What a summer at the movies! The galaxy got guarded. The future days went past, like some sort of extinct age. The planet of the apes stopped rising and started dawning. Our stars had a fault. And also: Lucy!
Hollywood had a rough season at the box office in summer 2014, with overall box-office receipts falling precipitously from last year’s flurry of mega-grossers. Going into this weekend, Guardians of the Galaxy, the highest-grossing film at the summer box-office, has earned about $256 million–which would have made it the fifth highest-grossing movie of summer 2013.
Word on the street says that 2014 was an off year between mega-franchises—that next year will unleash Hollywood’s A-Game. After all, summer 2015 has Avengers: Age of Ultron. And a Jurassic Park reboot starring everyone’s favorite new movie star. And a Fantastic Four movie that didn’t show up to Comic-Con. And a Terminator movie with a funny name. And… oh, um, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. remake your grandparents have been asking for.
Maybe 2015 will be huge. Maybe someday 2014 will be a distant memory. But there are some valuable lessons to learn from the success and failures of this summer season. Remember: By some metrics, the most successful movie of the summer was a movie where a tree and a raccoon make friends with a wrestler and a green lady, while the dude from famously low-rated sitcom Parks & Recreation plays them his ’70s mixtape. Which brings us to the first lesson:
1. Marvel cannot be stopped.
Marvel Studios came into the summer from a position of strength, having scored the year’s first big smash with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. (Globally, the star-spangled sequel grossed $350 million more than the first Captain America.) All of Marvel’s Phase 2 sequels have outgrossed their immediate sub-franchise predecessors: proof of the Avengers halo effect. But what would happen when Marvel stretched outside of its Avengers wheelhouse? Could they launch a new franchise with zero name recognition—especially when that franchise looks nothing at all like their other movies, or hell, any other movie on the market right now?
And so Guardians of the Galaxy stormed into theaters. It made all the money. It earned raves from critics—and Iron Man! In a year or so, we might retroactively decide that Guardians also hit the market at a moment when moviegoers suddenly learned to love space movies again—one year after Gravity, we’re cusping on Interstellar and a new era of annual Star Wars movies. But for right now, the only thing that’s really certain is that Marvel turned one of their fringiest fringe franchises into a megahit.
2. Michael Bay also cannot be stopped.
Good news for humanity: Trans4mers grossed significantly less domestically than Trans3mers. Bad news for everyone: Age of Extinction is the year’s only hit to top $1 billion worldwide. Bay took a victory lap in August by producing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a canny Nolanization of a nostalgia-bait franchise that joined Guardians in lifting up the end-of-summer doldrums. You could argue that Bay’s success is just an example of savvy franchise profiteering—he’s not making any movies about weird raccoons—but 2014 reconfirmed his status as the demon god of teenage boys everywhere.
3. Stars still matter…
Lucy earned a decent chunk of change off little more than the promise of Scarlett Johansson punching people. It’s easy to overpraise Lucy as an “original” premise—it’s a superhero movie by any other name, built on some rather precarious movie-science—but what’s undeniable is that Johansson’s recent career turn kicking ass in successful Marvel movies has now given her the ability to turn non-Marvel movies into a success. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine Maleficent doing such elaborate business without Angelina Jolie—after taking a few years off to direct, Jolie’s Disneyfied comeback is the second highest grosser worldwide.
4. …but maybe humans don’t…
Transformers, apes, mutant turtles, Godzillas: This was a big year for Things That Aren’t Human. Maybe Sin City 2 should’ve added in a stripper squirrel or something.
5. …and maybe men don’t.
Even with good reviews, Tom Cruise couldn’t get
people Americans to see Edge of Tomorrow. And after a few years of raising his stock with some savvy franchise-hopping career movies, Dwayne Johnson couldn’t convince people to see Hercules. Playing Black Widow might have turned Scarlett Johansson into a minor box-office force, but Captain America himself couldn’t get moviegoers to see Snowpiercer. (Harvey Weinstein didn’t help, either.) You could argue that biggest dude-stars of summer 2014 were Mark Wahlberg and Hugh Jackman, but they were safely ensconced in deep-sequel franchises, playing second fiddle to beloved non-human Optimus Prime and beloved angel from heaven Jennifer Lawrence.
