X-Men: Apocalypse & “The Great Game” of Movie Marketing

Recent X-Men movies have embraced marketing tactics that have a lot in common with "The Great Game" of Sherlock Holmes fandom.

The media marketplace is a noisy place, and major and minor studios alike are turning to increasingly creative campaigns to market their movies. Innovative, immersive campaigns like the ones launched for Prometheus, District 9,and The Dark Knightare becoming more common as studios try to create viral content. While some argue that this kind of geek-friendly content is preaching to the already-planning-on-seeing-it choir, from a nerd’s perspective, it’s a pretty great time to love these kinds of stories — in part because of the weird, wonderful marketing campaigns that often go along with them.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past got some criticism for its uneven marketing campaign, but I would rather a marketing campaign that occasionally fails than one that never takes any creative risks at all. The marketing campaigns for both X-Men: Days of Future Pastand X-Men: Apocalypsehave been full of innovative, refreshing attempts at viral marketing that rely on our desire to blur the line between what’s fictional and what’s not—in other words, to play “The Great Game” in which the X-Men universe is part of our existing universe.

Check out some recent examples that play off the idea the Xavier’s School for Gifted Children is a very real place:

Sherlock, X-Men, and “The Great Game”

In many ways, the structure of this kind of marketing campaign has its roots in one of the longest-running fandom movements in media history, and one that fans of Sherlock Holmeshave been playing for more than a century…

“The Great Game,” as its known to Sherlockians—amongst them, the exclusive Baker Street Irregulars, which has counted Isaac Asimov and Neil Gaiman in its number—is simple: We must pretend that Holmes was a real detective, Watson really wrote about his cases, and that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not their creator, but rather Watson’s literary agent. Taking these facts as true, players of “The Game” must then try to explain the inconsistencies in the stories not as “plot holes,” but in some other, non-fiction-based way using the detection method Sherlock Holmes himself outlines.

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“The Game” has a long history, beginning with an open letter to Dr. Watson first published in the Cambridge Review in 1902 that pointed out inconsistencies with the dates mentioned in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Moving forward, articles treating Holmes and Watson as real-life people continued to be published in respectable magazine and books. More recently, fans of BBC’s Sherlock played “The Game” during the (so very long) hiatus between seasons 2 and 3, leaving messages like “I believe in Sherlock Holmes” and “Moriarty Was Real” in bathroom stalls, on city buses, as graffiti and t-shirts, and buttons around the world.

The X-Menprequels’ marketing campaign operates similarly to “The Great Game,” not only asking us to pretend that the X-Men are real, but that mutants have long been among us, and that they have helped shape the course of history as we know it. After all, to pretend that something is real — at least on some level — is to engage with fiction, but to do so on a social level in great number? That’s something else entirely.

Tactics used in the X-Menprequels marketing campaign rely on an earnest commitment to pretense. Even if you’re interacting with this viral content with a degree of ironic distance, it’s inviting you to play the game. The contemporary consumer (especially the younger kind) is a savvy one and does not like to be manipulated — or, rather loathes manipulation that is transparent.

There are entire parts of the film and TV industry that rely on narrative distance to succeed, but, by and large (Deadpool notwithstanding), major Hollywood franchises do not fall into that category. They are earnest. They take themselves seriously and ask their viewers to do the same. In this way, it makes complete sense to extend that desire for make-believe to the marketing of film franchises.

The X-Mencampaign works particularly well because, unlike other examples of movies engaging in this pretense tactic, the X-Men films are very much rooted in real-world political events and values. They take as an explicit theme about how the larger society reacts to difference, and how specific historical events have affected those attitudes.

For those people who don’t spend their days trolling the internet, engaging in viral movie marketing, here are some examples of “Great Game”-esque marketing moves for X-Men: Days of Future Pastand X-Men: Apocalypsethat have blurred the line between what is real and what is fictional…

25 Moments in the Struggle Between X-Men and Humans

“Humanity has been shaped by a number of pivotal moments throughout history, but the accepted version of these events leaves out a quiet battle that has raged for decades: the battle between individuals with extraordinary gifts and those who seek to eradicate them.”

