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Which Movie Had the Last Great Trailer?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

As The Ringer’s own Chris Ryan noted Monday, the modern movie trailer is broken. Trailers today include too many plot details, too many jokes, and too many brrrooonnngggs. Most trailers actively harm the enjoyment of watching that same film later in theaters. So, what was the last great movie trailer? The last trailer that made you excited to go see a movie without also making that movie less fun to watch? Our staff has some thoughts:

‘Gone Girl’

Amanda Dobbins: Before we get to the last Great Trailer, let us acknowledge the Peak Great: David Fincher’s masterpiece, The Social Network trailer. Do you remember how invigorating this trailer was back in 2010? We didn’t know about children’s choir pop covers then. We didn’t know about Winklevii; we didn’t know about the loneliness of the internet; we didn’t know that a billion is cooler than a million. That trailer is all time, and yes, Fincher’s 2014 Gone Girl trailer borrows heavily from its playbook. The sinister pop song, the veiled threats, the confused dude at the center — we’ve been here before. But it is a perfect 90-second movie about Ben Affleck, and it is the last time I can remember watching a trailer and still needing to know more. Also, look at Ben Affleck run.

‘Creed’

Shea Serrano: The first main thing I look for in a movie trailer is, “Does it have Michael B. Jordan in it?” The second main thing I look for in a movie trailer is, “Does it have Michael B. Jordan shirtless in it?” The third main thing I look for in a movie trailer is, “Does it have Michael B. Jordan shirtless in it and is he shadowboxing in a cellar in Mexico?” The fourth main thing I look for in a trailer is, “Does it have Michael B. Jordan shirtless in it and is he shadowboxing in a cellar in Mexico and is he later going to be shown fighting someone or someones?” The fifth main thing I look for in a movie trailer is, “Does it have Michael B. Jordan shirtless in it and is he shadowboxing in a cellar in Mexico and is he later going to be shown fighting someone or someones and will there be a point in it wherein he dramatically announces whose son he is?” The sixth main thing I look for in a movie trailer is, “Does it have Michael B. Jordan shirtless in it and is he shadowboxing in a cellar in Mexico and is he later going to be shown fighting someone or someones and will there be a point in it wherein he dramatically announces whose son he is and then after that point will there be a bunch of quick shots that hint at the action and the turmoil in the film without spoiling any of it?” Those are the things I look for. And thus far, only one trailer I have ever seen in my whole entire life meets those requirements: the one for Creed.

‘The Wolf of Wall Street’

Ben Lindbergh: We’ll start with some simple math: When your running time is almost 50 percent longer than the typical blockbuster’s, a regular-length trailer won’t give away as much of the movie. Some more math: When your running time is almost 50 percent longer than the typical blockbuster’s, your running time is likely too long. The Wolf of Wall Street’s trailer works by stripping out all of Scorsese’s already-reduced excess, boiling it down to a tight 2:13 that showcases the movie’s most memeable elements.

You’ve got the blazing first single from an album that was about to blow up, with a beat that was born to be synched with a trailer’s quick cuts. You’ve got the chest-pounding chant, a change of pace that was perfectly timed to capitalize on the McConaissance. Pair those earworms with a leading lady who looks like a slow dance, a taste of Coach Taylor for the Friday Night Lights fans, and some scenes of debauchery that could come from Leo’s actual life, and you’ve found the perfect preview formula.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a party that gets too loud, lasts too late, and is packed with unstable people who smell like liquor. But as its trailer reminds us, those parties are fun, at least before the bad decisions.

‘Casino Royale’ (2006)

Justin Charity: What you have to remember about Casino Royale is it came on the heels of Die Another Day. In the earlier film, Pierce Brosnan and director Lee Tamahori went on a ruinous mission to cross the sensibility of a Saturday-morning cartoon with the fashionability of a Sears commercial, ultimately producing this goofy movie about space lasers, face transplants, and fencing — an Austin Powers movie, basically. So imagine my surprise when Daniel Craig, fresh off Layer Cake and Munich, leads with swagger and pithy brutality in the sexiest trailer of the century. Watch the blond and glistening star emerge from the sea like Ursula Andress in Dr. No. That’s all the best trailers are any good for, anyway: titillation and fan service.

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Riley McAtee: No, not the first teaser, which made me hype as hell but only included (by my count) 39 seconds of footage spread across seven scenes. And no, not the second teaser, which gave us a remarkable shot of a beached star destroyer but loses points for the shameless fan service of “Chewie, we’re home.” I’m talking about the first actual trailer, just over two minutes of masterful misdirection. Just look at the scene from 1:26, where Harrison Ford’s voice over (“The Dark Side … the Jedi…”) implies that Poe was some kind of Sith infiltrator in the Resistance and that Finn would bring balance to the Force. This wasn’t a coincidence — the trailer doubled down on both those ideas. Meanwhile, Rey got barely as much screen time as Luke! In an era where every trailer gets dissected frame by frame, TFA played us all.

The Force. It’s calling to you.

But to whom? We had to wait until opening night to find out.

‘The Witch’

Alison Herman: How does one make “scary movie with no jump scares” exciting to horror fans? How does one make “movie written entirely in period-accurate 17th-century dialect” exciting to … anyone? The trailer for The Witch isn’t just dope as hell, it accomplishes the damn near impossible. It makes a subtle exploration of our obsession with and suppression of teen sexuality seem urgent. It does this without making the movie out to be something it’s not — i.e., the standard supernatural scare flick the movie wrongly took a beating for not being, or even trying to be. It really doubles down on the goat horror. (Honorable mention to this Black Phillip–centric teaser, which has the good sense to cite “They call him Black Phillip — well, holy shit!” as the ringing endorsement it is.) Fast editing and frantic scores get a bad rap in trailers these days, but The Witch’s has just the right amount of both.

