In the densely populated and competitive world of comic book movies, the pressure to escalate the stakes with each subsequent film is high. Speaking in a recent interview, X-Men: Apocalypse writer and producer Simon Kinberg described the upcoming sequel as “the biggest X-Men film we’ve ever done” – a statement that’s thematically similar to so many that we’ve heard before about other movies. After all, no one want to say that their sequel is going to have a smaller story than its predecessor.
Both Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. are escalating the stakes in the same way this year: by having their most popular heroes face off against one another in an ideological (and physical) battle. Captain America: Civil War will split the Avengers down the middle into two factions, led by Captain America and Iron Man. Meanwhile, Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice‘s title represents not only the monumental prospect of seeing the Son of Krypton and the Bat of Gotham battling it out on the big screen, but also the groundwork being laid for Justice League.
The pressure on Batman v Superman to be successful is enormous. Warner Bros. already has a plan in place for the DC Extended Universe that stretches all the way to 2020, with multiple movie release s every year. Batman v Superman doesn’t necessarily need to be huge at the box office, but it does need to win audiences over to the idea of a shared DC movie universe in a similar vein to the world that Marvel Studios has built.
Comparatively, the weight on the shoulders of Warner Bros.’ second DC release of 2016, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, is pretty light. The movie’s premise – a group of supervillains being recruited into a task force because no one will care if they get killed – is a pretty accurate reflection of Suicide Squad‘s role in the DCEU. Characters like Harley Quinn, Killer Croc and Enchantress are expendable in a way that Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman just aren’t. It’s even feasible that Jared Leto’s Joker could never appear in the DCEU again; it’s not as though Batman has any shortage of enemies.
As a core piece of Warner Bros.’ larger storytelling, Batman V Superman has to deal with a lot of narrative admin. It needs to address the fallout from Man of Steel, establish Ben Affleck’s version of Batman, introduce the rest of the Justice League members, and lay the groundwork for them eventually working together as a superhero team. All of this needs to be accomplished somewhere in between “the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world,” and another showdown between Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman and Lex Luthor/Doomsday. Meanwhile, the only thing that Suicide Squad needs to do is throw a bunch of wacky villains together and send them on an adventure.
They may be very different movies, but Warner Bros.’ marketing approach for Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad has taken a similar arc so far: a ‘serious’ first look trailer unveiled at Comic-Con, followed by several months later by a more ‘fun’ trailer designed to appeal to more casual fans and general moviegoers. For Suicide Squad, the latter was easy; throw in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, brief one-line introductions to the lesser-known characters (“He’s a crocodile and he eats people.“), a multitude of comedic beats, and increasingly rapid cuts until the whole thing reaches a crescendo of insanity.
For Batman V Superman‘s second trailer, selling it as a ‘fun’ movie seemed like more of a struggle – because it’s probably not going to be a very ‘fun’ movie. Many fans could make a strong argument that comic book movies don’t need to be ‘fun’, but Warner Bros. doesn’t need to convince those fans – it needs to convince everyone else. In terms of comedic beats, the best that the Batman V Superman trailer had to offer was a rather strained scene between Lex Luthor, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne in which the punchline is “you should not pick a fight with this person!” and the joke is that the two of them are going to fight. The rest of the trailer was spent struggling to pull together all the different elements of the movie, with the focus on the titular battle suddenly giving way to a scene of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman united against Lex and Doomsday – a character that non-comic fans aren’t going to recognize.
According to the studio logic that bigger equals better, that established characters will always be more popular than new characters, and that sequels are a safer bet than new ventures, there should be no question that Batman V Superman is going to be more successful than Suicide Squad. Yet in the wake of the most recent Batman V Superman trailer, most of the conversation surrounding it was arguing over whether the reveal of Doomsday was a spoiler or not. After Suicide Squad‘s second trailer arrived earlier this week, the conversation was: “That was awesome, let’s watch it again!”
It’s still far too early to claim that Suicide Squad will be a better movie than Batman V Superman, but there’s no question that its trailers have been better than Batman V Superman‘s. A lot of that has to do with the music; Batman V Superman‘s trailers are locked to the movie’s scores, whereas Suicide Squad‘s trailers call on the classics like The Bee Gees’ “I Started a Joke”. The latest Suicide Squad trailer functions simultaneously as self-promotion and as an awesome new music video for “Bohemian Rhapsody”, complete with bullets firing in time to the music. It’s a model that proved to be hugely effective for Guardians of the Galaxy, and the comparisons don’t stop there.
Aside from the presence of Thanos, Guardians of the Galaxy was a welcome break from the ongoing story arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It took place in that same universe, but so far away from the antics of Captain America and Thor that it might as well have been a completely separate movie. There was no need to have seen a previous movie in order to get context for everything that was happening, and at the time it was made it wasn’t setting up Guardians of the Galaxy 2. It was a fun romp through space with a bunch of characters that had never been on the big screen before. Take out the “space” part, and that could just as easily be a synopsis for Suicide Squad.
It’s not fair to say that Suicide Squad is objectively more colorful than Batman V Superman; a lot of the footage we’ve seen so far takes place at night, or inside the walls of Belle Reve prison. But the raucous, in-your-face energy of Suicide Squad‘s latest trailer gives the impression of a more colorful movie – of something fresh and exciting and anarchic, if not necessarily important or with high stakes. Beyond earlier backlash to the new character design for the Joker, the buzz surrounding Suicide Squad has been overwhelmingly positive, whereas the response to Batman V Superman has been very mixed.
All of this does not, of course, mean that Batman V Superman should have simply tried to be more like Suicide Squad. It’s a different movie with a different director who – for better or worse – has a different vision. But Suicide Squad‘s trailer plays to the movie’s strengths – chaos, humor, crazy characters, irreverence, amorality – and that’s something that the second trailer for Batman v Superman just doesn’t manage. The biggest selling point of this movie is an epic fight between DC’s most famous superheroes, and that should have been the core message that Warner Bros. drummed into the moviegoing public. For the trailer to show those two superheroes overcoming their differences in order to fight a common enemy is a serious misstep.
This muddled marketing can be traced all the way back to the title of the movie. By itself, Batman V Superman would have been a fine title for a comic book movie. Dawn of Justice would also have been a fine title. But instead these two concepts, which don’t gel together particularly well, have been forced together into one jumbled message that dilutes the appeal of the movie rather than strengthening it. The promise of Batman and Superman coming together with other superheroes to form the Justice League takes the bite out of the promise of Batman and Superman fighting one another. The reveal of Doomsday triggered a wave of complaints about spoilers, but really those spoiler complaints should have been directed at the movie’s title.
Perhaps Warner Bros. should have taken the advice of Billy Flynn, the charming lawyer from the musical Chicago, who tells his client Roxie Hart, “We can only sell them one idea at a time.“ Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is trying to sell two very different ideas at the same time, whereas Suicide Squad has one idea (“Worst. Heroes. Ever.“) that it’s pouring all of its enthusiasm into.
There’s still time for Batman V Superman to turn things around with a final trailer that really zeroes in on an angle that it can sell to general audiences. It’s not too late for Warner Bros. to see what’s working with the Suicide Squad marketing, and apply that to the other big DC release of 2016 (and, indeed, to the rest of the DCEU as it unfolds).