Spoilers for Batman v. Superman ahoy.
Trailers and fan culture have changed cinematic storytelling in almost exactly the same way as reading my headline ruined my opening sentence. Going behind the scenes has become the scene. Trailers have become the true first act of any movie. Casting announcements introduce us to characters now. Filmmakers and showrunners gamble with their creative license when they let loose a cliffhanger.
Case in point: the recent season finale of The Walking Dead, which royally pissed off fans primarily for delivering a serious case of storytelling epididymal hypertension. Fans were right to be mad. When an entire season leads up to one moment and you deliver a cop out where a POV camera trick steals a scene’s thunder, you’ve done wrong by your faithful.
You’ve also ensured that you won’t be in control of the ultimate reveal.
Nope. Fans will do that for you, and if they don’t, a future casting announcement (just scroll for the missing name) will do the trick. Or an actor’s haircut at a public event. If you doubt it, just ask Jon Snow and “John Harrison” how they feel about it. Tricking an audience — especially the very people who line up for your premiere — is nearly impossible now, and studios/networks haven’t shifted to fully absorb that reality. Double irony points for being able to build to a moment your fanbase knows is coming because they read or read about the source material (and you’ve teased it in promos and flaunted your casting for the part). We’re now fully an anti-shock culture. “What the hell just happened” has been replaced by “I wonder if they’ll do it like they did in the comic book!”
In the case of The Walking Dead, that means that when The Big Reveal comes next season it won’t be a surprise as much as it’ll be confirmation of what we’re already 99% sure of. Obviously answering mysteries isn’t the be-all and end-all of narrative, but it’s hard to argue that “what happened” isn’t important, and that important element has been largely forfeited. More and more, cinematic storytellers are unable to use tools like cliffhangers because the bloodhound gang — the most invested fans they have — will instantly be on the case. It’s like your friend who never picks you up from work picking you up from work on your birthday and swearing there’s no surprise party waiting for you at home. Everyone plays along, but no one is genuinely surprised. In the world of storytelling, you have to wonder what the point is anymore.
(And because culture reporting is what it is, what one hyper-invested fan digs up will be on every generic culture site for non-obsessive consumption as soon as possible.)
Which brings us to Superman, whose 99¢ Store death in Batman v Superman was given an even cheaper nod to Nolan when dirt began to ethereally lift off his casket in the final shot (note: Nolan would have held on the immobile casket until our blood pressure rose high enough, then cut to credits without any of that floating dirt nonsense). But, okay. Let’s say that Superman’s ultimate fate is still vague at the end of the movie. It’s not anymore, because Henry Cavill is going to be in Justice League. A completely unsurprising surprise, but still another example where a filmmaker wanted what he thought was a cool ending in our current no-stakes storytelling environment, marked doubly by fans paying attention to your press conferences.
It must be tough when fans are watching your every move, but this phenomenon also most affects lazy writing. No one really thought Superman would be dead (for long), but Zack Snyder and friends, giggling the whole time, wanted to kill him anyway. J. J. Abrams — the most skilled at navigating fan must-knowism — could have picked any canon villain or (gasp) invented a cool new one for Star Trek 2, but he still chose to re-use Khan from the original Star Trek 2. As for The Walking Dead, your guess is as good as mine. Its finale felt more like a corporate note than anything else; “Can you shock them and have them desperate to come back next season? No? Well do it anyway.”
The only way to get a true storytelling shock from killing Superman is to really do it. End him. Make Justice League without him. Let Henry Cavill do press for other movies without having to coyly sidestep questions about his workout regimen and why he was on the Warners lot last week.
But even that’s impossible now. If they truly killed Superman, no one would believe it. And by the time we did, it would be too late to have an impact. So, studios and filmmakers at the blockbuster level of interest are stuck in a kind of limbo where lying to fans has become the only solution they have even though it doesn’t work.
The bottom line is that trailer dissection and fan culture have done their part (alongside studio’s slavish adherence to IP and reusing the same dozen super-characters) to blunt the impact that these moments might normally have. Even if Superman’s death in Batman v Superman hadn’t felt rushed and arbitrary, we’d still know outside the confines of the screen that he was going to be in Justice League, so what can you really do? How can you possibly make us feel it? That goes for The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, every time Marvel poorly head-faked toward Nick Fury or whoever else dying, and more.
In a perfect world, this new constraint would cause storytellers and their studio overseers to try harder to impress, but it’s far more likely that we’ll only see more people awkwardly jumping out from behind our couches to yell “Surprise!”, knowing they were there the whole time.