Blockbuster Blitz

17 years ago, Christopher Nolan changed superhero movies forever — with a commercial

At the 2005 Super Bowl, a trailer for Batman Begins reset expectations for the superhero franchise and redefined the entire genre.

The first trailers for Christopher Nolan’s big Batman reboot barely seemed like a superhero blockbuster at all.

An initial teaser played up the psychological anguish of its protagonist, with Bale intoning, “Fear can be either your ultimate weakness… or your great weapon.” There was no mention of the Dark Knight’s iconic batarangs, let alone an armored tank.

Apart from quick flashes of the cape and cowl at the end, you wouldn’t have guessed you were watching the trailer for the latest entry in a franchise then still recovering from the luridly campy enterprise that put nipples on George Clooney’s Batsuit. This subdued approach continued into subsequent previews that played up the film’s grim, grounded world but left the action mostly off-screen.

Then came Batman BeginsSuper Bowl spot, which, in just 30 seconds, kicked the film’s marketing campaign into high gear — and may have ensured its blockbuster success that summer. Fun, flashy, and action-packed, this trailer doesn’t waste a moment, opening on what would become the film’s most iconic image — bats swarming in darkness as they flap their wings toward the light at the top of a narrow well — while the rousing power of Hans Zimmer’s orchestral score registers almost instantly.

“I seek the means to turn fear against those who prey on the fearful,” murmurs Bale’s Wayne, his resolve equally by audible fatigue, as images flash by that succinctly outline the film’s gritty, character-driven stakes: a warehouse explosion appears to illuminate Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow, masked in a burlap sack, as a horrified young woman (Rachel Dawes, played by Katie Holmes) shields a child from danger, and another masked figure swiftly lands a punch so brutal it punctuates the sequence. Then, with Michael Caine tipping the trailer’s hand — “Master Wayne,” his Alfred says, pointedly, “It’s been a long time” — the teaser breaks into a sprint.

Accompanied by its gnarly tagline, “This Summer, Evil Fears The Knight,” the film’s action sequences are glimpsed in hot flashes, its score skittering along at the same tempo: Batman crashing through obstacles, Bruce barely stopping another man from plummeting off the edge of a snow-capped cliffside, a militarized-looking Batmobile soaring through the air. All these moments communicate a sense of free fall and forward momentum while marveling in the glory of practical stunt work, an intensely physical and immediate art form that complements the film’s more grounded, bare-knuckle aesthetic.

A train careens off its track into the open air, Batman turns his eyes to the sky as if readying to meet it, and he is instead greeted by the film’s graphic logo: a mass of bats forming one larger bat symbol against the skyline. As if tipping its cap to the audience after all this ceremony, Warner Bros. teases one last surprise: a sense of wry, tactical humor, with Bruce enthusiastically test-driving a Tumbler and then asking Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, “Does it come in black?”

“Does it come in black?”Warner Bros.

In dramatic contrast to the film’s previous trailers, which held back, this Super Bowl spot came out swinging, promising that Batman Begins would deliver bruising action and high-octane spectacle to offset its darker, more emotional sensibility. That combination made the film a smash hit — it grossed $371.9 million, a strong haul in a marketplace unaccustomed to superhero movies — and set the tone for Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which would go on to become one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful series in blockbuster history.

With Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson’s new take on the Dark Knight quickly approaching, it’s worth remembering the power of a Batman trailer not just to excite audiences, but to misdirect our expectations until the last possible moment.

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