2014 and the Rise of Thoughtful Blockbusters

By  · Published on December 17th, 2014

20th Century Fox

Far too often, people tend to associate “big movie” with “bad movie.” If I was to wrangle up half a billion dollars for a film about cats that can ice dance, there’s no doubt you’d question my motives in doing so. It doesn’t matter if teaching cats to arabesque really is a hundred-million-dollar expenditure or if doing so would guarantee Two Meows on the Rink as the herald of a new golden age in cinema – with the term “blockbuster” comes phantom thoughts of brainless toy commercial cash-ins.

It certainly doesn’t help that this year’ biggest movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction, was indeed a brainless toy commercial cash-in.

But in 2014, Transformers was the exception, not the rule. This was a year when we went to the movies not just to see things explode, but for movies that would challenge us, intellectually… with explosions. And I’m just talking about December, when everyone’s rushing to see a slew of potential Oscar winners, but during the summer – the portion of the year usually cordoned off for spandex, fireballs and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson challenging Sylvester Stallone to a sheet-metal eating contest.

What follows are the 20 biggest worldwide box office earners of the year.

1. Transformers: Age of Extinction
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
3. Maleficent
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
6. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
8. Interstellar
9. How to Train Your Dragon 2
10. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1
11. Godzilla
12. Rio 2
13. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
14. The LEGO Movie
15. Lucy
16. Edge of Tomorrow
17. Noah
18. Gone Girl
19. The Maze Runner
20. 22 Jump Street

That’ll probably change in the last two weeks of 2014 as Mockingjay is within $10M of both How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Interstellar, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies has yet to release in the US, but for the first 50 weeks of the year that’s a mighty impressive list. As a people, we cast aside films like The Expendables 3, Dracula Untold and The Penguins of Madagascar (well, “cast aside” by granting them about $200M a pop worldwide, whereas every film listed above handily cleared the $300M mark). Instead, we spent our money on movies with some genuine thought to them.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to make a genuine, well-reasoned political statement. Drone strikes are a step too far, it posited, as HYDRA casually lined up thousands of good citizens and superheroes in Helicarriers that could remotely eliminate “terrorist threats” from the comfort of Washington DC. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in between closeups of gorgeously rendered chimp eyes, used humans and apes to show how easily military conflicts can escalate, and the futility of trying to shove all that toothpaste back in the tube. Heck, even Godzilla was a masterpiece in giant monster framing; using perspective to make the big G look absolutely goddamn enormous in comparison to your average homo sapiens.

Warner Bros.

Of those 20 films listed above, I’d argue that X-Men, Captain America, Planet of the Apes, Interstellar, Hunger Games, Godzilla, LEGO Movie, Lucy, Edge of Tomorrow, Noah, Gone Girl and 22 Jump Street would be considered “thoughtful.” And obviously, that’s entirely subjective, because thoughtfulness isn’t something so easily quantifiable as running time or number of F-words. But going by the approximations in my own brain, 12 of the 20 biggest movies had some intellectual heft to them.

This level of box office smartness is exceptionally rare. If you’ll allow another long list of movie titles, here’s last year’s global top 20.

1. Frozen
2. Iron Man 3
3. Despicable Me 2
4. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
6. Fast & Furious 6
7. Monsters University
8. Gravity
9. Man of Steel
10. Thor: The Dark World
11. The Croods
12. World War Z
13. Oz the Great and Powerful
14. Star Trek Into Darkness
15. The Wolverine
16. Pacific Rim
17. The Wolf of Wall Street
18. G.I. Joe: Retaliation
19. The Hangover Part III
20. Now You See Me

Of those, how many would you say are genuinely “thoughtful?” Going by the guidelines, “Did the film say something more than your genre-standard action/drama/comedy?” my count comes out to five: Frozen, Catching Fire, Monsters University (and its moral that kids should pursue realistic career choices), Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street. That’s been about the norm in years past (although if you’ve ever wanted to dismay for the future of humanity, check out what we saw the most in 2011).

So did everyone’s brains just grow three sizes this year? Seems doubtful, but there are a couple potential reasons why 2014 is the year of going to the movies without turning off your brain.

It might have something to do with this year’s lack of billion-dollar franchises. 2014 was the first year since 2009 to only have one movie crack the billion-dollar mark (in 2014’s case, Transformers; in 2009’s, Avatar). This was something that industry analysts predicted ahead of time (and yet still managed to panic over when this summer’s cash flow started to slow). With Optimus Prime the only alpha predator around, the lower rungs on the food chain were vaulted up into positions of power. Ask yourself something – if there had been a string of Avengers-sized hits this summer, each one cornering the box office for multiple weeks… do you think people would have paid as much attention to alternative actioners like Lucy or Edge of Tomorrow?

Universal Pictures

Maybe it was this year’s glut of highly successful science fiction films. Science fiction and high-concept thought go hand in hand. In order to make a science fiction film, you’ve got to build a thing. An entirely fictional thing, that you just made up and no one’s ever seen before – a species of alien, a drug that allows you to tap into the unused portions of your brain or an entire future where the burgeoning ape society and the dwindling human one meet in the middle of the great evolutionary ladder. Then, you insert that thing into our own current frame of reference, which is the perfect opportunity to craft a fictional world into an kind of allegory for our own. And science fiction was well-represented this year with Transformers, Guardians, X-Men, Apes, Interstellar, Mockingjay, Godzilla, Ninja Turtles, Lucy, Edge of Tomorrow and Maze Runner all in the top 20. The genre rides both sides of the line, from thoughtful to no thoughts, please, the robot dinosaurs are exploding again.

It could also just be something as simple as this summer having high-quality movies (ironically enough, while people were decrying this summer’s smaller fare as a plague on profit and industry, 2014’s blockbusters were quietly being better movies than those of any other summer). Never doubt the power of random happenstance, and 2014 coincidentally contained a new non-Batman film from Christopher Nolan, solid science fiction efforts from Luc Besson and Tom Cruise, and franchise reboots for Godzilla and Planet of the Apes that were made to do more than cash in on a popular name.

Then, there are things that defy any kind of explanation. Why, exactly, was the icily sociopathic Gone Girl so popular? Fincher’s latest is also his most successful at the box office, ever. More than even a guaranteed crowd-pleaser like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I have no idea why that might be.

This is important enough to bear repeating. A movie being “thoughtful” is about as subjective as subjective could be. Was I being too strict in characterizing Guardians of the Galaxy as non-thoughtful, given its fairly strict adherence to the action comedy and space opera genres? Does Gareth Edwards’s ingenious use of camera in Godzilla make up for a hacky script that killed off the only character with an emotional tie to Godzilla in the first act, then left us with Generic Military Hero? Where exactly do the Hobbit movies play into all this? Tolkein is weighty as hell, but CGI dwarves in CGI barrels with oddly practical GoPros mounted to their heads? Less so.

Minutiae like that is better left debated in comment sections. But strike the minor squabbling, and it’s apparent that 2014 was the year people went to see movies worth thinking about. Probably not 2015, though. All the billion-sellers we were missing this year were being saved for the next (between Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Spectre and the final Hunger Games, which do you think will crack the ten-digit mark?). Enjoy the braininess of 2014 while there’s still a 2014 to enjoy.