Nowadays, a movie is defined by its hype. Good marketing can plant butts in seats even when the critics shout to stay away. Hell, sometimes that little hype train that could winds up going a little too far (let’s never forget the “death threats for bad Dark Knight Rises reviews” incident). But bad marketing? Like the infamous first trailer for the Ghostbusters reboot, it can validate the worst fears about a film. Or sometimes, bad marketing can cripple or ultimately doom some genuinely great films, like X-Men: First Class or Dredd.
Perhaps no piece of marketing, not even trailers nor product tie-ins, can make more of an impact than the poster. They help fill multiplex hallways, adorn dorm room walls, and accompany every web article and magazine page that touches on the forthcoming film. The right poster can be iconic, forever associated with the film, like the “repeatedly stolen from bus stations and multiplexes” 1989 Batman poster. The wrong poster is lambasted by the internet, with many stepping forward to say how they would do it better. The thing is, sometimes they really can. Today we give a shout-out to those brave artists and photoshoppers who knew better than studio marketing teams.
16 GHOST RIDER BY NICOLE ANTONIA
Maybe a Ghost Rider movie was doomed from the start, or perhaps only after the casting of by-then living meme Nicholas Cage as Johnny Blaze. Released during the flurry of “Oh s**t, we want an X-Men!” that kicked off during the 2000s, the 2007 Ghost Rider made enough to justify a sequel, but it hardly set the world on fire (pun intended), in no small part because the marketing barely made an effort to stand out, opting for a bland poster that makes no attempt to explain what the character is about.
What Antonia seems to get is that, for most of us, the first thing that hooked us about Ghost Rider isn’t the story of Johnny Blaze, or the complex mythology behind the spirit of vengeance; it's the look. A new comic fan will browse the shelves, walk past the Spider -Man books and Batman titles to see a flaming skull astride a fiery Harley Davidson, drawn in some distinctly stylistic fashion and think “Damn, I gotta see what that’s about”.
15 IRON MAN BY HANS
Let's face it, everyone but the most jaded DC fans love the MCU. Whether it's the humor, the spot-on casting, or the rich developing universe, everything works well. However, we can all probably agree that Marvel's poster game is really weak (except for maybe that new Thor: Ragnarok joint). For a franchise whose films represent a varied array of abilities and genres, virtually every film follows the same format of “full body shot of the main character, big floaty heads of the supporting cast”. It’s as though Marvel doesn’t think folks will go to a movie if they can’t see every actor prominently displayed and thoroughly lit.
Designer Hans offers Marvel an alternative: Keep your cookie cutter marketing strategy, but throw in a bit of style. While his poster for Iron Man still features the “Protagonist in the foreground, supporting cast as floating heads” formula, the hand-drawn feel gives the poster a unique, eye-catching texture that also serves as a sort of throwback to the classic film posters of yesteryear.
14 BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE BY HOBO95
The marketing for the infamous Batman v. Superman accurately reflected the finished product, in that in both cases most audiences lamented that the team behind it could have done so much more. Instead, similar to the film it sought to promote, the marketing strategy appeared to be “throw everything at them and see what works”. The “mugshot” teasers were pretty memorable, but every poster thereafter was grim-dark sensory overload.
The idea of the World’s Finest fighting is a tantalizing prospect, and DeviantArt user Hobo95 understood what the BvS team didn’t: less is more. Let’s face it, Warner Bros knew by the title alone they’d get nerds into the seats, but then revealed so much of the film in the marketing that viewers saw every beat coming. This subtle, slow-burn kind of poster would have helped keep the possibilities of what might be going strong in fans’ minds.
13 DEADPOOL BY PUNMAGNETO
We’re not gonna take a dig at Deadpool’s marketing, as the actual posters released were, by and large, fabulous; be it the “sexy pose,” the “crotch shot” or the fantastically clever series of Valentine’s Day ads. An R-rated superhero movie that broke the fourth wall and gleefully mocked the genre was a remarkably hard sell, and both the box office receipts and the awards nominations say they sold it pretty well.
Yet, recognition must be given to Punmagneto’s clever Mary Poppins-esque poster, which is so dead-on that many corners of the internet think it is a legitimate, studio approved poster. Now, this delightfully irreverent piece of fan art might not have been commissioned or approved by Fox, but it did get the thumbs up from a major member of the Deadpool team. On April 12th, 2015, Ryan Reynolds shared the poster, demanding there be “an award for fan art.” Hey, if the Merc with a Mouth got a Golden Globe nod, anything’s possible.
