I apologize for this, but we ought to talk about Suicide Squad. Twenty years ago, in summer 2016, the world was captivated by the imminent August release of the third film in the already-flagging DC Extended Universe—one in which Jared Leto, as the Joker, nefariously changed all his costars’ Netflix passwords to help him stay in loathsome character, and Will Smith grappled heroically with the line, “We’re some kind of Suicide Squad.” Anticipation was sky-high, in large part because the studio released roughly 700 trailers for this movie, each seizing upon the refracted glory of a different beloved pop song.
The result was a one-film pocket history of the way popular music works, or doesn’t, in this sphere. As we reflect on the best movie trailers of the past 30-odd years—and as I, personally, prepare to announce the controversial victor in the Best-Ever Musical Moment in a Trailer category I just made up—it is instructive to recall how Suicide Squad, despite a herculean and multi-pronged sonic effort, does not rank among them.
First, the studio tried the thing where you take a cheerful, frivolous, beloved hit song and turn it into a melodramatic dirge.
Everyone does this, and everyone loves it. “Slow down a great song, and also moan it” is a time-honored tactic on open-mic-night stages and struggle-troubadour YouTube channels worldwide. Multiplexes, too: San Andreas hijacked “California Dreamin’.” Last year’s Ghost in the Shell hijacked “Enjoy the Silence.” Fifty Shades of Grey hijacked Beyoncé; the Tomb Raider reboot, in a nod to its late-’90s source material, hijacked Destiny’s Child. Both Geostorm and one of the Divergent movies hijacked “What a Wonderful World.” The Avengers hijacked Pinocchio, for serious. And so on. Suicide Squad went with the Bee-Gees’ muted 1968 ballad “I Started a Joke,” which in its drippy original version is not exactly a key-party starter. But here, as delivered by Becky Hanson and ConfidentialMX, it sounds like every opera character who has ever died onstage dying simultaneously.
Next trailer: “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The original Queen version, not Kanye West’s cover, thank goodness. The goal here was to rebrand Suicide Squad as a comedy, with all the choral No! No! No!’s synced up to punches and gunshots, the falling bullet cases echoing the drum rolls, and so forth. Much better, actually! It’s stupid! It’s fun! Why so serious?!
Next: a double shot of the moody “You Don’t Own Me” (deployed ironically, in the style of The Handmaid’s Tale) and the goofy, glammy “Ballroom Blitz.” (Deployed awesomely, because “Ballroom Blitz” is awesome, though as with, come to think of it, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Wayne’s World version is way better.)
The idea was to split the difference between thinking-emoji solemnity and fizzy action: “You Don’t Own Me” for prestige atmosphere, and “Ballroom Blitz” for all the ass-kicking. Fun for the whole adopted-outcast family, you see. A decade or so later, Suicide Squad finally came out. It did fine, even though it stunk. There are worse epitaphs. But there are way better trailers.
The Ringer’s official ongoing bracket of the best movie trailers since 1990 features plenty of killer pop-music cues; you’ll even find a few melodramatic-dirge cover versions. The paragon of that style, in fact, is The Social Network’s sad-choir redeployment of Radiohead’s “Creep” over scenes of Facebook slowly colonizing all of modern life, the rare case where a clever lyrical recontextualization triggers genuine chills instead of eye-rolls. “I don’t care if it hurts / I wanna have control / I want a perfect body / I want a perfect soul.”
In the trailer realm, though, a pop song functions best as a pure dopamine hit, a shotgun wedding between music you already love and a movie you are definitely going to love. Cover songs can work: Karen O, Atticus Ross, and Trent Reznor’s cyber-goth reimagining of “Immigrant Song” elevates the manic Girl With a Dragon Tattoo trailer, even as many of the images have the vague mundanity of a vintage Mad Men promo. But the genuine article is usually better. When a lightly doctored version of Led Zeppelin’s original “Immigrant Song” hits in the Thor: Ragnarok trailer, it’s a thrilling exemplar of The Drop, when the sounds and the images (which in this case includes the Marvel Studios logo) crest simultaneously.
The tear-jerking clip for Where the Wild Things Are works that way, when the feral chorus of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” kicks in; likewise the melancholy-lust union between Magic Mike and Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” (However, please also pay your respects to the subtler way Magic Mike XXL wraps itself around Goldfrapp’s “Ooh La La,” though “subtler” is maybe not the best way to describe a trailer that synchronizes Channing Tatum’s spark-generating welding hip thrusts.) Even our finest filmmaking auteurs have mastered these tricks, from Noah Baumbach’s outstanding “Modern Love” drop in Frances Ha to the way Paul Thomas Anderson’s trailers have slowly evolved from the jukebox jubilation of Boogie Nights to the abstract menace of Jonny Greenwood’s scores for The Master or Phantom Thread.
Martin Scorsese evolved, too, from the majesty of the “Layla” drop in Goodfellas (which withstands that greatest of trailer clichés, the “In a world …” voice-over) to the vicious cognitive dissonance of pairing the white-collar-crime fairy tale The Wolf of Wall Street with Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” But in a simpler time, it seemed like Quentin Tarantino alone could use a trailer to elevate a pop song and not the other way around, whether it was Dick Dale in Pulp Fiction or “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” in Kill Bill: Vol. 1. In both cases, a sizable percentage of the audience likely didn’t recognize the song at first contact, but everyone accepted the song as an instant classic regardless.
Actually, speaking of our finest filmmaking auteurs, that also happened with The Pineapple Express.
This is the 21st century’s finest example of a trailer turning a pop song from a critical favorite into a genuine hit: M.I.A.’s taunting “Paper Planes” blew up seemingly overnight. (I always loved the way the gunshots synced up; if nothing else, Suicide Squad stole from the best.) This is the holy grail every marketing department is chasing, from comic-book blockbusters to stuffy prestige plays: a great song big enough to be vaguely familiar but just underexposed enough to where the trailer can reshape it, and elevate it, and truly own it.
An even better idea, however, is to deconstruct that idea entirely. Here, now, is your Best-Ever Musical Moment in a Trailer honoree.
As an advertisement for the film The Killing of a Sacred Deer itself, this is an abject failure insofar as it looks way too scary for me to actually watch. But as, itself, a work of profoundly unsettling art—the soundtrack consists of a teenage girl shakily singing Ellie Goulding’s minor EDM-pop hit “Burn”—it’s as singular and striking a marriage of sound and vision as you’re going to find in an advertisement for anything. In the admittedly unlikely event that I ever hear “Burn” again in any context, I will never hear “Burn” the same way again, which is perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay: The song succeeds so totally at making the trailer that the trailer ruins the song. The takeaway, for all you aspiring movie-trailer geniuses, is clear: Either master the pop-hit-as-lethal-weapon playbook or just light it on fire. Your fav Joker could never.