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Wait… Was 2017 The Best Year for Superhero Movies of All Time?

After putting numerous films through an air-tight mathematical formula, we’ve ranked the best years of the 21st century for the superhero genre. It’s science!

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On November 24th, a film writer named Rhett Bartlett asked his Twitter followers to name their favorite movie moment in 2017. His prompt spread swiftly, fetching some surprising responses in the thread (Rooney Mara’s interminable pie eating in A Ghost Story), and some predictable ones (Tom Hardy’s triumph at the end of Dunkirk). One scene came up more than any other, though:

Let the record show that Gal Gadot streaking across a swath of scorched countryside on behalf of humankind was exciting, optimistic, and genuinely moving. Scrolling through the thread, I was inclined to agree that “No Man’s Land” was at least my favorite superhero moment of the year, if not one of the year’s best, super or otherwise.

Then I re-watched Logan (yes, Logan — remember Logan? The one whose release nine months ago had critics and fans clawing over one another to anoint it one of the best superhero films of all time?), and during the scene where Laura’s ferocious abilities are revealed, I was reminded of our staggeringly short memories. Her spree mirrors Wonder Woman’s harrowing journey through no man’s land — each are breathtaking previews of potential that (importantly) reveals something essential about the characters involved. We are moved by Diana’s idealism, courage, and prowess, and as Logan watches Laura wreak terrifying havoc, we are similarly moved by the understanding that spreads across his face while witnessing someone with both his powers and rage.

“No Man’s Land” and Laura’s debut were hardly the only affecting moments in a year that was replete with quality superhero films. Consider Yondu’s ravager funeral in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a poignant send-off for Michael Rooker’s character, and one we didn’t know would wreck us — until it did. Then there’s the end of Logan, a momentous and tonally perfect finale for Hugh Jackman after seventeen years of playing the character. Even Thor had his moments, with the sheer joy of his hilarious realization that The Hulk would be his coliseum opponent in Thor: Ragnarok, punctuated by the hilarious line: “I know him! He’s a friend from work!” (with a heartwarming real-life source).

All of this to say, 2017 was a banner year for superhero movies, despite the absence of The Avengers and the lingering presence of the inert Justice League franchise. In fact, as we look back now, its hard to remember a year with the same balance of quantity and quality of 2017. Was this actually the best year for superheroes of all time? Inspired by the possibility, we tackled the question (not unlike Wonder Woman rushing head first into chaos), attempting to statistically figure out beyond a doubt if 2017 was actually as successful as it seems.

Here’s how it works:

Every year since 2000* was ranked in four separate categories, with their ranking in each category corresponding to points. If a year ranked number one in a category, it received 17 points; number two, 16 points; three, 15 points; and so on. At the end, the year with the most points won. The categories are straightforward:

  • Total Domestic Box Office (Adjusted for Growth): This is the total haul of all superhero movies in a year combined. It reflects the breadth and overall success of a year’s offerings.
  • Average Domestic Box Office (Adjusted for Growth): The average take of each superhero movie in a given year. This reflects, on average, how successful the films of a given year were.
  • Average Rotten Tomatoes Critics Score: Self-explanatory. This reflects how well-received the films of a given year were overall.
  • Average Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score: This category is worth half points (the top place gets 8.5, second gets 8, third gets 7.5 etc.), and was considered because there is some truth behind the idea that these movies are made principally for fans (a less benevolent characterization would be “for money”), and some films often develop small but vocal minorities that don’t reflect a cultural consensus. The points were halved precisely because they don’t reflect a consensus — Batman vs. Superman, for instance, is still widely considered a bloated mess, but its fans should be heard. Basically, this category exists so DCEU fans won’t be mad at us.

*One note: You may be wondering why we started with the year 2000. The answer is two-fold. First, Bryan Singer’s X-Men came out in 2000, and that feels like a natural starting point for the modern superhero film landscape. Second, although we love Burton’s Batman and Donner’s Superman (among others), the overall dearth of offerings in the 20th century would have effectively prevented any of those years from competing in the 21st century. Remember, this is about years, not movies.

**2001 is not on this list. No superhero movies were released that year, unless you consider Monkeybone or Pootie Tang superhero movies. We don’t. 

On to the list, and our first entry:

16. (Tie) 2005 and 2009 | 10.5 pts

The Movies:

(2005)

  • Elektra: $34 Mil, Critics 10%, Audience 29%
  • Fantastic Four: $215 Mil, Critics 27%, Audience 45%
  • Batman Begins: $286 Mil, Critics 84%, Audience 94%

(2009)

  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine: $215 Mil, Critics 38%, Audience 58%
  • Watchmen: $128.6 Mil, Critics 64%, Audience 71%

We may have willfully forgotten that before Chris Evans became Captain America, he played Johnny Storm in 2005’s extremely cheesy Fantastic Four. We also seem to have forgotten that the film made $215.5 Million at the box office — if not a veritable hit, then at least a success. That gross is only $50 Million less than Batman Begins, a little movie that only birthed one of the most beloved and successful superhero franchises ever.

The Rotten Tomatoes scores for Batman Begins are surprisingly unspectacular in retrospect, considering what came next. Christopher Nolan’s first outing currently rests at 84 percent on the site (Ant-Man, for instance, sports an 82), but the middling critical performances of Fantastic Four and Batman Begins are not the reasons for 2005’s last-place finish. No, the actual cause would be Elektra, a historic bomb that fizzled at the box office and was maligned by both critics and audiences alike (10 and 29, respectively). We eventually will need an oral history of the superhero movie explosion, if only to understand how Elektra was tapped for a solo film before Wolverine, any of the Avengers, or Wonder Woman. If the need arises to describe Elektra to a friend, you could accurately say that the film misses the presence of Ben Affleck as Daredevil — not great.

In 2009, X-Men Origins had a respectable box office gross, but was not fondly received (understatement), and is now remembered for an inexplicably mouthless Deadpool. Meanwhile, the divisive Watchmen is maybe Zack Snyder’s best-loved superhero adaptation — which apparently counts for a mediocre box office take and similarly unenthusiastic critical reception. These years did show some promise of things to come though — Fox would eventually make two successful Wolverine solo movies, and Batman Begins would beget The Dark Knight.

  1. 2004 | 16 pts

The Movies:

  • The Punisher: $48.6 Mil, Critics 29%, Audience 63%
  • Spider-Man 2: $537.2 Mil (!), Critics 93%, Audience 61%
  • Blade: Trinity: $75 Mil, Critics 25%, Audience 59%
  • Catwoman: $57.8 Mil, Critics 9%, Audience 18%
  • Hellboy: $85.7 Mil, Critics 81%, Audience 65%

2004 was a fascinating year for a number of reasons. Just look at how uneven superhero adaptations used to be: thirteen years ago Halle Berry starred as Catwoman in perhaps the worst superhero movie of the century, full stop. Someone made a Punisher movie, and that someone chose Tom Jane as The Punisher. Those things happened.

