Back in the dark days before we knew if Marvels gamble on The Avengers would pay off, the thing I liked most about Thor was the contrast of a simple story with the fantastical world of Asgard. Keeping the story low-key allowed Thor to interact with our world and the Marvel film world at large, and believing in the character of Thor helps us believe in Asgard. (To contrast how badly this can go, see: Green Lantern. By which I mean read reviews. Don’t actually go and see Green Lantern.)
I want to believe in Asgard. Like Tron: Legacy, it exists in a cruel alternate visual landscape where everything is magnificent, and all things point to a higher power. It’s wonderful because it’s fantasy, meaning real people on this Earth with jobs and haircuts find beauty in the same things I do, and it’s cruel because I CAN’T LIVE THERE.
So to say I was saddened by the news that the Asgard of the sequel Thor: The Dark World closer resembles the Game of Thrones palette is an understatement. It’s not like The Avengers doesn’t have currency now, so why take away from the most easily identifiable, daring element of the cinematography? Is it to bring Thor more in line with the relatively un-fantastical world of Iron Man, the series highest individual earner? Is Game of Thrones now so ubiquitous that everyone imitates it? Because I do not need Loki/Thor in my life. With said frustrations in place, I look to the trailer and –
-DAMN, WHY ARE YOU SHOUTING AT ME?
It’s shouting, right? I’ve watched it three times and I still have no feel for this movie, just a slow trickle of blood coming from my ear.
We’re all agreed at this point that Marvel films are a guaranteed viewing, so why is this trailer SO. LOUD?
And why do I feel like I’ve seen it before?
The average movie in the UK is preceded by 10 minutes of adverts, and 3-5 trailers. That’s approximately 12 minutes of VERY LOUD ADVERTISING before your film begins. My local cinema also likes to throw in an advert for special events such as ballet and opera set to dubstep to show off the power of their speakers. At first, it was startling to see something so non-linear. I was used to seeing adverts for the multiplex itself as cheesy, inviting me to buy my tickets in the foyer, today! As with so much cinema advertising this new thing was impressive the first time I saw it and exceedingly irritating every time since.
This is especially egregious towards the end of a season when the general adverts before the trailers haven’t yet moved on to the next seasons crop, featuring instead movies which have long since left theatres. I always find it eerie, like watching the first audition tape of a young star with the full knowledge of their future rise and fall. I know I can’t change the box office fate of these films, so I feel embarrassed by their naked eagerness, asking for the love of an audience that no longer exists. (If that’s too much baggage to carry into a 30 second ad for The Lone Ranger then I’m sorry, I just have a lot of feelings.)
The first time I saw The Avengers in the theatre there were 3 decent enough trailers which set the mood nicely, (I wish I could find what they were, but Google is not forthcoming), followed by this trailer for the Mel Gibson movie How I Spent My Summer Vacation/Get the Gringo. This was Gibson’s first mainstream release since his racist rant in 2010, and judging by the collective clenching of the audience’ buttocks it was a huge mistake. It was such a strange choice, such a substandard, out of place trailer, that for weeks I was convinced that peoples negative reaction to the first 20 minutes of The Avengers stemmed from the heaping dose of WTF they were served prior to it’s beginning. Trailers are supposed to whet the appetite, not act as an endurance test.
Just to check that I’m not overreacting, I’m going to try again.
Don’t worry about me, I’ll just be throwing up in this corner.
The last 20 minutes of Man of Steel were painfully loud. Buildings and eardrums were shattered. The difference is that Man of Steel earned my pain with the preceding 2 hours of entertainment whereas the Thor trailer is using that pain as an INVITATION. The Man of Steel trailer actually managed to sound gorgeous while hinting at the grandiosity within; Thor just hits me with his hammer.
The issue of aural abuse in movie trailers has been deftly addressed by, (the excellent), Yourmoviesucks; in 2009 the use of short bursts of loud, low tone music was used to great effect in the trailer for District 9. Inception followed suit with a story-significant theme by Hans Zimmer, and while it’s loud as all hell the music plays a big part in what works about Inception, imbuing it with an authority The Dark Knight Rises never achieves. This style of music has been appearing frequently in trailers since then, becoming a trend that no longer need have anything to do with the film it’s actually selling. I can only assume this now mindless volume exists to create a response to the experience that we wrongly interpret as a response to the film itself. Understand I’m not saying that a loud trailer is an inherently bad thing; used correctly, by which I mean in relation to the material, we have the trailer for The Great Gatsby.
