It’s only appropriate that a strange year should be capped off with a strange Super Bowl. The much-hyped NFL championship game, featuring the greatest quarterback of all time and the presumed successor to that title, turned out to be something of a dud. But of course, football is only half the reason people watch the Super Bowl. Even those who aren’t fans of the game itself still tune in for the halftime show, the legendary Super Bowl commercials, and to catch all the teasers and trailers for the biggest movies and TV shows of the upcoming year. After all, if you’re willing to pay what it takes to advertise during the Super Bowl, you must have something special to offer.
At least, that’s how it usually goes. COVID-19 has been messing with the NFL schedule all season, and it also threw a wrench in the big game’s advertising gears. It’s been a strange year for the movies and TV as well, as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic could be felt throughout the broadcast. With many of the TV spots going to existing CBS programming, it felt more like a regular game than the Super Bowl, and there were slim pickings for trailers — two of which involved delayed projects that were advertised during last year’s Super Bowl. Still, there’s no reason we can’t go over the trailers that aired during the game and see which ones got us excited for some in-home viewing… and which ones might need to do a little more work to earn our attention.
Best: The MCU’s formula still works
Last year’s Super Bowl featured a trio of trailers introducing the new MCU shows coming to Disney Plus — WandaVision, Loki, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. All were delayed due to COVID-19, but we’ve reached the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re already halfway through WandaVision, Loki is coming in May, and during this year’s Super Bowl, we finally got an extended look at The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Beyond the action sequences, the trailer gave us more information regarding what the show will be about, and who some of the major players will be. It is, after all, an MCU property, meaning it uses the ongoing appeal of its increasingly massive shared universe to get people excited. And the best thing about tried-and-true formulas is that they work.
While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will almost certainly have to deal with the fallout from Avengers: Endgame (and potentially the fallout from WandaVision) it seems in many ways to be a spiritual sequel to 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. The trailer makes it clear that Helmut Zemo, Civil War‘s villainous mastermind, is back as the new show’s primary antagonist, and Sharon Carter, who got her longest screen time by far in Civil War, is also featured prominently in the trailer. And the narrative focus of the show seems to be the mutual dislike between lead characters Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, a miniature civil war in its own right.
Worst: F9 hasn’t changed at all
F9, the next chapter in the self-styled "Fast Saga," was also advertised while the Chiefs were ending their 50-year championship drought last year, and was also delayed, resulting in a repeat performance for 2021. Unlike the trailer for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, however, the new Super Bowl trailer for F9 was the same length (just 30 seconds) and had pretty much the same problems we pointed out last year, once again opening with Vin Diesel voiceover before transitioning into a series of action sequences that gave us no clues as to what the movie will actually be about. Even the songs used in the two trailers are the same. There’s no hint of the film’s plot, or what (if anything) will differentiate it from its predecessors. It hits the same notes the trailers for this franchise always hit: family, crime, and cars. You’ve seen the same thing eight times already (nine, if you count Hobbes and Shaw).
Of course, for the Fast and Furious movies, that’s kind of the point. People don’t watch these films for their intricate plotting, they watch because they love seeing Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez and the rest of the cast drive around in fast cars and blow stuff up. There’s nothing wrong with that. Still, it’s a tough look to be the least interesting commercial featuring John Cena on a night when the former WWE Champion drove around a city composed entirely of bottles of pink Mountain Dew.
Best: Raya and the Last Dragon promises a colorful new fantasy world
Disney’s Super Bowl offerings weren’t limited to the MCU. Just before kickoff, we caught a glimpse of the new animated feature coming from the studio, and it was more than enough to get us excited. The trailer for Raya and the Last Dragon opens with images of a world that is undeniably picturesque, but also, in the words of the protagonist, broken. The world in question, Kumandra, isn’t our own; the credits proudly remind viewers that Raya is "from the studio that brought you Frozen," and like Frozen, it takes place in a fantasy setting. However, as the trailer continues, it’s clear that this fictional world is based on the real-life cultures of Southeast Asia, a concept that’s effectively teased throughout, making us want to find out everything we can about Kumandra and its inhabitants. The movie just looks beautiful, and the trailer highlights that beauty masterfully.
Raya has been cast almost entirely with Asian-American actors, and perhaps more importantly, its two writers are respectively of Vietnamese and Malaysian descent. It’s rare that we get the chance to explore an original fantasy world alongside a sassy blue dragon and a massive pill bug, but it’s rarer still to explore a non-Western culture from the perspectives of people who have been steeped in that culture. We really hope Raya and the Last Dragon is both trend-setting and entertaining, and judging by the trailer, that’s looking pretty likely so far.