The year also featured two notable gulfs between audience and critical perception, as ticket buyers were determined to give The Punisher a pass, but were less moved by Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy than critics were. Blade: Trinity marked the end of a franchise that seems completely foreign thirteen years later, but the real story in 2004 was Spider-Man 2.

Raimi’s webslinger will send shock waves through this list further on, but his first feat is saving this mediocre year from crashing to the bottom of the list. We wrote here that Spider-Man 2 is one of the best superhero movies of all time, and certainly the best Spider-Man film, but the passage of time has only made the film’s gaudy box office numbers more shocking. Wonder Woman, a surprise blockbuster that seemed to be in theaters for eight months straight, sold over $100 Million less in adjusted gross than Spider-Man 2.

  1. 2003 | 22.5 pts.

The Movies:

  • Daredevil: $151.8 Mil, Critics 44%, Audience 35%
  • X2: $318.3 Mil, Critics 85%, Audience 86%
  • Hulk: $195.7 Mil, Critics 61%, Audience 29%

2003 was the definition of a forgettable year, buoyed only by a behemoth X-Men movie that — with its $318.3 Million gross  — was barely eclipsed by 2006’s Last Stand as franchise’s most successful X-Men installment of all time.

There is one interesting note from this year (although it has more to do with films that came later): while Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner might have us forgetting Ang Lee’s Hulk (as well as Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk), the $195 Million gross of Hulk places that film in line with the likes of Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor. This is a film about which Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly wrote the following: “A big-budget comic-book adaptation has rarely felt so humorless and intellectually defensive about its own pulpy roots.”

That statement now looks hilarious considering how many superhero movies have aspired to maturity using unceasing grimness over the past decade, but it captures an overarching sentiment about Hulk at the time of its release: the movie wasn’t fun enough. And it still performed like The First Avenger and Thor would eight years later. Marvel’s most important victory may have been recognizing earlier than competitors how starved audiences were for comic book adaptations. All they had to do was look at Hulk. 

  1. 2007 | 23 pts 

The Movies:

  • Spider-Man 3: $436.8 Mil, Critics 63%, Audience 51%
  • Fantastic Four: Silver Surfer: $171.2 Mil, Critics 37%, Audience 51%

We can thank 2007 for emo-jazz Peter Parker, dancing through New York City with finger guns blazing — and for appearing to poison the well for future adaptations of both the Venom and Silver Surfer characters — but this plainly barren year is inflated a bit because both Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Silver Surfer performed at the box office (Silver Surfer barely broke even, but it’s $171 million take helps the average box office score here — we aren’t really concerned with studio profits). Side note: it might be worth a critical reappraisal of Spider-Man 3. 63% on Rotten Tomatoes seems awful high for this:

  1. 2010 | 25 pts

The Movies:

  • Iron Man 2: $350.9 Mil, Critics 73%, Audience 72%
  • Kick-Ass: $53.9 Mil, Critics 81%, Audience 75%

By 2010, superheroes had become so entrenched at the movies that Kick-Ass was able to wrangle a substantial audience into theaters by taking aim at genre traditions — a concept that only tens earlier was relegated to niche cartoons or curiosities like Orgazmo. You’ll remember that much pearl-clutching was done over Chloe Grace Moretz, as Hit Girl, having to say the c-word in the film (she was 13 at the time), and to a lesser extent, over the ultra-violence in Kick-Ass. The resonance of the those elements, as well as the film’s broader commentary, depends largely on whether or not the viewer finds naughty words and blood spurts witty or subversive — a fact that made Kick-Ass predictably divisive. Still, the film boasts an 81% on Rotten Tomatoes, which presumably accounts for Roger Ebert calling it “morally reprehensible.”

One more interesting note: according to the stats on TorrentFreak, the film was the second most pirated of 2010 (with Avatar coming in first), suggesting that those most predisposed to love Kick-Ass are, presumably, also the least likely to pay for it.

Oh, and Iron Man 2 (the one with Mickey Rourke) came out in 2010. It wasn’t good. It made $350 Million.

  1. 2011 | 25.5 pts

The Movies:

  • Thor: $200.6 Mil, Critics 77%, Audience 76%
  • Captain America: The First Avenger: $198 Mil, Critics 80%, Audience 74%
  • Green Lantern: $129.5 Mil, Critics 26%, Audience 45%
  • X-Men: First Class: $162 Mil, Critics 86%, Audience 87%

Three positively average films (in terms of performance) and one certified bust. The surprising takeaway from 2011 is that in retrospect it appears critics and audiences were unsure of how to react to Marvel’s burgeoning Cinematic Universe. The studio’s overwhelming presence is now an undeniable fact of the movie landscape, but the sums of Thor and Captain America, while hardly paltry, pale in comparison to both later films like Civil War and the Iron Man films that were released in 2008 and 2010.

The First Avenger and Thor posted Hulk numbers, and were received with enthusiastic shrugs by critics and audiences alike, yet they both managed to out-earn X-Men: First Class, even though the franchise reboot was the most lauded superhero film of 2011 (and remains one of the most purely fun, if flawed X-Men installments). If it weren’t for Green Lantern, 2011 would be a nice little year with some memorable gems that have through no fault of their own been overshadowed by subsequent films. Alas, Green Lantern exists.

 

  1. 2015 | 26 pts 

The Movies:

  • Avengers: Age of Ultron: $447.9 Mil, Critics 75%, Audience 65%
  • Ant-Man: $194.9 Mil, Critics 82%, Audience 86%
  • Fantastic Four: $60 Mil, Critics 9% (!), Audience 18%

Age of Ultron was a regression for the Avengers franchise — an overcrowded, somewhat incomprehensible, and emotionally inert regression that still managed to thrill purely as a spectacle. It should also be considered a warning sign that Avengers: Infinity War, due out in 2018, may have logistical problems balancing thirty-two characters while telling a cogent story (shocking, I know). Of course, the Avengers’ second time saving the world was both financially successful and moderately well received. Ultron isn’t the bug in the 2015 mainframe. Nor is it Ant-Man, a film about a minor superhero that Marvel turned into a tightly scripted caper story, and a reprieve from the apocalyptic stakes of the Avengers franchise. 2015 owes its low standing in part to a limited slate, but in much larger part to Fantastic Four, a film most famous for its fraught production.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone (hardly a takedown artist) called the Fantastic Four “worse than worthless.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “a 100-minute trailer for a movie that never happens.” This year is notable for being around the time that franchises were handed over to young upstart directors with limited but proven track records: Colin Trevorrow helmed Jurassic World after the success of 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed; Ryan Coogler was tapped for Creed (and now Black Panther) after directing Fruitvale Station (his only movie at the time); Fantastic Four was handed to Josh Trank after the success of Chronicle, his directorial debut.

