EnderThinking It: Marketing, Morality and Trailer #2

What does the marketing campaign for “Ender’s Game” tell us about how the movie will tackle the central moral dilemma of the story? And what’s with the “Starship Trooper”-esque commercials?

Since we last checked in on the Ender’s Game, due November 1, there’s been a lot to talk about. Like many blockbusters these days, Ender’s Game has been marketed across all conceivable platforms. There’s been of course the usual – trailers and posters. There’s been Comic-Con appearances. Social media. And of course, a number of different websites. On top of all of of that, there’s been some controversy as well. Today, I want to look at what the marketing campaign and “buzz” can tell us about the movie itself, the larger storytelling project, and the movie-making industry.

Web Marketing: Now without nuance!

First, I want to talk about all of the non-traditional marketing campaigns that Ender’s Game has been working. Two primary websites have been set up, and have been hyped through the Ender’s Game Movie official twitter account: if-sentinel.com and if-battleschool.com (which now redirects to the Lionsgate social media page).


I’ll start by just observing that the “IF Sentinel” website is a frustrating blend of diagetic and non-diagetic elements. In certain parts, it’s trying to look like a real-world website for the actual “International Fleet” that features in Ender’s Game. It has “Recruitment Videos” and such that make it look like the real IF website might look. But in others, the website has the actual movie poster and links to the trailer. It can’t quite decide if it wants to be a movie-website or a fake-website. Nothing else really to say about that, but boy does it bug me.

My problem is this: the entire social media campaign thus far has also pretty much entirely straight-faced about the entire war against the Buggers. As I hope we will be able to get into in great detail over the next few months, Ender’s Game is a fairly nuanced book. While the prose is relatively simply, it looks at any number of issues with a critical eye. Most particularly, the book has a lot to say about the military mind and the ethics of a battle fought for life-and-death stakes. And it doesn’t really have any easy answers.

For instance, my copy of Ender’s Game, the mass market paperback, has a review on the front cover that calls the book a “scathing indictment of the military mind.” On the other hand, Ender’s Game regularly features on the Navy and Marine Corps “Professional Reading List” as a useful guide for young leaders. And I’m not sure either one of those things is based on a misinterpretation of the book.

The marketing department for Ender’s Game, on the other hand, sees “Shiny space lasers.” Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to it, but for a book that is deeply committed to examining the moral and social costs of a war for survival, the marketing campaign seems to take the argument for the war at face value: there’s no sign whatsoever that the campaign is “in” on the joke. Take the following “infographic” from the IF-Sentinel website:


In the book, there’s a world-wide ban on people having third children, in order to prevent overpopulation. But as the book unfolds, that policy is far from unquestioned – Ender himself is a Third, and at one point Valentine writes an impassioned screed against the policy. But when it gets to the marketing department, it just becomes propaganda.

Go take a look at this recruitment “videos” created from the website:

Now go take a look at the brilliant and underappreciated “Would you like to know more?” videos from Starship Troopers:

The two bear a striking resemblance – which does not bode well for the Ender’s Game marketing.

For those new to these Overthinking parts, Starship Troopers is NOT, as you’ve been led to believe, a schlocky 90s action movie. OK, it’s not JUST a schlocky 90s action movie. Starship Troopers is ALSO a surprisingly effective screed against the allure of military propaganda – those “Would you like to know more?” videos are SUPPOSED to look facile and silly. We’re supposed to react NEGATIVELY to the heavy-handed attempt to manipulate us. I’m not so sure that the marketing department at Ender’s Game was going for the same effect (and seriously, guys, is this a movie ad or a propaganda movie? Pick a fourth-wall and stick with it).

The book, on the other hand, is much closer to the Starship Troopers movie- just because we’re “rooting” for the guys with the propaganda vids doesn’t mean that we’re not supposed to question it. Both properties hold a mirror up to an Earth that is dominated by a military government combating a distant alien menace and asks: “Is that really what we want? What choices will we be forced to make?” In the unnuanced world of 140 characters and viral marketing, that question becomes “Isn’t this awesome?”

While I’m hoping that the movie will feature some eye-popping action sequences, I will be sorely disappoint if it doesn’t ALSO focus on the complicated ethical and psychological issues at play in the book. For all of these questions, the social-media marketing has essentially substitutes “Explosions and awesomeness!”

