Summer-movie season is built on expectations and excitement, both from escapism-seeking fans and money-seeking studios. But like just about everything else, there’s no guarantee that all will go according to plan: For moviegoers, Cowboys & Aliens might not turn out to be the Next Great Superblockbuster, which seemed like a foregone conclusion at one point. Let’s take a look at the most highly anticipated movies during the run-up to summer 2011 and how they actually turned out, as well as some blockbusters that had lower expectations going in.
Anticipation: It’ll be sufficient, not great; an appetizer to other superhero movies’ midsummer entrees – with a smidge of doubt about whether Kenneth Branagh, heretofore best known for Shakespeare adaptations, is the right choice to bring one of Marvel’s most beloved characters to the big screen. And who’s this Hemsworth guy?
Reality: Better than our wildest dreams. Branagh enabled Thor to be tense, tight – but he also prevented it from being tightly wound or too tense; this was not a typical Branagh production, and that’s a good thing. Hemsworth, too, did a fine job in the title role, proving that a relative unknown can be good for a high-profile role. The movie earned a somewhat ho-hum (by summer-expectations standards) $448 million in box office around the world, but that’ll go higher with the subsequent Thor entries.
Anticipation: An off weekend. A comedic bridge between tentpole releases. A chick-flick Knocked Up tolerable for dudes – although the much-talked-about “bathroom scene” might detract from that a bit.
Reality: The comedy of the year. Written by chicks and about chicks, featuring an almost all-chick cast, but make no mistake: This was no chick flick. This was fresh R-rated comedy with a fresh voice, and it made a lot of people laugh – and rich.
Anticipation: Why, Johnny, why? Don’t you already own enough islands? We still love you, though!
Reality: No surprises whatsoever in this cash-grab. Possibly better than the previous two Pirates flicks, but nowhere near Curse of the Black Pearl in any way – except moneywise (it’s the eighth-highest-grossing film of all time), which is why there’s no end in sight for this franchise.
Anticipation: The first one was impossible to replicate – and not because it was that amazing – but, of course, here we go again. And, man, does the trailer look bad.
Reality: It made a ton of money, especially internationally (hat-tip to Todd Phillips for setting it outside the U.S.), so there’s that, but can anyone really say this wasn’t a huge step back? Gone was the element of surprise – we know the Galifianakis shtick by now, since he’s cinematically ubiquitous; ditto Ken Jeong – and in its place was lackluster, forced hijinks courtesy of Phillips and Co. in a sequel that just wasn’t meant to be, unless you had a financial stake in the franchise.
Anticipation: Marvel fatigue hasn’t yet set in, and this prequel – at least judging by the trailer – looks like an exciting, quasi-fresh restart. Plus, the studio went the “good actor” route over the “big-name” route. Wise choice, probably.
Reality: Superb acting from non-household names McAvoy and Fassbender and directing from Matthew Vaughn breathed new life into this franchise – in the form of gravity and more serious overtones. Box office ($350 million worldwide) was adequate but not superb.
Anticipation: The next E.T.! It’s got the best, most buzz-building prerelease campaign of any summer movie – not to mention Steven Spielberg as an exec producer and the next Spielberg behind the camera. It can’t fail!
Reality: Meh. Perhaps the buzz was too high, perhaps we were all a little more fatigued from the NBA Finals than expected – and we didn’t even play! – but J.J. Abrams’ unabashed homage to Spielberg didn’t quite deliver on its hype. Box office returns, even on a “shoestring budget” of $50 million, weren’t great, and the movie itself, while undeniably exciting and fun at times, was ultimately a bit of a style-over-substance letdown. An ever-so-slight disappointment from the not-quite-next Spielberg.Green Lantern
Anticipation: This’ll finally be Ryan Reynolds’ long-deserved breakout, catapulting him to the A-list and movie-franchise roles and … [trailer finishes buffering] that cost $200 million to make?? Yikes.
Reality: Reynolds’ ascension probably remains on track, but Lantern was a relative calamity. The movie was a mess, from the disappointing special effects to the non-chemistry to the “Are you kidding me?” storyline(s) – and the box office was even uglier: The movie couldn’t even recoup its budget, which rarely happens for summer movies, even if it means a studio bigwig has to buy millions of dollars in tickets to prevent such a financial travesty.Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Reality: The most surprising adequacy of the summer. The merciless barrage of effects was par for the course and, unlike the previous Transformers entry, decent enough new-fashioned fun, even with another overlong run time. Also unlike its predecessor? It crossed the $1 billion mark at the (worldwide) box office and wound up in the all-time No. 5 spot.
Anticipation: No Potter finale will please us all (unless J.K. Rowling pops up at the end and says, “Psych! There’ll be one more movie!), but just … blow us away like never before, David Yates.
Reality: Actually, it did pretty much seem to please us all – to the tune of over $1.2 billion grossed worldwide, good enough for third best, ever. And director Yates turned in the steadiest, best, and probably most-faithful-to-the-book Potter flick of the entire franchise. It’s safe to say that the highest expectations of the year were surpassed with Part 2. Satisfying, in every way.
Reality: Not bad. Perhaps aided by the somewhat lukewarm anticipation (and the surprisingly solid reviews), the movie was good popcorn fun, nothing more but certainly nothing less. Chris Evans earned his spot in the Marvel universe, and Johnston deserves credit for helping the movie outgross some of the bigger titles heading into the summer season. Speaking of Cowboys & Aliens…Cowboys & Aliens
Reality: Surprise of the Season (Bad Version). Cowboys & Aliens might not quite be remembered as this summer’s Jonah Hex, but, well, it likely won’t be remembered, period. For such an original idea, the execution and end results felt as stale as any token blockbuster wannabe: aimless action, gratuitous explosions, crazy noise for no good reason and altogether ‘WTF?!’-ness. And those box office earnings? Let’s just say that even though the tally will not be finalized for a while, it’ll probably come in at about 10 percent of what the studio was hoping for – and there’s a good chance it won’t even make its money back with worldwide gross factored in.
Anticipation: Before the trailer, almost no expectations. After the trailer – with what looked retro-CGI apes! – almost no positive expectations.
Reality: Surprise of the Season (Good Version). James Franco was innocuous, and the movie, whose trailer resembled a last-gen video game, turned out to be well-done summer fun. It’s already a box office success, with much more money still to come, and probably a sequel or two.