Trank is now most famous for a tweet storm blaming the Fantastic Four debacle on studio meddling, and for his ouster from a subsequent standalone Star Wars film after his Marvel movie flopped. Fantastic Four is currently the worst reviewed Marvel Movie on Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s not close. 

  1. 2006 | 27.5 pts 

The Movies:

  • X-Men: The Last Stand: $319.5 Mil, Critics 58%, Audience 61%
  • Superman Returns: $272.7 Mil, Critics 76%, Audience 61%

Superman Returns made $272 Million, and currently sits at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, two facts I would wager are a surprise to anyone reading this in 2017. While Brandon Routh’s turn as Superman might be remembered as an idealist flop that was quickly washed away by the gritty tide of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, re-watching it now can be a refreshing experience — especially contrasted with Henry Cavill’s (actually pretty enjoyable) moody spin on the character. It’s accurate to say that Superman Returns has mostly been forgotten, which fits — 2006 is a mostly forgettable year, with two films that haven’t left us much in terms of legacy or impact. In fact, the next X-Men film will re-adapt the comic’s “Dark Phoenix” arc, which was bungled by Last Stand.

Both films were both legitimate blockbusters, and moderately received at worst. If nothing else, The Last Stand featured Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine at the height of his popularity (until 2017, maybe, although box office numbers don’t bear that out), and concluded the first modern superhero trilogy. But like most of the early mediocre years, 2006 reflects just how spoiled superhero fans have become.

  1. 2000 | 28.5 pts

The Movies:

  • X-Men: $260.6 Mil, Critics 81%, Audience 83%
  • Unbreakable: $156 Mil, Critics 68%, Audience 77%

The year that gave us X-Men, the first modern superhero blockbuster, also featured a surprising deconstruction of superhero myth-making in Unbreakable. It was an impactful year, evidenced by the fact that the X-Men franchise is still running seventeen years later, albeit in split timelines, and that Unbreakable is still relevant enough to warrant a sequel: Glass, due out in 2019, is currently in production.

X-Men was a gamble on a property that — while beloved by comic (and cartoon) fans — lacked the ubiquity and the cache of either Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man. It parlayed an untapped public appetite for spectacle (the movie’s premier was on Ellis Island) into the sixth biggest opening of any film, and the biggest opening weekend for a superhero film of all time. It would quickly be dwarfed by properties that owe their success — their existence, really — to X-Men. 

  1. 2013 | 32 pts 

The Movies:

  • Iron Man 3: 434.8 Mil, Critics 80%, Audience 78%
  • Thor: The Dark World: $220 mil, Critics 66%, Audience 77%
  • Man of Steel: $310.1 Mil, Critics 55%, Audience 75%
  • The Wolverine: $150.8 Mil, Critics 69%, Audience 69%
  • Kick-Ass 2: $30.6 Mil, Critics 32%, Audience 57%

A few random thoughts about a very inconsistent year:

  • The modern superhero era can be broken up into two segments: pre-Avengers and post-Avengers. Other films had quantifiable impacts — The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and, Spider-Man chief among them — but the performance of films in 2013 show a distinct leap beyond the trends from 2011 and 2010, the last two years of the pre-Avengers epoch. The box office take of Iron Man 3 nearly matches the haul Age of Ultron would earn two years later, despite following the disappointing Iron Man 2. Thor: The Dark World, unquestionably a minor MCU entry, made $220 Million. Even Man of Steel, a film that was (and I say this charitably) divisive, would have been the top superhero earner in 2011 (the year with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) by over $100 Million. This is the comic book equivalent of baseball’s steroid era, and the point where the financial fate of superhero films detached from relative quality as they became cinema’s primary institution. The Avengers, just one year earlier, solidified that change, irrevocably linking the spectacle of a film’s conception with the success of its release.
  • Kick-Ass 2 is a major outlier here, we know. It was a bona fide flop, but even a relatively successful box office number for such a small film would have pulled down the average in a year with four true blockbusters. So, we had a choice: leave Kick-Ass 2 off to protect the integrity of the overall feel of 2013 (which would have likely meant taking Kick-Ass out of 2010) or leave it on. We chose the latter. Kick-Ass 2 was made, and it likely shouldn’t have been; if anything, it provides an exception to the rule of superhero law by highlighting the potential hubris of thinking any movie with masks and capes will make money. It was both underseen and underloved, yet somehow fits alongside the four other films this year, each a financial success that ultimately lacked lasting impact. 
  1. 2016 | 40.5 pts 

The Movies:

  • Captain America: Civil War: $417.5 Mil, Critics 91%, Audience 89%
  • Dr. Strange: $236 Mil, Critics 89%, Audience 86%
  • Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: $341.6 Mil, Critics 27%, Audience 63%
  • Suicide Squad: $340 Mil, Critics 26%, Audience 61%
  • Deadpool: $322.6, Critics 83%, Audience 90%
  • X-Men: Age of Apocalypse: $159 Mil, Critics 48%, Audience 66%

There is a significant jump in point totals between numbers six and seven on this list (from 32 to 40.5) due to those gargantuan box office totals. We’ll remember 2016 as the year this genre became both prolific and critic-proof, and the chasm between critical and audience appraisal yawned widest. Suicide Squad, a mostly irredeemable slog that was trashed by critics, earned $340 Million domestically, pleasing 61% of viewers; Dawn of Justice, a film that is probably better than Twitter and Marvel loyalists imagine — but not as profound or “adult” as DC fans occasionally claim — was a financial success.

2016 is also the year that resurrected the R-rated blockbuster, a species of film that was largely considered extinct until a foul-mouthed Ryan Reynolds proved the concept was alive and well as long as the protagonist was wearing spandex. 

  1. 2002 | 41 pts 

The Movies:

  • Spider-Man: $620 Mil, Critics 89%, Audience 67%
  • Blade 2: $126.5 Mil, Critics 57%, Audience 68%

A little honesty here: 2002 was the year that had us us wondering whether or not this formula was either inaccurate or so, so incredibly accurate. Could a year with only one major film truly be considered “better” than say, 2016 and its large but uneven buffet of offerings? The answer to that question is complicated. Better? Maybe not. More significant? Absolutely. Here are some Spider-Man facts:

  • At the time, the only film to reach $100 Million in its first weekend
  • At the time, the most successful film based on a comic book (it’s still third)
  • The highest worldwide gross of any origin story, until 2017’s Wonder Woman
  • Before picking Sam Raimi to direct, the studio considered Roland Emmerich, Ang Lee, Chris Columbus, Jan de Bont, M. Night Shyamalan, Tony Scott, and David Fincher
  • Spider-Man is NOT A SEQUEL

That last “fact” is obvious, but crucial to understanding the magnitude of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. The film’s domestic gross now sits third behind The Dark Knight and The Avengers, neither of which are truly comparable. The Dark Knight was a highly anticipated sequel that became a fascinating craze after the tragic death of Heath Ledger and the hype surrounding his performance. On the other hand, The Avengers wasn’t just a sequel — it was a coronation. Spider-Man doesn’t merely trail those two films — it comes shockingly close to eclipsing them, only $43 Million behind The Dark Knight and $68 Million behind The Avengers, seemingly substantial gaps that are in fact shockingly small considering the notable circumstances surrounding the release of those two films.

