It won’t be remembered as a rumble as royal as Ali vs. Fraizer, but 16 April, 2015 will go down as the day two of the most highly anticipated films of 2015/2016 squared off for their fair share of fawning/frightening fanboy love/hate. First out of the gate was the long awaited second “trailer” for Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Featuring more footage from the December release, as well as a final shot that sent aging admirers into a tizzy (more on this in a moment), it was greeted with glee.
Then, without warning (and several days before it was to officially drop), the web was awash in bootleg copies of the teaser for DC’s answer to the entire Disney/Marvel mania, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Captured by phone in some “foreign” territory, the overly dark and often indiscernible clip, featuring subtitles and blurred camerawork, caused its own bit of controversy. While some in the comics camp loved it, others felt underwhelmed.
Not much changed after Warner Bros. caved and released a legitimate version of the teaser to various news sources. Audiences finally got to see what Zack Synder and the studio suits envisioned for this unique Man of Steel pseudo-sequel, Justice League prequel. With Star Wars VII selling nothing except nostalgia, story-wise, except for Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker explaining the legacy of the Force to an unseen individual, Batman v Superman is all prelude. Apparently, the world is mad at Superman for what happened during the first film, and Batman is around to remind him of how hated/ non-human he is.
Now, it’s almost impossible to judge movies based on a single set of compiled images. This is especially true of films that are keeping most of their secrets and special effects as close to the cinematic vest as possible. Even with script leaks and insider reports, few know what will actually happen in Star Wars VII or Batman v Superman. They have generalities, but no real specifics. Even those sites that have claimed full access and early insights are vague when it comes to actual events. So to say these films will live and or die by their trailers is ridiculous.
Image from a Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens poster
But based on that other aspect of any preview—audience anticipation—it’s clear that nothing from DC will trump the possibility of seeing Harrison Ford, Carrie Fischer, and Hamill back in their iconic roles. The final shot in J.J. Abrams tease is a black screen, and then a familiar voice saying “Chewie… we’re home.” Next thing you know, Ford’s Han Solo is standing next to his Wookie compatriot, the recognizable inside of the Millennium Falcon sending purists into palpitations. As money shots and/or hero moments go, it made even this highly jaded, almost ex-Star Wars fan well-up, if just a bit. Imagine what it did to the truly invested.
Batman v Superman has no such emotional tug. It doesn’t even have a single memorable shot (Star Wars VII starts out with a brilliant vista, which perfectly encapsulates the previous three films). Instead, we get voice over, dark rainy landscapes, imagery suggesting Superman is no longer a popular figure, and numerous looks at Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) looking dour and depressed. We get the new Bat cowl (complete with glowing eyes), a few suggested set-ups, and that’s it. No look at Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, no peak at Gal Gadot as Wonder Women or Jason Momoa as Aquaman. We don’t even see Bruce Wayne dealing with his butler Alfred (played by Jeremy Irons) or any other the various famous names (Holly Hunter, Jena Malone, Scout McNairy) who’ve been cast.
As an illustration of the mood and atmosphere each film is selling, the difference couldn’t be any bigger. Star Wars VII comes across as light, vibrant, and action packed (in fact, most of the material show is CG space battles and dogfights). Batman v Superman, on the other hand, is static and gloomy. It’s all insinuation and unclear plot points. The voice over provides the necessary sequel subtext, but the images seem lifted from Christopher Nolan-era Bat-leftovers. No action. No real hero shot (except for Superman holding what looks like a wrecked nuke), and definitely no indication of what Snyder (the de facto Kevin Feige over at Warners) has in store for DC.
As usual, Marvel-ites were the quickest to pounce. As they plot the ways they will spend the cash generated by the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron and watch as Ant-Man is embraced by a reluctant demo, Disney and its genre division continues to argue for “the right way” in dealing with its artistic decisions. Clearly, DC has decided to go dark. That’s fine. In fact, some of the best variations on the original Caped Crusader concept have come from Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight. Heck, it’s even in the title. But with trouble already showing up in some of their other projects (Wonder Woman‘s female director dilemma, Suicide Squad losing Tom Hardy), it still appears that one side is playing catch-up while the other spends its abundant mouse house money.
On the other hand, DC has every right to differentiate itself from the pack. Even Marvel is showing some grit by using its Netflix series Daredevil to bring some necessary gravitas to its universe. But DC is trying to sell potential moviegoers on its vision, and doing so by keeping things hidden is no longer a viable approach. It may have worked a decade ago, when the genre was struggling for survival. Now, with it firmly established and part of almost every studios production future (we have comic book titles planned until the mid-2020s), DC has to give into to viewer curiosity. If it doesn’t, the conspiracy theories start. Of course, if it does, it’s accused of spoiling things.
With eight months left before we see what Abrams has actually done with George Lucas’ legacy and a nearly a year before the Justice League starts assembling, it’s indeed too early to provide actual proof about the quality of each film. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens could still squander its seemingly infinite geek support while Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ends up an unqualified epic. Things could go the other way. Both could be awful. Both could be awesome.
For now, Star Wars has won the battle of the trailers. For those who defend DC, there’s a lot to be happy about. as