12 DREDD BY KARL FITZGERALD
Maybe you were too scarred by the dreadful Stallone adaptation to give it a chance. Maybe you never even knew it was coming out, so limited was the marketing. But odds are, you might not have seen Karl Urban’s turn as the British comic book icon. The truth is, the bland one-sheets that were put out probably didn’t help, as their by-the-numbers, cold design seemed to suggest this was yet another in a long line of pointless, joyless remakes a la Robocop or Total Recall.
Well, if you haven’t seen Dredd, you’re missing out on one of the best comic book films of the last decade, a riveting and moody piece that gets more rewarding upon repeat viewings. Karl Fitzgerald’s poster does what the studio marketing team couldn’t; it stands out, captures the viewers curiosity, and hints not at a “cool character” but a distinct, different world that it invites the audience to dive into. And unlike the actual posters for the film, it feels like Fitzgerald at least watched the film it’s trying to sell.
11 SUICIDE SQUAD BY MESSY PANDA
Few marketing campaigns have reeked so much of desperation as Suicide Squad’s neon-vomit of “See, we’re kewl and fun and edgy.” Yet, strangely, for all the cereal bowl illustrations and quick-cut Guardians of the Galaxy aping trailers, Suicide Squad could never quite shake the feeling of being… artificial. It tried so hard to outwardly convey “rebellious” and “wild” but it always felt dishonest, like a well-disguised narc at a music festival who’s just a little too eager to tell you he “knows how to party”.
Deviantart user Messy Panda explores an alternate route to sell the film: familiarity. Instead of trying so hard to pretend it’s not lifting from other films, just go full throttle into homage and say “Check out how we do it.” In this instance, it tackles the obvious parallels between Suicide Squad and John Carpenter's classic Escape From New York head-on, and for once it actually feels like it's having fun.
10 THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY BY STUDIOKX
Whether or not you particularly enjoyed every one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, for better or worse they were a major force in the evolution of blockbuster cinema, and with the arrival of the final installment many artists felt inspired to create works in tribute to the Dark Knight Trilogy. Some opted to bring all the characters together in one group shot, others formed a single bat symbol out of the various posters and color schemes.
But special recognition should be given to the beautiful and subtle work of Studiokx and their trio of posters, one for each film, that capture both the imagery and the tone of the trilogy. From the charcoal texture to the way they utilize silhouette and shape, these posters are a testament to the artistry of the already-iconic series.
9 X-MEN FIRST CLASS BY DRMIERZWIAK
X-Men: First Class was a stellar reboot that spawned two direct sequels so far, launched its cast into superstardom and reinvigorated a dead franchise all while managing to be a period piece that never once felt dated. Of course, many would be forgiven for having first seen this film on DVD, since the marketing for the film was absolutely atrocious. Its character posters, cheaply photoshopping the faces of young Xavier and Magneto into the silhouettes of their older counterparts, were just the tip of the disinteresting iceberg.
With a period as unique and stylized as the ‘60s, the team had the opportunity to lean into the art-deco influence and make the film feel unique, as Deviantart user drMierzwiak did in this entrancing homage to the work of Saul Bass. Imagine spotting that along the row of bland Photoshop-jobs on the wall of your local multiplex. A simple, faceless design would likely have been all it would have taken to convince you First Class was more than just a desperate reboot.
8 GHOST RIDER BY ORLANDO AROCENA
We’ve already touched on the dreadfully bad posters for Ghost Rider, but even the sequel, Spirit of Vengeance, failed to feel distinct. It hired the directors of the Crank franchise, tried valiantly to feel high-octane and badass, yet its posters were even more D.O.A character shots, albeit with a slightly more angular character design.
Orlando Arocena’s design is exactly what Spirit of Vengeance needed to set itself apart, not just from the previous film, but from the rest of the comic book movie game. It’s eye-catching, it’s subtle, it incorporates the text into the design. It’s the kind of poster that instantly begs to be tattooed on fans' arms and emblazoned on city walls. When it comes to standing out, less is more, and this simple design easily burns itself into the viewer’s memory.
7 DOCTOR STRANGE BY OLIVER RICHES
Doctor Strange is a film unique to the MCU; a film so mind-bending and visually entrancing that its tagline might as well have been “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.” Yet, while the film certainly harkened back to the acid-inspired splash pages of Stephen Strange’s heyday, the posters did little to make the film stand out from the standard superhero fare.
The genius of Oliver Riches’ design is that it not only employs a simple image, the Eye of Agamotto, to draw the viewer’s attention, and utilizes shades of color not often seen on movie posters; it also calls to mind the “trippy” blacklight posters one would often see adorning dorm room walls and populating stores for…”free thinkers.” One look at it, and you start hearing Jefferson Airplane and smelling incense, ready to be transported to another dimension.