We stand by everything we’ve written about X-Men in this list, but if it was the big bang of superhero movies, Spider-Man was the discovery of fire. The studio’s list of potential directors reflects a working knowledge of the film’s potential, but one would have to imagine that the monumental success of Spider-Man still came as a surprise. 2002 lacks the luxury of choice now routinely afforded to superhero fans, but it provided the first — and still one of the only — true craze of the era.

  1. 2014 | 43.5 pts

The Movies:

  • Captain America: Winter Soldier: $278.5 Mil, Critics 89%, Audience 92%
  • Guardians of The Galaxy: $367.7 Mil, Critics 91%, Audience 92%
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2: $217.5 Mil, Critics 52%, Audience 64%
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past: $251.2 Mil, Critics 91%, Audience 91%

Save for a lone clunker in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (which somehow nearly matched the earnings of Days of Future Past), 2014 struck a balance between quantity and quality. Marvel’s releases that year represent both a visionary leap for an established character in Winter Soldier, and essentially a $360 million brag in Guardians of The Galaxy. By turning an unpopular, patently absurd superhero team into a massive success with both its own singular feel and a shocking amount of emotional resonance, the studio proved that from now King Midas should defer to Marvel in terms of touch efficacy.

  1. 2008 | 53 pts

The Movies:

  • The Dark Knight: $663.2 Mil, Critics 94%, Audience 94%
  • Iron Man: $396 Mil, Critics 94%, Audience 91%
  • The Incredible Hulk: $167.6 Mil, Critics 67%, Audience 71%
  • Hellboy 2: $94.5 Mil, Critics 86%, Audience 71%

While its true that The Avengers is a marker bisecting two distinct eras of superhero film, there are similarly distinct periods in the time leading up to The Avengers. In 2000, X-Men kick-started an era of studios clumsily grasping for success, forming — and just as quickly scrapping — plans. X-Men paved the way for Spider-Man, but it also preceded Elektra and Catwoman. Thanks, X-Men. The dawn of a second age begins with 2008, a year of importance that can’t be understated.

The Dark Knight, maybe the most beloved, most impactful, and most objectively well-crafted superhero film ever, was released in the summer of 2008, instantly calcifying Nolan’s Batman franchise as a standard-bearer of the genre. Its impact was an unfortunate shockwave into the future of Batman’s comic universe, signaling to filmmakers that realism and craftsmanship might be mistaken by critics and audiences alike as “maturity.” The Dark Knight is a standalone masterpiece that begat a lineage of films striving to be labeled “adult,” thanks in large part to critical appraisal in 2008 that likened the film to Heat and even The Godfather: Part II.

That same summer, Iron Man arrived in theaters. It’s $396 Million earnings seem preordained now, which ignores the fact that for decades, Marvel’s marquee properties were Spider-Man and The X-Men. Iron Man wasn’t even the most popular or famous Avenger, titles that likely go to Captain America and The Hulk, respectively. The success of these two films, coupled with their objective quality and the way they laid tracks for competing franchises to follow, cement 2008 as one of the most important years for superhero movies of all time.

  1. 2017 | 54.6 pts

The Movies:

  • Guardians of The Galaxy, Vol. 2: $388.9 Mil, Critics 82%, Audience 88%
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming: $334.2 Mil, Critics 92%, Audience 88%
  • Thor: Ragnarok: $291.4 Mil, Critics 92%, Audience 88%
  • Wonder Woman: $411.8 Mil, Critics 92%, Audience 89%
  • Justice League: $197.3 Mil, Critics 41%, Audience 81%
  • Logan: $228.3, Critics 93%, Audience 90%

Behold, your answer to the entire premise of this exercise. Apparently, 2017 was not the greatest year for superhero movies. We respectfully disagree — this year was notable for offering six films with hardly a blemish among them, especially considering that even Justice League has vehement defenders (and critics considered it an improvement on Dawn of Justice). Admittedly Guardians, while patently hilarious and surprisingly affecting, fell prey to the same bloat and ambition that tinge many sequels, and the box office of Logan was probably limited due to the film’s brutal violence and subsequent R-rating, but if there is a flaw in 2017, it’s not a lack of quality — more a seeming lack of importance.

If this list has illustrated a single truth, it’s that superhero franchises are (unsurprisingly) structured around bona fide spectacles. Conversely, 2017 was a year for pleasant surprises, from Wonder Woman rescuing the DC Extended Universe from fatal grittiness to Ragnarok providing not only the best Thor film, but one of the funniest Marvel films, period. Homecoming was a triumphant return for Spidey after two misguided Amazing Spider-Man films, while Logan was an intimate genre exercise that became a sensation. But with no clear behemoth among the pack, 2017 resembles a seamless transition into the next phase of superhero films. It portends a rich future, where Wonder Woman anchors a universe of films, and (owing to Ragnarok and Logan) the tonal and formal possibilities of these movies are stretched. 

  1. 2012 | 56 pts

The Movies:

  • Marvel’s The Avengers: $686.5 Mil, Critics 92%, Audience 91%
  • The Dark Knight Rises: $448.1 Mil, Critics 87%, Audience 90%
  • The Amazing Spider-Man: $300.7 Mil, Critics 73%, Audience %77

There are a number of ways to consider 2012. It birthed the superhero era we currently inhabit, making it a watershed year like 2000 or 2008. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy came to a close, drawing the curtain on the most popular Batman iteration of all time, and yielding to a franchise of films that would ape Nolan’s style with none of the virtuosity or heart. The Avengers became the most successful superhero movie of all time to fulfill the promise of Marvel’s vision, a feat that five years later seems fated, but at the time was truly breathtaking. Post-credits tags, superhero crossovers, nine-film acting deals, billion dollar revenues — all of it now feels baked into the superhero form, but none of it exists without an MCU gambit that culminated with The Avengers.

We shouldn’t overlook The Amazing Spider-Man either, a now-maligned entry that was both an actual blockbuster and a critical success. That film points to the most important trend in 2012: it was a year of heavyweights. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is truly loved, as is the Superman Character, but the planets aligned in 2012 with a swan song for the most popular portrayal of perhaps the most popular hero in Dark Knight Rises, the birth of a cinematic force in The Avengers, and the attempted reboot of Marvel’s most popular hero in The Amazing Spider-Man. If nothing else, 2012 proves that comic adaptation remains a character-driven medium, and while a year like 2017 was lucky enough to maximize the potential of under-served characters, the headliners were trapped in muddy films (Justice League) or upstart reboots (Spider-Man: Homecoming).

