about the movie or series.
And unless the trailer features Vin Diesel driving a car through skyscrapers, there’s no way to know what to expect.
Feliks Garcia is a writer, powerlifter, and foster of homeless cats. He holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, is Offsite Editor for the Offing, and previously edited CAP Magazine.
Screengrab via warnervoduk/YouTube