2014 was supposed to be a warm up year of sorts, a rest period before the big year of 2015 arrived. After all, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Fantastic Four and Ant-Man was supposed to be joining other geek-friendly films such as Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens to create one big festival of pop culture magnificence.
However, it would turn out that 2014 would be great in its own right–and 2015 might not be as good as it seemed.
Going into this year, Marvel Studios seemed primed for a stumble, if not an outright fall. While 2013’s Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were box office successes, creatively they were the weakest of Marvel’s offerings to date. This was troubling because 2014 promised a sequel to a franchise that didn’t light the world on fire with its first installment and featured a character that conventional wisdom said wouldn’t play well overseas and the start of a brand new concept featuring characters all but unknown by the general public, characters that included such silly offerings as a talking raccoon and a sentient tree who could only speak its own name. If Marvel didn’t bring its A game, it could have been in serious trouble.
Well, Marvel brought its A+ game. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a taught political thriller that doubled its predecessor’s worldwide grosses and changed the landscape of the Marvel film universe forever. And that unproven concept? That was Guardians of the Galaxy, which only became the highest grossing film of the year domestically and the second highest grossing film worldwide (behind the inexplicably popular Transformers: Age of Extinction). And that film’s two breakout stars? You guessed it, the talking raccoon and the walking tree.
But it wasn’t all champagne and roses for Marvel. In May, the studio parted ways with Edgar Wright, the director who had been shepherding the studio’s Ant-Man adaptation for the better part of a decade. The break came after Wright had already cast the film and production was set to begin. This parting of ways was especially shocking considering that the official party line Marvel put out up to that point was that the only reason there would be a Ant-Man film at all was due to Wright’s vision. However, it was Marvel’s fiddling with that vision–including a rewrite done without Wright’s input–was what broke this particular camel’s back.
Wright was replaced as director by Peyton Reed. Reed had shown inventiveness with his breakthrough film, Down With Love, but had become over recent years a journeyman director of sorts, helming films such as The Break-Up and Yes Man. While this might seem like a step down from Wright in a lot of people’s eyes, many others might consider Reed a better choice. With Wright, you might have gotten an inventive take on the character filtered through the eyes of an auteur, albeit one that might not have meshed well with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Reed, you have a competent director with an individual style that is malleable enough to bend the way Marvel wants it to bend. Still, in my eyes, Wright’s moving on is a disappointing missed opportunity.
Disney had another hit based on a Marvel comic book, although not one put out by Marvel Studios. Big Hero 6 was based on a Marvel comic, yet the concept was kept in house by Disney Animation. While the creative minds at Marvel had input, Disney want to put their own spin on the boy meets robot tale. The result is a charming film chock-full with more Marvel Comics’ Easter Eggs than you’d find in most Marvel Studios offerings. The film has made over $320 million and counting worldwide, coming close to doubling its production budget back.
Moving onto Marvel properties at other studios, X-Men: Days of Future Past marked a revitalization of Fox’s X-Men license. Bryan Singer returned to the franchise with this film, which came up with the brilliant idea of merging the cast of the original trilogy with the cast of X-Men: First Class in a quasi-adaptation of one of the best stories from the comics. If that wasn’t enough fan service, the film served as a soft reboot of the franchise, removing two of the lesser films of the franchise–X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins; Wolverine–from film continuity.
The film went on to make over $740 million worldwide and jump started Fox’s efforts of creating a shared universe out of the X-Men universe. Another sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse has been announced, another Wolverine film is in the works, and we might finally see Channing Tatum’s Gambit and Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool on the big screen.
While Fox is well on its way to building a shared universe with its Marvel license, Sony has had its plans for a similar shared universe with its Spider-Man license, which it announced with films based on Venom and Sinister Six last year, thrown into turmoil over disappointing returns for Amazing Spider-Man 2. And by Sony standards, the film making only three and a half times its production budget worldwide was a disappointment. I still can’t get over that. I’d love to get that much return on any investment I made. For Sony, that is a failure.