2012 was the last year both Marvel and DC had proven blockbuster commodities to trot out, although that will likely change. Maybe we can do this again in five years, and remember 2017 as the year that Diana of Themyscira saved DC, and restored balance to the superhero universe. Or maybe a new crop will take over altogether.

***

That’s the list folks, and it was created by math, so just go ahead and try to dispute it. So, what do you think? What was the best year for superhero movies?

Mike hails from the great state of Massachusetts, where he structured his identity around three inarguable truths - that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, Pearl Jam is the best band since 1980, and those who disagree are dead wrong. He complains about the proliferation of superhero movies while gleefully forking over sixteen dollars for each new release, and believes Tom Cruise has yet to make a bad movie. Follow Mike on twitter @haigismichael.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Zack Zagranis

    December 13, 2017 at 10:40 am

    There were a lot of superhero movies from 2000-2017 that are not listed in their respective years. How did you decide which superhero movies to count and which superhero movies to ignore?

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Career of Robert Mitchum

A Look Back at the Career of Robert Mitchum

The title of Lee Server’s acclaimed 2002 biography, Robert Mitchum:  Baby I Don’t Care (MacMillan), offers a perfect encapsulation of the eponymous actor:  a hard-partying Hollywood Bad Boy who didn’t give a damn what moralizing finger-waggers thought of him, or what his peers in the movie business thought, or the press, or even the public.  He was going to go his own way and to hell with you, and anyone positioning themselves to make strong objection was just as likely to get a punch in the nose as shown the actor’s broad back.  He worked hardest at conveying the idea that the thing he did for a living – acting – was also the thing he cared least about; an impression that may have been his most convincing performance.

The Bad Boy part of Mitchum’s reputation was honestly come by.  As a youth, he’d been booted from more than one school, hoboed around the country, boxed (thus his distinctive battered pug’s profile), and even done time on a southern chain gang.  It was a background which left him with a rebellious, take-no-guff streak he never lost, even as a movie star.  Two years after his star-making turn in Out of the Past (1947), he was famously busted for marijuana possession and even did a few months at a California prison farm (the conviction was eventually overturned although this wasn’t the same thing as Mitchum being innocent; he did smoke grass and continued to do so well into his AARP years).  On 1955’s Blood Alley, he threw a crew member into San Francisco Bay.  In 1968, as public opinion swung against the Vietnam War, Mitchum was advocating a policy of, “Nuke ‘em all.” In 1983, promoting the miniseries The Winds of War, Mitchum got into hot water for making anti-Semitic remarks, then refused to apologize even though they were made in jest and the actor had a number of close Jewish friends.  According to Server’s book, the actor smoked to his dying day—literally — although he was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer.

Out of the Past Robert Mitchum

Sometimes his rebelliousness could take on a noble hue according to Jean Simmons, his co-star on 1952’s Angel Face, and her then-husband, Stewart Granger, both of whom told the tale in the 1987 documentary series, Hollywood, the Golden Years:  The RKO Story.

Mitchum had a scene calling for him to slap Simmons across the face.  The actor — who was often quite courtly around his female co-stars — tried to fake the slap.  Autocratic director Otto Preminger demanded Mitchum slap Simmons for real, then called for take after take.  As Simmons’ face began to swell from the repeated blows, Mitchum decided enough was enough, turned and gave Preminger a how-does-it-feel slap across his face.  The infuriated director stormed up to RKO’s executive offices and demanded Mitchum be fired from the picture.  At the time, Mitchum was the closest thing the floundering RKO had to an honest-to-God marquee-value star and it was explained to the director that if anybody was going to leave the picture, it was going to be Preminger.

But the actor had a softer side as well, one few saw.  He wrote – and recorded — a variety of music including an oratorio produced by Orson Welles at the Hollywood Bowl.  He collected quarter horses.  His four-time leading lady Deborah Kerr told of Mitchum reciting self-penned poetry to her during the shooting of The Sundowners (1960).  Dwight Whitney, in a 1969 TV Guide piece, sensed this something else buried behind the actor’s defiantly disinterested front, writing that somewhere inside Mitchum “…lies imprisoned the soul of a poet.”

Angel Face - Robert Mitchum

As for the indolence Mitchum affected and often bragged about, and his feigned indifference to his profession (“Movies bore me, especially my own”), this, too, was true – Sidney Pollock, his director on The Yakuza (1974) compared him to “an extremely powerful but lazy workhorse” — but only to a point.  In his tenure at RKO from the mid-1940s well into the 1950s, this “lazy” actor was a studio reliable, often pumping out several films each year, once even working on three films simultaneously.  Despite making noises several times in his later years about retiring, he kept appearing on either the big or little screen nearly every year of his life.

He would say he only made movies for the money, or to meet sexy women, or to score pot, and certainly bland time-killers like Young Billy Young (1969), The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969), The Wrath of God (1972), The Amsterdam Kill (1977), and Breakthrough (1979) – to name just a very few – seemed to substantiate his point.  But despite claiming he just “took what came and made the best of it,” he also regularly gravitated to artistically ambitious projects and their demanding directors i.e. The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Charles Laughton; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and John Huston; The Sundowners and Fred Zinneman; Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and David Lean. The Blood Alley incident notwithstanding, more typically he was a no-fuss-no-muss performer, on time, not only knowing all his lines but usually the lines of everyone else.  “I’ve survived,” he once said, “because I work cheap and don’t take up too much time.”

robert mitchum night of the hunter

Stylistically, he was, in many ways, the first “modern” movie actor which is why his performances still hold up decades later.  He didn’t look like other actors of his time and certainly not like those of the generation before, didn’t sound like them, didn’t move like them.  What one actor did with a sob, he did with a small sigh; where another actor needed a few lines, Mitchum could give the same sense with a slight shrug. Look at his breakthrough performance in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) as a WW II infantry officer during the meat grinder Italian campaign.  Sitting over the letters he’s writing to families on behalf of the dead, his broad shoulders sag just a little, his deep, slow voice gets a fraction deeper and slower — “I know it ain’t my fault that they get killed,” he tells war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith), “but it makes me feel like a murderer” — and that’s all it takes to convey a man both bone-weary and heartsick over the letters he’s written today, and the letters he knows he’ll be writing tomorrow, and the day after that and on and on.

His battered boxer’s looks, a voice that could seductively purr or fall into a thick, liquory rasp, his hooded eyes looking down from atop a massive chest combined to give him an intimidating physical presence more lithely athletic actors – Fairbanks, Gable, Flynn, Lancaster – didn’t have.  He was threatening in a way they weren’t, and, more than that, there was something unmistakably carnal about him.  The sight of Mitchum, his bare skin gleaming with swamp water, shot in a severe up-angle by director J. Lee Thompson in Cape Fear (1962), his lazy eyes gleaming as he stalks Gregory Peck’s daughter in the Georgia backwoods is a portrait of something primordial, of a walking, lusting, unrestrained id.

