My 2015 movie summer (part 2)

Last time I ran down my picks for the 11th through 7th best films of the summer. Conveniently enough, you could group those films as “the bad and the ugly”. Even if I kinda liked parts of them, they are all movies that have questionable construction. None of them deserve to be on anyone’s best-of lists at the end of the year.

For the remaining films, they are mostly good to great. 6th place is borderline.

6. Ant-Man

So, on one hand, Ant-Man has a lot of questionable choices in its production. On the other, I really had a fun time watching it. Do I lean toward “why the hell did they do this” or toward “this is a good movie-going experience”? In the end, it’s a bit of both.

Like, never in the context of the film was there a satisfying reason for why Hope wasn’t the hero instead of Scott. Even when they tried to give a reason, it fell flat. And given the business and schedule for Marvel films, it seems unlikely we’ll see a sequel with Hope in the costume anytime soon.

And why, oh WHY, does Marvel do such a consistently terrible job with its villains. Outside of Loki, none of them are great. I’ve honestly forgotten what the bad guy’s non-Yellowjacket name is here. He was so bland and uninspired. He’s also dead, which is pretty much what Marvel does.

But still, the cast is pretty great, the jokes click, and there’s some pretty good action. Even with the problems, I’d mark it as an upper-level Marvel effort. It’s the second best of the Phase Two films, easily.

It really would have been nice to see Edgar Wright’s version, though.

5. The Man from UNCLE

There’s style and then there’s STYLE. If nothing else, Guy Ritchie’s films deliver on the latter. UNCLE is no exception. It positively oozes style from the stylish pores of its very stylish actors. It has style like it’s, well, going out of style.

Which, in a sense, it kind of is. I have to feel bad for stars Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer. They feel like actors who are working in the wrong decade. They both a stoic, understated demeanor that is coupled with unearthly good looks, and that doesn’t seem to be an appreciated combination. Audiences seem to want their actors beautiful, yes, but they also want the humor and action to be very overstated. So if you watch The Lone Ranger or Man of Steel, their performances feel a bit out of time.

Still, slot them in a period piece, and it clicks together almost perfectly. The humor is easy-going. The action is fun without being overbearing. Everyone, yes EVERYONE, is pretty to look at. Sure, the plot’s a little light, but the breeziness helps make UNCLE a pretty perfect late summer movie.

One particular point of amusement: just about everyone isn’t using their normal access. Cavill (English) is playing American, as is Jared Hess (also English). Hammer (American) is playing Russian. Alicia Vikander (Swedish) goes German. And Elizabeth Debicki (Australia) is an Italian. The only exception is Hugh Grant who is playing, well, Hugh Grant.

4. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

After Ghost Protocol, there was probably some question as to where the Mission Impossible franchise would go. It’s always been a bit of an odd beast, just trucking along and doing what it does very well. While there are other, older franchises that are currently relevant, Mission Impossible has been around for close to twenty years without any sort of hiatus. Perhaps the trend of taking 4-6 years to develop a film (about twice as long as most other ongoing series) each time means that it always remains somewhat fresh.

Still, after Ghost Protocol, where would it go? The Dubai sequence in that film is legendary, and if you’re going to make a sequel, you need to go bigger or just not even bother, right?

Rogue Nation didn’t hide the fact that it was going to have a big set piece in the advertising. Tom Cruise, hanging off the side of a plane! It’s the logical step up.

And then it throws a curveball. You sit down to watch it and it’s like Cruise and writer/director McQuarrie tell you “yes, we know you’re here for this action sequence, well here it is.” Boom, done in five minutes. It might be risky for a film to blow its wad so early, but it makes a lot of sense. You get the spectacle, but you also don’t feel like the advertising spoiled anything.

From there, it rockets along at a great clip, with all the fun, action, and intrigue we’ve come to expect. But then Rogue Nation does something pretty amazing.: it actually nails the third act.

Previous Mission Impossibles can be justifiably criticized for not really coming together in the end. Notably for the second film (which is two very entertaining acts followed by a bunch of WTF), but all except the first are pretty flabby at the conclusion.

Not so here. McQuarrie has crafted a great conclusion that brings the whole arc of the film back to a neat, satisfying close.

It’s not a stretch to say that Rogue Nation is the best in the series.

3. SPY

For all the recent talk about the overwhelming presence of superhero movies, it’s actually the spy genre that’s been omnipresent this year. Along with the aforementioned UNCLE and Rogue Nation, there was also Kingsman back in February. And then there’s the latest in the granddaddy of all spy franchises this holiday season, with Spectre.

Somewhere in all this, Melissa McCarthy’s latest endeavor to set herself as THE go-to name in comedy came out. And it’s a spy movie. Now, it’s a comedy, but it’s not a spoof. The film tweaks with conventions, with hilarious results, but it doesn’t ridicule them.

The comedy here is a bit of a slow burn. For the first act or so, I was smiling and nodding along, but it was like funny and enjoyable, not gut-busting. And then it just clicked. I’m not sure what the moment was exactly. It might have been Rose Byrne delivering a perfect upper crust obscenity. It might have been the moment when it was suddenly clear exactly what Jason Statham’s character was like. Regardless, at a moment, SPY went from a fun romp to a comedy great.

The cast is perfect. Each member can deliver the funny, but does so in different ways. Statham and Byrne are standouts, but McCarthy continues her quest to establish one of the best comedic resumes in history. And supporting efforts from Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, and Miranda Hart round things out. Several times I had a thought of “I hate this character” followed by “but they’re so funny!”

In addition to McCarthy, director Paul Feig has been delivering a consistent string of hits after cutting his teeth on TV work. So far, he hasn’t been a standout technically, but his efforts are solid and with SPY and The Heat, he’s shown he has a good eye to blend action and comedy.

McCarthy and Feig team up again with Ghostbusters next year. Personally, I can’t wait.

2. Inside Out

Pete Docter is the best director working in animation today. He’s one of the core people in Pixar’s brain trust, and among them all he’s remained as the stalwart at the studio. John Lasseter is now in charge of all Disney creative endeavors, and he always struck me as better on the production rather than directing side. Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird are both fine directors, but they’ve taken forays into live action that have not been entirely successful. Both have returned to Pixar.

But Docter has remained throughout the entire history of the studio. And in so doing he’s delivered three of the best animated films of all time. While discussions can be heated when you talk about the output of a studio that has as high bar for quality as Pixar, Inside Out is arguably up there for best Pixar film ever.

For all the doubts levied against Pixar’s recent output, Inside Out shows that the studio can still deliver on its strengths. And Docter’s storytelling choices are probably the most perfectly suited to Pixar. He makes his films funny and exciting, but he also has an ability to home in on the heartfelt expression that makes Pixar stand out.

Tears are not an uncommon feature of his films. And personally, none of the other Pixar films hit quite so hard as Docter’s. And even Inside Out is a step above the rest, with three huge gut-punch moments.

Ultimately, what Inside Out and Docter deliver is a commodity so few films truly deliver: satisfaction. At the end, we’re given a film so complete that it’s profound. And then we realize how rare that feeling is, so we want to see it again.

Well, I’ve gone on for about 1500 words this time. I think I’ll cap it there and then I can really go long next time while I talk about my favorite film of the summer.

My 2015 Movie Summer (part 1)

So, we’re past Labor Day. The summer movie season is at an end, even if the season itself doesn’t end for another two weeks.

The movie summer season currently runs from the first weekend in May* through Labor day. That’s a good four months or so, which dwarfs the other three movie seasons, all of which clock in right around two months apiece.

*A notable exception should be given for 2011, when Fast Five opened over the final April weekend and was a much stronger summer starter than Thor.

(For the curious: Winter runs from the post-New Year’s weekend through the final weekend in February. Spring from the first weekend in March through the final weekend in April. Fall from the post-Labor Day weekend through the final October weekend. And Holiday from the post-Halloween weekend through the New Year’s weekend.)

Since it’s a big movie season, I tend to see a fair number of films each summer. Due to some viewing choices and life events, I may have seen fewer than average this year. But even so, I’d like to rank all the ones I saw from worst to best.

11. Jurassic World

God, this movie was such a disappointment. For a film that everyone apparently went to see and mostly enjoyed, it’s just a turgid slog. The action is lackluster, the science is deplorable (more on that in a bit), and the humor is lacking. Even the parts that I was excited about, like Chris Pratt’s presence, were underwhelming. I should make a special note for the score, which had one of the least inspired efforts from the usually fantastic Michael Giacchino and also used the cues from John Williams’ brilliant original in egregiously terrible moments.

Beyond that, it was especially galling that the science was so bad. When the original Jurassic Park came out, it used most of the best paleontological information of the time in its presentation of the dinosaurs. Jurassic World is entirely beholden to the image of the original film while betraying the spirit. In fact, the presentation of dinosaurs is WORSE than the original.

I’m not going to lie. Trevorrow’s selection as director of Star Wars Episode 9 has dampened my enthusiasm for the entire franchise, including the incredibly hyped The Force Awakens.

I’d go so far to say that Jurassic World is the worst film I’ve seen this year, but not by a huge margin, because…

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron

A few years back, in the middle of Phase 1, I posited that Iron Man may mark the high point of Marvel’s cinematic endeavors. After all, Iron Man 2 had, despite a larger opening, not even been able to match the first in the domestic box office (to say nothing about the quality) and Thor and Captain America had done strong but not spectacular efforts. Incredible Hulk was, even at that early date in the franchise history, mostly forgotten. Despite the selection of geek golden boy Joss Whedon to direct the promised team-up film, it certainly felt like there was a ceiling on the properties.

Obviously, I was wrong about that. Avengers exploded in a way nobody predicted, and Phase 2 films Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy both eclipsing any of the earlier films. Marvel has gone from interesting movie experiment to industry trendsetter. EVERYONE is getting in on the cinematic universe game, even if their properties don’t allow it.

Of course, while the success is sky high, the quality has been taking a hit. The Phase 1 films felt fresh and interesting. They had a system, of course, but you could feel that there was some original voice. In Phase 2, they started to feel like a formula. There were the quips, the action beats,  the pretty standard directing, the actors named Chris.

