'Birds of Prey' and the Art of an Anti-Superhero Teaser

Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn movie and Joaquin Phoenix's 'The Joker' are rewriting the rules for promoting comic book movies.

The first teaser for Birds of Prey doesn't just mark a stylistic shift away from Harley Quinn's cinematic debut in Suicide Squad, it also feels unlike any superhero movie teaser to date, with one notable exception — which raises the question, what if DC can follow through on the promise of creating superhero movies outside the Marvel Studios norm?

"See You Soon," which runs just 19 seconds and offers brief glimpses of DC characters standing and posing outside of any natural setting, set to an essentially neutral dance track, is a curious but compelling glimpse at what Birds of Prey will be; something that rejects the bombast and motion of superhero movies as we've come to recognize them, but is nonetheless filled with a personality and attitude of its own. In a way, it feels like an anti-superhero teaser trailer, but it's not one entirely without precedent. Indeed, for the teaser it's closest to, we don't even have to look too far — the make-up test teaser for Joaquin Phoenix's Joker movie from last September.

It's not just aesthetics that differentiates the two teasers from what has become the superhero tradition — although, in both music choice and visuals, they're a million miles away from anything from the Marvel slate, either from Marvel proper or satellite studios like Fox or Sony — but that the very form is so different from what we expect, and suggests similar from the finished movies. For all the spectacle of something like Avengers: Infinity War or Spider-Man: Homecoming, the trailers for these movies rely heavily on dialogue, and specifically jokes. Even in a teaser trailer as short as these DC teasers, there's normally time for at least one line of dialogue that more often than not is a quip of some kind.

It's a central part of their appeal — the Marvel Studios movies in particular are as stylized dialogue-heavy as the comic books that inspired them — and something that DC's movies of the past decade or so have struggled with, with varying degrees of success. (Wonder Woman and Aquaman have a high degree of self-awareness, but something like Green Lantern or even Suicide Squad feel as if they're trying to match the Marvel formula despite themselves.)

For all the complaints about Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, both movies are far more successful — and interesting — visually than they are as traditional movies, and there's something about these teasers that leans into that appeal, for better or worse, depending on the audience's feelings about the Zack Snyder movies. Yet, neither Joker nor Birds of Prey are re-creating the Snyder aesthetic, but leaning into different methods of exploring the same idea: That there's a way to make comic book movies as visually interesting as their source material, while not relying on the narrative tricks imposed by a competitor.

Of course, neither teaser actually reveals much about the movies themselves, and in this era of Fyre Festival documentaries, we should be even more suspicious than ever about pretty-but-empty commercials. When the first full trailers for each project are released, they could very much offer something that follows the dialogue-heavy, empty spectacle of the Marvel mainstream. But, for now, we're left with a tantalizing glimpse at an alternative — and the possibility that Warner Bros. might have finally found a way to do superhero movies that offer an alternative to the brand leader.