Sure, the digital effects in this video might not always be top-notch, but it’s pretty cool to see Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask inserted and hanging out with Richard Nixon in the Oval Office or to expand Guatanamo Bay to include a fictional segment called Camp X-Ray that houses mutants (whether it’s inappropriate or critically helpful to co-opt a real-life issue like the still-open Guatanamo Bay for media marketing purposes is another question altogether).

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The events of this video present the X-Menprequels “Game” as such: mutants are real and have played a part in some of the biggest historical events of the last century. 

25 Moments Website

“After decades of struggle, look back at the events that determined the fate of a species.” This is the blurb waiting for you (along with accompanying music) when you visit the “25 Moments” website, a tie-in to the above window. Using the immersive website, you can explore the 25 events via interactive timeline from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (featuring a glamour shot of Magneto controlling a missile) to the formation of the first militant mutant organization (don’t tell Magneto) in 2018. 

Like the video, the website assumes that we are in the year 2023, like the older versions of our X-Men characters, and that we’re part of a timeline that has become null and void since the events of Days of Future Past.

The Bent Bullet

Hey, Magneto… Great mug shot. (Additional movie marketing proposal: Try to turn Magneto into one of those “hot mugshot” viral sensations. That one’s free, 20th Century Fox.)

X-Men: Days of Future Pastdidn’t spend much time on the conspiracy theory that Magneto was the one responsible for assassinating JFK, but this video and accompanying website (see below) went all-out. What was a throwaway subplot in the movie (no, Erik didn’t actually assassinate JFK — he was trying to stop it, OK?!) becomes a larger conspiracy to delve into as part of the marketing campaign leading up to the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past.

The Bent Bullet Website

The Harper Simmons article is one of my favorite pieces of the X-Menprequels’ media marketing campaign (although its section going into the specific details of the JFK assassination are pretty insensitive — you can sell this history as filmic history campaign without going into details about a real-life national tragedy). 

This bit of gameplay is set more in line with the movie’s release since 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, and one imagines that there was a meeting between Marvel journalist Harper Simmons and Erik Lehnsherr, the latter of whom has been in jail for a litany of crimes, including the aforementioned assassination. (This timeline was changed by the events of Days of Future Past,but, like the other marketing stunts that are no longer valid following Days of Future Past, it still does a fun job extending the world of the movie.)

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In this altered version of history, JFK was aware of mutants and was planning on addressing the “mutant problem” in his address in Dallas. In one particularly relevant passage, we find out what exactly happened to Azazel and Tempest:

Mutant historians now call 1963 America’s ‘Summer of Hate.” Several mutants across the country were killed that year, including two members of Lehnsherr’s Brotherhood of Mutants. Azazel and Tempest were slain by Project: WideAwake operatives in July. Records state the mutant operatives ambushed the duo.

The article implies that it wasn’t Erik, but rather Mystique who shot JFK, posing as Lee Harvey Oswald.

Lehnsherr made his own closing argument. He insisted he was not guilty, and noted that no physical evidence linked him to the assassination. ‘I did not shoot your president,’ he told the jury. ‘But I know who did, and you’ll never find her. She has a way of hiding in plain sight.’

This is information you didn’t get from watching Days of Future Past. 

In the Footsteps of…

While Days of Future Pastwas set in the ’70s, and the movie marketing campaign was devoted bridging the gap between X-Men: First Classand that film, as well as extending the X-Mentimeline into the dystopian, sentinel-filled future used to frame Days of Future Past,X-Men: Apocalypsehas slightly different concerns. Without a time travel element to sell, Apocalypse is less concerned with explaining something to potential viewers.