Age of Ultron feels like the film where the wheels finally came off. Even if I didn’t particularly care for the first Avengers, it worked as a Whedon vehicle, because it did all the things he does well. Ultron, in contrast, felt like all those things getting sanded down, leaving just the formulaic shell. Despite the quips, the characters felt largely out of character. Despite the action, it felt like a yawn.

It’s not quite as infuriating as Jurassic World, but it’s still a shrug of a film. What happened during it? I don’t really remember, but worse, I don’t even care.

9. Fantastic Four

The story about Fantastic Four has pretty much moved well beyond the film itself. The behind-the-scenes rumors. Director Josh Trank’s implosion just prior to release. The absolutely awful box office response. There’s really no good way to spin this.

Yet, despite all that, I kinda liked it.

Even if I allow that as constructed and presented, Fantastic Four is pretty terrible, I do appreciate the interesting ideas it was trying to tackle. We may never know what the film Josh Trank wanted to make was like, but for those few bits in it where those efforts shone through, I was captivated.

And that alone sets it above the lazy, by-the-numbers efforts of Trevorrow and Whedon.

8. San Andreas

I could probably flip this with Fantastic Four. There really isn’t anything interesting here as far as premise, but The Rock is pretty damn entertaining, even if he can’t quite lift the film beyond passable. Still, in the context that I saw it – a summer night at a drive-in – it grabbed me.

The science is notably bad, but the big destruction scenes are quite enjoyable. It probably just needed to feel a bit more perilous. The advertising made it feel a bit more doom-worthy than it actually was.

After I saw it, I said that if they do a sequel (likely, given the success), they should set it in the Pacific Northwest, which has a subduction fault and has the potential for much bigger earthquakes than California. Then a few weeks later we got that article about how much damage could happen if such a quake did happen and everyone was abuzz about the danger to Seattle.

The article was a bit scare-tactic-y, but I felt exonerated.

And, hey, if they do it, they can keep the same Spanish naming convention. Juan de Fuca is right there.

7. Tomorrowland

Sometimes I get a story idea and think “this is going to be amazing!” It’s got setting and action and character and a whole heap of potential. But then I sit down and start trying to work out a plot and find that it’s just not there.

Tomorrowland feels like that, except someone spent $200 million dollars. It’s got potential up the wazoo, but ultimately it’s half baked.

The setup is actually pretty good. For a couple acts, Tomorrowland runs along at a good, enjoyable clip. The acting is fine. The visuals are amazing. But then it hits the third act and things just start screeching to a halt.

I don’t know exactly where in the process things went wrong. Maybe Brad Bird just never figured out what makes the concept click. Maybe Damon Lindelof really can’t write a third act to save his life. I don’t know. Something didn’t work, and that’s readily apparent on the screen.

If nothing else, Jurassic World showed that you can make a complete mess catch on if you’ve got one great moment in the third act for people to latch onto. (Even if everything surrounding that moment was stupid as all getout.) Tomorrowland is like the polar opposite: impeccable craft and decision-making ruined because there’s never a moment to fist-pump.

It’s hardly the worst film of the summer, but it’s possibly the most disappointing. Bird’s given us some absolutely great films. And after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol it really seemed like Tomorrowland had promise. Bird wasn’t going to completely fumble and pull a Stanton, right?

Well, now it looks like Pixar is 0-2 in getting their directors to transition to live action. The screwups are so bad they’ve basically killed any effort at Disney to make original live-action fare. The studio is completely in the established franchise tentpole game at this point.

I think movies as a whole are worse off because of it.

 

Well, I’ve gone over a thousand words, but I’m only about halfway through. This is a good point to take a break, though. I’ll get the finale up in the next day or two.

What’s in a name?

So, last week Denali had its name restored, after more than a century of being inexplicably called Mount McKinley. And except for a few Ohioans, nobody really found this change objectionable. McKinley had nothing to do with Denali, nor Alaska. Additionally, he was decidedly middle-tier as far as presidents, mostly notable for being assassinated leading to Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.

Still, because renaming a natural landmark is somewhat rare, we’ve been besieged by dozens of thinkpieces about Denali. Many of these are easily discarded and forgotten. (Some exist only to criticize Obama, regardless of his actions, so such opinions aren’t worth consideration, even if they aren’t spouting out-and-out falsehoods like Denali being the “Kenyan” word for black power.)

But amid all these are a number of articles positing that maybe we should be restoring names of other landmarks to original, Native American names.

It’s a worth conversation to have, in my opinion, because the relationship between the largely white American populace and the Native Americans who were displaced and outright killed during American expansion is brimming with friction. While name restoration isn’t going to solve everything, it would be a positive gesture.

Granted, most names aren’t nearly as egregious as naming Denali after McKinley. Indeed, the people most familiar with the mountain, Alaskans and mountaineers, invariably called it Denali regardless of the official name. So this is less a name switch but more an official acknowledgement of what the accepted name actually is.

In many other cases, it’s not quite as clear. Also, Native American names are very often used for states, cities, rivers, lakes, and, yes, mountains. But in other cases, the Native American names have been pushed to the side. And the now official names are often a bit head-scratching.

So, one common suggestion is that Mount Rainier should have its name restored to reflect Native American heritage.

The name Rainier was given by George Vancouver, who named many things in the Pacific Northwest during his expedition in the 1790s. Vancouver’s process seemed to be upon seeing something neat that needed a name, to pick out one of his friends. So we got Hood and St. Helens and Baker and Rainier for mountains, all of which were members of the Royal Navy.

All fine and dandy. Much like McKinley, Rainier is named after a man who had literally nothing to do with it. He was a naval officer who never explored the Pacific Northwest, never saw the mountain that bears his name, and never even came to what is now Washington State. A restoration of the Native American name wouldn’t be a problem, except for a little awkwardness of beers and baseball teams that bear its name.

The weird thing about these thinkpieces that posit that Rainier should have its name restored is that they almost always just mention “efforts to restore the Native American name” and then do not mention what that name is at all. Any mainstream news outlet, be it CNN or Buzzfeed, just glosses over that part.

Even a petition that was sent to me about whether I’d be in favor of the name restoration never mentions what that name is.

And that boggles my mind. Because it’s not like finding the original name is difficult. The name is used with abandon in the local area. Numerous roads, a school district, and even an entire city bear the name. Hell, it’s even mentioned on Wikipedia as literally the first thing after it says “Mount Rainier”.

It’s Tahoma. Or Tacoma.

While efforts to restore the name are probably doomed, it’s agonizing that journalists couldn’t even do some basic, easy research to mention what name is attempting to be restored.

“Restore the original name!”

“Okay, what is it?”

“Eh…” *shrug*

A year and a month of Marvel Unlimited

One of the great things about Netflix is that it has a complete history of your viewing habits. Want to know exactly what you were watching in June of 2010? It’ll be there, saved in the bits of the Netflix video cloud.

Sadly, the same is not true for Marvel’s Unlimited digital comics service. True, when I open the app on the iPad, it has a list of the books I’ve recently read, and this does only show the latest issue for a specific title. But it also only shows the last twenty or so, which for me only goes back into the last month.

I got Marvel Unlimited initially due to a 99 cent sale in celebration of Guardians of the Galaxy. I liked it enough I got another year subscription. Because while the far back issue coverage is spotty and there’s a six month lag time from print, it is pretty comprehensive for recent history and served a pretty great way to catch up on a number of books.

My subscription ends today, though. I may pick it back up again in the future, but there were several blank months where I didn’t read anything, and then ended up doing a reading binge to catch up. Not really the most efficient use of the app.

Still, it was a good thirteen months. And while I can’t comprehensively list what I’ve read, here’s a few things that I dug:

Among recent series, Ms. Marvel, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Storm and Thor are all great. These formed the core of my “regular” titles that ideally I would have read every month.

Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery. Fantastic. As a general rule, I don’t care about big events. In fact, I find them unenjoyable, since they tend to throw roadbumps into the books I read, which are often on the fringes of the main universe offerings. (Crossovers between a handful of related books, or a couple diverse ones, are fine.) So the Fear Itself story didn’t really grab me. But Gillen’s take on young Loki had a lot of humor and pathos and was great reading.

Actually, I went on a bit of a Gillen kick. I didn’t get to his X-Men run, or his pre-JiM Thor, but did cover most of his other stuff. I’m not yet at the point where I can see his linguistic tics (unlike, say, Warren Ellis or Brian Michael Bendis), but it’s still great to see how he constructs a comic story.

On that thought of big events, yeah. So, I abhor Civil War. It’s complete excrement, with a bad plot and characters who are written terribly. And this distaste means that pretty much anything related to it is unreadable. So all those post-Civil War comics that covered stuff about the Superhuman Registration Act? I couldn’t read them. I’d heard the Fraction/Aja Iron Fist series was pretty great. I couldn’t get through the first issue.

Of course, the exception to the previous statement, because I’m not consistent, is that I did read Avengers Academy. Because if there’s a comic trope I am ALL ABOUT, it’s super kids in trouble. This isn’t the best example of the format. There’s some rocky bits and character transitions that don’t feel entirely smooth, but it’s overall enjoyable and some of the new heroes (Hazmat!) are great.

I followed that up with Avengers Arena which is… not quite as enjoyable. It’s still mostly fun, but it does highlight a problem with characters like Arcade. If “murder” is the point of the character, then you need to strike a fine balance to make sure you haven’t crossed some murder event horizon. AA pretty firmly shoves Arcade beyond that, which undermines his ability to return to the goofball villain with a lethal side and instead has him in that realm of “why is anyone putting up with this any longer?”

The ultimate attempt to address this discrepancy in Avengers Undercover is a bit unconvincing. Still, over the course of the three series we did get some fun characters. I’m all about more Hazmat and X-23.

