Not long after a pair of excellent new trailers for Spider-Man: Homecoming landed online, Sony and Marvel unveiled a poster for the film, showcasing nearly everyone in the principal cast. It is, to say the least, crowded. Peter Parker, Tony Stark, and the Vulture appear twice; poor Marisa Tomei is a tiny floating head at the bottom right; and the background features fireworks, lasers, the Manhattan skyline and the Washington Monument.
It didn’t take long for fans and critics to roast the poster on Twitter:
I’ll be honest: I tried to improve the very busy SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING poster, and I no longer know where the original ends and mine begins pic.twitter.com/Sazywe9gwh
— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) May 24, 2017
That the poster looks busy and amateurish may only be one part of its larger problem. According to illustrator and designer Tommy Lee Edwards, the larger issue may be that the poster doesn’t even look like it was ready to see the light of day — and that studios worry less about whether or not the posters they release meet a bar of quality.
“In a way,” Edwards tells The Verge, “that Spider-Man poster almost looks like, ‘Here’s a bunch of references I got from the movie. Let’s put it all together and see how it looks.’ From there, you might be inspired to do a real poster. Instead, they just stopped at that point. It just looks like it’s not even finished.”
Edwards has worked as an illustrator and concept artist for 20 years, having done design work and style guides for movies like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Superman Returns. He’s also worked extensively with LucasFilm, designing posters, children’s books, and advertising for Star Wars. As such, he’s incredibly familiar with what the new Homecoming poster was going for, even if it failed.
Edwards believes it’s possible to make great posters that employ lots of elements from a film. Posters are allowed to be busy, so long as the final product reflects the craft and care that went into the source material.
“A movie is something that so many people work so hard on for so long,” he says. “I feel like the poster should honor that time and love that went into this piece of art. If a poster can show what that movie is about, rather than a big actor’s head, I think that’s a really important thing. So the genre, the tone, the kind of story. Not every poster has to be a montage of elements, but when you do those kinds of posters, they can be done really, really well.”
To Edwards’ mind, a perfect example of the kind of poster that’s crowded but still effective is the late Bob Peak’s poster for My Fair Lady. “It captures the feeling of the film, but stands alone as its own piece of art,” he says. “You could stare at it for hours.”
Peak, who died in 1992, worked at a time when posters were more valuable for both the marketing and the artistic value of a film. Today, however, the poster is just one small piece of a larger campaign that spans social media, YouTube, and movie theaters. As a result, committees, instead of illustrators, will mandate how an image is created. Without an eye for composition, color, and mood, they may instead focus on whose head ought to be biggest. And that, according to Edwards, is exactly what happened here.
None of this is to say that good posters aren’t being made today. (I still think the Spider-Man: Homecoming poster of Peter wearing headphones in costume is a great example of an image that speaks to the tone of the movie it’s advertising.) Meanwhile, specialty outfits like Mondo have managed to keep the old-school design ethos alive. Still, Edwards says he’s “waiting for the pendulum to swing back” toward design work that makes for better movie advertising that’s artful instead of lazy and perfunctory.
As Edwards put it: “If people really don’t care about the poster and they’re gonna see [the film] anyway, what’s the harm in doing a really amazing work of art that theaters will hang up proudly in their cinemas? That fans will buy and hang on their walls? It’s a whole other market to have.”