“Up there on the screen,” he once said, “you’re thirty feet wide, your eyeball is six feet high…”  That in mind, few actors of his time understood, as he did, the value of stillness on the screen.  He seemed fully aware of how much presence he radiated, how little he had to do to pull focus:  a nod of the head, a raised eyebrow accompanied by the slightest dip in his voice.  He walked off with Cape Fear, taking it away from star (and producer) Gregory Peck; not an inconsiderable feat considering Peck would win the Best Actor Oscar the next year for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  Mitchum has a scene in a bar sitting across from Peck as he explains the why and how behind his vindictive campaign to destroy Peck and his family.  The heart of the scene is two long, almost uninterrupted takes – a near-monologue done in close-ups.  Watch his puffy eyes switch from sadistic glee to ice-cold hate, the lazy drawl of his voice slide from malicious amusement to blatant threat.  The adjustments are incredibly small, yet laser-focused enough to burn a hole through the screen.  In the light-hearted Western El Dorado (1966), using the same economical style, he was one of the few actors who could hold the screen against the iconic John Wayne.  He found the humor in Leigh Brackett’s spry script without ever overtly playing to the joke.  In a scene largely crafted by himself, he plays against his own he-man lady killer image as he sits in a bath embarrassed by the woman friend who must pass through the room, pulling a hat down low over his head, covering his face with his hands and muttering, “I’ll close my eyes.”

Cape Fear - Robert Mitchum

Throughout his career, he worked across the spectrum of genres, although never as prolifically as he did during his years at RKO:  Westerns both period (Blood on the Moon, 1948) and contemporary (The Lusty Men, 1952), war movies (One Minute to Zero, 1952), dramas (Till the End of Time, 1946), romantic comedies (A Holiday Affair, 1949), but making his biggest impression in a series of film noirs which, in the late 1940s/early 1950s, had become the troubled studio’s mainstay.

Characteristically, Mitchum talked them down, saying, “RKO made the same film with me for ten years.  They were so alike I wore the same suit in six of them and the same Burberry trench coat.” Nevertheless, he was anointed a leading man – and created a never-forgotten noir icon – in Out of the Past (1947). That would be how the young Mitchum would be remembered, in his fedora and trench coat, a smoldering cigarette dangling from his lips.  There had been noirs before Mitchum, and there’d be a long parade of noirs with and without Mitchum after Out of the Past, but the movie and Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey became the genre’s gold standard.  Addicted to one of noir’s most toxic femme fatales (Jane Greer), Bailey is doomed and knows it, is resigned to it, scratches around for whatever little triumph he can find amidst his ruination.  When Greer frets, “I don’t want to die!” Mitchum’s Bailey replies in that resigned, prosaic way only Mitchum could, “Neither do I, baby, but if I have to, I’m gonna die last.”

Because he made so many indifferent movies, and his style was so minimalist, the precision of his work was often missed; Mitchum bios often use the words “underrated” and “underappreciated.” But he never walked through a film (though he would often say otherwise), and in even some of his weaker movies he showed a depth he was rarely given credit for.  Not as a Stranger (1955) was a forgettable Noble Young Doctor sudser, but Mitchum still has his moments.  In his best one, he stands over an operating table, having failed to save the life of the older doctor (Charles Bickford) who has been his doting father-like mentor.  Cloaked in a surgeon’s cap and mask, Mitchum has nothing to work with but his eyes, but he offers up two, bottomless abyssals of heartbreak.

In the first years after he left the RKO stable, he produced a gallery of solid work ranging from “merely” entertaining (The Enemy Below, 1957) to notable (The Sundowners; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; Home from the Hill, 1960), but chief among them were two Villain-Hall-of-Fame-caliber performances in The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear.

Mitchum would often say his Reverend Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter was his favorite role, and understandably so.  To truly understand his performance is to be impressed with its deftness for Charles Laughton, in his only directorial effort, is not rendering reality, but a child’s fairy tale complete with guardian angel (Lillian Gish) and boogie man.  Mitchum smoothly morphs from fire-and-brimstone preacher showing the battle between Good and Evil with locked fingers tattooed “Love” and “Hate,” to something less than human skulking in the shadows of Gish’s yard as he stalks two children in her charge, howling like a wounded animal when he’s sent running by a blast from feisty Gish’s shotgun.

robert mitchum night of the hunter

The Night of the Hunter has always had more artistic stature than Cape Fear, but the latter is surely the more viscerally delicious watch.  The best way to measure Mitchum’s portrayal of total depravity as vengeful convicted rapist Max Cady is to run it up against Robert De Niro’s take on the same character in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake.  Brilliant though De Niro can be, his busy performance, his spindly form, his cartoonish southern accent are outgunned by Mitchum’s stillness, his Tiger tank massiveness, his lazy, raspy drawl:  “I got somethin’ planned for your wife and kid that they ain’t nevah gonna forget.  They ain’t nevah gonna forget it…and neither will you, Counseluh!  Nevah!” One IMDB poster commenting on both performances put it best:  “Robert De Niro acted scary, Robert Mitchum was scary.  Makes all the difference in the world.”

By the 1960s, a middle-aged Mitchum was getting saggier in the jaw line and thick in the middle, and the memorable roles now came few and far between.  Though he’d continue to appear in film and TV shows into the year of his death, his best late-career performances came in the 1970s with three aces in a row:  The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), The Yakuza, and Farewell, My Lovely (1975).  The paunchy Mitchum was perfect for the rumpled Philip Marlowe in Farewell; he could’ve been playing a worn-out, older version of one of his 1950s noir characters.  And director Sidney Pollock managed to get the best out of his lazy workhorse in the Japan-set Yakuza, with Mitchum as a man caught between conflicting loyalties and cultures, his still broad shoulders sagging under the weight of the unintended damage he inflicted on a Japanese family during the post-WW II occupation.  Mitchum’s Harry Kilmer is nearly broken by the wrongs he cannot right, and the despair of trying to find an honorable end to a tragedy which seems only to compound with each attempt to do so.

Mitchum

But the best of the lot – and one of his all-time great performances – was as Eddie “Fingers” Coyle, a bottom-tier Boston hood who has spent most of his life “…watchin’ other people go off to Florida while I’m sweatin’ out how I’m gonna pay the plumber.”  There may be no better portrait of life at the lowest levels of organized crime, and his Eddie Coyle is at once reprehensible yet pitiable, a small-timer victimized by big-timers, double-dealing Feds, and his own bad luck.