And most recently I settled down and caught up on some Bendis, by reading through his X-Men and GotG runs. As far as the merry mutants, Bendis has a somewhat iffy history. I mean, House of M is terribad. It’s saving grace is that it’s sandwiched between Disassembled (Bendis’ absolute worst book that I’ve read) and Civil War, so you can sort of say it’s not quite as bad as the complete shit around it, but still. I sort of drifted away from Bendis after that, outside of Powers, which has a spotty track record.

Still, thanks to Rachel and Miles, I heard that his X-runs are good. So I gave them a shot.And, yeah. Both All New and Uncanny are very good, bordering into great at times.

All New starts off especially strong, because it’s a really fun and keen concept. It’s especially neat because Bendis is jumping off of a very pre-Claremont point with the characters and then developing them. So young Jean is absolutely fantastic and I kinda want to read any book she’s in.

Uncanny also has a pretty killer hook and does a great job at humanizing Cyclops, which I wasn’t sure was possible. I haven’t read Schism or AvX (events, natch), but what I’d heard seemed to put Cyc through the Cap in Civil War bender from which no character turns out well.

Both titles suffered a bit after their first arcs because they felt like they were spinning their wheels and didn’t have a strong direction. But then it came clear that they were joining up at the Battle of the Atom crossover. Which is okay. Bendis’ stuff is still good but the other books were less so. I don’t want to go into all the stuff surrounding X-Men and why I didn’t read it even though I liked the characters and concepts, but I will say that Wood’s scripts felt like the extreme weak link in this crossover.

The post Battle of the Atom work on both books is great. The Ultimate Adventure for All-New is super keen, and I really liked the lettering changes. The Dazzler stuff in Uncanny is hype. And Eva Bell is just fantastic.

I read GotG because of the All New crossover for the Trial of Jean Grey. Good fun there, though GotG felt like a weaker book than the X-titles. The art is more haphazard and I felt like a number of plot developments happened without sufficient explanation. Still fun, though. And used that to springboard into the Star Lord series, which I could take or leave, really. It’s okay, but feels a little forced. And as a final read is Scottie Young’s Rocket Raccoon book, which is DELIGHTFUL. It’s easily the best of any GotG-related title since the Abnett/Lanning era.

There are a few books I didn’t quite read as much as I wanted to. I got sidetracked from the recent She Hulk book and I’d like to finish it, but I should probably sit down and read it all again from the getgo. Also, due to the time lag, I’m left one issue shy of completing Fraction and Aja’s run on Hawkeye, which is a little agonizing. I should read that from start to finish as well.

I just recently read the first issue of Silk, which seems pretty fun, especially the art. And I wish I’d been able to read more than the very initial appearance of Spider-Gwen. I’m still bitter about the whole One More Day bullshit, but have to admit that Spidey does have a really cool extended cast. Sadly I’ll have to wait to check out any more of this stuff.

So, as a thirteen month attempt, I’d mark Marvel Unlimited a success. I spent $70 or so, which would probably get about 5 TPBs, and I probably read an order of magnitude more than that. Finances willing, I’d probably plop down for another year at some point, but I could also see just doing a month from time to time and doing a binge.

If they can fill in the back issue holes, add a few UI tweaks, and give you a comprehensive list of everything you’ve read, it’d be damn near perfect.

Book Review: The End of All Things, by John Scalzi

I don’t entirely remember when I started reading John Scalzi. I do remember hearing about him and searching (in vain) for Old Man’s War at Half-Price Books, but my first experience was probably sometime around when The Last Colony was published.

My first experience wasn’t particularly a watershed moment as a science fiction reader. I enjoyed Old Man’s War enough to add Scalzi to my list of regulars to follow, but the book fell into a comfortable zone of military SF without blowing my mind. And it seemed Scalzi wished to remain in that comfort zone for some time, probably intelligently, since it allowed him to grow his fan base very well over the subsequent years.

However, don’t let it be said that Scalzi is one to rest on his laurels. Starting with Zoe’s Tale, he’s fairly consistently tried new things with each subsequent novel, pushing boundaries, even if his work is mostly mainstream in the SF sphere.

While The End of All Things isn’t his most groundbreaking work (that honor goes to last year’s Lock In), it is a pretty big stretch in a few ways for the Old Man’s War universe. It follows on the rough format established in The Human Division, as a collection of shorter stories (four novellas, in this case) that combine to a greater whole. However, he’s cast the net far wider this time around. The Human Division mostly remains focused on the same group of characters (Harry Wilson, Hart Schmidt, and company) established in The B Team story. In contrast, The End of All Things relegates them to secondary characters for the first half of the book, instead establishing new viewpoints to bring the story forward from The Human Division’s climactic, cliffhanger ending.

And it works. Scalzi has a gift for character voice, so we inhabit these characters so well that we can’t help but to like them. In The Life of the Mind, Rafe Daquin addresses one of the bigger plot hooks from The Human Division in an engaging manner, providing a fun viewpoint for a truly terrifying situation. This Hollow Union brings back one of Scalzi’s most enjoyable protagonists, Hafte Sorvalh, first introduced in a cute short story, but showcasing invigorating political acumen here.

The latter half of the book does bring back more familiar characters. Heather Lee, who served as protagonist in one of The Human Division’s stories returns for Can Long Endure, an almost slice-of-life look at the changes to the Colonial Union’s foot soldiers’ lives. Then Harry Wilson returns to take the finale home in To Stand or Fall.

I had some hope that Perry and his family would return for a cameo, but that was wishful thinking. Perhaps he will make an appearance if Scalzi gets the itch to revisit the universe yet again. Or perhaps we’ll be treated to a whole new cast of characters. Scalzi is very good about establishing them after all.

If there’s a complaint about the book, it’s probably with regards to the big bad, so to speak. The Human Division worked wonders for building up a new threat against the Colonial Union, the Conclave, and Earth. While that made for an excellent cliffhanger (and two years of waiting), I can’t help but feel that that the ultimate reveal and identity of the threat is a bit anticlimactic. If you’re going to use a mystery, particularly one that spans volumes, make sure it’s a great one. The mystery here is good and serviceable, but never made me go “whoa!”

Still, that’s a minor gripe compared to the novel as a whole. As he usually does, Scalzi has crafted a tale that’s engaging to the point that I found it difficult to put down long enough to take care of necessary things. A good book should leave you craving for more, and that’s definitely the case here.

It’s a tossup which of the four novellas I enjoyed the most, but I think it says a lot that I’d like to see more of Hafte Sorvalh in the future, and I’m very curious to find out what Heather Lee ends up doing with her new life, even if it’s only shown as a short story. It’s possible that I just prefer a female protagonist, however, so don’t read a whole lot into this. All four of the novellas work.
While I hope it isn’t truly the end of all things for the Old Man’s War universe, The End of All Things is a satisfying conclusion for now, bringing and emotional end and a new status quo.4/5

Box Office Awesome: Go Big or Go… Home?

The general consensus, at least business-wise, is this year has been a great summer for movie business. And, um… is it? Really?

To be sure, the top end for 2015 has been great. Jurassic World shattered expectations for the second biggest first-run of all time. I don’t know anyone who was even predicting $400 million domestic, much less edging into the mid-600s. And even if Avengers: Age of Ultron didn’t do the gonzo business expected, it’s still an extremely solid performer in abstract. Beyond those two are the animation over-performers of Inside Out and Minions. If the biggest films are doing that well, doesn’t that mean it’s great overall?

Well, maybe.

See, there’s going to be a neat trick when all is said and done. The gulf between the 4th place film (Minions) and the 5th place film (Pitch Perfect 2) is already almost at $140 million, and will probably be close to $150 million when all is said and done.

Pitch Perfect 2 is “only” at $183 million. (It’s a vast over-performer relative to expectations, but bear with me for a moment.) The gap between them is huge. In fact, this summer will be the first in twenty years that no film has grossed between $200 and $300 million. (Assuming, of course, that Straight Outta Compton doesn’t have some crazy late legs to get over the mark.)

It’s not just the summer, either. Except for Cinderella, which barely limped over the double century mark thanks to efforts by Disney to pair it with Age of Ultron and Inside Out, no other film this year has hit in that $200-300 million range.

Again, the last time that happened was 1995. The trick was in 1995, the highest grossing film the entire year was Toy Story which did not even make $200m. We’re in vastly different territory for what films are capable of. Ticket prices have nearly doubled in that time, and the population of the US and Canada (the Domestic Market) has increased some 65 million.

Our hit films, are really big hits. We’ve already got 5 films that have made at least $300 million. And that’s not including American Sniper which had an extremely limited Christmas release before going wide over the MLK weekend, which technically means it’s a 2014 film, but it made almost all its $350 million in 2015. For the rest of the year, there will be at least two more films that also get that big, the final Hunger Games film and, of course, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. So this year is going to be huge for the top of the line success.

Oh, yeah. The previous record for $300 million grossing films, is 4.

But paired with that is near complete absence of the mid-level blockbuster status. The hits have gotten hittier, but they’ve apparently sucked the life out of everything else. Movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Have done acceptably solid local business, but nothing spectacular. That’s in spite of absolutely glowing reviews.

This brings to mind the comments in recent years about the future of blockbuster films. Steven Spielberg and his blockbuster-creating brethren have posited that there’s an end on the horizon. The status of budgets getting bigger and bigger is going to doom blockbusters because people have so much gosh-darn distractions.

Except that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. The blockbuster will survive, it seems, but only in an increasingly branded status. If you like cinematic universes, you’re golden.

But it feels like anything not aiming for the broadest possible audience is doomed to relative mediocrity. Much like the turn of the century changes to the industry spelled doom to the $50 million budget mid-level studio efforts, it seems that this decade has been pruning back on anything that doesn’t have a really well-established brand.

This isn’t exactly new. Hollywood has long been in the franchise business and branding is part and parcel of the game. But the budgetary requirements mean that even to have a chance at success, you need to have an established brand from the get-go.

If you’re playing with the shared worlds of Marvel or DC or already established franchises, that’s good. But the likelihood of getting anything new off the ground is looking like a harder and harder sell. There’s a catch 22 going on: you to be successful to have a shot at a franchise, but you need a recognized brand in order to get that success.

