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Early lead: 9 Super Bowl teasers better than the movies they advertised

This Sunday, as the Panthers take on the Broncos at Levi’s Stadium, the major Hollywood movie studios will be engaged in their own very public showdown: For upwards of $5 million a pop, executives will bid for the patronage of American moviegoers, subjecting a captive audience to 30-second commercials for the biggest films coming to a theater near them. There is, of course, an art to constructing the perfect Super Bowl movie trailer, and the best of these expensive, bite-sized advertisements are arguably even better than the movies themselves—either by virtue of expertly concealing the flaws of subpar pictures or by compressing the pleasures of a whole film into an exhilarating half-minute flurry of sound and imagery. Below, we’ve singled out nine Super Bowl teasers more exciting, effective, or satisfying than the films they tease.

1. Independence Day (1996)

It’s not that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s ridiculously successful summer blockbuster is bad, per se; it’s just that, at 145 minutes, it’s needlessly overstuffed. Long-winded Jeff Goldblum monologues, half-sketched romantic triangles, whatever Brent Spiner thought he was doing—it’s all just a distraction from the big, juicy explosions that audiences paid to see. Which is what makes the movie’s legendary Super Bowl ad such a surprisingly elegant encapsulation of Independence Day’s still-lasting appeal: No drama, no wacky Judd Hirsch character bits, just pure, destructive premise. In a swift 30 seconds, we learn everything we need to know to get properly hyped for the coming invasion: The aliens are here, humanity is screwed, and then it’s goodbye White House, in what’s still one of the most effective practical effects explosions in the history of big dumb films. [William Hughes]


2. Super 8 (2011)

From the brilliantly cryptic Cloverfield teaser to those three rousing but unrevealing Force Awakens trailers, no one withholds information as tantalizingly as J.J. Abrams—or rather, as the marketing wizards regularly hired to sell his movies without giving away anything about them. If this strategy has a drawback, it’s that prospective viewers may create a much cooler film in their head than the real thing. The 30-second Super 8 clip that played during Super Bowl XLV is a good example of that phenomenon: Protecting plot details with the diligence of the film’s military bad guys, Abrams’ team cherry picks some of his most striking imagery and leans heavily on Michael Giacchino’s note-perfect imitation of a throwback John Williams score. Two lines of dialogue (“Do not speak of this. If you do, they will find you.”) only enhance the menace and mystery. It’s a master class in stoking anticipation—and as it turned out, a better tribute to Steven Spielberg than Super 8 itself, which rather soullessly rearranged the components of the director’s early work, without coming within striking distance of the awe or terror those seminal blockbusters provoked. [A.A. Dowd]


3. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

The hype frenzy for The Force Awakens was so overwhelming, it’s easy to forget that in 1999, the anticipation for The Phantom Menace was just as difficult to avoid. Months before its release, George Lucas’ first prequel so dominated the cinematic conversation that Star Wars was even being advertised in a commercial for another movie, from another studio. The Super Bowl teaser for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me opens on a very Death Star-looking scene, feinting toward all things Sith before Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil swivels around to reveal the gag. “If you see only one movie this summer, see Star Wars,” the announcer intones before making the pitch for the Austin Powers sequel. It’s the rare movie ad that acknowledges the existence of other motion pictures. If only the movie itself could have been so clever—instead, a relentless rehashing of the original film’s gags made Spy Who Shagged Me the limpest entry in the Austin Powers trilogy. [John Teti]


4. The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

The double-barreled follow-up to The Matrix had to be a dream assignment for the editor tasked with cutting the sequel and threequel down to a minute-long teaser. Because Lana and Andy Wachowski’s visual ingenuity was the key to the first film’s seismic impact, the trailer didn’t have to summarize the elaborate story. It only had to show Neo (Keanu Reeves) in his signature shades and black tunic dangling from wires and doing battle against a small army of Agent Smiths, while Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) rifles off koans in his stentorian tone. Reloaded and Revolutions are triumphs of style over substance, which lends them perfectly to a showy trailer. The Super Bowl teaser is still thrilling to watch, even when you know the films amount to nearly four-and-a-half hours of quasi-spiritual claptrap that no amount of bullet time shots can salvage. [Joshua Alston]


