by D.W. Lundberg

Friday, August 24, 2012


Now that 2012's summer movie season has ended (Lionsgate's Expendables 2, starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and virtually every other 'roided 80's action star you can think of, opened to $28.6 million last weekend, and is arguably the last big-budget "event" movie until October), it's important that we look back and remember what worked, what didn't, and what lessons studio executives had better take to heart as they gear up for Summer '13. There were overachievers (Marvel's The Avengers, $617 million U.S.) and underachievers (Battleship, $65 million), breakout hits (Ted, $213 million) and outright disasters (Rock Of Ages, $38 million); there was also, bless its heart, a 47th Ice Age adventure (Continental Drift, with $150 million stateside, plus another $644 million worldwide). All of these, plus more, warrant a discussion on the modern revitalization of the Hollywood blockbuster...

...which you'll have to read elsewhere, I'm afraid, since the only movies I happened to see this summer were the ones based on comic books. Four of them, to be exact. I apologize for this, as I should be able to chat with you about any and all movies, old and new, and I'm sure at some point I'll wind up watching Brave, or The Bourne Legacy, or, yes, even What To Expect When You're Expecting (I owe that one to my wife at least). For now, though, let's keep our conversation limited to the matter at hand, and we'll catch up on the rest sometime in the future.

It says something about my particular mindset, I suppose, that I'd go out of my way to see just those movies starring superheroes (call me a "geek" or a "nerd" all you want - you'd be right). But I also think it speaks volumes about what we enjoy as a modern-day movie-going public, as one out of every five Hollywood releases these days (I'm not really sure on the math) seems to be taken from a comic book. We've come a long way from the 70s and early to mid-80s, when movies starring Superman were all that saturated the market. We got a bit of a boost from the Burton-Schumacher Batman series of 1989-1997, but it wasn't until Bryan Singer's X-Men opened in 2000, and then Sam Raimi's Spider-Man in 2002, that the Comic Book Movie became all the rage in Hollywood.

This summer, we had two of the biggest CBMs in terms of box office and pop-cultural worth, and two that fell somewhere by the wayside. Each makes a case, I would argue, for the kind of franchise mentality that's currently at play in the industry. Three were sequels, the other was a reboot, the first (and most phenomenally successful) of which was, of course...

Marvel's The Avengers

For pure unadulterated popcorn entertainment, nothing could beat The Avengers, which has absolutely nothing else on its mind than to entertain the ever living crap out of you for two hours and twenty-three minutes (and, yes, I'm including that shawarma-centric post-credits bit at the end). It is also a prime example of how to build a successful franchise from the ground up. Marvel gambled big with Iron Man in 2008, planting the seeds for an Ultimate Team-Up movie that only die-hard comic book nerds had any inkling about, and by the time The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger landed their box office punches, audiences of all shapes and sizes were primed for it, and the movie delivered.

Marvel probably could have plunked Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson around a table and had them read out of a phonebook for a couple of hours, and people still would have turned up in droves. They didn't, though, and hired writer/ director/fanboy favorite Joss Whedon to tackle the project instead. The result is sheer comic book geekery, filled with crowd-pleasing one-liners, judicious character beats, and enough out-of-this- world thrills to satisfy even the most hardened critics.

But don't just take my word for it. The movie has already shattered more than its share of box-office records since its May 4th release date, including:

   Highest-grossing opening weekend ($207.4
     million, U.S.) 
   Highest-grossing opening weekend, 3D theaters
     ($108 million)
   Highest-grossing opening weekend, IMAX
     theaters ($15.3 million)
   Highest-grossing weekend, 2nd week of release
     ($103 million) 
   Quickest to reach $150 million (2 days)
   Quickest to reach $500 million (23 days)
   As of this writing, it is the most successful
     Comic Book Movie of all time ($1.4 billion
That's not just impressive, it's industry-defining. (DC Comics, whose own superhero staple, the Justice League, predates Marvel's Avengers by more than two years, had better jump on the bandwagon.) And obviously, we were just getting started. Because just a short three weeks later, we got...

Men In Black 3

First, it's easy to forget that 1997's genre-busting Men In Black started out as a limited-issue comic book series. (It was promoted, instead, as the latest Will Smith-vs.-aliens Hollywood blockbuster, coming just a year after Independence Day.) Second, it's hard to imagine anyone (except maybe Will Smith) waiting anxiously for a third go-round with our titular extra-terrestrial enforcers, especially after 2002's lame-brained MIB2 all but killed the franchise creatively.

