An Empty Room: Breaking Down The Justice League and Civil War Trailers

As I'm sure just about all my readers are aware, the big box-office movie landscape is dominated by super-hero movies now, which in turn dominated by two competing entertainment companies: Marvel and DC. Marvel, of course, has been releasing success after success for pretty much the past ten yeas, while DC has been something of an underwhelming presence in theaters. Apart from the utter triumph of Wonder Woman this past year, their movies have ranged from divisive to utterly abysmal, and the box-office flop of Justice League has Warner Brothers actively considering a reboot. There are a whole host of reasons people have argued that Justice League fared so poorly, from a disaster of a production and post-production cycle, absurdly poor artistry (I mean, just look at Jason Momoa in the trailer below! He genuinely looks like an action figure) to (for the more obnoxious) sinister plots on the part on the part of Disney to sabotage competitors. I believe, however, that we could tell the movie was going to be a failure from the moment we first glimpsed anything concrete about it, when this trailer was released:

Specifically, I think we knew Justice League was doomed to fail because it didn't offer audiences an emotional core they could connect to.

First off, though, I want to discuss what exactly I mean by an "emotional core." Ask someone what a movie trailer does, and they'll likely answer that it's meant to give us a taste of what to come. I agree, but only in part. While most of the focus of a trailer is a bare-bones description of the plot or a taste of the action moviegoers can expect, the most important aspect of them is something far more subtle. The main goal of any trailer, and the thing that the best trailers all do well, is tell audiences why they should invest in the movie by presenting them with a preview of the emotional experience they'll have. To draw an example from the studio that's been kicking DC's ass for the past decade or so, an emotional core is what's displayed perfectly from 2:00-2:10 in this video:

"He's my friend." "So was I." In all honesty, we don't need to hear anything else, and I firmly believe Marvel could have sold out theaters based on those two lines of dialogue alone. That exchange so perfectly encapsulates the essence of a movie that's about a surrogate family falling apart and the team shattering into pieces that the moment we hear it, we're hooked on watching what makes it happen. Even better, this emotional core resonates with us. It had been almost 8 years since the release of the first Iron Man movie when Civil War hit theaters, and over that time we'd grown to love not just the characters we'd been introduced to, but also the family they'd formed. The idea that it could fall apart from each other so spectacularly and violently captivates us, and showcases a master class in how to hook an audience.

The Justice League trailer, to give credit where it's due, does actually propose two hypothetical emotional cores to anyone watching it. The first comes in the trailer from 0:55-1:00, when Batman tells Wonder Woman that "the age of heroes" must "come again." The second comes from 2:45-2:48, when Batman remarks that "Superman was a beacon to the world," that he gave people hope, and . Both of these would, in theory, function perfectly well as emotional cores. Audiences can invest in restoring hope to a hopeless world, as well as the return of something that once meant something. There's a reason, after all, that final installments in massive series are likely to feature the word "return" (Of The Jedi, Of The King, etc.): we can invest in that if what's being restored clearly meant something to the characters or means something us.

However, the problem is that we simply can't believe that either potential emotional core is true. The idea that an "age of heroes" existed at any point is something we just can't buy. Remember, there were four films directly preceding the Justice league movie, all set in the same universe and stretching back in history to the first world war. Not once in those ten hours of film was there any attempt to make the audience believe that at some point in the distant or near past there had been anything approaching some kind of age when heroes were common. After all, the world seems remarkably unused to the idea that a person like Superman could exist, and the internal logic of the film series holds that Wonder Woman kept herself out of the public eye for decades after the end of World War 1 without any fuss at all. When exactly, then, was this age of heroes supposed to have existed? The other emotional core the movie proposes, that Superman is some kind of beacon of hope, while it jives with the conventional idea of superman, not only doesn't read with the current DC cinematic universe but is actively opposed by it. The vast majority of Batman V. Superman, after all, was built around the idea that very very many people, including Batman himself, looked to Superman and saw not a beacon of hope but a threat to humanity's existence. In other words, the , fall flat.

As met-analysis here, I want to discuss Justice League's production and post-production woes. As is well-known by now, the director in charge of the DC cinematic universe had to leave the production of Justice League due to a horrifying family tragedy, leaving the film to be finished off by Joss Whedon, better known as the director of The Avengers. The places in which the directors' visions don't line up quite right is obvious to anyone watching, which is a good sign that there was nothing outside of each director's vision that the movie could wrap itself around, no core to anchor it. It's also important to note that the DC cinematic universe up until the release of Justice League (and it, seems, well after its conclusion) was built on responding to criticisms of previous films. Batman V. Superman is very much a reaction to how audiences received Man of Steel, and Justice League was very much a reaction to how much critics detested Batman V. Superman. In other words, nothing is built up in the first four movies that Justice League can pay off, no equivalent to watching the avengers fall apart. In short, Justice League's trailer provided audiences with no reason they might want to see the movie, and everything in the pre-theater life of the film confirms this, such that we knew well before it was shown in a single theater that it was doomed to failure. Perhaps, if DC learns why, their next movie might make them some money.

With excitement and optimism,