Blockbusters are here to stay, but “originality” for whatever definition you apply to it, is out the window.

The trials and tribulations of Dreamworks Animation is pretty much a pinpoint example of that. For the past several years, the studio has been trying to get new franchises off the ground. They’ve tried several times to get a new series started, to replace their Shrek and Madagascar lines. And except for The Croods, they’ve all been pretty much whiffs since the first How to Train Your Dragon, which was over 5 years ago. All these original property attempts, and many, many commercial failures.

Even Home, which turned out to be a massive spring surprise, didn’t quite get the return from international markets that would let them say “this is a success!”

The DWA brand, it seems, isn’t quite enough to get audiences to come just because. A marked contrast to Walt Disney Animation and Pixar.

Magic jokes, often not funny

I’m going to meander into Magic: The Gathering territory, right now.

A few months ago, a new website cropped up with an article about Elspeth, Knight Errant. The analysis of the article is rather sound, at least at the time. Elspeth is awesome and I would make the argument that she is the best Planeswalker. (Fans of Jace, The Mind Sculptor may disagree, but invariably, they’re paired at the top of the heap.)

The problem with the article, since corrected, was the opening paragraph, which reduced Elspeth from the awesome, army leading character she is to a supportive housewife. She makes the dude babies and I’m pretty sure there was a line in there about baking him pie. I think he promised that he would explain that so it made sense, but the article never did.

The writer was called out for the blatant sexism, the most offending paragraph was removed, and everyone moved on, right? (The article still has the problematic “My Knight Errant”, which brings up possessiveness and objectification all in one, but it was a drastic improvement.) I’m sure the writer wasn’t too broken up over it, despite the site claiming it was a joke that fell flat, I knew I wasn’t going to keep reading, but I’m one reader and not an influential one. I mostly forgot about it and moved on.

But this past week, something happened. I was at a PTQ making some trades and chatting with a few Elder Dragon Highlander players. I got it in my head that I’d like to build a deck of my own in the format (which is by all accounts incredibly fun) and I happened on Khemba, Kha Regent as the general for the deck. This gave me a couple of easy themes to build on: cats and equipment. Khemba’s ability to generate more creatures can be pretty huge, especially if you can get her with a few pieces of equipment.

Awesome. I trade for one, went home, and started pulling out cards from my meager collection to get a deck together. Then I checked out some forums to get some ideas on where to go from here.

Unfortunately, I ran headlong into more sexism. See, Kemba’s got a rather prominent chest, such that some players have apparently nicknamed her the Titty Kitty. Juvenile, but somewhat apt, given the art for the card. I could have ignored that as yet another vaguely sexist element of gamer society that crosses gender boundaries. It’s not really that bad, in the grand scheme of things and from a lyrical perspective, it’s even kinda funny.

Then I happened upon the following series of comments:
"From a woman's perspective, I'd be interested to hear what you think of the sexual stereotyping on Kemba."

"What sexual stereotype are you referring to?

"Come on, you didn't get the whole social commentary going on with Kemba?

"Add her boobalicious kitty art to her mechanic and she screams "Give me bling: I'll whelp you a new kitten. Give me lots of bling: I'll whelp you lots of kittens." You're pretty much paying her to provide progeniture."

(link)

I’m sorry, what? What social commentary? Sexual stereotyping? The art is a bit over the top, yes, but I don’t see anything in the design that screams stereotype. And it can’t be commentary unless Wizards intentionally meant for that interpretation.

They make a fucking card game. They aren’t in the social commentary business, and as intelligent as most players are, given how blind gamers tend to be about social nuances, I doubt they’d expect any reasoned response to any commentary they put in games.

No, the only commentary here is what we can make in response to comments like that.

But now it got me thinking. There are a number of cards that can generate creature tokens. They often do so in different ways, but I wondered how many are like Elspeth and Kemba. I’m looking for something directly comparable: a creature (or card that otherwise has a recognizable “face” whether human or closely anthropomorphized), that can bring multiple tokens into play, either upon entry to the battlefield or gradually over time.

And how many of these could possibly be construed as “making babies” rather than, oh, inspiring troops to follow them?

To save myself from dredging back into the great nether history of Magic, I’m just going to keep this to cards currently in the Extended environment.

Cards that depict a clearly female character:
Captain of the Watch
Dragonmaster Outcast
Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Elspeth Tirel
Emeria Angel
Imperious Perfect
Kazandu Tuskcaller
Kemba, Kha Regent
Myrsmith
Oona, Queen of the Fae
Rakka Mar
Sharding Sphinx
Wort, the Raidmother
Wren’s Run Packmaster

Clearly male:

Kalitas, Bloodchief of Ghet
Knight-Captain of Eos
Lich Lord of Unx
Lullmage Mentor
Master of the Wild Hunt
Nath of the Gilt-Leaf

Pawn of Ulamog
Puppet Conjurer
Rhys the Redeemed
Siege-Gang Commander
Stonybrook Schoolmaster

Turntimber Ranger

Ambiguous:
Boggart Mob
Cemetery Reaper

Cloudgoat Ranger
Grave Titan
Mirror-Sigil Sergeant
Patrol Signaler

Springjack Shepherd
Weirding Shaman

There’s also Ant Queen which isn’t anthropomorphized, but is clearly female.

Okay, that’s a fairly hefty list of cards. A number of them could conditionally be ignored since the creatures generated are sufficiently different than there isn’t a real possibility of assuming the tokens are babies (elves generating wolf tokens, for instance.) Still, from a broad standpoint there are 14 obviously female characters and 12 obviously male. Of the 14 female, 7 generate functionally similar tokens. 8 of the male do the same. I’ve bolded all of these above. Of the 8 ambiguous characters, 5 generate similar tokens.

I’ve also italicized three of the female characters which generate different creature types, but could be construed as a birthing process in some fashion. For instance, Emeria Angel has wings with feathers and generates birds, which also have wings with feathers. Maybe birds are immature angels?

Rakka Mar I probably would have ignored, except I remember a recent comic which seemed to have a character with a volcanic vagina. So Rakka spitting out fire elementals didn’t seem too far gone.

Now, granted, I don’t think Wizards has been deliberate about any of this. Certainly, the breakdown between male and female characters is close enough that I don’t think we can take any trends.

And, even among the playerbase, other than these two instances, I haven’t heard any commentary. Indeed, I don’t think we can draw any positive conclusions that Wizards is intentionally making any sort of correlation between creature creation and having babies. The aforementione Ant Queen is an obvious exception, but it’s also completely without sexual overtones. Unless you go for ants, I suppose.

So the commentary has to come from a subset of the playerbase. As I’ve noted, I’ve only seen two examples, but I’m sure others exist.

Why these two, though?

The Elspeth issue I find easier to explain. The player really likes Elspeth as a card. Indeed, both versions of her are fantastic Planeswalkers. The original, Knight Errant, is one of the best released, and the newer one could be at that level, but hasn’t been broken just yet.

The viewpoint, and joke, that he made about Elspeth being in the kitchen, making him babies and pie, speaks of a sort of 50s-era husband and mindset. His deck is his household, his castle and he is king. Elspeth is his wife, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, supportive and he’s certainly willing to admit making his every success possible. (Jokes about his better half and all.) But she’s still subservient to him.

It’s a bullshit viewpoint. A sexist, bullshit viewpoint. Not only does it undermine what sort of character Elspeth is supposed to be (because she’s fucking awesome), but it really doesn’t speak well of the writer. He said it was a joke. It wasn’t a funny one.

Ironically, it’s because Elspeth is such a strong character that the situation arises. It’s rather similar to any action undermining a woman in a position of power, real or fictional. Invariably, someone will make a comment that she’s only in that position in some fashion related to her sexual or reproductive capabilities. She has sex, then she slept her way there? She doesn’t, and she’s frigid. Able to hold her own, then it’s time she got back home and made her man some babies.

Disgusting, but it doesn’t quite adequately explain Kemba. See, as fun a card she is, Kemba isn’t especially powerful. The desire to subject her subconsciously doesn’t seem to play into it.

The card art is one obvious reason, of course, but I think there’s a deeper issue at play: this is a racist, sexist depiction.

See, Kemba is a cat character. Given her Leonin race, I think we can surmise that she’s supposed to be an anthropomorphized lion. That scans as African, for the most part, which means Kemba can be considered to be black.

She wants bling and she’ll be your baby-mama. Right.

Honestly not sure how you could come up with a more offensive interpretation. A sexist, racist, bullshit viewpoint. It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke or not.

This really highlights one of the major issues with the Magic community. It’s not homogenous, but the strata of people you get by examining it tend strongly toward male and fairly heavily to white or Asian. This sort of geeky, boys club breeds a certain viewpoint, which isn’t healthy and doesn’t engender a welcoming environment.

Recently, Wizards has taken some actions which have been designed to increase the support and presence for the local game stores for players to play at. On one hand, this is a very good thing, because supporting local businesses, even if they’re largely selling a single product for a multi-national corporation, is good for the economy, and it does engender a positive atmosphere for players.

On the other hand, this will probably be ultimately harmful in any effort to spread Magic around to a wider audience. Many (but not all) game stores suffer the same problem as many (but not all) comic stores. It’s the dungeon problem. Now, many of both types of stores are fine. My chosen comic/game store is actually wonderful. But then I’ve also checked out places that make me feel claustrophobic, uncomfortable, and unwelcome.

And I’m a geeky, white dude. I’m about a privileged and into that group as you can get. I’m really wondering what a non-white woman is going to feel. Wizards, by eliminating support for non-game store tournament organizers probably set back some efforts to spread out the game. This, even if only passively, supports the idea that Magic is a game for guys only, and any girls (like Lauren Lee) are going to be seen as anomalies. And thus there’s a vicious cycle to view it as a “boys club” environment where certain things are okay.

