In some circles, fans have been waiting for a Justice League trailer so long it’s become its own meme. Now, after a string of character teases establishing the core heroes one has finally arrived, and it really delivers.
The total mileage you get from the “Official Trailer” depends somewhat on your affections for previous DCEU outings Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, seeing as this is still very clearly a Zack Snyder joint, full of comic-book-panel-ripped shots and heavily-saturated, computer-generated decimation. Despite that, there’s plenty of immediately wide-appeal stuff in there, like jokes about Batman’s superpower being money and an overall strong grasp of the individual heroes’ personalities – along with Bats, the movie stars Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman and Cyborg. There’s also proper looks at supporting characters like Queen of Atlantis Mera and GCPD Commissioner Gordon (it’s safe to say J.K. Simmons is perfect casting).
But someone’s missing. Someone massive. Someone so big they typically take prime position in any Justice League assembly shots. Yes – there’s not a single moment of Superman.
If you’ve just watched the movies in a complete isolated bubble (in which case, you might be interested to learn they’re a little divisive), then that may feel pretty expected; after doing reluctant battle with Bruce Wayne, Henry Cavill’s Kal-El died at the end of Batman v Superman saving the world from the rampaging Doomsday. His funeral capped Dawn of Justice, finally motivating Bruce to form the Justice League and pretty much enabling the bonkers events of Suicide Squad.
But, of course, he’s not actually dead. In a moment reminiscent of Magneto’s power return in X-Men: The Last Stand, the final shot of Batman v Superman showed dirt rising from Clark Kent’s coffin (the heroic alter ego got a weighted burial in Washington DC), hinting at a return. This was confirmed by Cavill being prominent in the cast list for Justice League and appearing as part of the Comic-Con reveal image (in his typical leading position). All good. Well, not quite – since then, Warner Bros and all involved in the production have been rather coy; Cavill wasn’t in the SDCC footage itself, was only alluded to as part of the highly-publicized set visit, and now he isn’t a part of the massive trailer reveal.
So, where is Superman and why haven’t we seen much of him? Well, it’s more than just a single trailer absence or teased reveal. In fact, it’s the culmination of a plan twenty-five years in the making.
Warner’ Obsession With The Death (And Return) of Superman
The whole notion of killing Superman and it being a key storytelling element within the character’s history comes from the 1992 epic The Death of Superman. Made at the height of the speculator bubble, the event-to-end-all-events paid off over fifty years of comic history by offing the very first superhero. Like any comic character not named Uncle Ben, however, it didn’t take long for Clark Kent to return; following a highly confusing arc dubbed Reign of the Supermen where four potential replacements fought for the mantle, the real Kal-El was resurrected (using Kryptonian tech in the Fortress of Solitude), neatly returning DC Comics to their long-standing status quo.
Creatively divisive as it may have been, the event was a commercial success and as such Warner Bros. were very keen to translate it to film. Whereas in print the stunt was that Kent could reasonably stay dead, though, here the entire concept hinged on Superman’s resurrection, giving an incredibly altruistic hero (and thus one harder to write than the brooding Batman) an easy arc and playing into an overt Christ metaphor. As a result, pretty much every big screen attempt at the character since – from failed projects like Tim Burton’s Superman Lives (which tackled the arc explicitly) to realized films like Bryan Singers’ Superman Returns (which flirted with the idea and was regardless caked in religious imagery) – has attempted to adapt the story. And, finally, with the DCEU it finally was realized; Man of Steel introduced the world to Superman, Batman v Superman killed him and thus the intention with Justice League was always to bring him back.
So, with that explicit premise established, where is this character who even director Zack Snyder has called essential in the marketing? James Gunn and Marvel have been pretty open about Kurt Russell’s Ego being Star-Lord’s father in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and that could have had genuine twist potential. Well, although the dirt rising from the coffin suggested a quick fix, the fact that Superman is not involved in the League’s initial formation or a part of the post-apokalyptic battle seen in the trailer that presumably comes in the latter half of the film suggests he won’t make his triumphant return until a shocking third act reveal. With that consideration, him being held back from the marketing makes sense; the two-fold danger is that you either increase fan expectation for the size of his role or end up showing far too much of a slight appearance (a great example of this is Transformers: Age of Extinction’s Dinobots).