6 GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY BY MATT FERGUSON
For a film helmed by someone as irreverent and pop-culture obsessed as James Gunn, it’s honestly shocking this ISN’T an official Guardians of the Galaxy poster, especially now that Luke Skywalker and co. have joined Star-Lord in the Mickey Mouse club. Of course, Disney has been pretty adamant about not having their chocolate mix with Marvel's peanut butter, only occasionally permitting Mickey or the Muppets to don the iconic Star Wars imagery for the rare theme park-exclusive merchandise.
Yet, Matt Ferguson’s homage perfectly captures the tone of Guardians, far better than any of its official posters ever did. Instead of depicting the crew as brooding in the shadows, as the original did, this poster reminds us that while Peter Quill is a hero, his idea of right and wrong is built on the '70s/'80s movies he devoured as a child, and his entire world is viewed through the lens of cinema, something he loves and believes in deeply. Sure, much like Quill, the poster is irreverent, but its a sincere irreverence.
5 AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR BY CAMW1N
In fairness, Avengers: Infinity War has yet to get an official one sheet poster as of this writing, having only just recently unveiled a three part poster at SDCC. So let this entry serve as both a response to that and a plea with regard to future posters: be different. This is it, the big event Marvel has been building towards for nearly a decade, so don’t play it safe.
CAMW1N incorporates all the same faces we saw on the SDCC poster, but everyone isn’t a prominent, well-lit agent-pleasing portrait. Instead, it treats them as just pieces of a larger, more important idea: a crumbling world, one that calls to mind the destruction wrought in all the other MCU films, while reminding us the villain who has been pulling the strings since the beginning. The hand-drawn, Drew Struzan-esque texture only adds to the sense that this will be an old-school cinematic event, the likes of which we’ve not seen in years.
4 SUICIDE SQUAD BY SIMON DELART
A lot of these entries have been submitted to the “Multiplex test” -- the imaginary wall of posters at your local theatre, wondering if the poster in question would stand out from the rest. In this case, this not only would have stood out on the cinema wall, but in the soundtrack section of the record store.
Employing the angular elements of classic ’80s New Wave records and recalling the design for the classic spy film For Your Eyes Only, what seems like a simple design actually suggests a lot about the film’s story and aesthetic, while not revealing too much at once. It’s vivid, engaging, and it manages to walk the same tightrope as the equally stylized Tank Girl of being powerfully sexy without being objectifying and exploitative.
3 AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON BY LAZ MARQUEZ
We can all remember that first Age of Ultron trailer, the haunting use of “I’ve Got No Strings” from Pinnochio, the brooding score, the menacing voice of Ultron calling the Avengers “puppets.” Whether or not the actual film lived up to what the trailer sold, it can at least be agreed that no piece of marketing quite had the spine-chilling effect of that initial release.
Las Marquez’s red-and-black collection of silhouettes far better captures that tone than the quite frankly boring official poster for the film. Without giving their faces the “studio approved” amount of lighting, you can still tell the team is in utter disarray, completely unaware that they are, as Ultron growled in the trailer, “puppets tied up in strings,” while their menacing puppet master smiles beneath them.
2 WONDER WOMAN BY DOALY
After some notable failures in the DCEU, hope was not high for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, with many writing it off after the first trailer appeared to show yet another mediocre, overly dark action film. Of course, those people had to eat their words as Wonder Woman proved to be the breakout hit of the year, leaping from the silver screen to become a bonafide cultural phenomenon. So, it’s frustrating that the poster for the film isn’t at least a little more…phenomenal.
Yet, fear not, Doaly’s newest release for the Bottleneck Gallery is nothing short of perfect, creating something that is both a great representation of the titular film and also functions outside of it as a broader representation of the iconic hero. It captures her strength, her heritage, the vitality of the character and metatextually depicts the way the character transcended the film itself into a figure of current cultural importance.
1 BLACK WIDOW BY OLLY MOSS
A few years back, Mondo, the producers of high-end posters and collectibles based in Austin, TX, commissioned a series of Avengers character posters, each by a different artist meant to capture the essence of the respective character. Most chose to create intricate, complex designs full of dark shading, brooding colors and angular shapes that fit what had become a sort of typical aesthetic for Mondo superhero posters.
The Black Widow poster by Olly Moss stands out as a cut above the rest, and is arguably the best comic book movie poster ever produced by Mondo, not just for it’ subtlety but for its deep understanding of its subject. Of course, on the surface, the poster calls to mind the classic Bond films of yore, and it’s undeniably a masterwork of design work. But look closer, and you’ll see the eyes, downward, full of regret. The lips a gun, the nose smoke from a barrel, the hair a streak of red, like the red line in a ledger. It shows Natasha questioning whether those elements are really all she is.
Have you seen any fan-made posters that out-classed the official fare? Let us know in the comments!