‘American Honey’

Sean Fennessey: I watch new trailers everyday. I love them, always have. They’re miniature art forms. I want to know what’s next, and why. I have a new favorite every six weeks. They’re a self-replenishing resource. Movie trailers still have utility, too. There’s an enormous difference between a trailer for a movie you want to be great and a movie you’ve not heard of — it’s about the value of expectation versus surprise. The Force Awakens is not Carol. Some movies crest on a tidal wave of promotion, others trickle into our consciousness unexpectedly. It’s common to be disappointed by a trailer for a hugely anticipated blockbuster — we used to call them “coming attractions,” like a traveling circus. But it’s the movies that have been festival favorites or long in-the-works projects by reclusive geniuses that get me excited. Or ones I didn’t know were coming.

I have no idea what Andrea Arnold’s American Honey will be like, but this trailer makes me think it will be transportive and searching and desperate. “We explore, like, America,” a mulleted, eyebrow-pierced Shia LaBeouf says as Makonnen honks about making money and getting turnt. I’ve watched it a dozen times since it was released. I’ve forced my wife to watch it at least twice. (I’m sorry.) You should, too.

‘Magic Mike’

Chris Ryan: Trailers shouldn’t be honest. It’s OK to misdirect, to include footage that doesn’t appear in the final film (Paul Thomas Anderson does this a lot), or suggest a tone that the actual movie doesn’t replicate. Magic Mike has more to do with Barbara Ehrenreich than it does Rihanna, but Nickel and Dimed doesn’t quite conjure TFW the Molly hits, now does it? Steven Soderbergh gives you a spoonful of ecstasy to help the medicine go down. Of course, the problem is if you don’t have a movie as humane, charming, and thrilling as Magic Mike, people might get mad about the lack of Rihanna. Luckily … well you’ve probably seen the movie. The trailer has “We Found Love”; the movie has “Pony.” That moment in Magic Mike where Channing Tatum ginuwinely becomes a movie star, right before your eyes? That’s your reward for buying a ticket.

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Jason Concepcion: Jack Nicholson told George Miller that he needed to act a little bit crazy if he wanted to get what he wanted. This was 1987, on the set of The Witches of Eastwick. Miller was directing, and his apparently agreeable demeanor resulted in the studio walking up and down his back like a red carpet. So he started acting out, ordering unnecessary cameras and extras, not showing up on the set. And it worked. “I was rewarded for bad behavior. And basically punished for good behavior,” Miller told The Hollywood Reporter.

A good trailer’s job is simply to make you want more. The Mad Max: Fury Road trailer from Comic-Con 2014 works because it is an unyielding ballet of crazily bad behavior. When I first saw the trailer, I was barely aware the film was in production. Or that writer-director George Miller, owner of one of the wackiest IMDb pages (seriously, how can a person contain Mad Max’s unrelenting muscle-car dystopia and Babe’s Aesopian sunniness?) was back at the helm of the series he created in 1979.

Charlize Theron with a buzzcut, and a robot arm, looking like the absolute baddest raider in a Fallout game? Desert weirdos diving off the back of souped-up death-buggies hurling explosive javelins? Vehicles exploding around a mute Tom Hardy, who’s staked to the prow of some mutated jalopy? This is something I can watch? This is something that will become available to me? I’m in.

Of course, it helps that a two-minute-and-43-second trailer of wild car chases can’t really spoil a movie that is two hours, flat, of face-melting car chases, barely any plot, and a subtext that can’t really be summed up in words without coming off as overly woke.

‘Prometheus’

Rob Harvilla: The Prometheus trailer is an elegantly terrifying trilogy unto itself. Act One: Bitchin’ vistas. Mountains, waterfalls, caves, a cool spaceship piloted by Idris Elba, the works. Act Two: Nervous questions as snappy retorts. “Not a map. An invitation.” “From whom?” “Whatever that probe is pickin’ up, it’s readin’ life form.” “What do you mean, a life form?” “Overhead. They’re changing.” “Changing into what?” “They’re leaving.” “To go where?” And then some dude offscreen starts screaming, Cut it out! Cut it out!, and we proceed to Act Three: Abject terror. “Big things have small beginnings,” an especially creepy Michael Fassbender concludes, but this mildly disappointing Aliens offshoot (or w/e) was the opposite: an ultimately small thing with a gigantic, alluring, thoroughly unsettling beginning.

‘The Revenant’

Donnie Kwak: To be clear, I am not nominating the “official trailer” for The Revenant — which, in typical trailer fashion, is bogged down by expository dialogue and unnecessary reveals. No, I’m voting for the “official teaser trailer,” released two months prior, and definitely the best trailer for a trailer of all time.

Here, we get only two bars from Leo: “I ain’t afraid to die anymore / I done it already.” That’s it. No extended bear sequence, no “half-breed son,” and not much of a discernible plot, either. What we get instead is pounding, breathtaking action — literally pounding and breathtaking, actually, as the visceral score propels each beautifully filmed vignette to a burning crescendo that left me desperate for more. You know, exactly what a trailer is supposed to do. I was already in at Iñárritu x Leo x Hardy, the teaser just made it official.