What a pleasure, then, to report that MIB3 didn't suck! Not only that, it also turned out to be a perfectly serviceable summer entertainment - and goes to great lengths to neuralyze any and all memories of its perfunctory predecessor. It doesn't quite reach the same sci-fi/comic highs of the 15-year-old original, but then again, how could it? The fun of MIB1 came from its guffaw-worthy blend of high-falutin' CG effects and ultra-hip dialogue (think Ghostbusters for the X-Files generation), plus its buddy-cop pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, whose tête-à-tête verbal sparring sessions were the highlight of the movie.

Part 3 plays well to both of those strengths, sending Agent Jay back in time, circa 1969, to rescue his partner from a Fate Worse Than Death, yet despite the retro-'60s setting, there are very few jokes (a visit with SNL's Bill Hader as Andy Warhol, though, is priceless) and an abundance of plot - a natural progression for any sequel, if you ask me, in theory if not always in practice. Highlights, this time, include Josh Brolin's spot- on Tommy Lee Jones impression as a young Agent Kay (you have to hear it to believe it), and a Cape Canaveral climax that's surprisingly high on sentiment.

That didn't stop box office pundits from damning the film as an out-and-out commercial disaster. Sure, it opened with a "disappointing" $55 million over the Memorial Day weekend (as if The Avengers' $207 million debut was suddenly the norm), but for whatever reason, its overall success wound up getting lost in the shuffle. When all was said and done, Men In Black 3 amassed a total $621 million worldwide - $32 million more than the original, and close to $180 million more than MIB2. Even for a movie with a $225 million budget, that's some fairly solid business - enough, apparently, to warrant another sequel. Should these numbers prove less than fruitful, though, Sony Pictures can always skew younger and reboot, something our next CBM took to heart...

The Amazing Spider-Man

I've already said everything I need to say about the year's (century's?) most superfluous reboot, but in case you missed it, here's the ridiculously short version: In my mind, they already made the definitive Spider-Man movie ten years ago, so why bother making another one? Especially if you're just going to muddle any attempt to add something new to the franchise?

Audiences couldn't seem to resist it, though. TASM snagged a respectable $696 million around the globe, opening the door for a brand new trilogy. Because, you know, the best things always come in threes. Just like...

The Dark Knight Rises 
(Warner Bros.)

Originally pegged as the blockbuster to beat for 2012, Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy capper has performed below box office expectations instead, grossing (as of this writing) $413 million in the U.S. and another $489 million abroad. That's no small potatoes, mind you, but in the wake of The Avengers' success, I guess anything seems trite. Rises' failure to pull in Marvel-sized numbers, at least in the States, can be attributed to three major factors: July 20's tragic Colorado theater shootings, in which 12 people were killed and 58 were injured (the latest in a long, lugubrious line of pop culture-inspired massacres); London's 2012 Summer Olympic Games, which became as the most- watched event in U.S. television history; and, most importantly, the movie itself, which has divided audiences and comic book fans alike. Call it the anti-Avengers: A two-hour, 45-minute juggernaut that aims to challenge everything you know about Comic Book Movies from start to finish, and if you happen to be entertained at any point, so be it.

For the record, Christopher Nolan isn't here to provide you with easy answers, or simple-minded entertainment designed to vanish from your brain the instant you hit the parking lot. He wants you to work to have a good time, and it's uncommonly bold, for a superhero movie, that he ended it the way he did. TDKR completes an emotional arc that began with Batman Begins, and carried over into The Dark Knight, about a man, scarred by violence and death, who seeks to inspire others to do good - to stand up and Make A Difference. It was never Bruce Wayne's intent to dress up as Batman for life, and in Nolan's universe, no living, breathing human being ever could. That's a big part, I think, of why so many people have such a knee-jerk reaction to Rises - it doesn't end (SPOILER!) the way your typical CBM should, with our hero swooping over the city, ready for his next adventure. (As for Bane, of course he pales in comparison to Heath Ledger's Joker - anyone would. In fact, Mr. Ledger could probably come back from the dead, play the same role again, and still everyone would complain that he's only half as good.)

A Nolan/Batman-centric Franchise Face-Off will be forthcoming, but until then, isn't it great to have so many different styles and moods of Comic Book Movie to choose from? If the Summer of '12 has taught us anything, it's that we've barely broken the surface. Dredd comes next, of course, followed next year by Iron Man 3, Man Of Steel and The Wolverine, among others. In the meantime, I'll try to fit some other genres into my busy schedule...

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