Of course, none of this is exactly revelatory. It’s not uncontroversial or novel to point out that Hollywood marketing is tin-eared and scatter-shot on the best of days. The real question is to what extent the marketing reflects what we can expect to see in the movie itself. My sense is that the social-media campaign around a movie is the bottom-rung of the advertising ladder where artistic integrity is concerned. I strongly suspect that the creative minds behind the actual film (Orson Scott Card, Gavin Hood, etc.) had very little to do with the creation or even approval of the website, Facebook campaign, etc.

The trailer, on the other hand, is probably a much better way of telling what the actual movie will be like. If I’m to have any hope that the movie will dive deep into the moral and psychological issues at the heart of Ender’s Game, let’s look to the newest trailer, which hit the web on Tuesday.

While I like to think we were the first to play “Spot the Trailer Trope” with Ender’s Game, this trailer is equally heavy in sci-fi trailer clichés, substituting Inception’s “braaaahm” for some quasi-operatic singing in the background. But what can we tell about the plot of the movie, and how much of the philosopical meat will remain on the bone?

The first thing I’ve noticed about both trailers is the heavy emphasis on the human vs. Bugger battles  in space as opposed to the child vs. child Battle School “Games” – without counting, I’d say there is 2 or 3 times as many shots of Ender commanding the Fleet than there is of Ender commanding his Dragon Army. This is a major inversion from the books, where the Battle Room is the centerpiece and driving story device. The space battles get considerable less “page-time,” with large portions of it basically covered in the book equivalent of a montage. While I can see why they choose to use the flashy pew-pew of a space battle in the trailer, I’m REALLY hoping that the Battle Room is still front and center, because it’s what makes Ender’s Game not just Another Damned Space Movie.

More of this please.

More of this please.

With that in mind, I’m worried about the notable absence of one character in the trailer and marketing of the film: Bonzo Madrid and the other bullies of Battle School. Without spoiling too much, Ender faces threats that are much closer to home than just the aliens. His escalating conflict with one of the other boys at Battle School culminates in what is arguably the emotional and psychological core of the story. The character of Bonzo requires Graff and Ender to make choices that are crucial to the moral project of the entire book – Ender’s Game just doesn’t work without Bonzo, and it DEFINITELY doesn’t work with the Battle Room.

This goes hand-in-hand with what I was talking about earlier – that the movie, at least based on what we’ve seen so far, seems almost entirely unwilling to accept that the military fighting the Buggers might NOT be perfectly moral/ethical beings; that the choices that have to be made to win such a war might have horrible consequences. At the very least, we should be taking the justifications given by Graff, Mazer and even Ender with a grain of salt. This was almost completely lacking from the first trailer, and in the first minute or so of this most recent trailer (which says, in I think 5 DIFFERENT ways, that Ender is “The One.”

This second trailer, or at least the second minute of it, starts to introduce the idea that maybe what’s being done to and by Ender isn’t the best:

Mazer: “You should tell him the truth.”

Graff: “Why?”


Mazer: “He’s abandoning his fleet.”

Graff: “He’s in command.”


Anderson: “What will be left of the boy?”

Graff: “Who cares, if nothing is left.”

I like those quotes because they illustrate that there’s going to be a moral cost in fighting the war. Lies will be told, fleets will be abandoned and this “boy” is going to be damaged by what he has to do. All in service of the war against the Buggers. This is one of the central themes of the book and I’m glad to see it rearing it’s head a little bit in the trailers – even if it’s mostly surrounded by lens flares and explosions. 

I’ll finish by observing that the scale of the marketing campaign has come (to me, at least) as something of a surprise, based on both the release date and the nature of the franchise. First of all, Ender’s Game is being released November 1 – while not exactly a dumping ground for movies, that time of year is obviously well outside the summer blockbuster season while still being too early to position itself for the Christmas rush.

Additionally, it’s being released a mere three weeks before Lionsgate’s OTHER major kids-killing-other-kids property, The Hunger Games. One would think that the studio would want to avoid cannibalization between the two properties, but there must be synergies or other considerations I don’t appreciate here.

More importantly, I’m surprised that Ender’s Game, regardless of release date, is getting as much up-front investment as it has. For a property like The Avengers, with a virtually unlimited pool of stories to tell, or even like The Hunger Games, which will ultimately be four movies, marketing for the FIRST film pays for itself over a much longer period – an ad that tips the scale and gets a person to see Hunger Games 1 goes a long way towards getting them to also shell out for Hunger Games 2-4.