6. Or maybe men do matter, but only if they’re in an R-rated comedy.
22 Jump Street and Neighbors continued the winning streak of the Apatow Diaspora, with Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen further expanding their respective brands. Jump Street earned more; Neighbors was cheaper; they both had lots of swears. Meanwhile, we can maybe confirm that the sun has finally set on Adam Sandler’s long-running PG-13 assembly line: Blended grossed less at the domestic box office than Let’s Be Cops, the curiously popular R-rated bro-com which finally gave the 2010s its very own Dude, Where’s My Car?
7. Seth Rogen is a star again.
Two consecutive summers, two lower-budget comedies, two big hits. Rogen never really went away, but the days of the Green Hornet/Guilt Trip dry spell look very distant indeed. This December’s highly anticipated, controversial-among-dictators The Interview could make three in a row.
8. And Melissa McCarthy is still a star.
Tammy didn’t make Identity Thief money. But considering that Tammy was an R-rated dark-comedy passion project for McCarthy and her husband/co-writer/director Ben Falcone, grossing very close to $100 million worldwide has to be considered some kind of success. Did Tammy damage Brand McCarthy? Next May, she’s reuniting with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig in a movie where she plays a spy opposite Jason Statham and Jude Law. Tell me you’re not a little interested.
9. People like sequels that feel a little new.
People want more of what they wanted before: This is the modern Hollywood truth. But when sequelizing, it helps if you can promise something old and something new. X-Men: Days of Future Past rejuvenated the mutant franchise by mixing the old X-Men with the new X-Men. (Worldwide, it’s the biggest X movie ever.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes scrubbed out most of Rise’s supporting cast and genre-jumped from science-amok thriller to post-apocalyptic action. Winter Soldier essentially restarted the Cap sub-franchise from scratch. And Trans4mers had robot dinosaurs this time!
Conversely, adding a few more familiar faces to Expendables 3 couldn’t stop the AARP action franchise from freefalling. Amazing Spider-Man 2’s decision to do the whole Green Goblin thing for like the millionth time resulted in the lowest-grossing Spidey movie ever. (Domestically, it grossed half as much as the original Spider-Man.) Sin City: A Dame to Kill For added a few new faces to the greenscreen blood opera, but the trailer for Sin City 2 is basically the trailer for Sin City with different people and worse music. And take heart, parents! Your kids wanted to see Planes 2 about half as much as they wanted to see Planes 1.
10. When you’re adapting a beloved YA novel, it’s best to strike while the iron is hot.
See: The Fault in Our Stars. Don’t see: The Giver. (Being good helps, too.) (Or anyhow, being not-terrible.)
11. Domestic grosses definitely don’t matter anymore.
So what if Transformers: Age of Extinction grossed less than Transformers: Dark of the Moon? So what if Amazing Spider-Man 2 grossed less than Amazing Spider-Man? So what if, when you adjust for inflation, Future Past couldn’t quite match up to the domestic grosses of the original X-trilogy? So what if, when you adjust for inflation, 2014’s Godzilla didn’t really outperform 1998’s Godzilla (and may have actually underperformed)? And so what if Tom Cruise had a tough time cracking $100 million? All those movies multiplied considerably in overseas grosses. Worldwide, Edge of Tomorrow is one of Tom Cruise’s biggest post-millennium hits not titled Mission: Impossible. And China still loves you, Transformers.
12. Unless domestic grosses definitely matter.
Money works in mysterious ways. Trans4mers might play in Puyang, but if Hollywood studios want to collect every cent of their dollars, it still works better to play in Peoria. And after this weekend, the two highest-grossing movies of 2014 will come from the same production company. Which company? See Lesson 1.