Worst: Old looks to be aptly named
Look, you knew what you were getting into the moment the words "from M. Night Shyamalan" flashed across the screen. The man of a thousand twists doesn’t usually give that much away in his trailers, so it’s extremely possible that Old will turn out to be good, or clever, or at least memorable in some way. But the trailer for Shyamalan’s Old that aired during the Super Bowl just looks tired, utilizing the most ludicrously basic horror movie trailer tactics and completely failing to stand out or appear remarkable in any way. The film seems to be about a beach that makes people age rapidly, but that’s about all the information we get; most of the trailer consists of a choppy series of quick cuts that are clearly supposed to evoke fear, but don’t provide any real indication of what we should be afraid of.
Instead, it relies heavily on dialogue to tell us what’s going on and why we should care. But after the accelerated aging thing happens, almost every line could have been copied and pasted from a dozen other movies. The second half of the trailer consists of the following lines in succession: "Oh, no." "Mom, I’m scared." "There’s something wrong with this beach." "We were chosen for a reason." "What’s happening?" "I don’t know!" "I can’t think!" And then, in huge, dramatically animated letters, the word "OLD." It was good for a laugh, but that isn’t what Shyamalan was going for.
Best: The chilling nostalgia of Clarice
CBS used the Super Bowl to push a lot of its own content, both new and returning, but apart from The Equalizer, which was premiering immediately after the game, no upcoming CBS show was pushed harder than Clarice, the original drama spinning off from the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs. We got a number of short teasers, but most interesting was the full-length Clarice Super Bowl trailer, which essentially takes 60 seconds to vividly re-tell the story of FBI Agent Clarice Starling and her murdered lambs. Re-establishing Clarice in the minds of viewers is exceptionally important. While she appears in the sequel, Hannibal, the franchise as a whole has generally been far more interested in the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter than in Clarice, and linking the new version to her most famous piece of dialogue is a brilliant way of bringing her back into the consciousness of the viewer and emphasizing that she, not Lecter, is the star of this show. It’s even more important when you consider that, due to rights issues, CBS can’t actually use the Lecter character, most recently seen starring in his own show on NBC.
It’s also no coincidence that the trailer is full of death’s head moths, or that one lands on Clarice’s lips at the end, evoking the iconic poster for The Silence of the Lambs. If CBS wanted us to remember that movie and why we cared about Clarice Starling, while also being extremely creepy, mission accomplished.
Worst: Coming 2 America needs more jokes
The question of whether the world needed a "30 years later" sequel to Coming to America is far too philosophically intricate to be answered here. But a sequel is happening, and the Coming 2 America trailer that aired during the Super Bowl, unfortunately, left a few things to be desired. As entertaining as it absolutely will be to watch Eddie Murphy reprise his old role as Akeem Joffer, former prince and now king of the fictional nation of Zamunda, we’re slightly worried about both the number and the quality of the jokes presented in the trailer. For all intents and purposes, there are two jokes, one about mistaking Zamunda for the much better-known Wakanda and another about dodging child support. Neither exactly land, possibly because they don’t really involve Murphy, who spends the entire trailer delivering exposition. The overall effect is that the trailer just isn’t funny, and we’re left wondering how representative of the overall film it will ultimately prove to be.
To be fair, "hero of a 1998 romantic comedy has returned to America to find his son so that he can become crown prince of a fictional country" is a big concept to be squeezing into a 30-second Super Bowl trailer (hence the exposition), so there might not have been room for very many jokes. And hopefully the jokes are better when Murphy is delivering them. But if Coming 2 America is good, then it’s also not well-represented by this trailer.
Best: Nobody is how you sell a movie
Where Coming 2 America turns a complicated premise into an ineffective trailer, the trailer for Nobody takes a simplistic idea and elevates it into something interesting. Nobody appears to be your standard "normal guy has a secret dark past which is coming for him, so now he’s a death machine" movie, in the same vein as Taken and John Wick (in fact, it’s written by John Wick writer Derek Kolstad, who is also a member of the writing team for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, just to bring this full circle). But while that concept is a dime a dozen, the Super Bowl trailer for Nobody is so well-edited that, after watching it, it’s easy to suddenly be excited about the movie. Not only does Hutch Mansell’s opening dialogue about making lasagna link up metaphorically with the images of his character’s past flashing across the screen, but the boilerplate "I used to work for some very dangerous people" monologue is subverted before it can even get going when Hutch’s daughter reveals the villains’ most devious crime: "They stole my kitty cat bracelet." Bob Odenkirk’s subsequent delivery of "Give me the kitty cat bracelet!" was more entertaining than most of the Super Bowl.
And by the end, we’re right back to lasagna, because the trailer for Nobody has — of all things for a trailer to have — a structurally sound narrative. We have no idea if Nobody is any good, but now we desperately want to see it.