5. Swordfish (2001)

The late ’90s and early ’00s were something of a golden period for the action stylings of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and the brash, bravado-heavy selling of that style—even if Bruckheimer wasn’t actually involved. The hacker thriller Swordfish gathered up plenty of Bruckheimer signatures: an all-star slumming cast (John Travolta, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle), a music video director (Dominic Sena, who previously made the actual Bruckheimer production Gone In 60 Seconds), and a flashy ad campaign. The film announced its cutting-edge techno-action spectacle via a Super Bowl spot featuring Travolta performing a mini-monologue announcing the “lack of realism” in Hollywood movies, and promising something “not within the realm of conventional cinema.” Unless he was referring to the nude scene that became the film’s primary claim to fame, Travolta’s soul-patched baddie was fully incorrect. Swordfish is very conventional Hollywood cinema circa 2001; the Super Bowl spot has a winking sense of mystery the movie itself sorely lacks. Then again, it’s also not as good as the trailer for Gone In Sixty Seconds. [Jesse Hassenger]


6. Tomorrowland (2015)

Brad Bird’s misbegotten Disney opus Tomorrowland had no trouble filling out a 30-second Super Bowl spot; the movie has enough shiny retro-futuristic imagery to fill at least half a dozen enticing full trailers. As it turns out, the movie also has almost too much in common with its ads: It spends most of its running time promising and promising and promising, tantalizing the audience with interesting ideas and eye-filling sights, only to peter out with a prolonged whimper. It’s a movie that never stops beginning. The advertisements themselves don’t have to deliver on their promises, though, which makes the Tomorrowland trailers in some ways a more satisfying experience. The Super Bowl ad is particularly enticing because it distills Bird’s whiz-bang images (Eiffel Tower rocket! Jetpacks! Teleportation pins!) into 30 wonderful seconds. It’s driven forward by irresistibly vague George Clooney narration: “What if there was a place where nothing was impossible?” What if, indeed: What if Bird and company actually made one of the most exciting movies of the year, instead of just trailers for it? [Jesse Hassenger]


7. Oz The Great And Powerful (2013)

On paper, there are much worse ideas than letting Spider-Man and Evil Dead director Sam Raimi lead audiences down the yellow brick road and back into Hollywood’s most cherished fantasy land. And for a few glorious seconds, during the year’s biggest television event, audiences got a compressed glimpse of everything right about Oz The Great And Powerful. Beginning with a thrilling switch from black-and-white Academy ratio to full-color widescreen, the film’s Super Bowl spot is nothing but whirligig spectacle and uncut nostalgia: a wicked witch rising from the flames; an emerald city on the horizon; a winged primate flying right at the camera. What the lighting-quick ad doesn’t include is much of James Franco’s phoned-in lead performance, the Shrek-grade humor, or the tired origin-story plot beats—in short, everything that made this Wizard Of Oz prequel more chore than delight. That’s the thing about teaser trailers: To put the best foot forward, they often isolate the good from the bad, creating some perfect, seconds-long cut of an imperfect, hours-long movie. [A.A. Dowd]


8. The Mummy Returns (2001)

The Stephen Sommers remake of The Mummy was an unexpected box-office smash in 1999; its 2001 sequel was afforded no such surprise. This meant Universal had to go all-in for its big Super Bowl trailer, cutting together big-money effects shot after big-money effects shot, and leaning heavily on footage of The Rock as his new Scorpion King character. Even this early in his movie career, Dwayne Johnson was showing signs of his future as “franchise Viagra,” and quick shots in the Super Bowl ad are probably the best way to experience his contribution here. In the ad, The Rock moments flash by too fast to linger on any of the lamentably poor computer animation that fails to bring the Scorpion King’s confrontation with Brendan Fraser to life during the movie’s overstuffed climax. That’s true for much of The Mummy Returns, which features wildly erratic effects work to accompany its wildly erratic everything else. The sequel’s strategy—it’s like The Mummy, but bigger and louder—is less exhausting in a 30-second dose than a 130-minute one. [Jesse Hassenger]


9. Iron Man 3 (2013)

There’s one truly great scene in the third (and final?) installment of Marvel’s flagship standalone superhero series: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has to figure out a way to rescue 13 passengers plummeting from the midair wreckage of Air Force One. Whoever cut the Super Bowl spot was smart enough to recognize a centerpiece sequence when they saw one and to build a brief but exciting teaser out of that one spectacular moment. It’s striking, it’s suspenseful, and it does what all movie trailers, regardless of length, should ideally do: It gets viewers pumped for the film in question without spoiling any crucial plot points. Reaction to Iron Man 3 itself was more divisive, with some celebrating the idiosyncrasies writer-director Shane Black brought to the project, while others (ahem) felt the end results were too busy and overstuffed to reach the heights of Marvel’s best blockbusters. Either way, for a pure pleasure high, there was no beating that half-minute peak at the film’s high-altitude highlight. [A.A. Dowd]


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