Regardless, the studio appeared to go into panic mode over this spanner in the works, with rumors of a spin-off featuring Aunt May, a film focusing on a team of females from the Spidey mythos, and a potential crossover with Marvel Studios being spread around.
But depths of Sony’s desperation truly became known during the Great Sony Hack of 2014. E-mails amongst top executives leaked during the hack showed a studio grasping at any straw that came their way when it came to Spider-Man. The crossover idea with Marvel Studios was confirmed. Inviting Sam Raimi back to take over the franchise was suggested. Another full reboot was offered up by Jeff Robinov, with an older Spidey and an adaptation of Kraven’s Big Hunt being part of it.
The result of all this is a sense of uncertainty of where Sony will be going with the Spider-Man franchise. As of right now, the studio still has Sinister Six scheduled for November 11, 2016. Whether or not that film will see the light of day, or if we will see Spider-Man hanging with Iron Man and Captain America before then, is anybody’s guess.
Warners had a quiet year when it came to comic book films in the theaters–no DC Comics films were released this year–but it more than made up for it when it came to its future plans. First was the scheduling brouhaha over Superman v. Batman. Warners moved it out of 2015 to May 6, 2016. The only problem was, Marvel had a then-unannounced film scheduled for that day. Instead of backing off, Marvel announced that that Captain America 3 would fill that spot. A tense game of chicken developed until Warners blinked and moved its film to March 25th.
While Marvel won that battle, DC scored a major victory in October when Warners announced a series of 10 DC Comics films, coming two a year from 2016 to 2020. Outside of Batman v. Superman, no solo Batman or Superman films were announced. Instead, we get DC’s B-team. Wonder Woman finally gets a film. Green Lantern gets another chance at charming audiences. Little known concepts such as Suicide Squad and Cyborg get films. And Aquaman hits screens only 12 years after it was mocked on Entourage. The rest of the list is made up of the long-rumored Shazam film and the optimistic Justice League and Justice League 2.
In contrast, Marvel’s announcement of their film slate two weeks later seemed a bit anti-climactic. Outside of Captain Marvel, arguably Marvel’s biggest female hero, getting a solo film, there were no big surprises. The Thor and Captain America sequels got subtitles (Ragnarok and Civil War respectively), Doctor Strange and Black Panther finally got official release dates. Long in development The Inhumans gets a slot and the third Avengers film will be broken up into two installments.
2014 proved to be a bad year for Frank Miller. There was 300: Rise of An Empire, the sequel to 300 that was supposed based on a Miller comic called Xerxes, a comic Miller never got around to writing. The filmmakers decided to go on without Miller, focusing on the Greek fighters instead of the Persian leader. International grosses helped the film overcome disappointing domestic grosses to earn three times its budget.
A film that Miller was personally involved with was Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Miller returned to co-direct the sequel with Robert Rodriguez, and provided an original yarn to fill out the adaptations from his legendary comic series. What should have been an eagerly awaited follow-up was welcomed by lukewarm reaction from critics and an even worse reaction from audiences. The film couldn’t even break the top five in its release weekend, and ended up making $26 million less worldwide than its relatively modest $65 million dollar budget. Can we call Hollywood’s dalliance with Frank Miller’s officially over?
As for the rest of the comic book films, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles followed the Michael Bay formula. Even though Bay only served as producer, the film suffered Bay’s trademark of overcoming a lambasting by critics yet to become a global success. Hercules also became a modest success when international grosses were taken into account. And I, Frankenstein was a disappointment.
As for next year? Well, we won’t have Batman v. Superman, since that has been moved to 2016. Fantastic Four could either be a trainwreck or a risky venture, depending on what leaked plot summary you believe. Kingsman: The Secret Service could become the latest hit adapted from a Mark Millar comic. Marvel should rake in money hand over fist with Avengers: Age of Ultron, and audiences should come to Ant-Man even with the tumultuous backstage drama. All of this will set the stage for the next 6 years of comic book films, much to the chagrin of the medium critics.