Mitchum worked so long – over a half-century – and made so many movies that even after stripping out the misfires and the duds, one is still left with a sizable body of impressive work representing every stage of his career, and a gallery of some of the most memorable characters in the American film canon.  Not bad for an actor who never claimed more than minimal talent or interest in his profession, pretending he’d more-or-less walked through his career, a 50-odd year journey of which he said, “I never changed anything, except my socks and my underwear.”

  • Bill Mesce
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Anime

‘Weathering With You’ Isn’t Quite the Storm It Wanted to Be

Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering With You delivers a gorgeous film that doesn’t quite resonate as much as it wanted to.

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Weathering With You Hina

Climate change and global warming have been topics of concern and discussion for years now, with melting ice caps and rising ocean temperatures being some of many signs. Director Makoto Shinkai — acclaimed the world over for his 2016 work Your Name — aims to show just how at the mercy humans are to the weather with his newest animated film, Weathering With You. Although he presents a visually stunning depiction of Mother Nature in all her various moods, Weathering With You ultimately lacks the storming power it seeks to bear upon its audience.

Tokyo has been having a particularly rainy year, seeing precipitation almost every day and nary a sight of the sun or clear blue skies. It’s during this unusual time that high school boy Hodaka arrives in the metropolis seeking escape from the suffocating life he had on his island. The young teenager naturally has trouble finding his bearings on his own in the oftentimes unforgiving hustle and bustle of the city. It’s in these early scenes that Weathering With You has some of its strongest moments, depicting the uglier side of Japanese society not often seen in anime, while also highlighting Hodaka’s strength of character to make it on his own. 

Weathering With You Hodaka and Hina

As Hodaka gradually carves out his own place in the city, he eventually has an encounter with a young girl named Hina. Matching her sunny and cheerful disposition, Hina has the ability to make it stop raining and have the sunshine in very localized spots by praying to the sky. In a place where the rain never ceases, it’s easy to see why Hodaka latches onto Hina to use for the greater good (while also making a little pocket change along the way).

“The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air caught by the leftover humidity.”

Gloomy skies and damp grounds can take their toll on one’s mood and psyche, which someone who lives in such a climate can surely relate to. Even the briefest moments of sunshine revitalize us and give a glimpse of the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Hodaka and Hina’s “100% Sunshine Girl” services to those in need of that light boldly underscore that fact, and make for a strong argument for how the weather affects us all beyond its objective physicality, along with providing some much-appreciated levity to the story. 

That power of weather is beautifully illustrated by CoMix Wave Films’ stupendous animation efforts. The hand-drawn rain is downright mesmerizing in all its forms — fierce and calm — while the sunshine that follows seems to hang in the air, caught by the leftover humidity. Tokyo itself isn’t to be outdone either, with its streets running the gamut between peaceful neighborhoods to grimy and dark back alleys with dilapidated buildings. The animation is punctuated by the return of Japanese band RADWIMPS, who create numerous memorable tracks to complement the wild swings in mood that weather can elicit.

That makes it all the more unfortunate, however, that the greater narrative is so weak.

The progression of Weathering With You is made painfully obvious right from the outset of the story — so much so that it’s hard to wonder if it’s actually the set-up for a bait-and-switch. As a result, much of the first half of the film is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop, making it difficult to really settle in and become intimate with its characters. 

Weathering With you Hodaka and Hina

This would be less of an issue if the cast had smaller interactions that were a delight to watch, but they fall short in that regard as well. All of the characters have a charm to them for sure — with Hina’s younger elementary school brother, Nagi, putting modern playboys to shame being a particular standout — but the story never quite makes a compelling case as to why they are as close as they are, especially Hina and Hodaka. They’re fun enough to watch be together, but don’t quite make that emotional attachment with the viewer that the story wants to create.

That lack of an emotional connection is distinctly felt in Weathering With You’s second act, when unnecessary confrontations and bizarre plot directions converge to create an artificial sense of stakes amidst a central conflict that would have been fine on its own. What’s meant to strengthen the impression of the characters’ bonds instead cheapens it, undermining the already faulty progress the first half did make. The result is a narrative that’s hard to care about, although its ending does leave the viewer with some potentially interesting questions to ponder.

Weathering With You is far from a bad movie, however. It has a clear direction and vision with a message to say about our climate crisis. The characters are endearing enough, and there are a handful of heartfelt scenes because of that. It also cannot be understated just how drop-dead gorgeous the animation is. The story, however, is simply too straightforward for its own good, resulting in an experience that is at times enjoyable, and at others plain boring.

And that’s only when being judged in a vacuum on the movie’s own merits. When compared to Shinkai’s recent masterpiece that is Your Name, it’s hard to see Weathering With You as anything but a disappointing follow-up. That’s perhaps the film’s greatest weakness, but fortunately, it’s one that Shinkai’s next work won’t have, and we can still look forward to it because of that fact.

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Film

Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit

The monster movie that breaks new ground.

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Tremors Movie Review

Tremors, 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago, this week, one of the best films of 1990 was released.

Tremors didn’t make a big splash in theaters. The film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the domestic box office, which while making a profit due to its $11 million budget, was still below projected numbers. To be fair, this was a film about carnivorous subterranean worms— and it didn’t help that it was dumped in the cold of winter during what is arguably the slowest time of the year for the box office. Thankfully, however, Tremors found a second life on VHS where it became one of home video’s biggest success stories. More importantly, Tremors become a beloved cult hit.

The Script

Much has been said about the cast of Tremors which I’ll get to shortly, but what stood out the most watching it again, is the screenplay from S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who both previously penned Short Circuit and Batteries Not Included. Sure, Tremors is a B movie, but it also boasts a tightly-knit script in which every scene; every action; every story beat; and every line of dialogue sets up a chain of events that gives every character a motive and reason to react the way they do. And despite one poorly executed sequence (I’m referring to the pole-vaulting montage), Tremors is a lean, mean movie without an ounce of fat to be found anywhere else.

Tremors Pole Vaulting Scene

The plot isn’t complex per se, but there’s something oddly comforting in the simplicity of it all. Tremors takes place in the Nevada desert near a small town called Perfection with a population of only 14 residents who are left to defend themselves against the deadly subterranean creatures. It’s the perfect setting for a monster film since the town itself is isolated. And with only one road leading to civilization, the openness of the desert landscape enhances the desolation of it all. And since the town of Perfection is so far removed from the rest of society, it soon becomes clear that nobody will ever come and save them. Instead, the townsfolk must work together; overcome the odds, and destroy the creatures. And when that fails, they must attempt to scale the rocky mountaintop where the worms are unable to travel underground. It’s getting there that becomes the problem.

