I recently checked out the 2017 Russian superhero film "Guardians", hoping its national background would provide something that was at the very least, uniquely different from the standard American superhero fare. As you can see from my review, unfortunately, that wasn't the case. But it got me to thinking about the appeal unconventional superhero movies have for me, both past movies such as 2000's Unbreakable and 2012's Chronicle, and future movies such as Fox's The New Mutants due out February of next year, and more specifically, the reason for this article, Venom due out in October of this year.
Venom, directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) and starring Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant) and Michelle Williams (The Greatest Showman, All the Money in the World) is Sony Pictures' attempt to start their own Marvel universe centered on some of the darker Marvel characters they currently hold the rights to, hoping to provide a tonal alternative to the more family-friendly and upbeat Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Venom recently dropped its first teaser/announcement trailer, which received divisive reactions from fans because well, the title character, Venom, is nowhere to be seen in the 90-second teaser. "Clerks" director Kevin Smith (who I'm a huge fan of and who I'm wishing a speedy recovery for following a massive heart attack early this morning) voiced what a lot of comic book fans are feeling by mockingly calling it a trailer for "Tom Hardy: The Movie".
Venom's alter-ego, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), is all over the place in the trailer (even narrating it), but we never see him "in costume" (which is actually an alien "skin" that will be a CGI creation). And I get it. If you're watching a teaser for Iron Man and all you see is Tony Stark, you're going to be disappointed. If you watch a teaser for Spider-Man, but all you see is Peter Parker using none of his superpowers, you're going to be disappointed. But here is the thing, from everything we've seen or heard about this movie up until this point, Venom is not a conventional superhero movie like Iron Man or Spider-Man, an argument can be made that it might not even be a superhero movie at all, conventional or otherwise. So it makes sense that the teaser trailer would reflect that.
Sony and everyone involved with the film have always described it as a horror/sci-fi movie in the vein of films by David Cronenberg and John Carpenter. So why is everyone applying superhero trailer standards to a horror/sci-fi movie? The answer is simple. This thing:
Were it not for that Marvel logo popping up at the beginning of the trailer, and if people didn't know Venom was based on a Marvel property, they would have simply seen a teaser for a sci-fi/horror film starring two of the strongest actors working today, teasing Tom Hardy's character potentially transforming into some kind of demonic figure throughout the course of the film. That would have been enough to get people intrigued, which last time I checked, is the job of a teaser trailer. But unfortunately, that logo has become so synonymous with Marvel Studios and the MCU (and rightfully so) that the second people see it, their minds immediately go here:
Or even here:
Basically, that red and white logo pops up and people understandably expect to see a trailer featuring a superhero in his or her superhero costume doing their superhero thing. Which leaves those few Marvel-based films that are trying to do something different in an uncomfortable position, being legally obligated to include that Marvel logo in their marketing knowing that it will give a lot of audience members false expectations. The first trailer for 20th Century Fox's upcoming film The New Mutants, a straight up horror movie set in the X-Men universe, received similar criticisms for not looking "Marvel enough" (albeit, not to the extent of Venom, which might be attributed to the goodwill put forth by the recent Fox successes, Logan and Deadpool).
Which isn't to say that previous unconventional superhero films such as the aforementioned Unbreakable and Chronicle haven't had successful marketing campaigns despite not doing the standard, expositional superhero trailers...but those films had the benefit of not being shackled to the Marvel brand and all the preconceived expectations that come with it. Just imagine if M. Night Shyamalan's "Unbreakable" came out today and was based on a popular costumed Marvel character. How differently would the following teaser trailer have been received?
Or the teaser trailer for Unbreakable's quasi-sequel, Split?
There undoubtedly would have been similar complaints of "They didn't even show Dunn's costume!" "They didn't show The Beast!" "It's just a trailer for Bruce Willis: The Movie!", etc. Someone could counter this argument by pointing out non-standard Marvel-based movies like Logan and Deadpool both of which had extremely successful marketing campaigns, but I would argue that Hugh Jackman's Logan/Wolverine was an established cinematic character who had already appeared in 8 conventional superhero films to varying degrees of success, audiences were ready to see him portrayed in a different light (not to mention that Logan's trailers featured quite a bit of exposition and mutant action as well). And as unconventional a hero as Deadpool is, his marketing, like that of most superhero films, did feature him in costume kicking all kinds of ass.
But maybe we should put aside the topic of superhero films for a moment. After all, as previously stated, by all accounts Venom is being set up to be a horror/sci-fi movie. A monster movie. And any good marketing team in charge of promoting a monster movie knows you don't show off your monster right out of the gate. You tease the audiences with it, you get their imagination working overtime.
The teasers for this classic gem were smart enough to not show one glimpse of their monster:
Or perhaps a more accurate comparison is John Carpenter's The Thing, another movie about an alien creature that has a transformative effect on the humans it bonds with and said to be one of the inspirations for the tone of the Venom film. How differently would movie fans have reacted to this teaser if Carpenter's The Thing was based on a popular Marvel character?
Even some of the more modern monster movies try to avoid showing off their monster as much as possible this early in their marketing campaign:
Of course, those monster movies were not Marvel properties and all enjoyed the luxury of not being tied to a brand that is universally associated with a completely different genre of film.
But maybe not all the blame should be put on the Marvel logo. The movie trailer culture has changed significantly over the past two decades and teaser trailers, for the most part, have become much more expositional. I think people have come to expect to see some of the most visually engaging moments of the movie in the early trailers. Just compare this teaser trailer for 1993's Jurassic Park:
To this one for the latest entry in the "Jurassic" franchise:
All this to say, I think the Venom trailer got a bad rap because of the superhero-tinted glasses that come along with being a Marvel property. It's a solid teaser for what looks to be a pretty interesting horror-monster movie with an unbelievably talented cast, not to mention a throwback to a time when teaser trailers actually teased a movie, rather than spoil you with a lot of eye candy.
I can only hope that both Sony's Venom and Fox's The New Mutants prove to be massive successes. Making it easier for people to judge the promotion for future non-superhero Marvel properties (such as Sony's proposed "Morbius: The Living Vampire" movie) at face value, and not by the standards of a completely different genre.