Ender’s Game, to put it lightly, has a sequel problem. While the “Ender-verse” is relatively massive with more than a dozen novels, many of them are outright un-filmable. For those not familiar, the “primary” sequels in the Speaker for the Dead trilogy are completely different from Ender’s Game, losing the Battle School entirely and choosing instead to consist mostly of people taking to each other and discovering the deep philosophical truths about a new species of alien life. There are no lasers, no space battles, etc.

The other “Trilogy” of sequels takes place on Earth after the end of Ender’s Game – and consists of a massive world-spanning war which features Russia, India, China and Muslim world invading each other and being invaded in turn. I find it difficult to imagine that going very far in the modern era of movies, where foreign-market appeal is every bit as important as the domestic one.

The only “sequel” that even HAS a space battle in it is Ender’s Shadow, which takes place over the same period of time as Ender’s Game. ES is a “parallel novel” that tells the same story but from the perspective of one of Ender’s friends, Bean. Again, I would love to see an Ender’s Shadow movie, but I’ve yet to see Bean even mentioned in the promotional materials, so it strikes me as unlikely any one is planning on an Ender’s Shadow sequel.

So all that is a long way of saying I’m surprised at the level of investment in building Ender’s Game as a franchise – even if Ender’s Game is massively successful, it’s still only ONE massively successful movie. Of course, none of this is a COMPLAINT that Ender’s Game is getting the love from Lionsgate’s marketing department, and I don’t make or finance movies for a living, so maybe there’s something I’m not seeing here.

One final note – there’s been some controversy over Orson Scott Card’s views over homosexuality. Suffice to say that discussing gay marriage is way, way outside my mandate in this article and Overthinking It’s mandate generally. I may have some things to say later about the broader questions of authorial intent, the death of the author, etc. For now, I’ll just note that I strongly disagree with Mr. Card on any number of political issues, including his views on homosexuality and gay marriage, but feel comfortable enjoying his works of fiction.

In the meantime, stay tuned, we (Ok, I) will be rolling out a lot of analysis and commentary as we get closer to November 1.

13 Comments on “EnderThinking It: Marketing, Morality and Trailer #2”

  1. AJ #

    November is a huge release market for big movies, just like May is part of the summer release schedule even though it’s not really summer yet. The first four Harry Potter’s all opened mid-November. Thor opens mid-November. Hunger Games just filled the opening weekend all the Twilight films held.

    November first is a little bit of an early jump, but with Hunger Games, Thor and The Hobbit (in Dec) it makes sense that they’d want to get out ahead of the other big releases that season.


  2. Anton Sirius #

    Ben, I think you nailed it with the Starship Troopers comparison, and not just with regard to the marketing. That second trailer looks like ST without the weapons-grade satire, and that’s a movie I have exactly zero interest in seeing.

    The only faint hope I have is that the scene at the lake is still there, and that sequence would have little emotional or narrative reason for existing unless Ender was struggling with what he’d done at the School, and with the confrontation between him and Bonzo. But I fear I’m giving the movie too much credit…


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      Yeah, I was thinking the same thing – the scene at the lake is very much about doubt in the war and the “soldier” that Ender has become. Valentine’s “If you don’t try” speech (which has a snippet in the trailer) only makes sense in that context as well.


  3. Sixth Monarchist #

    The marketing onslaught is probably:

    1. To counteract the bad PR of Orson Scott-Card himself, and
    2. To deal with Thor: The Dark World. Said film is likely to slaughter the film’s second weekend, which makes the first weekend crucial.


  4. Jamas Enright #

    You are making one assumption about potential sequels that may not hold. Look at the Bourne movies. They are all basically within the ideas set up in the first book, they don’t really go on to the others. (So I’m told by a Bourne fan.)

    Nothing says they have to continue to movie-ise the books, they could just spin out their own continuity with more space battles, etc.


  5. Simber #

    Two observations: The budget of this movie is about 100 million. Quite a lot of money, but movies like World War Z, Star Trek Into Darkness or Man of Steel cost double that amount. And in the first trailer every actor was announced with their Oscar cred. When Harrison Ford is introduced as ‘Academy Award Nominee’, there’s something going on.
    My guess is that this script was considered too challenging for a summer blockbuster (and it is an extremely full summer), so they set it up as Oscar bait and with the blunt August marketing they’re trying to get the kids excited. Don’t write this movie off too soon, it might be pretty interesting.


