It’s Amazing! It’s Terrible! The Story of 2012

By  · Published on December 31st, 2012

If there’s one word I think of that’s best tied to the story of film in 2012, it’s “disappointing.” That’s not to say that 2012 was a disappointing year for movies. I don’t know if it was the best in a while, as some of my fellow critics claim, but then I still haven’t seen a lot of the “best” titles of the year. What I do know is that there were enough movies that really, really, really disappointed a lot of people, and so I feel like I heard – or read – the word “disappointing” more than any other.

Whether it was a long-awaited prequel to a classic helmed by the original’s director or the expected return to form for a filmmaker or a final installment of a much-worshipped superhero trilogy or a reboot of a beloved comic-based franchise or a new animated feature from a usually dependable studio, there were plenty of major releases that turned out to be less than satisfying. At least for some.

As I’ve previously noted in both a post on “dangerous” movies and a discussion of the worst endings of the year, this was a very contentious year for moviegoers, and for every cry of “disappointing” in response to a film, that same film has received some positive praise. You’ll find many haters and defenders of each of the following: Prometheus; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; Savages; Flight; The Dark Knight Rises; The Amazing Spider-Man; Brave; Red Hook Summer, Les Miserables; The Bourne Legacy; The Master; John Carter; Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; Cloud Atlas; Dark Shadows; Cosmopolis; This Is 40; Django Unchained; and pretty much any other titles on any site’s “Most Disappointing Movies of 2012” list. Except for maybe Rock of Ages, Men in Black 3 and the Total Recall remake, none of which deserved high enough expectations to lead someone to disappointment.

Perhaps this year should teach people that having high expectations, or expectations in general, is unhealthy for movie fans. But if we haven’t learned from such monumental disappointments of the past from the Star Wars, Godfather, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Alien, 007, X-Men, Iron Man, Batman, Superman and Spider-Man franchises and from contemporary directors as idolized as Peter Jackson, the Wachowskis, the Coens, Terry Gilliam, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Raimi and Guillermo Del Toro, maybe we’ll never get it. Or, maybe there’s too much excitement in looking forward to movies of the future – why magazines and websites do so many movie previews – that no drawbacks are strong enough to make the majority of movie geeks so cynical.

Speaking of previews, we will be posting our 52 Most Anticipated Movies of 2013 this week, and some of those we list will wind up being disappointing (just as were some of those from our 2012 list). That’s not cynical, that’s the truth. Does that mean we shouldn’t get excited about 52 new movies that look pretty good to us? No, but it’s just a preview of things to come mixed with a positive thing called hope. We’re not obsessing over these titles, like some might with certain franchises and filmmakers. And we by no means mean to hype anything up so crazy that we might be at fault for giving you (or ourselves) false promise. There’s a big difference between anticipation and assurance.

It’s becoming easier and easier with each year for us to go from a healthy dose of hope to an unhealthy degree of faith, as some people buy too much into the marketing machine (encouraged and driven by certain online outlets) and wind up feeling guaranteed an amazing product. Is disappointment really the fault of the filmmakers who delivered something underwhelming? Without the expectation of greatness from Pixar, Brave might still be a weak movie, but it’s not exactly a disappointment. The pessimist still lives in a world he views as mostly negative, but he’s rarely disappointed by it. The optimist, on the other hand, may love more of life but is less frequently surprised. In between there is the realist, who takes things as they come and simply likes or dislikes.

As I said, though, it’s difficult these days to ignore all the hoopla about forthcoming movies. We live in an anticipitory world, always looking to the next thing on the horizon. We’re also a very nostalgic culture at the moment, always looking back to the past for what we’ve previously adored and therefore what we desire in the future. In many ways, even while we hated the idea of a Spider-Man reboot so soon, we also wanted a fresh start after the disappointment of Spider-Man 3. And we let ourselves get more excited with each bold decision announced, like Marc Webb as director and Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, etc. We should respond by saying, “I’m interested in seeing how that works out,” rather than “this is going to be brilliant!”

Even though prequels rarely work for us, we similarly wanted Prometheus to be as life-changing as the discovery of fire. We believed more than we hoped that it could save the Alien brand and make Ridley Scott cool again and, more importantly, make science fiction blockbusters great again. But the only thing we had to go on was faith and now and again some sweet-looking production stills, which actually wound up being fairly dependable as far as expectations go. Prometheus at least looked like it would look great, and in the end it did in fact look great. Unfortunately for those who easily get disappointed by the script of a film, trailers and images tend to be all we get in the year or so of marketing blitzkrieg before a movie is released, and with it more often than not the responses of “this looks like it’s going to be awesome” mistakenly process a visual as a complete cinematic package.

I know of at least one well-known movie site owner out there who is bewilderingly over-optimistic about films, and not just before they come out but also after he has seen his most anticipated titles as well. I admire and envy this person for that, though I do also wonder if his enthusiasm contributes to others’ disappointments if they are let down by that which he hypes and celebrates. Not that this is his fault. There are many things today that could be contributing to a general increase in disappointments for moviegoers.

The issues with endings that suddenly ruin an otherwise movie, especially if it’s due to franchise-set-ups, are one thing I’ve mentioned. The increases in critical outlets, buzz-generating social media forums and way-in-advance screening opportunities (this includes film festivals that have been around for a long time but are now more instantly reported from) are certainly tremendous influences on expectations. We may even be at a point where, also thanks to the Internet, a lot of people are gaining the confidence to disagree with mainstream or popular or powerful voices yet still are surprised by their dissent.

It’s worth repeating that in spite of this year being filled with cries of “disappointing!” that most of us are very happy with the past year in film. Again, some of this probably has to do with our individual access and opinions brought about through the web. We can see more and/or different films than in the past and hear about more and/or different titles than ever. So, we’ll find that we’re disappointed by a lot, that we find much that we consider “overrated,” and then filter through and realize that we are also surprised by a lot and find things that we consider under-seen or undervalued or simply of our own distinct taste and favor.

Many of us will always need to see the big sequel or remake or check out the heavily promoted pop culture event or product, but we can do so without depending on being satisfied by them and know they’re terrible and look for other things to appreciate in them (such as the visuals alone or a single performance or its ambition) while ridding – or least limiting – the word “disappointing” from our vocabulary.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.