The best San Diego Comic-Con movie trailer debuts ever

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Perhaps no single event on the annual calendar is more closely associated with trailer drops than San Diego Comic-Con. As it has become more and more prominent, Comic-Con has become known for teases for all things adjacent to nerd culture, including fantasy films, sci-fi TV shows, and even the occasional video game.

Now it’s true that, in the end, trailers are often just pieces of marketing. They’re designed to get you excited about projects that may not ultimately be as good as the advertising for them would make them seem. Even so, being excited about new things is one of the great joys of being alive, and that’s doubly true when it comes to those looking forward to whatever is coming down the pike in the nerdiest corners of pop culture. These are the best trailers to ever debut at Comic-Con because sometimes looking forward to a thing is better than the thing itself.

Black Panther — 2017

Perhaps no film has lived up to the massive hype surrounding it better than Black Panther, which became a box office sensation the second it hit theaters. The movie debuted its first full trailer at Comic-Con, along with footage from the casino fight that fans of the movie are now very familiar with. The trailer debut built nicely off of the teaser that had been released a month earlier and received a standing ovation when it was shown in Hall H.

The trailer wasn’t actually released to the public until a few months afterward, but it perfectly encapsulates what would make Black Panther one of the definitive entries in the Marvel canon. Although it fairly cleverly obscures who the film’s real villain is, the futuristic tech, distinctly African feel, and smart cultural commentary all come to the surface in the trailer, which only helped build further excitement for the film itself.

Man of Steel — 2012

Although the movie itself was much more divisive, the exclusive trailer for Man of Steel that premiered at Comic-Con in 2012 left many people sure that Superman was back in a big way. This was before he’d fought Batman, and before we even knew exactly what Henry Cavill’s version of the character would be like. All we had was an incredible score, some truly haunting narration from Kevin Costner, and lots and lots of vibes to go on.

The Man of Steel trailer is one of the best pieces of marketing ever created, perfectly encapsulating what everyone was hoping Zack Snyder’s take on the character would be like. Serious, but in a distinctly Superman-y way, and filled with the kind of grandeur that only a great movie about America’s oldest superhero can provide.

Top Gun: Maverick — 2019

The teaser for Maverick dropped at SDCC in 2019, introduced by Tom Cruise himself in Hall H, and it has even more historical significance given that the movie business — and the world — was about to turn upside down (not unlike ol’ Mav doing trick flying in his F-18.) The teaser advertises the film as hitting theaters in 2020, but of course, we all know how that turned out. The only new Cruise material we got during that time was the leaked tantrum of him dressing down the Mission Impossible crew for not respecting COVID protocols.

The trailer itself doesn’t give away much. It’s little more than a few shots of planes over the desert, Maverick on a motorcycle, and his pithy exchange with the admiral played by Ed Harris in which Maverick tells him that, while the world may change eventually, it won’t’ be while Tom Cruise can still do really impressive stunt work and look several decades younger.

The teaser itself only looks so-so. It doesn’t quite seem to justify making a sequel to a film from 35 years earlier. Given that, as well as the constantly changing release dates over the course of the pandemic, it was hard to imagine that Maverick would not become one of the all-time biggest box office hits, but be a pretty darned good movie as well.

Star Trek: Discovery — 2017

The big deal here was that Star Trek hadn’t been on television in almost a decade and a half, since the middling Enterprise unceremoniously concluded a great era for Star Trek on television that included The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. Discovery was meant to return Star Trek to the medium where it not only had great success, but where some felt it belonged, pointing to the blockbuster J.J. Abrams Star Trek films as evidence that the more dialogue-driven realm of TV better captured the philosophical Star Trek ethos.

Discovery had been a troubled production, with showrunner Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) departing, and Trekkers were not thrilled by the fact that the new show would be behind the CBS All Access paywall. But the trailer was well-received and the Star Trek faithful were happy to see the show make good on its progressive traditions, casting an African American woman as the lead (Sonequa Martin-Green), and a legendary Asian star (Michelle Yeoh) as the show’s captain.

The results have been uneven, with Discovery’s first few seasons earning mixed reviews, though it seems to have settled into a groove (not uncommon for Star Trek). Rather than flirt with cancellation, as was the case with past Star Trek projects, Paramount went all-in on Star Trek on TV, adding Picard, Lower Decks, Short Treks, Prodigy, and Strange New Worlds to the mix. Star Trek also became a streaming service fixture (now Paramount+), though, after five years of the streaming wars, it’s something we’ve all grown accustomed to. The most recent season of Discovery and the well-received Strange New Worlds appear to forecast a bright future for Trek on TV and it all kicked off at Comic-con.

Justice League — 2016

Given the tumultuous events surrounding the DC Extended Universe, as well as the disappointment many viewers feel about the films (especially compared to the MCU), it’s hard to believe it wasn’t that long ago that fans were fired up about the impending Justice League as a potential rival to The Avengers. At the time, the trailer was hailed as above all things, funny, and the fresh characters, especially Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and The Flash (Ezra Miller), promised loads of fun. And if DCEU shepherd, Zack Snyder, had to be replaced by Joss Whedon, who would object to the contributions of the director of The Avengers and the creator of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

The subsequent years, of course, have seen the production, release, and reboot become one of Hollywood’s messiest sagas, involving fan outrage, tragedies, scandals, the end of one man’s career (Whedon) and the possible end of another’s (Miller). After all the sturm and drang, Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) was only marginally better than Whedon’s version (there are only so many ways to recut mediocre footage). Meanwhile, Snyder keeps making movies and they aren’t getting any better. I’m looking at you, Army of the Dead.

Suicide Squad — 2015

And the DC hits keep on coming (or not, as it were). Another one that fans were psyched about that turned out to be a total shambles (let’s all take a moment and thank Joker and The Batman for basically saving DC at the movies). But at the time, boy oh boy, this movie looked promising, especially at the, ahem, dawn of the DCEU before the unholy mess of Batman v. Superman, which would be released in 2016 a few months before Suicide Squad.

Fans were especially excited about the casting, including Margot Robbie, Will Smith, and even Jared Leto! But even more than that, after the grim Man of Steel (2013) and the exhausting Götterdämmerung of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Suicide Squad seemed to promise a lighter touch and some devilish fun. What it delivered was incoherence, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a huge global hit anyway. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021) and spinoff show, Peacemaker, are, um, leagues better (so many opportunities for puns!), but after this and an underwhelming Birds of Prey (2020), audiences seemed to lose interest.

Mad Max: Fury Road — 2014

And then, occasionally, we get a miracle, a film that not only lives up to its hype but eclipses it — the anti-Suicide Squad. Especially given its famously troubled production, which included floods that hit the Australian Outback where they were filming, no one could possibly guess that Mad Max: Fury Road would be considered one of the greatest movies of all time, and earn 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Director for the visionary George Miller (and win six of them).

But it did look awfully exciting when Warner Bros. gave an exclusive look at the trailer at its Comic-Con presentation before releasing it to the world the next day. No one knew what to expect, but the trailer — screened in Hall H — showed that not only was Miller’s expertise in worldbuilding and action still intact decades after he made the originals but that the technology in creating such spectacle had become utterly jaw-dropping. And that was before fans had any idea that Imperator Furiosa would become one of the great characters in science fiction cinema!

The Fury Road trailer drop was yet another historic moment delivered by Comic-Con, an event that keeps amazing fans with its cosplays, trailer drops, and cast reveals. May they keep on coming for years to come.

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