The Importance of Being Trailer: The Difference a Shift In Tone Can Make
Well, a funny thing happened on my way to the forum, today. I had intended on writing about Batman v Superman and the dangers of over-stuffing films, but with the new Suicide Squad trailer and Wonder Woman footage that dropped last night, I wanted to take this week instead to discuss trailers and -following up from last post- tone.
One of the biggest problems I’ve had (as indicated last week with regards to Fantastic Four) with the DC Cinematic Universe has been it’s Grimdark Aesthetic (grimdark, for the uninitiated, refers to an overly gritty, grim tone).
“Who’s your favorite superhero, Jimmy?”
“I like the one that tells the other one he’s going to make him bleed!”
When Suicide Squad was announced, everyone was a little surprised…introducing DC villains and the Joker in a film without Batman? Unheard of! (Though we later learned that Batman IS in the film both through the trailer and through living in Toronto) We were also shocked when Will ‘Holy Shit, Seriously? Will Smith?!’ Smith was announced as Deadshot. With A-Listers Smith and Margo Robbie (Harley Quinn) in place, producers pulled another coup by courting Oprah for Amanda Waller (the role eventually went to the eminently talented Viola Davis; a much better choice). Already there was something different and neat about this film. Writer/Director David Ayer kept talking about fun, but our confidence was shaken considerably with the reveal of Juggalo Joker (albeit with the caveat that Heath Ledger’s casting was also met with anger and guffaws. Granted, he didn’t have a fucking grill, but that’s neither here nor there…)
Fucking magnets…how do they work?!?!
In spite of this, the first trailer looked vaguely promising…just having Will Smith as a DC villain is already interesting enough to warrant attention, as is the first cinematic appearance of fan favorite Harley Quinn (with extremely promising casting of the yet untested Margo Robbie) and Jared Leto -continuing to prove that he’s a goddamn wizard when the camera is on- proved his Joker, despite the questionable design, was still going to be worth the price of admission. It was necessarily expository (Waller sets up the premise in voice over), gives glimpses of the main cast and essentially builds to a reveal of the Joker.
But it didn’t read as fun. It read the same way the other DC Cinematic trailers had: gritty, dark, IMPORTANT. ACTION-Y. Complete with unnecessarily dark cover of a classic song by a tragic-sounding children’s choir. FOR EMPHASIS AND IMPORTANCE. Here it is for reference:
So, some neat stuff, but worth being excited about? Meh.
But all that changed about two days ago, with the release of some new images, followed promptly by a new trailer.
In today’s post, I’ll be taking a look at how the tone and narrative surrounding Suicide Squad had changed and why: in addition to getting me genuinely excited for the film, this shift also signals hope for the DC universe and how -yet again- a grimdark overlay can set films up for failure.
One Look? One Look? I’ll Show You One Look!
Here’s the first image of the cast that was released:
But which one is Keyser Soze?!?! Smart money is on Margo Robbie.
The image gave fans lots to mull over: it was our first look at how far they were going to go with Killer Croc’s look (hint: exactly far enough!) We got further confirmation that Will Smith was actually in the film (which still seems pretty unreal), and the direction they would go with Harley Quinn (I’ll cover the many looks of Harley Quinn in a future post, but to whet your appetite, here is the range of costumes and looks the film had to choose from…mercifully they found decent mid-ground):
…As you can see, things have kinda been going downhill since her original look from the 90’s.
We also got final confirmation about who would comprise the Squad (the roster in the comics has changed a lot over the years.) The characters from left to right: Slipknot (a master of knots and ropes/50 Shades of Grey Aficionado/Expert Arctic Air pilot), Boomerang (think Green Arrow, but with trick boomerangs instead of trick arrows. Played by Jai ‘Oh, for god’s sake stop being in things’ Courtney of A Good Day to Die Hard and Terminator: Genisys ‘fame’), Enchantress (the one standing, she is a magic user possessed by a witch), Katana (crouching, wields a sword called Soultaker that captures and draws power from the souls of those she kills with it), Rick Flag (an elite soldier; was supposed to be played by Tom Hardy, but he was too busy playing ‘get the Oscar nom!’ in the woods with Leo), Harley Quinn (Formerly obsessed with the Joker), Deadshot (The Fresh Prince; super skilled sniper), Killer Croc (a Batman villain with a genetic condition that gives him reptilian looks…in some versions, like this one, he eats people), and El Diablo (a gangster with pyrotechnic powers). They looked fine, but also at home with the tone of the Superman and Batman photos we’d seen so far: gritty, dark, grim.
