08 September 2021 1662 Views


by James Murphy



It’s been six and a half years or so since I started doing this. And I remember that one of the simultaneous selling points and drawbacks when the acquisition happened was they word, ‘viral’. The term remains pervasive in our culture so it makes sense to have invested in a site which harnesses that association.

But yes, I won’t lie. Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch to work in ‘viral’ references. As one determined critic put it ‘they don’t cover anything viral anymore..maybe it should just be called movie movie’. Fair point, made poorly imho but taken, nonetheless. Did movie studios shut down all ‘viral’ campaigns? No. They actively court it, still. It’s just done differently.

Rather than create many fake sites and mini movies etc, it’s all bout making something catchy. The ‘viral’ quality is simply in a clip, tagline, image etc that catches on and gets shared a lot. Like a shadowy organisation in a film: it’s there but not there! 

BATMAN is a brand which in effect started the viral trend in all its iterations. The 1989 movie launched with a hastily cut trailer to get the message out there that this was a darker take and Michael Keaton was not playing this for laughs. There followed a simple image poster. JUST the Bat symbol. Nothing else. That logo caught on, everywhere: It OWNED  summer 1989! And it is a wonderful piece of art in itself, with many people stealing the poster from bus shelters etc to adorn student bedroom walls. Simplicity = genius!

But you cannot capture the magic twice. 1992’s BATMAN RETURNS had no idea what to do with its initial poster. An outline of Batman’s head mask was released, with the subtitle ‘Returns’. It did not work. Even Bob Kane hated it. So Warners took it down, opting for a snow covered monochrome take on the ’89 poster, with the tagline: ‘The Bat. The Cat. The Penguin‘.

That was followed by full character poster and the usual McDonald’s /other tie ins. Except those went ‘viral’ in a nastier sense. The virus was one of revulsion at the film’s unsuitability for kids c/o bile spewing Penguin and kinky Catwoman. In retrospect, there is little more offensive in the second Bat-film than its predecessor. Remember that Jack’s Joker threw acid in peoples’ faces and wanted to kill everyone. Both are ‘dark’ but the first film had better marketing. It’s that simple, imho.

BATMAN FOREVER in 1995 was more cautious. They did not expect it to hit as big as it did and its underdog status arguably helped in securing sponsors, last minute, at a bargain. The market research was worked into the pre production, including seeking fan opinion at comic cons on who should play various characters and securing approbation on design plans.

The key visual poster motif was yet again a teasing image of the bat symbol inside a question mark, with two colours indicating Batman would be up against both the Riddler and Two-Face. Mystery boosted curiosity, especially as this was a kind of soft reboot, with new and then upcoming cast and rumours of revolutionary effects and make-up tests being deployed.

Attaching the teaser before showings of   Jim Carrey’s DUMB AND DUMBER helped both movies’ progress, especially in a pre YouTube era whereby one had to visit the cinema to see a new trailer. Success ensued: a $50 million opening weekend which at the time, was the biggest ever.

BATMAN AND ROBIN was the inevitable 4th film: overkill. Too much, too soon, just two years after the previous movie hit big. The franchise burned out and the marketing had become liability over asset. ‘Toyetic’ was a new word driving the designs (basically: can the set/gadget etc be a toy?) and took priority away from things like character and plot. We know what happened next. Though the movie did not, contrary to lore, ‘flop’, it did underperform and the critical and fan backlash put the series on ‘ice’ (yes, I know..) for almost a decade afterwards.

Perhaps in a cautious reaction to the 1997 setback, Chris Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS was launched with relatively little fanfare. Consequently, the film underperformed in 2005. Yes, it did! It was a hit, of course. But by no means the billion dollar level of power enjoyed by its sequels. Perhaps people were cautious? Understandable. And it was a crowded summer.

Warners would have been within rights to pull the plug again but they were pleased on the whole with this and its potential. Unlike 2006’s SUPERMAN RETURNS whose sequels were all cancelled because that movie’s box office, though neither far greater nor smaller than Batman’s reboot, had cost far more to develop over many false starts.

So we were given 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT and though that film dispensed with certain accessories (no comic book adaptation?) which grossed a billion and reinvented what we now think of as ‘viral’ media.

Countless fake, in universe Gotham City websites were set up. Newspapers, political campaign clips, a Joker gang recruitment. It generated hype and appeased fans anxious for every nugget of news. This was a chance to immerse yourself in the movie’s world, long before the official release. WHY SO SERIOUS? Genius!

There were even some ‘easter eggs’ which hinted at possible use of other bat-villains which sadly Nolan did not pick up on subsequently. The ‘Ice Lounge‘ was advertised (Penguin’s Bar: Philip Seymour Hoffman was rumoured to take that part) and riddles set out in the online Gotham news (Riddler: Warners would have been up for Leo DiCaprio assuming that role).

Viral media MADE The Dark Knight a success. Or at least, it helped the cause. So naturally, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES followed that method. From the star of filming in 2011 through to release in 2012, there was a heavy online presence of teasers and clues etc.

Hans Zimmer released the DESHI BASARA chant as the image of Bane was assembled, albeit just a glimpse of his back/mask. It sent the message that this would be an epic clash to the death, perhaps, with a physical force of nature. A teaser was attached to HARRRRYYY pottttter’s last film, over a YEAR before ‘Rises’ was due out.

The whole intro was played in IMAX format, attached to MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE-GHOST PROTOCOL. But what was clear was that the word ‘viral’ was becoming less specific and more generic: a description of aim and outcome rather than method for marketing.

Nowadays, Batman lets the internet do his marketing for him: bit like Musk /Bezos! But there is still buzz via hype, teasers, trailers, teasers for trailers and trailers for teasers. Social media takes care of the sharing and hence the ‘viral’ dimension is quite literal as in catching on, fast and measuring whether your film will live or die commercially. BATMAN is more active than ever on that score: appearing next year in both THE BATMAN and THE FLASH.

The caped crusader /dark knight is still a valid, vibrant and yes, a ‘viral’ brand. Long may that continue! 



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