I still haven’t seen Gatsby, and even though I’ve read less than stellar reviews by critics I trust, that trailer still makes me salivate. That was damned impressive in the cinema. At the 1.50 mark everything ramps up, building on what’s gone before and creating a feeling of DRAMA and ROMANCE without spelling out the plot. That’s not bad in less than 3 minutes, and it’s where so many fantasy/science-fiction trailers overdo it; they use their time to relentlessly build tension that they never break. Incidentally, comedic trailers often suffer from this problem in reverse; they cut tension too soon, such as in the trailer for We’re the Millers which has only 8 seconds of build-up before cutting the music for an unfunny one-liner. The effect in both cases is that they feel like they’re trying too hard.
The general formula for fantasy/science-fiction trailers is as follows:
Brief flashes of scenery + Characters looking serious + Booming music + No, more music + MUSIC. MUSIC. ARE YOU WATCHING THIS MOVIE YET?? = Ticket sales
It’s often the case that the images in these trailers have no meaning to us as an audience unless we are familiar with the source material. Even though the source material may vary in theme, execution and intended audience, the similar presentation causes them to blend together. For example:
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, is about a rebellion bordering on war in a dystopian society based around a cruel and politically-charged game that sees children forced to murder each other; The Mortal Intruments: City of Bones is about a young woman in modern day New York who becomes embroiled in the supernatural battle for Earth, featuring angels, vampires, demons and werewolves; Thor: The Dark World is about a god with a sociopathic brother and astrophysicist girlfriend with a story that spans worlds.
Yet all 3 of their trailers look exactly the same. Most noticeably they all feature a variation on dramatic music that builds throughout the trailer, and they all employ the same editing technique of fading to black after a few seconds of each image. This method adds up to more of a feeling towards the trailers, (that they are, ‘epic’, and, ‘exciting’), than a specific explanation of plot, although plot points may be mentioned. They all share wide scenery shots and hand to hand fighting. They are also all approaching the event horizon where their trailers feature more black screen than actual trailer.
The result is that each individual trailer may appear pretty cool, but viewed together you have to look closely to see what sets them apart from each other. Since these trailers all have a similar tone we’re forced to make our decision on rather shallow grounds, like a movie version of Choose Your Own Adventure. The basic movie is the same, but you can choose whether you want to play with:
- A. Gods and physics.
- B. Angels and vampires.
- C. Dystopian death games.
Part of the reason this drives me wild is that audiences are looking for reasons to dismiss movies, and with good reason. Going to the cinema represents a significant time and monetary investment for entertainment when viewed against what people have available at home. I’m sure you’ve read an article at some point about film premises arriving in twos; Dantes Peak and Volcano, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, The World’s End and This Is the End, the list goes on. (White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. Armageddon and Deep Impact. Help, I can’t actually stop.) Even though these movies may be completely different in their execution and themes, their advertising comes down to a few images and a 3 minute trailer, and the average movie goer will further reduce these down to, ‘those two Snow White films’. I personally believe it’s not what you’re about that matters but how you’re about it, but your average movie goer isn’t looking to put in a lot of research. So to this day I find myself insisting to people who don’t want to hear it that The Social Network is in fact great cinema and not just, ‘the Facebook movie.’ (The Social Network trailer is brilliant, and a great example of consistency across the board as the poster, trailer and soundtrack all perfectly reflect the actual movie.) The point is that you want your audience to be able to choose your movie as the one they want to pay for in the few minutes and images you have to occupy their brains, so it’s in your interest to make sure they can pick your movie out of the clutter.
The homogeny of these trailers might be aggravating from my point of view, but there is a reason for their similarity. This type of trailer is attention grabbing. It gives the impression of scale, both in the movie and in real life; part of the reason these movies needn’t explain themselves is because they are franchises. Their core audience is probably already planning on seeing the film regardless of the advertising, and this comes across in their trailers. It’s less like these trailers are asking for your interest, and more like they’re telling you to get on board already. The formula itself isn’t bad, it’s the overuse of the conceit that dilutes it and diminishes the impact of each individual trailer when viewed alongside the others.