When I went to Grand Prix Portland, I met up with a friend in the area for Sunday breakfast. She’s geeky, and really into comics, but I was surprised when she told me that she has played Magic on occasion, mostly because she’d made previous comments that it was something she wanted to avoid. I didn’t press much, mostly because we had many other, wonderful topics of conversation and I’d already spent a day thinking about Magic, but I wondered if it was more then environment and less the game that put her off.

Ideally, there’d be a way to reach out. I’m actually happy when I’m at a tournament and I see women playing, although I’m simultaneously disappointed that they still seem to be at only a few percentage points of the field. I think EDH, with its somewhat enforced casual atmosphere and focus on many things besides outright winning, could be a good stepping stone.

I’m just disappointed that there’s still so much to overcome.

DC’s Movie Future

The big news for comic book geeks right now are the DC changes. The company is dissolving Wildstorm and presumably every other imprint besides Vertigo. All non-publishing operations are moving from New York to SoCal. There are a number of questions up in the air, but for the most part, that’s just a bunch of businessy things to think about.

The reasons for these changes make a lot of sense. DC’s had a problem for a while, lagging behind Marvel for a number of years and often playing copycat to try and catch up. The company has had a broader scope of comics printed, under a number of different imprints, but nothing’s seemed to catch on.

Step one, it seems, is to remove a lot of dead weight. I imagine that in the next few months, they’ll announce how they’ll handle the various creator-owned properties, whether it’s by moving them under the Vertigo banner or something else will remain to be seen.

What’s considerably more fascinating, to me, is a quote by DC head honcho Diane Nelson where she says that they aren’t Marvel. Obvious, of course, but upon consideration, it’s a very smart move.

Marvel’s approach to movies is well understood to be building a universe that will culminate, of sorts, with the Joss Whedon Avengers film in a couple years. I imagine that, if it’s a successful experiment, it won’t stop there, but I don’t get the sense that they’ve got a plan that extends much further until they see how it goes. This eggs in a basket strategy is probably driven by necessity. Due to a number of financial issues Marvel had over a decade ago, the company sold off the rights to a number of characters. They can’t do anything, film-wise, with the two biggest characters under the company’s publishing banner: Spider-Man and Wolverine. (Held by Sony and Fox, respectively.)

In fact, given the attempts under Avi Arad to license out the over 6000 characters in the Marvel universe, many of the more well-known characters are effectively gone for good. (It’s entirely possible that the rights could lapse, but I believe that’s only happened with Hulk. All other major properties have some sort of film in production.) This is a big issue because the money is made on the big screen (and subsequent DVD sales) rather than in the monthly issues. Marvel does the latter very well, and the former was elsewhere. (This last point is what makes the Disney purchase seem so odd.)

Enter the Avengers. Take the remaining characters, most of them second-tier, and hand them off to good directors and such to create a movie universe unlike anything that’s been done before. It’s great branding and gets the word out that this is the Next Big Thing. So long as the films are good, then everything will be hunky-dory. Luckily for Marvel, Iron Man was very good, so things are getting rolling. The Avengers seems like a dream come true: a real superhero team-up film on the big screen. Awesome, right? And not a little bit lucky that they still had Cap, Thor, and ol’ Shellhead in-house.

DC doesn’t have that problem. For the most part, any character under the DC banner has the film rights in-house under Warner Bros. While Marvel’s been all over the place, the dream of a JLA movie has been kicking around at least since the late ’90s. Nothing came of any of those, partially because DC never seemed to be able to do anything besides Batman or Superman, and partially because getting a large cast of superheroes together gets unwieldy. Seriously, when you have too many characters, it’s not good cinema. Just one of the many problems that plagued X-Men 3.

So Marvel may have found the magic formula, however: individual films for a series of characters, then bring them together for the team-up. You don’t need to worry about backstory. And DC’s got a couple of Bat-films in the current series, a Green Lantern film out next year. Just need something new for Supes, work out The Flash and Wonder Woman, and you’re there, right? Easy enough to copy Marvel’s playbook… again.

However, Nelson’s quote indicates that (as of right now) they have no plans to do that. For a couple of reasons, this is probably the best decision. First, there’s the creative side. DC doesn’t have the same necessity. The movie studio isn’t force to use the second tier characters because their big guns are right there, and (at least in Batman’s case), extremely profitable and visible. When the third Batman film comes out, it’s going to do just fine. And Christopher Nolan’s also at work on a Superman film, which has a lot of justifiably high expectations.

However, Nolan’s indicated that he doesn’t really want to push Batman into a bigger group. The stories he’s filming work well on a closed level and I’m going to guess that Superman is going to get a similar treatment. Given that those two are likely tied up and unavailable because of that, it would leave any potential JLA movie in one of two problematic situations: either you film it without Superman and Batman, which doesn’t really scream JLA anymore. Ever since Grant Morrison started on the title back in the mid-90s, it’s been a team that’s the biggest heroes in the DCU, as it was when the team started. Ironically, Marvel’s gone with a similar strategy of late, by pulling Spiderman and Wolverine into the Avengers. However, they can’t match the lineup in the films.

To remove Batman & Superman leaves the league feeling a bit… Justice League International in feel, which is dating back 20+ years.  And unlike the Avengers, there’s a very important tone that needs to be set here. I really doubt any casual viewer is going to know that Wolverine and Spiderman are Avengers. In fact, I’d guess that seeing them in the line-up on the screen would be very jarring. But JLA has had a few seasons of cartoons in the past decade that were very well received and built naturally from the Batman and Superman animated series. Casual audiences, even if they weren’t regular viewers, are likely to assume any similar line-up.

The other option would be to make a JLA film without any connection to the series for the single characters. WB did try this, actually, even getting to the point where they had a cast including Common as Green Lantern and they had George Miller signed onto direct. For a number of reasons, that fell through. If nothing else, it would have been confusing to any audiences. Why wasn’t Christian Bale Batman there?

Well, that brings up the business reasons for avoiding a build-up to the JLA. Ultimately, any film is all about the money. The studio wants to get the best return for the smallest outlay. When you’ve got a multi-franchise series, those costs can build up. Marvel is famous for playing hardball with actors to keep those costs down. Terrence Howard was ousted for Don Cheadle apparently over a contract dispute between the two Iron Man films. The vast majority of the other actors have signed onto multiple picture deals at a relatively low cost, in order to make sure the later films in the Avengers franchise won’t see things spike. Samuel L. Jackson signed a nine film deal after Iron Man.

However, in order to do these things, there needs to be a clear plan ahead of time. WB had no such plan for Batman when they brought Christopher Nolan on board to revamp the character. While trying to do the team thing would have caused some creative issues, it would have also meant needing to negotiate with Bale and the other actors involved after they’d already been in one or two very successful films. This raises the costs considerably. Moreso if you consider that they’d likely have to placate Nolan in some way. (Note that WB seems very strongly inclined to placate him. Even his odd, experimental fare like Inception does very well for them.)

The flipside of the business is even more important. While JLA would be a fan dream film (my friends and I had a game of dream casting it over a decade ago), much as the Avengers film is, what’s the payoff overall. Batman by himself can do half a billion in the US. Superman in a good film can probably clear the triple century mark easily. Other DC heroes are likely at a lower tier. Sure, Green Lantern might have about the same public appeal as pre-Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, but that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed for $300m US.

DC is already able to look at Marvel for a template on what may happen. As I noted in my last post, the prognosis for the Avengers is… mixed. If it looked like the Marvel properties were building interest, then I think Diane Nelson would be less inclined to defiantly say they aren’t Marvel. But that hasn’t happened with Iron Man, and while we’re a Thor and a Captain America away from getting the Avengers trifecta, what’s the real expectation for those films, regardless of quality? $200m? $250m if they take off? Superheroes aren’t a guaranteed sale anymore. Iron Man was a right-place, right-time, lighting-in-a-bottle moment of everything coming together and hitting perfectly.

Maybe Green Lantern can do that, too. Martin Campbell is a very accomplished director, and has set the tone for the James Bond series twice, now. Ryan Reynolds has a ton of talent and charisma. And even so, that can’t guarantee it’s going to be huge. Big, sure, but not huge.

If the payoff isn’t a guarantee, why would DC even want to try and pull off a JLA film? It’s going to be more difficult, more expensive, and probably more uncertain than Marvel’s current effort. More than that, it’s going to feel like a bit of a copycat. Given that the DC publishing has been playing that game for most of the past decade and losing, why would they want to do the same for the films, when the stakes are so much higher.

No, carving out their own path is much smarter. While at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be anything really innovative at play than a typical franchise, that could change.

Consider the Green Lanterns. They’re already a super team of sorts built into the mythology. More than that, there’s a chance that they could go for something really unique and have a space-faring superhero adventure. Imagine some world building on the level of Avatar as a backdrop of warring Lanterns? Not saying it will happen, but it’s something that Marvel couldn’t easily replicate unless they decide to try and film the Annihilation saga.

And there’s no way they’re going to try and introduce the characters to do that. In that area, at least, DC’s got a head start. Go cosmic. But don’t go superteam. It’s not the smart play.

The Future of Marvel Moviedom

It was supposed to be better than this.

The promise that we were shown in 2008, which saw the rise of a new movie superstar (after a long and troubled career) and the beginning of the first major comic book universe was supposed to skip merrily along.

Marvel had given into that promise, with a series of films that created a franchise without quite being a series. We’d gotten Iron Man and it was brilliant (not perfect, no, but few films are, especially at this level). The sequence of films through 2012 was announced, and it read like a hit list of all the major players of the Marvel U remaining big guns that Marvel hadn’t signed off to Fox or Sony. We’d get Thor and Cap and then the whole Avengers team.

Awesome, right?

They’d lined up some great talent in there, starting with Kenneth Branagh directing Thor (really! Not a joke!) and culminating in the nerdgasm decision to let Joss Whedon helm The Avengers.

All they needed to do was get through the Iron Man sequel. All the same major talent is back, so they just needed to let Downey do his thing and set a few seeds for the future.

Well, now we’ve gotten the better part of two months to look at Iron Man 2. And I’m left to wonder what the hell happened.

