It’s officially awards movie season, a blessed yearly occurrence when the motion picture industry turns its attention to biopics, po-faced family dramas, and adaptations of books you never got around to reading. It would be nice to simply settle in for a few months of movies starring Tilda Swinton and/or Marion Cotillard, but awards season is also when the big studios start dropping trailers for the summer movie slate. In the last week, we’ve been pelted by a handful of little tiny pebbles of footage from some of the biggest releases of 2017: Spider-Man: Homecoming, Transformers: The Last Knight, and War for the Planet of the Apes. If these trailers are any indication, 2017 will have the same problem jolting audiences from their apathy that 2016’s summer film schedule had.
For years, Hollywood has marketed sequels with the promise of more of the same. Familiarity was at a premium in trailers for follow-ups to movies like Ghostbusters, 48 Hours, Die Hard, and countless other '80s and '90s blockbusters. It was enough to tell fans that Batman was returning in 1992. This is a logical strategy; perhaps the most logical marketing strategy there is. It’s the way soda and fast food is sold. “We know you love Coca-Cola, so this commercial will simply remind you that you love it so that you’ll buy more Coca-Cola.” It’s elementary, but it’s also not easy to pull off. People didn’t flock to Another 48 Hours just because a trailer told them the boys were back in town. In fact, they probably didn’t go see it because of that very reason.
Now that serialization has become the dominant form of storytelling for major studio films, familiarity might be a detriment to the marketing of a sequel. The trailer for the most recent Ghostbusters remake took great pains to nod at the original film — the shots of the firehouse, the theme music, and even title cards that directly referenced the 1984 movie. YouTube commenters lambasted that trailer to the tune of over a million downvotes. Granted, a significant portion of that hatred stemmed from a not-so-subtle undercurrent of misogyny directed at the film’s stars, but Ghostbusters wasn’t the only sequel/remake/reboot/reimagining to face criticism last summer. The Star Trek Beyond teaser trailer used the song “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, a callback to its use in the first JJ Abrams Star Trek film. The reaction to that song choice was so virulent that writer/star Simon Pegg ostensibly had to publically apologize for it. Star Trek Beyond ended up making significantly less than its predecessor, the far more polarizing Star Trek Into Darkness.
We’re either too jaded or too self-aware to simply hand over our cash en masse just to witness the next installment in a popular series. In a world where sequels for major motion pictures are almost a given (almost. Sorry, Independence Day: Resurgence), franchises have to stand out and, in a sense, present the illusion of uniqueness. Sony and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming pulls that off nicely, showing off plenty of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and dropping hints about how the movie connects to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also helps that slapping the words “Marvel Studios” on a trailer these days is as close to a promise of quality as it gets in the blockbuster movie world.
The diametric opposite of that is Transformers: The Last Knight. The Transformers films are the Hot Pockets of cinema. Specifically, they are almost never good and watching them will burn the inside of your mouth. There are bells and whistles and all manner of explosions to be had in the latest Bay-sterpiece, plus a portentous Anthony Hopkins voiceover and yet another haunting cover of a pop song. We’ve seen the destruction and the slow-motion tracking shots of greasy people before; many times before, actually. The only fresh bit of business here is that Optimus Prime looks like he’s about to murder Bumblebee, which is going to make the children of America cry more than their dads did upon their 50th viewing of The Shawshank Redemption on basic cable. The Last Knight trailer relies mostly on communicating to the already-converted that there’s a new Transformers movie coming out and it’s not that different from the last one, down to the continued inexplicable presence of Mark Wahlberg.
What the best trailers should do, and what War for the Planet of the Apes does brilliantly, is to not merely sell a novelty or promise more of the same, but to explore the continuation of an ongoing story. At their best, movie sequels should function similarly to episodes of a serialized TV drama — telling a coherent, ongoing narrative that will eventually reach a satisfying conclusion. The audience’s relative sophistication compared to where we were 20 years ago is significant, purely because we’ve consumed so much content. Expectations are different. Marvel sells that ongoing story, though the satisfying conclusion part will probably never happen. Savvy viewers know where the Planet of the Apes series is going. Eventually someone approximating Charlton Heston is going to crash land on the titular planet and demand someone take their stinking paws off of him.
The Transformers films have no such cohesion, though that is probably part of the charm for its most ardent supporters. Halfway through the trailer, Anthony Hopkins says, “You want to know, don’t you? Why they keep coming here?” Hopkins’ character must pose this to someone in the film, but the question is one I know I’ve been asking myself every time one of these movies is announced. Why do they keep coming here? Aren’t there other planets they can destroy? Didn’t the end of Age of Extinction make it seem like humanity was tired of rebuilding their major cities every few years? Why does John McClane keep getting involved in life-or-death scenarios in very tight spaces? It’s not even enough for the quintessential episodic cinematic hero, James Bond, to return every few years. Now, he has to suffer some existential crisis in each adventure, with Spectre giving him as close to a true, definitive happy ending as he’s ever gotten in both film and literature.
The cycle of moviegoing feels akin to the life of the hosts on HBO’s Westworld. We’re living out the same narratives over and over again. Storytelling is not that much different than life itself in that we know the tale must end eventually, but we aren’t quite sure how the resolution will play out. Modern cinema tells us it never ends, at least as long as we keep showing up to buy a ticket. It’s only gotten worse, because the financial realities of mega-budget moviemaking dictate that the cycle must continue. One day, we might break out of our loop, but next summer will not be that day.