In the world of Hollywood, there is a very specific group of movies known as The Dozen. They span the worlds of blue aliens, wizard schools, haunted pirate ships, and caped crusaders. And different though they may be, they all have something in common: They've all made an obscene amount of money. How obscene? Over a billion dollars.
The Avengers is the latest addition to the list of billion dollar grossers — presently, The Avengers has the eleventh greatest monetary intake of any film in history. Here is the complete list of movies that have earned 10 figures:
1. Avatar – $2.784 billion
2. Titanic – $2.183 billion
3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2 – $1.328 billion
4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon – $1.123 billion
5. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – $1.141 billion
6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest – $1.066 billion
7. Toy Story 3 – $1.064 billion
8. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – $1.043 billion
9. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – $1.024 billion
10. Alice in Wonderland – $1.024 billion
11. The Avengers – $1.002 billion
12. The Dark Knight – $1.001 billion
[Figures acquired by Hollywood.com Box Office Analyst Paul Dergarabedian]Going up the list, you'll notice more than just a similarity in box office intake: the fantasy theme. Each one of the biggest grossers in film history presents an alternate reality with fantastic creatures, including superheroes, aliens, talking toys, and Shia LaBeoufs. The unfathomable success of this unique group proves that people are engrossed by worlds unlike our own. But as with every other almost-perfect piece thesis, there is an outlier (one that you choose to brush under the rug in order not to contradict the rest of your term paper). In this case, it's Titanic.
Titanic stands out among the others for several reasons. It is the oldest film on the list. It is the only one that is not involved in a film series (existing or in development) or that is a remake. And, of course, it is the only film not part of the fantasy genre. But James Cameron's seafaring romance is not only an outlier among the billionaires club, though certainly the only one to stand in good company with The Dozen. In fact, a non-fantasy live action film doesn't reoccur in the list of top grossing films until the No. 50 spot, which houses Forrest Gump. Considering this, why have audiences of the past 15 years so consistently overlooked movies about realistic, relatable human beings? Why do people opt to watch things that not only probably won't happen, but almost certainly couldn't (that is, if you confine yourselves to the rigidity of physics-based reality... which, for the sake of this argument, let's say you do) over stories about people like them?
The surface value answer is that watching human cyborgs battle demonic space-invaders, or mystical races band together to trek through magical worlds is just, quite obviously, cooler. But isn't that kind of depressing? The widespread acknowledgement that all of these worlds are more interesting than our own? That the most paramount capabilities of the greatest members of our reality could not compare to the day-to-day lives of hobbits lugging a piece of jewelry through New Zealand?
Yes, that would be a little depressing, were it the case. But as a matter of fact, it isn't the lack of relatability that draws viewers to these movies. If fans couldn't feasibly see a little bit of Harry Potter in themselves, they wouldn't be fans. If Toy Story 3 didn't make you cry about your own inevitable fate of growing up, it wouldn't have been such a hit. And if Avatar didn't remind everybody of Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and the actual plight of the Native American people, then it wouldn't have made more money than an iPad that plays advanced screenings of American Idol results shows.
People want to see themselves in these movies. They want to embellish their lives with the magic and charm of these stories. They want to think about how they'd fare in the world of Pandoa, about whether they'd choose Jack Sparrow or Will Turner. In this respect, Titanic actually is a fantasy. It is the epitome of powerhouse romance. Two people from different worlds — star-crossed lovers who come together despite the forces keeping them apart — only to lose each other again in the most heart-wrenching blaze of glory in big screen history. People want to make their own vows of never letting go.
And it makes sense that The Avengers is joining the bunch. Every fan has his or her favorite hero of the bunch, and it likely doesn't have all that much to do with which power seems "coolest." The earnest outsiders relate to Captain America. The cocky, fun-loving showmen with hidden hearts of gold connect with Iron Man. The tortured rage-aholics: the Hulk. People want to envision themselves doing great things. Living fantasies, exploring new worlds, becoming heroes.
So there might never be a story about an everyday man with everyday problems that makes it anywhere close to the top grossing list. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a testament to human imagination. In a generation branded by cynicism, these movies prove that enough people still have a dreamer inside of them. A dreamer who wishes he could fly, cast spells, or battle Orcs. A dreamer who wants to see people like him do things like this.
And as long as these movies keep being made, and these worlds keep being created, these dreams will be, in their own way, lived out. Plus, James Cameron can finally afford that submarine expedition of Andromeda. So that's two pluses.
[Image Credit: Walt Disney Pictures]