The internet, in its collective wisdom, has mostly decided that 2016’s big superhero event movie “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” has a not-so-great title. As negative as the reaction was, this Frankenstein’s monster of a title is completely in line with what studios have set as the standard for naming big budget movies.
But as we’ve learned time and again, a title can cement a movie’s fate even before it hits theaters, and even though a great film can transcend a bad title, it’s often the first (and sometimes only) impression people have of any potential blockbuster.
That being said, Hollywood studios have mostly given up on creative titles in favor of brand recognition and buzz words, and in light of “Batman V Superman,” I thought I’d assemble a guide to naming movies based on straightforward rules to help everyone avoid the bland, the over-punctuated and the numbered.
Colons: Only When Absolutely Necessary
Examples: “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “The Raid: Redemption” (internationally known as “The Raid”), “Precious: Based on the Novel ’Push’ by Sapphire”
Sadly, colon overuse isn’t just a sequel problem anymore. Maybe there’s just too much information to fit into one phrase. Sometimes the format is simply used to get the point across that this is a “Movie: Potential Blockbuster Series Rising.” Either way, there’s almost always a better option. The best usages of a colon make statements about the films that are different than the first portion, but just as important.
Exceptions: “Team America: World Police,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”
Use. Punctuation. Sparingly.
Examples: “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” “(500) Days of Summer”
When a movie includes punctuation, it’s never a question of whether the public will acknowledge the period or comma. (They won’t.) Good title punctuation is all about saying something, as long as that statement isn’t “Aren’t I clever!”
Exceptions: “Adaptation.”, “Airplane!”
Simple. It’s Not Always Better
Examples: “Blended,” “Abduction,” “Lawless” (originally “The Wettest County in the World”
There’s obviously something to be said for brevity. Short titles are simpler and, in theory, easier to remember, but a small word count should never come at the cost of distinctiveness. Does the title “Blended” communicate that it’s about a blended family? Without seeing a trailer, the word has a stronger connotation to food and kitchen appliances.
Exceptions: “Gravity,” “Drive,” “Moon”
Series Recognition Not Required
Examples: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon”
This one goes part and parcel with colon usage, but that annoying piece of punctuation is only a crutch for the underlying problem. It is possible for audiences to recognize a sequel even when the original’s title isn’t stapled onto the front. Once they see that Jennifer Lawrence is shooting a bow and arrow in “Catching Fire,” the connection to “Hunger Games” is understood. There’s no need to clutter the marquee with hand-holding callbacks.
Exceptions: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”
Parts and Episodes – Vol. 1
Examples: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” “The Twilight Saga – Breaking Dawn – Part 1″
What began as a trend with “Harry Potter” and “The Twilight Saga” is now an assumption when it comes to YA adaptation series. But instead of coming up with a new title for the extra installment, studios just slap on “Part 1″ or “Part 2″ onto the end. It might sound like blasphemy, but would it really have been a crime if “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2″ became “Harry Potter and the Battle of Hogwarts”? With “The Godfather: Part 2,” the title communicates that Michael Corleone’s story doesn’t end with his transformation into a crime boss. That is only the start of a contained, finite narrative. “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” are already segmented; we don’t need yet another breakdown.
Exceptions: “The Godfather: Part 2,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1″
Look to the Source
Examples: “Man of Steel”
When adapting popular characters and stories will long histories in media outside of film, there’s bound to be a title that work somewhere in the source material, whether it’s a chapter or a nickname for the character. It’s what gave us “The Dark Knight.” But when a title’s main defense is “It’s from the book,” maybe consider revising. Sorry, Bilbo.
Exceptions: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”
Don’t Reply On ’Cool’ Words
Examples: “Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”
Based on their output I have feeling producers would flip over title-only pitches like “The Shadow American,” “Bad Redemption” and “Black Company Rising.” These are obviously evocative words that hint at something mysterious and interesting inside the theater or Blu-ray case, but their ubiquity is leading to self-parody. I mean, later this month you can see a movie called “Age Of Uprising: The Legend Of Michael Kohlhaas.” These words can be a part of great titles, but they can’t make up the whole thing.
Exceptions: “There Will Be Blood”
Obvious Isn’t Obligatory
Examples: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Inception,” “Under the Skin”
One of the greatest sins in naming a film is to hold an audience’s hand. A movie about cowboys and aliens doesn’t have to be called “Cowboys & Aliens.” Sometimes, with the right combination of words, the title can be utterly confusing to the average person watching a trailer, but still resonate thematically and stick out as something memorable. Not only does “Zero Dark Thirty” sound really, really cool, it’s another way of saying 12:30 a.m., the time of the assault on bin Laden’s compound. Now that’s a title!
Exceptions: “Catfish,” “The Constant Gardener”
A Good Movie Is A Trump Card
In the end if the movie is good enough, none of this matters that much. People are willing to forgive pretty much any title as long as the movie is great, and the same ultimately applies to “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Check out any list of the worst movie titles of all time, and for the most part, you’ll see the names of a bunch of really bad films. So all is not lost for the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel, no matter what Twitter tells you.