Though there are still a few weeks left until Labor Day, let's face it-- this long, slow, often grueling summer movie is over, having started with a slightly underwhelming bang with Iron Man 2 and ended with the twin disappointments of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World flopping and the mediocre The Expendables becoming a hit (your opinion on all of these things, as with everything else you'll read in this piece, may vary). It's been a weird summer, for sure, full of more original content than we're used to, a lot of attempts at starting franchises that went nowhere, and one gigantic hit about people in suits breaking into minds. Movies you think were flops, like The Last Airbender, actually made a chunk of money, while movies that felt like successes at the time, like Sex and the City 2, have faded into the background by now.
What can we learn from a summer with so few superhero movies, so many flops and very little that will be fondly remembered by the time the air gets cool? Believe it or not, there are a few trends to be found in this mess, whether reassurance about the enduring power of some names and studios or the final nail in the coffin of a once-promising career. Join me as I run down the biggest winners and losers of the summer, as defined by box office success, by reviews, and by what I see as general audience attitudes now that the summer has wound to a close. Then feel free to disagree, make your own suggestions or stand up for The Expendables one more time in the comments.
It's a guarantee at this point that with every summer comes a hit Pixar movie, but Toy Story 3 is something special even by that studio's standards. It's the #1 movie of the year with $400 million domestic and counting, and once again garnered seemingly limitless rave reviews, which is practically unheard of for the third film in a trilogy (more people like it than Return of the Jedi, we know that much). It seemed that a threequel could finally be the one thing to trip up this famously perfect studio, but Toy Story 3 charms may have proved Pixar is truly invincible after all.
She proved with Wanted in 2008 that she still had what it took as an action hero, but Salt was still a gamble, a completely original story completely led by Jolie, and opening just a week after the steamroller that was Inception. And while Salt wasn't an immediate mega-hit, opening at a modest $36 million, it swiftly made its way past the $100 million mark, meaning all the sequel talk behind the scenes was more than just high hopes. Not only does it indicate a brighter future for female action heroes who aren't just living out male fantasies (like Jolie's own Lara Croft), but proves that Jolie still earns her Movie Star credentials.
It's a weird world when a film by the director of the second-biggest movie of all time is considered a gamble, but everyone knew that selling Inception to wider audiences would be a lot trickier than getting people to line up for the newest Batman film. While it's not fair to claim Inception's success gave us hope for original movies in general-- if that were the case, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World would have done much better-- but Nolan's specific brand of originality has never seemed stronger. Love his self-serious attitude and labyrinthine plots or not, you've got to respect a man who made a summer blockbuster that gets people excited because of how much it makes them think.
Not every movie that played at Sundance was guaranteed a healthy summer run-- Splice fell flat in its attempt at a wide release, and Twelve flopped spectacularly-- but several Sundance movies used a limited release strategy and smart marketing to snap up adult audiences grateful for a break from endless disappointing blockbusters. The Kids Are All Right is the MVP at $16 million and counting, while oddball comedy Cyrus has scored a solid $7 million and even the grim Winter's Bone has brought in nearly $5 million. None are Little Miss Sunshine-sized or even (500) Days of Summer-breakouts, but all will be playing theaters for many weeks to come, continuing to thrill the audiences who don't miss the explosions one bit.
It's still up for debate whether an individual star (who isn't Angelina Jolie, apparently) can single-handedly open a movie, but now we know that if you bring a bunch of them together, audiences will come flocking. Adam Sandler gathered together old pals Kevin James, David Spade, Rob Schneider and Chris Rock for what amounted to a paid lakeside vacation, and they earned $158 domestic for Grown Ups as a result. Sly Stallone's reunion involved a lot more explosions and warfare, but with the names of Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger all anchoring the poster, audiences jumped at the chance to relive the glory days of 80s action and helped The Expendables open at #1. Neither of these movies were any good, but they proved that even washed-up stars can be powerful if you collect enough of them in one place.
For years he was the king of summer as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise rolled along, but this summer he whiffed twice and whiffed hard. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was yet another dull and nonsensical attempt at adapting a video game that only grossed $90 million domestic (though worldwide, it should be noted, it somehow grossed $238 million). Even worse was The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a movie cribbed precisely from the goofy adventure National Treasure playbook that only made $59 domestic. It'll be a long time before Bruckheimer is "done" in this business, but his formula for summer blockbusters clearly no longer works. Even with Pirates 4 coming next summer, it's probably time to Bruckheimer to think about changing things up.
The superhero movie trend shows no sign of ending, with both Marvel and DC ramping up their movie operations, but this summer proved forcefully that not everything that would be a hit at Comic Con will play with larger audiences. Jonah Hex had plenty of problems beyond its source material, but plenty of terrible movies have done just fine at the box office-- Wild Wild West, the turkey it was often compared to, made $113 million in 1999. Jonah Hex and the far superior Scott Pilgrim vs. The World suffered the same problem-- roots in a comic book world that people weren't familiar with and couldn't be convinced to buy into. With Watchmen and Kick Ass out there as further cautionary tales, studios need to learn to be careful before approving giant budgets and marketing campaigns for movies based on comic books with limited appeal-- or at least without traditional spandex-clad superheroes.
Blame Angelina Jolie and her dark Russian past, Christopher Nolan and his haunted heroes, or Sylvester Stallone and his penchant for violence-- the action that audiences wanted this summer was bloody or brooding, as Salt, Inception and The Expendables triumphed while The A-Team, Killers and Knight and Day fell utterly flat. Even Iron Man 2, following up on the light-hearted success of the first film, went dark with Tony's slip into alcoholism and brooding villain Ivan Vanko. Whether it's the Dark Knight effect finally playing out or just because the lighter action movies weren't as good, this is the summer audiences chose not to laugh too much while watching bombs go off-- yet another thing that ought to give Jerry Bruckheimer pause.
The Last Airbender has secretly made far more money than you think-- $129 million domestic plus another $70 million overseas-- but it's actually the Devil trailer that proves M. Night Shyamalan, is done as a valuable household name. Nearly everyone has a story of moviegoing audiences openly laughing at Shyamalan's name on the trailer for Devil, including the 6,000-strong audience at Hall H in Comic Con; even the people who saw Last Airbender generally admit it's terrible, and fans of the original series are happy to pillory Shyamalan for ruining something they love. He'll still have a directing career from here, because his movies come in under budget and on time, but don't ever count on seeing a movie sold with his name ever again. In fact, changing his name might be the only hope he has left.
There were a handful of good comedies released this summer, starting with the criminally underseen MacGruber, going into Get Him to the Greek and wrapping up with Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but those are all movies that either underperformed or bombed outright. Just a year after The Hangover we were stuck with a badly unfunny summer, with Dinner for Schmucks both wasting strong talent and not making any money and Grown Ups, one of the worst comedies I've ever seen, inexplicably making $158 million. Comedy's not dead yet, and The Hangover 2 is due next May, but anyone wanting to make good comedy is probably right to give up on American audiences right now-- we clearly don't deserve anything worthwhile.