The Pain and Pleasure of Movie Trailers

The first Avengers: Infinity War trailer was released yesterday, and so it seemed like a good time to talk about something that I’m a big fan of: Movie Trailers. But before we go any further, let’s take a few minutes to view that Infinity War trailer one more time…

Still hasn’t gotten old, despite probably a dozen viewings. May 4th can’t come soon enough. Get this man a shield.

I’m a bit of a movie trailer junkie. Few things get my heart pumping more than the combination of epic trailer music and masterfully edited footage of action scenes and quippy one-liners. I get more hyped for the release of an anticipated movie’s new trailer than I do for smartphone announcements or the NBA lottery1. During the four months since the Infinity War footage was revealed at San Diego Comic Con I searched every day (sometimes multiple times a day) for the first trailer to be released online. In fact, for me, the cliche of the trailer being better than the movie is actually often true.

A great example of this is the trailer for J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot. I probably watched the trailer dozens of times. I loved it. Even today, eight years later, I still get chills watching it. The soaring music from Two Steps From Hell combined with Captain Pike challenging Kirk to join Starfleet and seeing Kirk later take the captain’s chair is just epic on every level. To this day I think it remains my favorite movie trailer. I enjoyed the movie itself as well, but it honestly was a bit of a disappointment after seeing the trailer.

However, I’ve started to notice a troubling trend: Movie trailers giving away too much information about the movie. Ironically enough, it started with the trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While watching the trailers, I was taken aback by how little they revealed about the movie. Even after watching all the trailers multiple times, I went into the theater to see the movie for the first time without knowing hardly anything about the plot. Who is Kylo Ren? Is Luke in it? Is Luke actually Kylo Ren after having turned to the dark side? It was an amazingly unique experience going into such a widely anticipated movie and knowing so little about what to expect.

Compare that with the trailers of some more recent blockbusters.

Trailers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice gave away practically all of the plot points of the movie, including the dramatic introduction of Wonder Woman and the revelation of Doomsday as the big bad. Knowing exactly how Wonder Woman would leap into the fray to save Batman sapped that scene of all dramatic tension, and knowing that Doomsday would make an appearance drew significant attention away from what should’ve been the climactic fight between Batman and Superman. How awesome would it have been to have experienced seeing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman on screen for the first time in the theater with Hans Zimmer’s booming score kicking in at the same time? Instead, by the time I had seen the movie, her appearance hardly elicited a reaction from me at all.

Justice League was hardly any different. After walking out of the movie, I was struck by how much of it felt familiar based on the copious trailers and commercials that I had already seen. Outside of one major secret that was kept out of the marketing (and it was hardly a secret to anybody following the movie at all), there weren’t any plot surprises. Many of the action scenes had already popped up on trailers or commercials; so had most of the best quips and one-liners. In some ways, I left the movie thinking I had just seen a longer version of the trailers (which, despite my love of trailers, isn’t a compliment).

More recently, the Thor: Ragnarok trailer gave away many of the biggest scenes in the movie, including scenes that would have been genuinely shocking to have seen for the first time, such as the destruction of Mjölnir or the appearance of the Hulk in the movie. Those two scenes were so widely played in trailers and commercials that I don’t even consider it a spoiler to mention. I remember there being audible gasps in the theater during Avengers: Age of Ultron when the Vision picked up Mjölnir to hand to Thor.2 There was no such reaction in the theater when Mjölnir was destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok, just the silence of an audience who had seen that scene play out dozens of times already. It’s also sad to think back to how the movie built up to the reveal of the Hulk. There are no blatant hints dropped as to the identity of the Grandmaster’s champion and little reason for the audience to think it’s anybody they already know. Hulk’s presence in the movie isn’t so integral that he had to have been included in the marketing. Why couldn’t they just have left that out and let the audience be surprised? Why deprive them of the thrill?

Why couldn’t they just have left that out and let the audience be surprised? Why deprive them of the thrill?

How the Hulk’s inclusion in Thor: Ragnarok was handled (i.e. ruined) reminded me of another potential twist in a blockbuster movie that was completely undone by its trailers. Many years earlier, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (I apparently have a thing for movie titles with colons in them3) should’ve shocked audiences by turning Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, the villain from the first movie, into the hero of the sequel. Or, at least, audiences would’ve been shocked, if the plot point hadn’t already been revealed earlier in trailers.

Re-watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it’s actually frustrating to see how carefully crafted the first half-hour is, how thoroughly it takes advantage of audience assumptions, all in order to floor them with the big reveal, when Patrick and Schwarzenegger’s Terminators face off over a terrified John Connor, and Schwarzenegger’s is the one who saves John’s life and hustles him to safety. Counting Cameron’s first run at these characters and this basic idea, it took around seven years to build up this fake-out—and just a couple minutes of trailer (and a tagline, “This time he’s back… for good!”) to blow it. It’s one of the dumbest marketing missteps of all time—at least in terms of audience experience.

– Terminator 2 and the world’s biggest spoiler by Tasha Robinson

Going back and re-watching Terminator 2, it actually makes me a little mad that the twist was ruined. James Cameron does a great job early in the movie of misleading the audience and it all ended up being for naught. I love movie trailers, but I also love being surprised and not knowing what’s going to happen next at the movies. We need more scenes like that scene from Spider-Man: Homecoming.4 We need more trailers like The Force Awakens which give us just enough to be tantalized, but nothing more. Movie studios have shown that they can keep secrets when they want to, even in this age of intense scrutiny, camera phones and social media. Nobody I talked to saw the ending to Split coming and the aforementioned Homecoming scene elicited gasps from the audience when I saw it in the theater. Wonder Woman also managed to keep its twist out of marketing, even though it did feel a little obvious while watching the movie.

So I have a special plea to movie studios from somebody who loves their products and especially the trailers that hype them up. Keep up the good work, but please be cognizant of the audience experience and save some surprises for the movie itself. Thanks.

Paul Essen on EmailPaul Essen on FacebookPaul Essen on LinkedinPaul Essen on RssPaul Essen on Twitter
Paul Essen
Founder and Chief Discourse Officer at Rampant Discourse
Proud geek. Trekkie. Browncoat. Entil'Zha. First human spectre. Hokie. Black belt. Invests Foolishly. Loves games of all types and never has enough time to play as many as he wants. Libertarian who looks forward to the day he votes for a winning presidential candidate. Father to two beautiful daughters.

Continue the discourse