Therefore, its viral content is more random, not working quite so well as a larger story (unless that larger story is: “Hey, remember the ’80s? They were fun!”). First, we have this “In the Footsteps Of” video in the style of 70s/80s program In Search Of... George Takei narrates the promo for the episode about ancient Egyptian mutant En Sabah Nur — the mutant god-type we will come to know as Apocalypse in the upcoming film.


Home of the Week: X-Mansion

Also, who doesn’t love a good cross-promotion? X-Men: Apocalypsesidesteps (at least for this viewer) the forced awkwardness of the cross-company promotion by fully embracing the ridiculousness of a Coldwell Banker ad highlighting the X-Mansion. Not only do we get tons of new footage, but we get this hilarious (and expertly-delivered) salespitch for the mansion:

While every effort has been made to carefully preserve the historical and architectural integrity of the above-ground structure, the subterranean levels were customized to fit the needs of its current owner. Perhaps two of the property’s most uniquely-desirable features are its underground R&D lab, complete with a fully-functioning power aplification device, as well as a private underground jet hanger. Perfect for those unexpected, last-minute trips.

Given what we’ve seen in the promos for the film (i.e. the apparent destruction of the X-Mansion), this entire promotion has an intensely delightful dramatic irony to it.

Days of Future Past vs. Apocalypse

Arguably, this kind of fictional universe-expanding marketing tactic works best for blockbusters that have some kind of tangible connection to real world events or themes. The Dark Knightcampaign worked so well in part because, in addition to giving fans a “game” they could play across the world —  i.e. encouraging “Citizens of Batman” to gather in Chicago and New York City and projecting the bat signal onto real-life skyscrapers — it played out in urban spaces in ways that commented on the urban experience in the same way Christopher Nolan’s trilogy did. 

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X-Men: Days of Future Pastmight not have had the same in real life effect, but they did the next best thing by inserting mutants into very real moments of our world’s history. Thematically, it was asking fans to change history (by creating their own stories of mutants as part of major historical events) in the same way that the film’s protagonists would be trying to do. Without the same thematically-relevant historical timeline frame tale, the Apocalypsemarketingcampaign doesn’t have the same ability to reach into our non-Internet lives and encourage us to “play the game.”

Inserting En Sabah Nur — aka Apocalyspe — into an ancient Egyptian history we already tend to narrativize as a culture doesn’t have the same effect by placing non-immortal mutants we already have a movie connection to — a la Magneto — into 20th century historical events that are still a part of our movie history. (Apocalypse’s relative lack of relatability as a villain is the narrative element I’m most nervous about going into this film…)

Furthermore, imaging this histories through the framework of 1980s pop culture is fun, but doesn’t have the same mirroring technique as changing history did. With the Days of Future Pastmarketing campaign, we were asked to change history just like the X-Men. With the Apocalypsemarketing campaign, we’re encouraged to buy a house we can’t afford. As much fun as the Coldwell Banker ad is, it doesn’t have the same interactive power. We don’t watch X-Mento see Charles Xavier paying his (probably exorbitant) taxes or to see Mystique eating a burger. We can do these things in real life, all on our own.

No, we watch X-Menbecause we want to believe we can have the power to fight prejudice, and embrace all of our identities (even the less “acceptable” ones), and change history, if need be. We want to believe we have power, full stop, and that life isn’t one long, slow trudge towards inevitable death, but something that we have some measure of control over. We watch X-Menbecause it would be really cool to have superpowers.

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For immersive movie marketing campaigns to work, they need to understand why fans respond to something and give them the resources to practice pretend in the real world — something we’re not usually encouraged to do as adults, outside the arena of socially-acceptable pretense like film, TV, and video games. Like the best part of “The Great Game,” the best parts of universe-expanding movie marketing campaigns are the ones that allow us to step over the line that separates reality from imagination and become part of the fictional worlds we love.

Are you a fan of the X-Men prequels’ marketing campaign? Are there recent movie marketing campaigns that have particularly caught your interest and imagination? Sound off in the comments below.