dark knight wreckage

(Welcome to The Dark Knight Legacy, a series of articles that explore Christopher Nolan’s superhero masterpiece in celebration of its 10th anniversary.)

Seeing Heath Ledger in real life on a Manhattan talk show stage. Dressing up as the Joker for Halloween. Receiving a text from a friend in a parked car the night news of Ledger’s death broke. Dressing up as the Joker again for the movie’s midnight premiere. Seeing the movie eight times in the theater. Driving to Austin that summer and witnessing the world’s largest urban bat colony fly out from under a bridge at dusk.

These are among my own personal experiences with The Dark Knight. I can’t speak for everyone but I’d venture to say there are a lot of other movie news nerds out there with memories related to the film’s development and how it intersected with their own lives from 2007 to 2008. Outside the movie theater, the real-world experience of The Dark Knight was its own kind of adventure: a juggernaut of hype that delivered dark drama and became a billion-dollar cultural phenomenon. This is what it was like to be part of the fan culture at that time, at least for one Batman fanboy who went from being a college dropout to a graduate who now moonlights as a movie blogger.

That Viral Campaign

If you’re a regular reader of this site and you’ve ever taken the time to peruse the History of /Film, then you may have seen where it notes how the site’s readership “started to explode in early 2007.” Going back to 2000–2001 when I was in college in New York, I can certainly remember checking Dark Horizons for movie news in the computer lab at school. This was back when Darren Aronofsky had been hired by Warner Bros. to write and direct Batman: Year One, a reboot that never materialized. Yet for me, my friends, and maybe whoever else contributed to that later explosion of new readership, 2007 really was the year when we started to get drawn into a daily reading cycle on up-and-coming sites like /Film.

A big part of that had to do with The Dark Knight and its perfect storm of hype-building, which was boosted by its trendsetting viral marketing campaign. Anyone who wants to take a trip down memory lane this week as The Dark Knight celebrates its 10th anniversary will find that the timeline of reveals in that viral campaign is still fully documented here on the site in the archives of old posts written by /Film editor and founder Peter Sciretta. All you need to do is search the tag “The-Dark-Knight” and then go back 40+ pages to where it all started with the casting of Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal in the movie.

Produced by 42 Entertainment, a creator of alternate reality games (ARGS), the viral campaign involved “over 11 million unique participants in over 75 countries.” It really upped fan involvement to unprecedented levels and gave the marketing a new interactive aspect whereby we could unlock glimpses of the movie and its fictional universe online. The first official glimpse that we ever got of Heath Ledger’s cut-mouth Joker face was unlocked through a defaced campaign poster for Harvey Dent on a viral site. “I believe in Harvey Dent.” That was a line taken from Batman: The Long Halloween, the 13-issue comic book mini-series that also inspired the image of a half-rotting pumpkin with a bat-shaped mouth on WhySoSerious.com.

Who remembers the first teaser poster for The Dark Knight? Or that earth-shattering first trailer in December 2007, which let us see Ledger’s Joker move and talk for the first time? Damned if we didn’t feed on every last morsel of news related to that movie. As we tracked its development over weeks and months, the movie’s viral campaign even involved a nationwide scavenger hunt. There was also one challenge where fans were invited to dress up like the Joker and photograph themselves in front of the most famous landmark in their city.

I didn’t need a crazy challenge like that to boost my incentive. I had already dressed up as the Joker and was in the middle of my own “long Halloween” from 2007–2008.

The Joker-ized Josh

As a comic book reader whose collection of long boxes probably peaked around the time of the “Knightfall” saga and the breaking of Batman’s back, The Long Halloween was actually my favorite Batman comic. During the run of its sequel, Batman: Dark Victory, I even had a fan letter printed in the back of one issue (#10, the one with Mr. Freeze on the cover, as seen above). It’s a rather embarrassing fan letter questioning what I perceived to be a gratuitous number of women-in-lingerie drawings in the panels of the sequel. The editor who responded to my letter on the letters page joked it off by suggesting they merely wanted to do a tax write-off for the lingerie. I had left my own weird, minor mark on the pages of Batman history.

Seeing imagery from The Long Halloween utilized in marketing for The Dark Knight only stoked my anticipation for the movie that much more. It also helped that Batman Begins had quickly become one of my all-time favorite movies—a film I regarded as the best all-around Batman movie because it was actually a true Batman movie weighted toward the title character and not his colorful rogues’ gallery.

Of course, I loved the villains, too, and like many ’90s kids, the Joker and Two-Face had been my two favorites since Batman: The Animated Series. With the Joker, it went back even longer: I had dressed up as him once for Halloween as an elementary schooler. This would have been 1989. One of the first movies I ever saw in the theater was Batman. I remember patterning my costume that Halloween after the one Nicholson’s Joker wore when he and his gang of street mimes converged on the steps of City Hall and he killed the one mob boss with a throwing-dart quill to the neck.

So yeah, eighteen years later, as a young man of 26, I decided to dress up as the Joker again. I was one of those guys. For Halloween 2007, I went out and bought a purple suit and clown make-up, and it seemed like a waste to only use it once, so I actually dressed up again for both the movie’s midnight premiere and Halloween 2008. Above, you can see two pictures of that first time back in 2007, when I was still rocking the classic Nicholson Joker look.

Observing the photos above, seeing the half-crazed look in my eye as I posed for the camera, it strikes me as emblematic of the peculiar mania that swept over fandom around the time of The Dark Knight. In 2018, we’ve all become much more inured to studios feeding us movie marketing in drips and drabs over the course of a year. Analyzing the promotional material, sifting through rumors, and indulging in speculation has become its own self-reflexive sub-culture and cottage industry. But this participatory play game was still something of a novelty back in 2007 and 2008. The Dark Knight came at just the right time when movie fans like me who had grown up watching Michael Keaton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s Joker were now old enough to become news junkies.

I can still remember the feeling of depression that I had after The Dark Knight’s midnight premiere as I filed out of the AMC shopping mall theater in my Joker costume. The movie had been spoiled for me by a leaked plot description that I stumbled upon online before I learned to be wary of spoilers. However, if The Dark Knight can be viewed as instrumental in shaping the modern movie news cycle, then in a way, this deflated feeling was a fitting end.

Continue Reading A Personal History With The Dark Knight >>

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