Last Thursday Warner Brother released the second trailer for Wonder Woman.
When the film debuts in May 2017, it will mark the only the third DC comic book movie ever to be headlined by a female (after the ill-fated Supergirl and Catwoman films).
The trailer looks good. But I still prefer the teaser trailer, which I reviewed here.
Instead, I present a run-down of the 10 best superhero trailers to date.
Several common elements appear in the list throughout.
1. Hiding the superhero theme
Quality films of all types tend to focus on strong character development and story arcs over mere special effects and action set pieces.
Superhero films are no different. Here, however, teaser trailers often benefit from playing with audience expectations – presenting themselves as solid dramas before (surprise!) revealing the characters actually wear tights.
2. Strong stinger endings
Marketers understand that endings have particular power to wow audiences – particularly when it’s a bit of humor thrown in as a stinger – a chance to show levity after two minutes of danger and action.
The use of music in trailers can evoke all sorts of emotions in the audience, and the best trailers make excellent use of this.
The 10 (in no particular order)
Spider-Man 2 Teaser
A 20-something couple sits at a diner in the middle of a break-up while soft music plays at our heartstrings. We’re fully 35 seconds in before we’re alerted to sudden danger, when a car is thrown through the window and nearly misses crushing them both. Enter the villain – Doctor Octopus.
The second minute give us a more traditional montage – quick cut action shots that reintroduce the characters we grew to love in the first Spider-Man film, this time set to a more operatic score: Peter Parker, Mary Jane, Aunt May, James Franco’s Harry Osborne, and of course Spider-Man as he swings through a bright Manhattan skyline.
The music gradually crescendos as our hero swings with glee. Until, the title card, when we get nothing but the ominous ringing of the bell. It tolls for thee, young Spider-Man.
X2: X-Men United Trailer 1
As with the Spider-Man 2 teaser, X-Men 2 cleverly hides its premise for the first 15 seconds. We’re treated to an awkward family moment in a suburban home where a teen comes out to his parents. Only, the teen isn’t gay as the punchline comes from the mother: “Have you tried…not being a mutant?”
Instant transition to quick cut action shots, narrated by the venerable Patrick Stewart.
Next we get a roll call – title cards with the names of 11 mutants – heroes and villains, along with shots of them in action.
Finally, the ending reflects the beginning with a quiet moment punctuated by humor. Wolverine is drinking a beer when suddenly threatened – he pops his claws only to see it’s a kitten, who proceeds to lick them.
The trailer works because it has an actual arc – a beginning, middle and an end:
Quiet, slow build, rousing action, and quiet.
The Dark Knight Rises Trailer 3
Like most trailers to Christopher Nolan films, the third trailer to The Dark Knight Rises benefits from a slow build, being nearly incomprehensible in the beginning.
We’re treated to a voice over amid various random short cuts. Slowly, however, an all-star cast is revealed: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and Joseph Gordon Levitt.
Only more than a minute in do we get the first proof that this is a Batman film, when a young student draws a bat symbol in chalk; a moment later a villain throws Batman’s shattered facemask to the ground.
Batman himself appears only at nearly 90 seconds in, as Sir Michael Caine states he’s already “buried enough members of the Wayne family.”
Then there’s the stinger – the reveal in the last few seconds that Batman’s not in a car, but rather in a Batcopter.
The Dark Knight Trailer 1
The Dark Knight, the second movie in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is probably the best superhero movie of all time.
The reasons for that are many, but what the trailer gets right is this The Joker’s story.
Roughly half of the trailer is told from The Joker’s perspective, including the first 40 seconds.
Heroes have always been defined by their villains. By having the villain tell the story of Gotham, this trailer promised something different from the get-go.
Again note the stinger – a joke about how in an effort to remain inconspicuous, Bruce Wayne opts to drive a Lamborghini rather than his Batmobile.
The best part of the first Watchmen trailer is that it announced itself with the hubris of a known blockbuster.
Beginning with a man being electrocuted, we’re treated to a bunch of disjointed slow-motion action shots as Smashing Pumpkins “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning” plays.
Only well after a minute in are we told this spectacle is “from the visionary director of ‘300’” and is the story of the “most celebrated graphic novel of all time.”
Fans who knew what they were seeing were ecstatic, while non-comic geeks who had never heard of “Watchmen” were instead sold on world-building spectacle.
Wonder Woman Trailer 1
I’ve already written about why the Wonder Woman trailer works. But in brief – final confirmation that it’s about Wonder Woman doesn’t come 1:26, with a shot of her iconic costume and lasso. The World War I setting, the excitement of seeing Wonder Woman fighting fascists, and the humorous feminist stinger all help too.
Batman v. Superman Trailer 1
Here again we have a trailer for a dark Superman movie that hides its true reveal until 1:09 – that Batman’s in this film too. Later, we realize…they fight each other.
A simple premise artfully told.
Were that the ultimate movie itself as good.
Superman: The Movie Trailer
In this age of 3-4 major comic book movies per year, it’s easy to forget how good the trailer was for the first major superhero film.
We open with screen legend Marlon Brando on a far-off world – basic ‘70s sci-fi stuff.
Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailer 1
When you’re advertising the sequel to the Number Three movie of all time in global box office take, you don’t need to do much.
Which is exactly why this trailer stands out.
Yes – it has the obligatory roll call character shots and action sequences (notably, Iron Man vs. Hulk and shots of Captain America’s broken shield at the end).
But what makes this truly special is the implicit analogy of the villain Ultron – a robot gone wrong who evolves – with Disney’s Pinocchio – a puppet who turns human.
The analogy comes both via Ultron’s voice over “A puppet…with strings.” Who later announces “there are no strings on me.”
Meanwhile, the background music is from the film Pinocchio – but whereas in that film it played as a joyful romp, here the lyrics of “I’ve Got No Strings” play instead as a foreboding dirge.
The Matrix Reloaded Trailer 1
While not technically based on a comic book, The Matrix films certainly belong in that genre.
And where the trailer to the first film established its science fiction and cyberpunk feel, the trailer to the sequel shows our hero flying.
Why does this trailer work – it shows us all the parts we loved from the first film while raising the stakes. Scenes of a rooftop fight against hundreds of Agent Smith clones, of an epic highway battle, and of Neo flying and stopping dozens of bullets with a wave of his hand prime audiences for a fun summer action film.
Hancock Trailer 1
It would take 20 years and a career setback for Will Smith to debut in his first official superhero role – that of Deadshot in this year’s Suicide Squad.
But it’s hard to ignore Smith’s solid turn in the 2008 film Hancock, which billed itself as an action comedy –what if our Superman was a drunk – only to ultimately surprise audiences with a more sophisticated plot – and heart – than this trailer reveals.
But this trailer works on the premise alone – drunken superhero who doesn’t care about his greater role in society, let alone his self-image.
Add the star power and charisma of Will Smith, and it’s an easy sale.
Any I missed? What are your favorite superhero trailers? And why?