The same thing has happened to movies visually thanks to the overuse of teal and orange. Essentially, humans are present in most films, and flesh tones occupy the orange side of the spectrum. As teal is on the opposite side of the spectrum it creates the greatest contrast making it visually appealing, which is why so many films feature unnaturally blue backgrounds and impossibly tanned humans. What started as innovation in the field of colour grading has been reduced down to a quick and easy technique for adding visual interest to a film. This is especially thoughtless when your characters have no business being orange, such as in The Wolfman where despite a lack of sun or self-tanning products, the characters maintain a vigorous orange glow. It also serves to create a larger cinematic landscape where despite huge differences in story and setting, everything looks exactly the same. In fact the teal and orange trend is so prevalent that I don’t know why I was surprised to find it dominates all three posters for my aforementioned fantasy/science-fiction trailers, but I was amused by the synergy. (The Thor poster isn’t quite so obvious, but I find it interesting that despite the different location settings of these movies they all feature people standing against symbolic weather conditions.)
You choose to GO OUTSIDE. You are killed by bad weather.
The cumulative effect of these similarities in trailers adds up to an over all feeling, like the smell of a Lush cosmetics store, or the taste of a Subway sandwich. They have a generic taste you Can’t Actually Taste. It doesn’t matter what I order, the sandwich is just a delivery system for the Subway sandwich taste. Likewise, regardless of the film being advertised, all my brain can see is a Genre Trailer. (If you’re interested in the formula for comedic trailers, it’s basically this.)
So even though I understand how it came to this, it makes me sad that the trailer for the Thor sequel blends into the background, so determined to beat me over the head with its SERIOUS SCORE and SERIOUS IMAGERY and OVERALL SERIOUSNESS that it forgets to actually show me anything. The louder it screams, the easier it is to ignore. We all know the cast already, we know Loki is a great addition to a film, we know Chris Hemsworth is ripped and we know that establishing shots of city vistas implies their imminent destruction. What I don’t know is anything about the plot. What have I actually gained by watching that trailer?
NO. Damn it, you don’t get to win me over that easily, Thor. I have my principles and your rippling back muscles won’t change my opinion about the overall bland brashness of your trailer or the ultimately deadening effect of every genre trailer following the same formula. You’ll have to do better.
Yes, Heimdall/Idris Elba/Stacker Pentecost. Jaegers would do the trick.
Let’s just take a minute with the idea of a Pacific Rim/Thor crossover.
Hollywood, make it happen.
Although I’ve focused mainly on trailers here, I’d like to take a moment to note that there are lots of elements that add up to the cinema experience. From the teal and orange posters to the air-conditioned air, the sound muting carpets to the packets of sweets and popcorn that overwhelm your tongue but fail to satisfy your stomach, there is a certain feeling to the cinema that remains the same no matter what film you’re viewing. I mentioned in my review of The World’s End that while I loved Pacific Rim I felt distant from it, and the reason I mentioned that is because ultimately what I’m looking for at the cinema is connection. I don’t view cinema as an escape from life; it’s a chance to go further in. It’s a chance to sit down and let myself go for a few hours, to see what the filmmakers, actors, cinematographers and composers have chosen to share with me and how I respond to it, free from commentary and prior judgement. It’s why I always walk into a film wanting to like it, and it’s why I don’t accept, ‘Well what do you expect?’ as an excuse for films that don’t try. (This Means War, I am looking squarely at you.)
I’ve always found the, ‘cinema feeling,’ comforting, but I don’t want it to dull me to the experience of film. Film is a form of durational media, meaning it takes time to absorb. It’s not something to simply be sat through and then ticked off your viewing list, it’s a shifting thing that changes onscreen each moment, interacting with our moods and reactions and our current views in life. Each viewing of a film is coloured by our knowledge of film as a medium, which grows as we age giving us a deeper appreciation of why we respond to films the way we do. I believe that film reflects us back to ourselves, and I want to be awake for that.
Thor: The Dark World is basically guaranteed big business anyway. It would be great if its trailer used that platform to show us something new and interesting. Since this entire gamble on a superhero universe spanning multiple films has paid off in a huge fashion, how amazing would it be to see this innovation used in Marvels advertising too?
That’s why I object to blindly following a formula that disguises your story instead of selling it. That’s why I’d rather be engaged as an audience member than smacked over the head with how TERRIBLY IMPORTANT THIS MOVIE IS. I’d rather be treated as a human than shouted into submission.
And if that’s too much to lay on a 3 minute trailer for a superhero film then I’m sorry. I just have a lot of feelings.