Any halfway passionate film fan will know about the ‘trailer movie’, those productions that just about have enough decent moments to fill a two to three minute trailer but are generally a tedious chore once they’ve sucked you into the cinema. Now though, trailers pose a far more serious problem, the industry having seemingly become obsessed with giving away far too much of the actual film, from plot points to great chunks of action. This not only fundamentally weakens the experience of actually watching the film you’ve been looking forward to for months but can also misrepresent the film itself, a classic example being the Spider-Man Homecoming trailers that were full of Iron Man and pretty much showed Downey Jr’s entire screentime.
More recently, there was The Last Jedi trailer that director Rian Johnson said he was “legimately torn” about encouraging people to watch, saying that those who want to come in clean should absolutely avoid it. Obviously, there will always be those who avoid trailers altogether, desperate to go in with as few preconceptions as possible. However, should such an agonising decision really be necessary? Surely we should have trailers that don’t compromise the actual film, after all Star Wars will still make millions of dollars even with no trailers whatsoever. Moreover, for those who actually go to the cinema, avoiding trailers completely is almost impossible.
All of which brings us neatly to Thor: Ragnarok. About a third of the way into the film, Thor finds himself on Sakaar, a garbage planet that sucks people in via wormholes and which is ruled by Jeff Goldblum’s fairly bonkers Grandmaster. To escape, Thor is told, he must defeat Goldblum’s champion in a fight to the death and the film then does a pretty good job of building up the jeopardy of this situation; with the bodies of the champion’s previous opponents shown littering the corridors around the gladiatorial arena and the other characters pretty much giving Thor no chance. The intention is clearly to build this champion up as a fearsome but unknown figure, for every viewer to be desperate to see who is lurking behind this particular curtain.
There’s one massive problem with this: we all know it’s Hulk, every trailer has been full of the battle between Thor and Hulk, they’ve featured on magazine covers in gladitorial garb, it’s arguably been the film’s entire marketing campaign. On one level, this is fine, all marketing campaigns are reductive and if this one wants to heavily focus on a fight between the god of thunder and a big green monster, then so be it. What we shouldn’t have though is such a disconnect between filmmaker and marketing that trailers and adverts undermine what the film is trying to do.
It’s a reflection of both the increasing importance of trailers as an event in and of themselves (it was even hoped that the reveal of The Last Jedi trailer would improve Monday Night Football ratings) and the (supposed) microsecond attention spans of millennial film fans that what was previously supposed to tease now flaunts its best bits in a desperate plea for attention. Moreover, in a world of web hits and YouTube views, we can measure engagement more easily and effectively than ever before, and so achieving this engagement has become an end in and of itself. This frankly misses the point, the ultimate goal has to be to actually get people in the cinema, giving too much away undermines this goal and also annoys your existing audience. Thor has been a hit, so the marketing campaign will no doubt be viewed as a success, with a few irritated film fans viewed as inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. What we can never know of course is exactly how important the Thor vs Hulk promotional campaign was, whether its financial benefit was worth the artistic compromise. Looked at in a broader sense though, it’s hard not to feel that this is another step down a slippery slope where, instead of promoting the films they are supposedly championing, trailers are increasingly undermining them and worsening the filmgoing experience.