Iron Man was a big surprise. It came out of nowhere, turned into a $300m film, and showed that superhero films could work without a top tier character. (True, it got blown out of the water by The Dark Knight, but take away Heath Ledger’s death and the distance between the two films would probably have been cut in half.)

Clearly, if Marvel wanted to get the ball rolling on their own movie production studio, they couldn’t have done it any better way. Following up the film should have been a breeze. Improving on it, business-wise, should have been the simplest thing in the world.

The number of sequels that outperform the well-received originals is immense. In fact, if you’ve got a film that audiences like, you can chuck out a sequel that is regarded as CRAP by everyone and still do better. Look at Transformers 2, which was made WITHOUT A SCRIPT and managed to earn $80m more than the first.

Iron Man 2 isn’t a bad film. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say it’s as good as the first, but it’s entertaining and has some great action sequences along with good funny bits. Downey is again perfectly spot-on for the role, and I don’t think anyone can legitimately complain about him as Tony Stark.

It opened very well, a good 30% more than the first. That’s the (current) fifth largest opening in history. It’s a nice improvement on the already strong opening for the original and while it did have some degree of audience rush (sequels tend to get that more than first films), it should have been an indication that it would outearn the original, and probably was expected to hit somewhere between Spidermans 2 and 3.

The weak slate of films that followed it up in May should have encouraged that. Just about every film released between Iron Man and The Karate Kid underperformed to massive degree. Robin Hood might be the quietest $100m earning film in history. Shrek 4 earned $50m LESS than its predecessor in the opening, and will end up as the lowest grossing film of the entire series by a wide margin. Prince of Persia and Sex and the City were both disappointments. And the best thing that can be said about the five films released post-Memorial Day is that Get Him to the Greek is going to do about as well as expected.

Against such a weak line-up, where should Iron Man 2 ended up? $350m? $400m?

After seven weekends in release, it’s crossed the triple century mark, but just barely. It’s going to pass $305m today. The good news is that Iron Man 1 didn’t get to $300m as quickly. In fact, it didn’t get there until its 48th day in release. (That would be this Friday, had it been released on the same date as IM2.)

The bad news is that at this point in its run, IM1 was earning twice as much per day as IM2.

In its 7th weekend, IM2 earned just shy of $2.9m. IM1 earned over $5.6m. IM1 didn’t drop below $3m a weekend until its 9th.

IM2 fell below half a million in daily takes for the first time last Thursday, its 42nd day in release. IM1 didn’t have that happen until its 60th day.

If you look at the day to day matchups between the two films, there’s a clear pattern. IM2 is ahead, thanks to the extra $30m it got for its opening, but the gap between the two is closing rapidly. The numbers it pulls in are about two weeks behind those for IM1.

Two months ago, the future of IM2 was very bright. It was going to be big, but nobody knew how big. Now, that future has dimmed a little. It’s still a big film (because any film that crosses $300m is big), but it has a best case scenario of matching the total of the first film. That’s BEST case. The easy path it had in May is gone. Now it’s almost two months into a box office run with a number of films that are going to take away business.

Now, I doubt anyone at Marvel, Paramount, or Disney is complaining. The international receipts are up from the first film, albeit not by a great amount (superheroes don’t tend to play nearly as well overseas), so they are looking at an overall improvement.

Next year they’ve got Thor hitting in early May and Captain America in July. The Avengers hits in May of 2012. And all of these are ushered in by a pair of $300m earners that have gotten high marks from audiences and critics.

But mightn’t they be a little worried? Thor and Cap don’t have the exceptionally high profile figure of Robert Downey Jr. to lead the film. So what sort of numbers are they looking at? They can’t bank on a break-out like IM1, so are they thinking that these are $250m films? $200m?

And what about The Avengers? That’s a huge wild card. On one hand, it’s going to play like a second sequel to Iron Man. But second sequels don’t tend to do as well as the first. This is especially the case if the first sequel is seen as a step down from the original. Look at the Matrix, Pirates, or Shrek films. All had a very well received original, huge explosion of business for the sequel, and then rather large drop-off for the third. Iron Man might be in the same boat, except it hasn’t seen the explosion of business.

That could be another point of concern: Perhaps the first film saturated the market. Anyone who was interested in any superhero besides Batman or Spider-Man saw it so there’s no room to grow. There’s only room to shrink.

There’s another possible problem. One criticism levied against IM2 is that it spent too much time building the universe at the expense of the story of the film itself. There were seeds planted for Thor and the Avengers that didn’t feel quite necessary to tell the story at hand. What if non-comic fan audiences don’t care about that stuff? What if it’s actually a detriment?

Next year the two films released are sure to play into those Marvel Universe elements. Hell, Captain America even has the Avengers connection right in the title. If those elements aren’t going to play well, this could be a well-intentioned but unfortunately doomed experiment.

And Joss Whedon’s Avengers film will probably be yet another in his long string of disappointments.

You can be sure that on the other side of the business, DC/WB is keeping a close eye to see what happens while they’re gearing up to produce Flash, Wonder Woman, and new Superman films. If the universe element doesn’t play, you won’t be seeing a JLA movie any time soon, no matter how well Green Lantern does.

And if The Avengers bombs, no worries. Batman 3 is going to hit a couple months later.

Box Office Awesome Year in Review

Well, it’s been a good six months since my last post. Which isn’t to say that the Box Office Awesome stopped in June, just that I got sidetracked. I even had a draft started in October to showcase one of the later awesome stories. So to rectify the situation, I’m going to look at 2009 month by month, because it was the year of awesome.

January

2009 got off to a rocking start, earning over $1 billion for the first time, in what is traditionally a fairly slow month. January of ’08, aided by Cloverfield’s rocking start, earned $841 million, and no other year has even reached $780 million. The difference between January ’09 and most other years is the complete domestic box office of The Hangover… and then some.

As for the top awesome stories, it’s probably a tie between Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Gran Torino, and Taken. All three had rollicking good wide openings, and all three finished with spitting distance of $150m. On a personal preference, I’m most impressed by Taken, which had some of the most impressive legs for a film in a long time.

Perhaps most impressive is that only two films had previously crested the century mark after an opening in January. One of those was the special edition of Star Wars in 1997 and the other was Black Hawk Down in 2002. What was an extreme outlier in the past for a month that usually consisted of films opening around $20m and finishing with $50m or so.

February

Keeping with the theme, February ’09 was also the biggest for that month in history, with $769m. No film that opened this year crested the $100m mark, (a rather marked change from the past, which has seen such big earners as Hitch, Ghost Rider, Daredevil, and The Passion of the Christ).

The most awesome run likely has to go to Friday the 13th, which epitomized a growing trend, especially among horror fare, or earning a huge percentage of the total box office in one day. A close second is Madea Goes to Jail, which had a similarly large opening and quick finish, but managed a respectable $93m overall, the biggest of Tyler Perry’s career.

Also worth noting are the leggy pair from the first weekend of the month, He’s Just Not That Into You and Coraline. The former was actually the highest grossing film released in February, while the latter likely proved that 3D could be more than just a gimmick, and earned a cool $75m to boot, after a somewhat soft $16m opening.

March

In contrast to the first two months, March wasn’t especially great as a whole. Just $651m was earned, good only for 5th, and well behind the $795m earned in March of 2007. That year was aided by the trifecta of 300, Wild Hogs, and Blades of Glory, though, so nothing this year could really compete.

The top box office story was Watchmen, which showed the limits of fanboy appealing comic book films. Despite earning $55m over opening weekend, it finished with just $107m, and was quickly forgotten. The opening weekend can be attributed to some genius marketing by WB, especially the exceptional trailer that appeared before The Dark Knight in 2008. The lack of legs can be attributed to the fact that everyone who wanted to see it probably did opening weekend, and general audiences didn’t quite that the original story was a rather deeply thoughtful look at the history and construction of comics and comic stories.

Or you can assume that the final product was glossy, but not very good, and rather missed the point of the original.

Also worth noting is Knowing, which managed almost $80m after a $24m start and apparently has kept the good word up since as a somewhat thoughtful actioner.

The final weekend of the month brought us Dreamworks’ latest in Monsters vs. Aliens. A $59m opening and $198m finish was enough to make it the biggest film for the month, but apparently not enough to keep a TV spin-off alive.

April

2009 is back on top again in the 4th month, although not to a huge degree. The $695m earned was barely ahead of the $683m earned in 2006.

The top story, by far, is Fast and Furious, which rocked an amazing $70m weekend, more than the third film in the series earned in total. The $155m final tally wasn’t a show of great legs, but was the biggest for the series. Vin Diesel has another lease on his career.

The opening weekend is key, though. The previous high for the month was way down at $42m, for Anger Management. That film had the box office muscle of Adam Sandler behind it, while Fast and Furious just had cars. Never underestimate the draw of mechanical toys.

The other key story was the Hannah Montana movie. The $32m opening was good for 5th best in April of all time. The $79m finish wasn’t anything to write home about, but was respectable enough and adds another data point to a growing trend that tween and teen girls are a growing force at the box office, one that (as we’ll see later in the year) cannot be ignored.

May

Like January, May of 2009 crested the billion mark. And like January, that was the first time the box office did so.

Perhaps what’s most impressive was how un-shocking the business of the month was. No film really had a surprising and breakout performance, even as Star Trek was a public and even critical darling, the only really amazing thing about the $79m start and $257m finish was that it did it after a 2nd weekend start, typically the weakest of the month.

The big story might be that four different franchises saw films take steps backwards, and still helped propel the month to such heights. Wolverine fell behind the two previous X-Men films, in both opening and final tally. Angels and Demons fell far behind The Da Vinci Code, earning over $30m less in the opening, and over $80m less in total. Night at the Museum II had a big opening weekend, but fell almost $75m behind the first film in the series.

And Terminator: Salvation. It’s not really awesome, but it is perhaps the biggest story of the month. After the not-very-well liked Terminator 3 earned $150m and got thoroughly trounced by Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003, the producers decided to take a different tactic with the 4th film in the series. However, Salvation both had a smaller opening and a lower $125m total, despite 6 years of inflation helping it along. Since then, we’ve seen the production company go bankrupt and offer up the rights in an auction. The homicidal robots from the future seem to be dead, at this point. While fans may want to see the return of James Cameron to the franchise, he’s clearly moved onto bigger things.