Val and Earl - Tremors

Val and Earl

At the heart, and at the center of the eccentric cast of characters is Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward playing Valentine McKee and Earl Bass, a pair of modern-day cowboys working as handymen who become would-be heroes when they stumble upon the shock-sensitive killer worms. Over the years, the two actors have become less renowned for their comedic roles, but Tremors if anything, showcases their talent and range. And while Kevin Bacon with his sexy smile and pretty boy looks is by far the biggest star; it’s their irresistible chemistry that brings their characters to life. They make such a great comedic team and if you replaced Ward with any other actor at the time, there’s no guarantee that Tremors would have been this much fun to watch.

In fact, the two actors work so well together that Fred Ward provides a much better foil for Kevin Bacon than Finn Carter’s Rhonda, a.k.a. the underwritten love interest who is assigned to travel to the town and monitor the seismology readings in the desert. Not long after Rhonda arrives, the people in the town start disappearing – or worse, they end up dead, leaving very little time to establish any chemistry between her and Val— thus making the big kiss, in the end, feel a little out-of-place. But don’t blame the screenplay writers— the original ending of Tremors featured Val and Earl riding off into the sunset, with no hint at any potential romance between Val and Rhonda. Unfortunately, test audiences were not pleased and somehow the producers convinced the filmmakers to quickly reshoot the final scene— just another one of many examples of why studios should not rely on any focus group to provide feedback. In the end, the love interest feels somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Tremors Kevin Bacon and Finn Carter

The Gummer Family

It doesn’t take long before it becomes apparent that there’s something unnatural roaming the desert and feeding on human flesh. Once Rhonda checks her readings and determines that the threat is coming from underground, Tremors begins to slowly open up and introduce us to the supporting cast which includes Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as the Gummer family, a pair of overzealous, gun-crazy survivalists. McEntire and Gross are so good here, they essentially steal the spotlight from the rest of the cast. In one of their most memorable scenes, the two are forced to take shelter in their basement and defend themselves against one of the giant man-eating worms— and just when it looks like they are going to run out of ammunition, the camera pans left to reveal the bunker holds enough guns and firepower to accommodate a small army. It’s just one of many examples of how Tremors takes a simple concept and maximizes it for full effect.

As much as Tremors is remembered today for the performances of Bacon and Ward, it’s the work of the entire cast that brings the movie to life. It really is great casting considering the small budget, and everyone pulls their weight, serving up the quick-witted dialogue in a way that makes it all feel more natural– and yes that even includes Robert Jayne as the annoying teenage brat, Melvin Plug. I especially like the performance by Victor Wong, a character actor who had roles in films like 3 Ninjas and Big Trouble in Little China. Here he plays the ill-fated Walter Chang who is killed in a scene that features some of the film’s best special effects.

Director Ron Underwood

Tremors was the first movie Ron Underwood directed and by far his best. Now known as a go-to director for many successful TV shows, Underwood keeps things moving briskly and finds new clever ways to draw out tension with impressive camera work, especially the shots that show the point of view of the creatures as they stalk their victims. Along with Cinematographer Alexander Gruszynski, Underwood frames his exterior shots in a way that constantly reminds viewers how small the town is and how isolated it is. It’s also worth noting how difficult it is to shoot a horror movie outside in the middle of the desert where you can never truly escape the sunlight, and yet director Ron Underwood uses the setting to his advantage and frames his actors in such a manner that the landscape emits a general feeling of emptiness, which both mirrors the town’s small population and the people themselves who are desperate for a change.

Tremors evokes the populist spirit of ‘50s and ’60s B-movies without ever resorting to parody, nor does it ever feel familiar. Instead, Underwood reinvigorates its genre tropes with a finely balanced combination of horror and humor— and despite its tongue-in-cheek script, Underwood never allows it to venture into full-on camp. There is tension and suspense in every one of the action scenes and like many classics that came before it, Tremors focuses less on its oversized monsters and more on their victims and how these people react to attacks by these giant creatures. Even in the bright daylight, Tremors manages to create enough suspense to keep viewers at the edge of their seats.

Tremors 1990

Creature Design

Apart from taking inspiration from classic monster movies, Tremors owes a lot to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws— so much so, that the original title for Tremors was actually Land Sharks. Much like how the shark in Jaws travels underwater while stalking its prey, in Tremors, the 30-foot-long carnivorous worms known as Graboids, travel underground. And like Jaws (arguably the quintessential B movie), the creatures in Tremors are rarely seen. Instead, the largely invisible creatures can burrow fast enough to devour the entire town if given the opportunity— making them deadly and genuinely menacing.

Another clever inclusion by the screenplay writers was the idea to have these Graboids respond to seismic vibrations. While blind and unable to track their prey’s scent, they do have acute hearing, which means any slight movement or sound can cost you your life. In arguably the best scene of the entire film, Kevin Bacon’s Val is left to stand completely still and silent while the worm-like creatures who circle his feet reveal their razor-sharp fangs as they desperately search for their next victim.

Tremors 1990 Michael Gross

It’s a credit to the creature design that I never once questioned the reality of the Graboids. Along with a team of over 50 visual effects wizards, the filmmakers were able to bring their creations to life with a mix of old school prosthetics, animatronics, and computer-generated imagery. Tremors may be at times funny, but this isn’t the sort of film that has viewers pointing at the screen and laughing at obviously cheesy effects. Make no mistake about it: the monster effects by Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis (who previously worked on Alien and The Terminator) is truly impressive, especially given the limited budget they had to work with.

Tremors Creature Design

Soundtrack

The one and only aspect of Tremors that I’ve never liked was the music heard at the start and at the end of the film. To my surprise, I later learned that composer Ernest Troaost’s musical score for the film went mostly unused since the studio didn’t like it and, later they hired composer Robert Folk to write a new score. Only a few of Troost’s country-themed songs made it into the final cut and sure enough, they are the songs I dislike. That said, Folk’s compositions perfectly match the visuals and heighten the suspense during the film’s most action-packed scenes.

Tremors 1990

Legacy

Tremors wasn’t in any way groundbreaking since it borrowed liberally from many other monster movies, yet somehow the film became such a hit, that it spawned four direct-to-video sequels (Tremors 2: Aftershocks, Tremors 3: Back to Perfection, Tremors 5: Bloodlines and Tremors: A Cold Day in Hell)— a direct-to-video prequel (Tremors 4: The Legend Begins), and even a television series. More so, the success of Tremors resulted in many copycats but none of them (save for James Gunn’s Slither) have been able to perfectly match the potent mixture of sharp dialogue, deadpan humour, and horror.

It’s easy to see why Tremors ultimately became a success and why it remains a fun and engaging experience, decades later. The plot is fully realized constantly keeping things exciting. It has plenty of spectacular set-pieces, thrilling action scenes, and plenty of quotable throwaway dialogue. Along with the charismatic cast, superb direction, great script and terrifyingly real effects, Tremors stands the test of time. Many have tried to match Tremors but most have ultimately come up short. Movies like this come around once every few years.

  • Ricky D
Tremors Movie Anniversary
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