  6. Jasin #

    Call me a naive optimist when it comes to Hollywood, but I’m still hoping its all going to work out.

    When I was 12, the synopsis of the book “kid genius, battles in space” got me to read it, and the nuances of emotions and politics were an amazing surprise. I imagine this is pretty common for most middle schoolers who don’t seek out books with taglines “lots of emotional turmoil and difficult questions about politics”.

    Hopefully the movie works the same way for people unfamiliar with the books and gives that same sort of surprise. Come for the exploding spaceships you saw in the trailers, stay for the drama.


  7. Dan in Canada #

    As someone who has probably read Ender’s Game 25 or 30 times, I’ve pretty much been forcing myself to have NO expectations AT ALL, because I feel so much like I’m going to be disappointed.

    My issues with Starship Troopers are also logged on this site (tl;dr The movie -was- in fact terrible schlock b-movie action, the book was better in ways that can’t even be described, NPH was the only saving grace) and the idea that they’ve “starship trooped” this movie is hugely disappointing.

    I’ve been waiting for Ender’s Game to be a film since Haley Joel Osmond would have been the best choice for Ender, and everything I’ve seen has just been making me more and more upset. I mean, can you just STOP showing the frigging climax of the whole novel in every single thing you produce? Why is that a good idea?

    I guess I’m going to have to just hope the previews are a trap? That the mindless action and bollocks are just there to rope in the same kind of people who would have thought “Eaters of the Dead” would be about zombies, or that “Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone” would be about philosophy? But if that is so, won’t those people be disappointed that pretty much 100% of the space battles have already been shown in previews?


    • Tracy #

      I know I’m super-late to this party, but as someone who’s read the books, the way the trailer shows the climax really gets to me. I wonder what it’s like for people who haven’t read that scene (and its denoument). Anybody?


  8. Dan Not In Canada #

    Maybe I was too old when I read Ender’s Game. I was 15 or so, and compared to the staple diet of golden-age (and spinoffs) sci fi I’d been mostly reading until then, I found it unpleasant and sterile. Also, given the author’s presently known homophobic bias, the business with the naked boys retrospectively give me the creeps.

    What does Ender’s Game have to say about war that hasn’t been said better by Haldeman and Heinlein, and without the creepy elements?


    • KosherHam013 #

      Who cares about his homophobic bias to be honest. His books are good and make you think, that’s what matters. As for naked boys, in a giant space station if your going to murder someone who is constantly being watched, where else would you do it? You cant break into his room and he is always surrounded by people. So its either in a shower where no body on that station has a problem with nudity since they are in the military mindset or it’s when he is sitting on the toilet. I think we should all just be concerned that the movie will be nothing but action (still cool) but will leave us shaking our heads because it will leave out so much of the content that made the book amazing.


  9. jama #

    excellent points. However, you must be a true optimist hoping this movie will be anything other than complete and utter crap, I mean come on…


    • Ben Adams OTI Staff #

      I am, in fact, an optimist. Maybe CAUTIOUSLY optimistic. Briefly, I’ll justify why:

      1. The casting has been pretty much great. All the actors are top-notch, and well suited to their roles. I’m a little skeptical that Asa Butterfield can properly show off the “Holy-crap Ender just killed somebody” switch, but we’ll see.

      2. Some of the production reports make me think that the Battle Room will actually look great. Apparently they used Cirque de Soleil performers for a lot of the stunts, and actually had a lot of the shots using real people on wires, which is important – the amount I like the Battle Room will probably be closely proportional the amount of CGI they use to animate the kids. (The backgrounds – OK; computers can do backgrounds. They aren’t quite out of the uncanny valley when it comes to humans, least of all humans that are supposed to be doing all sorts of acrobatics).

      3. Various people associated with the movie have promised that the movie’s ending has been preserved from the book. This could, of course, be references to one of two different things, or both, and that’s pretty much the key to the movie – if the ending isn’t done well, the whole thing falls apart.

      4. Lionsgate is the production company. While not a slam dunk by any means, my sense is that they are better than most at producing good adaptations – Hunger Games coming to mind most particularly. Not perfect by any means (shaky cam, I’m looking at you), but THG was a pretty enjoyable movie. If Ender’s Game is as good an adaptation as The Hunger Games, I’ll be a happy guy.


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