However, that may not be the case. Aside from a trace of Superman, the big thing missing from the trailer is a proper team shot, which is rather strange – surely you want to have that instantly screen-cappable moment that can be reproduced all over the internet and become iconic in a matter of hours? There’s plenty of quote-unquote awesome in the trailer, but the closest we get to a group moment is a fade-in-and-out quick fire of the heroes (and even that lacks Batman). Now it may just be a creative choice – we do already have a team up shot that’s been widely available for months and a new poster again uniting the team – but it may be because the trailer’s had to edit around the presence of sixth team member; could Superman be resurrected early than the trailer’s suggested and is just out of frame in these moments, leading to very focused shot choice?
Indeed, whether that rampant speculation is true or not, the history of Superman’s return and Snyder’s comments specifically would suggest that the Last Son of Krypton has a big part to play in both plot and character terms – an attempt to reverse his death may be a narrative driving force, and it’s pretty much a dead cert he’ll be essential in the League’s eventual victory. Which means, whichever possibility is true, his lack of appearance is part of a larger marketing play.
The Kryptonian Awakens
Superman coming back isn’t just a point of intrigue in the Justice League story – it is the whole point. And, indeed, the way Warner Bros. is handling his absence from the marketing indicates it’s meant to be felt. They’re not downplaying rumors of a return or being overly conspicuous; they’ve let it be known he’s back for the better part of a year and the official Justice League website even features six hero slots, with one clearly left for Supes (confirmed by the site’s source code).
Rather than being left out in the hope of a shock return, the studio want us asking the “Where’s Superman?” It appears like, beyond the thrill of having the iconic characters together on screen for the first – something that audiences are accustomed to after The Avengers and has already occurred in the DCEU somewhat with the Trinity in Batman v Superman – the studio is trying to use the mystery of Superman as a key driving force, at least in the fan community where an empty space on a website will be important.
In fact, it feels like they’re trying to ape the #WheresLuke hysteria that surrounded Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ mammoth release; despite being confirmed as part of the cast in April 2014, not a single shred of Mark Hamill (bar a brief shot from a vision sequence) was part of the marketing, leading to rampant speculation about where he was and whether Luke could have turned to the Dark side. Of course, it transpired that the real reason there was no Skywalker was because there wasn’t much to show; Luke doesn’t appear until the film’s final seconds, and even then he just stands in silence. It was an advertising masterstroke, one that was clearly puppet-mastered by Disney, highlighting how less can be more.
A potential problem with WB attempting this for Superman is that the intrigue is wholly artificial. We know he’s coming back, we know he’s going to have a sizeable presence, we know he’ll stand alongside the team. There’s not going to be any fan theories he’s really working for Darkseid a la Luke being Kylo Ren. There’s not even much of a question about how he’ll return – the assumption the sun with resurrect him feels easily correct, if not we’ll get some approximation of the comics’ Fortress meddling – and odds are when he does he’ll be the same hero, just with a little less self-doubt. The only hook is seeing some of Cavill and finding out if he’s wearing the black suit of the comics.
Any criticism, of course, presumes a lot about Warner Bros.’ future marketing and how the film works. For now, what we can say resolutely is that it’s clear Superman’s absence is incredibly pointed and set up to play a major part in the film’s journey to the screen.
The lack of Superman from Justice League‘s marketing could very easily be read as simply teasing him out – and to a degree it is – but given the history there’s more to it than that. Just as Warner Bros. has been trying to kill him on screen for over two decades, so too have they been desperate for a resurrection. Justice League is the explicit realization of that, but to make it as significant a cultural event as the original comic run – something the mixed reaction to Batman v Superman definitely wasn’t – they need to have it amped up. A mystery over when we’ll see Supes explicitly steers into this desire, prepping fans for the return and making them feel his absence like Bruce Wayne and co. will.
It is still possible that the next set of materials will unveil Superman – given that there is space on the website for him it actually seems overwhelmingly likely, and WB did a very similar trick with Doomsday in Dawn of Justice – but the delay already will have played up the intrigue and established a resurrection as a major event, rather than a matter-of-fact inevitability. Just as the trailer wait was a meme for die-hard fans, so too will be the wait for Clark.