The final weekend of the month brought Up, Pixar’s first 3D pic. After two years of slightly worrying performance between Ratatouille and WALL-e, Up was a huge step forwards, garnering the second biggest domestic take for the brand, after Finding Nemo. (It also claims the domestic animated crown for the year, but there’s a bit more to the story there.)

June

Yet again, 2009 takes the monthly crown, by edging out 2008 by about $50m.

There were some big misses for the month, like Year One, Land of the Lost, and Imagine That, but there was also some massive amounts of awesome.

The big story is The Hangover, a massive breakout hit for everyone involved. While films of this type have a proven track record of success, with most of Judd Apatow’s library and even a number of Adam Sandler works doing fine business, they tend to hit somewhere between $100m and $150m if they’re big hits. Wedding Crashers was the paragon, by cresting the double century mark on some pretty hefty legs of its own.

The Hangover beat all of those in spades, and then some. I’m sure going into it, the producers would have been happy with a $30m opening, $90m finish. Contrast that with the $44m opening and $277m finish (!) The performance was enough that people spent June talking about the comedic hit over Pixar’s latest masterpiece.

However, June wasn’t done there. The Proposal came two weeks later and propelled Sandra Bullock back into the comedy spotlight. She hadn’t had a $100m hit since Miss Congeniality in 2000, and hadn’t had much of anything of note since 2002, but The Proposal opened to $33m and finished with $163m, as yet the best of her career.

Finally, the last weekend of the month brought the juggernaut. The second Transformers film hit everywhere and pulled in a massive $200m in the first five days. Despite being rather incomprehensible and almost entirely a collection of explosions, slow-mo shots, and extremely low-brow humor, the critically reviled tentpole didn’t fall off the planet afterward, and finished with just over $400m. Fans everywhere hope that Michael Bay can have a script the next time he starts shooting a film. Michael Bays everywhere just roll around in the Awesome Pool of money.

July

As a whole, 2009 only had the third best July on record, over $140m behind July of 2007, which at over $1.3 billion is still the biggest month in box office history. It also trailed behind July of ’08. Those months were powered by Transformers, Harry Potter 5, The Simpson’s Movie, and most of the runs of Ratatouille and Live Free or Die Hard in ’07, and the massive hauls of The Dark Knight in ’08, along with Hancock and most of WALL-e’s run.

In comparison, ’09 was a bit lackluster. The latest Harry Potter film did have some amazing midnight sneaks, cresting $20m for the first time in history, as well as a final haul north of $300m (for the first time since the original film in the series in 2001). And not quite half of Transformers 2’s run came in July.

The most awesome story, though, belongs to the latest Ice Age flick. The domestic haul of $196m is respectable, and just barely edges out the second film in the series, but the real story is overseas. It earned $691m outside of the US and Canada. That’s the third most in box office history (at this moment). The only films that earned more are The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King at $742m and Titanic, which pushed an insane $1.2 billion outside the US.

Ice Age 3 earned more overseas than any Star Wars film. Any Harry Potter film. Any Pirates of the Caribbean film. Any comic book movie. Any Shrek film. It did absolutely bonkers business and while it might be regarded as a mid-tier animation hit because of the domestic number, it shows what an absolute powerhouse the series is. Films can make a lot of money, overseas, and Ice Age 3 managed to tap into some cross-cultural zeitgeist in a way that Pixar and Dreamworks have never been able to.

August

Coming in at second place, although it was fairly close, as only $15m separated the $920m of ’07 from the $905m of ’09. As good as G.I. Joe did, it’s rather far behind the third Bourne film to lead the month.

The awesome story of the month has to go to District 9. While it didn’t quite do as well, either in opening or final tally, as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, the initial expectations for the film were much lower. Despite the producer credit for Peter Jackson, director Neill Blomkamp was a complete unknown on the big screen. He’d had some internet presence and street cred for his short film Alive in Joburg (on which District 9 was based), and had initially been tapped to direct the Halo movie after doing three short films to promote Halo 3, but hadn’t done any sort of feature.

District 9 showed he was able to deliver great sci-fi action on a budget, and get people in the theaters. In contrast to a number of other recent trends, District 9 showed that audiences still just want to be entertained, and you can do that for $30m or less.

Also of note for the month is the now traditional horror entry for Labor Day: The Final Destination, which managed to score the biggest opening and final tally for the now decade old series. But it cost more and made less than D9, so it’s not quite as awesome.

September

Again lagging behind 2007 (there’s a reason it was the biggest box office year of all time), the softest month of the year earned just $543m.

Because it’s such a soft month, there isn’t much that stands out. Tyler Perry’s had a habit of releasing two films a year (one in the winter/spring, one in the fall), and that’s the case here, but I Can Do Bad All By Myself wasn’t really amazing, performing just about average for him with the 3rd biggest opening and 4th highest final tally of his eight films.

Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs gets the awesome stamp for the month, though, simply because it did so well. Its $30m opening is good for third best in September history and the $122m final tally is also third best. September usually sees a family film that does quite well, but none have done quite as well as this.

October

2009 is back on top in the month of frights, with $692m, almost $50m ahead of 2004, which had a pair of heavy hitters in Shark Tale and The Grudge.

There’s actually a fair bit of interesting tidbits here. Couple’s Retreat managed to crest $100m despite almost nothing positive in the way of reviews. Where the Wild Things Are saw a large opening, but an equally large crash afterward. And Zombieland managed to become the biggest zombie-themed film in history.

But there’s only one awesome story of the month, and that’s Paranormal Activity. The ultra-low budget film had the strangest path getting to theaters, and once there it had one of the weirdest box office runs in history.

It actually got started in September, when it opened on just 12 theaters (mostly in college towns and the like), and those theaters only showed it after midnight. The result was a respectable $77 thousand, perfectly fine for a film like this, but it also was the start of a monumentally ingenious marketing campaign. People could go to a website and request a showing for their own town.

The next weekend saw an addition of 21 theaters. Again, with just midnight showings, it earned just over half a million, more than a 500% increase over the previous week. At this point, it was almost apparent that there was something special at play. The first weekend had a per-theater average of about $6 thousand. The second weekend saw that rise to $16 thousand. This is rather rare for a film, especially one that’s expanding.

The third weekend is the shocker, though. Another 127 theaters were added, for 160 total. The film was given a full slate of showings across the day, and the weekend total shot up to almost $8 million. The per theater average went up again to almost $50 thousand, an extremely good number and one usually only seen in the first weekend of a platform release on many fewer screens.

Technically, Paranormal Activity didn’t go wide until its fourth weekend, when it added another 600 theaters and expanded the business again to $19m. At this point, the film was a bona fide hit, and had $33m in total. Nobody would have blinked had it started to fade at this point.

But it didn’t. In its fifth weekend, it saw almost 1200 more theaters added and it finally topped the charts in first place, earning $21m (and a very nice per theater average of $25 thousand). It was also well ahead of the latest in the Halloween mainstay of the Saw series, which saw a measly $14m for the weekend. It was clear at this point that the king of scares had fallen to the little film that could. Saw VI finished with just $27m, which was lower than the opening weekend of any film in the series back to the second and less than half of the final tally of any previous film.

At this point, Paranormal Activity started to fade, but it did so gracefully. A soft decline over the Halloween weekend pushed it to $84m total. While the falls were bigger after that, it still managed to hang on long enough to earn $107m total. Against a budget of $10,000.

It’s brought a lot of comparisons to The Blair Witch Project, which had a similarly low budget and similarly awesome run in 1999. These are justified, because both films were a huge surprise. They also both had some inventive and extremely successful marketing campaigns.

November

By earning $989 million in total, 2009’s November is back on top. The previous record holder was 2003, which is a bit odd because there wasn’t a Harry Potter film that year. In fact, the biggest opening belonged to The Matrix Revolutions. Elf was the biggest film of the month, though. Sometimes the box office is weird.

For awesome, though, nothing ever released in November can compare to New Moon, the second Twilight film. While the first did some boffo business last year, opening to almost $70m and finishing with over $190m, the sequel is something for the ages.

The opening weekend was huge. At $142m, it’s the third biggest in history. While the final tally of around $290m (it’s still playing and earning a bit) doesn’t seem that great in light of such a large opening, there’s a lot more under the hood. In fact, New Moon really showcases some great lessons to learn about the box office.

Let’s start with that opening. In fact, just the first part of it. New Moon started off like a rocket with around $26m in midnight sneaks. This beat the previous record holder in Harry Potter 6 at about $22m, and was a good $8m ahead of The Dark Knight’s $18m. Harry Potter 6 cooled off at that point, and earned $58m for its opening day. The Dark Knight, of course, had the biggest single day in history at $67m. Had, of course, because New Moon beat that, clocking in an astounding $72m in the first 24 hours. That’s $3m an hour! It’s more than the first film earned in the entire opening weekend.

After that, things cooled off quickly. Its Saturday saw a fall of over 40% to $42m, and Sunday dropped again to $27m, which meant over half the opening weekend was earned on Friday. Normally, this would indicate that a film was all hype and no substance. look at the opening and final tally of Friday the 13th in February. A $19m opening day translated to just $40m for the weekend and $65m total. However, there’s two things to consider. First is the simple fact that New Moon is huge. A full 50% growth over the previous film is astounding (and the worldwide bump is even better, jumping by almost $300m).

Secondly, we need to consider the demographics. Twilight, much like Hannah Montana, is a film for tween and teen girls. This is a market force that is strong, but it doesn’t have a lot of crossover. Blockbusters tend to be rather heavily gendered: they’re aimed primarily at boys and men (usually between 15 and 35), but it’s expected that everyone will go see them. The big comic book movies will often see about 40-45% of their audience be women, and I’m sure that things like Transformers and such see similar percentages.