Here’s what we got two days ago:
Each of these images has its own breakout poster focusing on the individual characters: they’re funky, interesting, colorful: these suggest a much different film than both the first image and the first trailer. Usually, these are the kinds of posters that fans make (like the spectacular Mondo posters) but here we are with an official series of posters that are a far cry from anything else we’ve seen from the DC Cinematic Universe so far.
This was followed by another poster:
“The difference is stark. Everything’s so muted. The characters look either mildly concerned, or outright bored. All the personality and vibrancy these characters should have—Batman! Superman! Wonder Woman! The World’s Finest!—is just drained, replaced by an endless malaise.”
Suddenly, Suicide Squad was looking much different from the rest of the DC Universe, but that could just be savvy marketing…after all, the discount bins of the world are full of garbage made to look desirable by great ad campaigns…
But the fact remained that regardless of the posters, the trailer still felt tonally incorrect.
Until this dropped yesterday:
And with that, shit got real (interesting)
Tonally New Trailer and Friends
Tone wise, this trailer is much more alive: we get to know the characters, see them in action, the film seems fun and snarky, rather than gritty and grim. Even the use of Bohemian Rhapsody (as sung by Queen, not the Glee Club of the Damned) gives the film a more fun and distinctive vibe. Suddenly, I know what this film wants to be and happily it’s not another grimdark DC flick.
But it is a little familiar…remind you of anything?
If you’re like me, you greeted the announcement of a Guardians of the Galaxy movie with a resounding ‘What the fuck?’ but this trailer completely turned me around. It was so unlike anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and had a sense of fun and play that none of the other films had (being familiar with James Gunn also helped in this case). But really, above all else, two things stand out in this trailer: the humour and the music.
When I laughed out loud (literally, not figuratively) at Boomerang sneaking a beer in a combat zone, I realized Suicide Squad had hooked me in a similar way. So, why the sudden turn-around? Guardians, already being a long-standing success, can’t be the reason for the recent shift in marketing focus (though you can be damn sure it’s success as a fringe property helped this -and the ill-fated Sinister Six film that I’ll be talking about in my next post- green-lit). While it’s entirely possible that we’re just getting too close to the film to continue to pretend it is tonally similar to Batman V Superman (hell, even Ben Affleck describes Suicide Squad as having ‘a cool cousin’), I think the final push that caused this shift lies in the spandex-clad hands of another hero altogether: Deadpool.
The story of how the Deadpool movie came to be is a fascinating one that I’ll be delving into close to the film’s release date, but in the meantime: Deadpool is a smart-cracking, meta-character (that is aware he’s in a comic) and often engages in hyper-violence and the eating of chimichangas. After a long campaign led by Reynolds himself (and some conveniently leaked test footage), Deadpool was green-lit and has engaged in one of the most brilliant campaigns of fan service I’ve ever seen. From the first trailer (which featured a joke about not putting him in a costume that was neither ‘animated or green’ -burning the much maligned Green Lantern film), to a delightfully violent fake-out announcement that the film would be getting a PG-13 rating (fans were furious) followed by Deadpool murdering the announcer and declaring the R-rating, to the recent campaign of parody posters, and finally, the above trailer. This is a film that by all conventional super hero film logic should not be possible (hard R, sex jokes, swearing, hyper violence…all the fun things studios can’t stand being anywhere near their super hero films; particularly as the rating limits their audience intake. This was a huge issue on Watchmen and even Live Free or Die Hard, which famously censored John McClane’s ‘Yippie Kai Yay, Motherfucker’ and continues to be an issue with Deadpool, even spawning a campaign led by an eight-year-old to get a PG-13 version released) but despite this, Deadpool has become more hyped that even the new X-Men film. In large part, this is because of how fully the film has embraced its tone: it knows it’s a different beast and it’s reveling in it. Consequently, we know what we’re in for, we know whether we’ll be excited or not, and this weird movie can just let its freak-flag fly.
While there may not be a link between the three marketing campaigns, the parallel sends a clear message: regardless of the cinematic universe your film exists in, the tone of the film -not the universe- needs to be front and centre. By allowing us to see the film as director David Ayer has been describing it for the first time, Suicide Squad has gone from being a curio to a project of genuine interest. If, however, the marketing had continued to depict the grim, en sepia world of Batman v Superman, we might have no idea why this film was interesting until it was too late. Now, good or bad, Suicide Squad can stand on it’s own.
I’m now quite unexpectedly eager to be there on opening night to find out.