However, films aimed at women don’t have that crossover. Something like Sex and the City probably saw about 70-80% of its audience as women. There’s a very strong cultural message at play: it’s expected that girls will go see the boys films, but the guys won’t see the girls’ films.

And that’s true for Twilight. You’ve got a very dedicated audience, but it doesn’t translate into a breakout word of mouth. And so that audience comes out in force during the opening, but the subsequent business (both for the later days of the weekend and the rest of the run), tapers off quickly because it’s probably mostly just repeat business at that point.

After the massive drops, there was a bit of praising that Twilight was likely dead, that it had peaked and was going to go away. And that next year’s Eclipse would be a failure. I don’t think that’s going to be the case at all. The audience for the films has shown that it’s very dedicated and reacts positively to them. The target market likes the films, and because of that Eclipse is probably going to be another monster next summer.

New Moon showed that blockbusters don’t need to be comic book or sci-fi flicks aimed at boys. Girls can create their own Box Office Awesome, too.

However, that’s not the only awesome story. In a case of counter-programming, another film actually opened against Twilight: New Moon and has seen some stunning success. Sandra Bullock’s third film of the year was The Blind Side, and if The Proposal showed that she could do big things, The Blind Side underlined, italicized, and sent out the memo in triplicate.

The opening weekend for The Blind Side was $34m, a perfectly fine and respectable opening, and on any other weekend, it would have been big news by itself. But it was overshadowed by New Moon’s bow that was $106m higher. The following weekend it saw a rise to $40m over the post-Thanksgiving frame. This time it was just $2m behind New Moon. In the third weekend it earned $20m and hit #1.

Since then it’s held on remarkably well, earning over $10m each weekend and pushing it’s total north of $200m. Between this and The Proposal, Sandra Bullock is back in a huge way, and any future releases deserve respect for box office prowess.

December

Another month, another record. December of 2009 gathered $1.06 billion, the first time in history the billion mark had been passed in the twelfth month.

As for the awesome story, I think everyone’s in agreement that Sherlock Holmes takes it. It gathered the biggest Christmas day gross and the biggest Christmas opening in history. It’s cemented Robert Downey Jr. as a box office force, and spawned another franchise for him. It should be cresting the…

Okay, then. While Holmes is doing some good business, it’s clearly not the big story. That would be long to James Cameron. Again.

Way back in 1997, he helmed a little film about a big boat that sank. It had some negative pre-release buzz, was the most expensive film in history at the time, and was seen as a huge gamble. Titanic opened modestly to $28m, barely $3m ahead of Tomorrow Never Dies, which would go on to be the biggest James Bond film to date. (It’s since been surpassed.) Given the budget and the way films tend to run, it seemed like Titanic would be a failure, even if its opening was strong for the time.

From that point on, history was in the making. It stayed above $20m for the first ten weekend and remained in first place until April, over three months later. It was in the top ten until June. Along the way it shattered box office records, garnering $600m domestic and an astounding $1.2 billion overseas. (That last number, by itself, would be good enough for the biggest worldwide take of any film, topping The Return of the King.) It also won a heap of awards and cemented James Cameron as one of the top filmmakers of all time.

He then effectively retired from feature films. There were some things he wanted to work on, like an adaptation of the brilliant manga Battle Angel, as well as something that was called Project 880. But ever the envelope pusher, he wanted things to be technically perfect, and that wasn’t possible at the time. So he waited. And waited. And waited.

Battle Angel is still in the wings, but Project 880 has come to the screen in the shape of Avatar. It had a lot of hype, about how it would really push 3D technology and was something like the most visually amazing film of all time. Sometime in November, a bit of bad buzz started, and it got the moniker of most expensive movie attached, possibly costing as much as $500m, well ahead of the third Pirates of the Caribbean film (at $300m). While the official number is considerably less, it was apparent that Avatar had a high price tag and would need some good business. Still, it looked fun and enjoyable and even if Sherlock Holmes seemed to have larger anticipation, it looked like it could do $250m domestic and possibly $700m worldwide. Enough that it wouldn’t be a loss. A step down from Cameron’s last film, to be sure, but Titanic was a once in history event.

The opening weekend for Avatar was just shy of the December record. It was visually impressive but a bit thin on story. Audiences seemed happy and a run to $300m wasn’t out of the question.

Then the weekday numbers started hitting. It earned $16m each on its first Monday through Wednesday, extremely consistent numbers, especially for a top tier film. Usually you expect that a film, no matter when it’s released, to see some drop-off in the dailies. But Avatar held on and its first Tuesday was the second best in history, while the Monday and Wednesday were third best for non-opening, non holiday dates.

Then it earned $11m on Christmas Eve, the most a film had ever made on what is normally a very weak box office day. Christmas Day brought another $23m, a nicely strong hold from the opening Friday of $26m. At this point, Avatar was looking good. $300m seemed like a surer bet, but it has also come in second place twice. On Wednesday, it was bested by the opening day of the Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel and on Friday Sherlock Holmes was on top.

Even so, the Cameron flick held out better over the entire weekend, earning over $75m and taking the crown for biggest second weekend in history from The Dark Knight. This is despite having an opening less than half of the Batman flick. It also had its sights set on the biggest box office week of the year: the Christmas to New Years week when everyone’s away from work and school and able to put in some massive leisure time.

Avatar responded strongly. Every day that week was bigger than the week before. The $19m Monday was the second biggest non-holiday Monday. The $18m Tuesday and Wednesday were both second-best non-opening for those days. And the $14m Thursday was the biggest New Years Eve gross in history.

In two weeks, it had gathered $283m, and the questions about the film had evaporated. No longer was there any wonder about whether it’d be a success, but rather how successful would it be? Transformers 2’s hold on the 2009 box office crown was in serious jeopardy. And the third weekend gross of $68m laid to rest any questions about whether Avatar would top $400m. That is by far the biggest third weekend ever, topping Spider-Man’s $45m from way back in 2002.

With $352m in the domestic bank, box office aficionados have started to wonder where it will end up. It seems likely that Avatar will pass Shrek 2 and even Star Wars at $440m and $460m. There seems a possibility that it will even top The Dark Knight’s mammoth $533m. But the real question is whether Cameron has done it again. Will he top his own $600m record and take down Titanic?

Right now, we don’t know. There’s still a $250m gap between the films, and even though it’s shown some amazing consistency, that’s a lot of money for any film to make, much less after it’s already had 17 days in release. At this point in its release, Titanic had $157m in the bank, but it had four more weekends of at least $25m, seven of at least $20m, and twelve above, $15m. Avatar, at some point, is going to start falling behind. When it does, we’ll likely be able to project much more easily where it will end up.

If it managed another soft drop in weekend 4, perhaps pulling in something as ridiculous as $45m, it’ll take that weekend crown (besting Titanic’s $28m). Weekend 5 might be the watershed comparison. Titanic earned $30m then. If Avatar can stay somewhat close by that point, I’d give it even odds to pass $600m, even if it starts to fall faster from then on.

However, if the next two weekends see more normal drops (say around 40-45% each), then it’s probably going to see a final tally somewhere around The Dark Knight. Still massive. Still enough to call it a great success, but not the record.

Of course, the domestic side is only part of the story. Titanic made Cameron king of the entire world. The over $1.8 billion earned was at the time more than twice what the previous record holder of Jurassic Park had gathered. Since Titanic opened, only ten films have even gotten past that half-way mark, and none have gotten to 2/3rds of Titanic’s worldwide haul.

Before this year, only three other films in history had even crested $1 billion worldwide. The Dark Knight was the latest, and it only did so barely.

Avatar’s already done it. In 17 days, it passed the $1 billion mark worldwide, and it seems likely that it will take the #2 spot from Return of the King in the next week or so. It already has $666m in overseas grosses, and will pass $700m in short order. Only RotK and Titanic can claim to have hit that mark. How much further it goes is anyone’s guess. Much like the domestic numbers there’s a lot of questions about how well it can hold on.

Regardless of where it ends up, Avatar is a stunning success. It’s likely that whatever the order, Cameron will have the top two films both domestically and worldwide when all’s said and done. The inevitable sequel might be assured of passing Titanic’s numbers, even if Avatar itself doesn’t.

In the truest sense of the word, Avatar is Awesome.

Conclusion

2009 was awesome. It set seven monthly records and passed $10 billion in total revenue for the year, for the very first time. More than that, it saw an almost 10% increase in the number of tickets sold, so despite the higher priced 3D and IMAX tickets, more people were going to see the films. Whether because of quality or the recession making people have their vacations a bit closer to home, something really worked this year, and the movie industry paid off in a big way.

Will 2010 hold the same? I’m not sure. There are a few bright sequels on schedule, with Iron Man 2, the fourth Shrek film, Sex and the City 2, Twilight: Eclipse, and Toy Story 3 all hitting this summer. There’s also a spate of possibly huge new films, like Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Last Airbender (a.k.a. the other Avatar), and Christopher Nolan’s follow up to The Dark Knight in Inception. The holiday season sees another Harry Potter film, a third Narnia, and the slick new Tron film.

Whether this collection is good enough to beat 2009 is a big question. ’09 had a record setting 30 movies pass $100m (and two more could also beat that mark in the weekends to come), and such a broad collection of successful films is necessary to get the box office up so high. We’ll keep an eye on it, though, because the Awesome never ends.

Top 10 Box Office Awesome Stories of 2009

  • 10 Watchmen and Friday the 13th show that some films are done after opening weekend
  • 9 Fast and Furious gets off to a scorching $70m start, shattering the April record
  • 8 Taken, Paul Blart, and Gran Torino prove that January films can be huge
  • 7 The Hangover pulls in some massive holds to be a huge summer blockbuster
  • 6 The Propsoal and The Blind Side show Sandra Bullock’s box office muscle
  • 5 Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs gets third highest international gross in history
  • 4 Twilight: New Moon show that girls are a box office force
  • 3 Paranormal Activity is the little film that could
  • 2 Total box office crosses $10 billion for the first time
  • 1  Avatar makes a run at Titanic