This year, movies had “the worst summer since 1997,” as reported by Brooks Barnes for the New York Times. Just to put that in perspective, that’s the same summer that “Batman & Robin” came out.
Of course, that's only in terms of box office. There could have been a lot of things that kept audiences out of theaters this summer: the World Cup, all the PlayStation 4 consoles that were being sold and, well, the fact that there just weren’t enough good movies aimed at a wide demographic.
But there were also a lot of things that went right this summer, so let’s take a look back at some of the lows and the highs from this past season.
One thing that can’t be ignored is the fact that, for the first time since 2006, there wasn’t a new Pixar movie in theaters.
The studio’s “The Good Dinosaur,” pitched as a revisionist history where dinosaurs weren’t killed off by a meteorite millions of years ago but instead evolved to coexist with humans, went missing in action due to some creative stumbles during production. Initially just pushed back to November of next year, the whole film has since been “dismantled” and “completely reimagined,” according to John Lithgow (via Collider), who was tapped to voice one of the main characters.
This isn’t exactly unusual for the studio, so there shouldn’t be any cause for concern. But the absence of “The Good Dinosaur” still left a big, gaping hole in the summer box office.
Pixar movies have ranked in the top 10 end-of-summer grossers every year since “Cars” in 2006 when the studio first switched its release calendar from the holiday season to summer.
Just as importantly, though, the lack of a Pixar film also left a noticeable hole in family-oriented entertainment — and this in an already gloomy summer that, between movies like “Edge of Tomorrow” and Michael Bay’s latest Transformers installment, must have set some kind of record for the number of onscreen explosions.
Without anything to take Pixar's place, there just weren’t as many reasons for families to go out to the movies.
Films not explicitly aimed at younger audiences, for the most part, tended towards the overly grim and dystopic, emphasizing urban wastelands, destruction and distinctly un-summery, end-of-the-world scenarios, as in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Godzilla,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and the aforementioned “Edge of Tomorrow.”
Although “Guardians of the Galaxy” was maybe Marvel’s most lighthearted movie to date — and, in most ways, a welcome bright spot at the tail end of the season — even it, on occasion, was not very kid-friendly in terms of things like language and violence. One joke in particular about a certain mid-century artist probably had parents hoping, for once, that their kids hadn’t paid attention in history class.
Another low this summer came from the dwindling quality of sequels, as noted by Barnes’ article.
Despite huge box-office ambitions for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (Sony had initially predicted something on the order of “Marvel’s The Avengers”), it was in some ways a fiasco — even though, by most normal standards, it might have seemed like a runaway hit.
The problem is, while successful on its own, it was a significant drop-off from previous Spider-Man movies. This has thrown the whole future of the Marc Webb Spidey films into question.
No. 3 in the series, which was originally scheduled to release in 2016, has been pushed back to some unspecified date in 2018, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Some of the other movies in the ever-expanding Spidey-verse, meanwhile, have been rearranged to fill the gap, giving the impression of a studio scrambling to save one of its main moneymakers, not a studio following a carefully constructed plan a la Marvel.
And this trend of sequels performing worse than their predecessors wasn’t unique to Spider-Man. All told, eight of the 11 sequels that came out this summer saw smaller box offices than previous installments.
Maybe it’s finally time to get back to original ideas?
But let’s not look past all the good from this summer. This summer definitely had some thought-provoking options to choose from. Generally speaking, this was one of the brainiest summer lineups ever — or at least, it tried to be.
“Maleficent” offered stunning visuals and a dark, revisionist interpretation of one of Disney’s most beloved animated films.
“Edge of Tomorrow” took the typical action movie clichés — robots, explosions, guns, aliens, time travel — and turned them all into something that was witty, self-aware and still a surprising amount of fun regardless of how you feel about Tom Cruise. (For non-fans, there were plenty of reasons to watch.)
“Godzilla,” while not perfect, took huge strides toward atoning for the 1998 American version.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” improved on its predecessor in pretty much every way imaginable.
The R-rated “Lucy” attempted to inject a little bit of philosophy into action movies.
And for those who like his films, Michael Bay had his fingerprints all over not one but two movies based on beloved 1980s cartoons this summer: “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
On second thought, maybe that should have been included as a low.
It was also a good summer for women in film, in some ways, with the protagonists from “Lucy” and “Maleficent” becoming two of the most memorable characters of the summer, to say nothing of Gamora and Nebula from “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
And while it didn’t start off with the billion-dollar bang of previous years (blame that on the absence of a Marvel movie in early May), 2014's summer movie season ended on a high note thanks to “Guardians,” one of the most fun summer movies in years — in fact, maybe since 1997’s “Men in Black.”
Ultimately, while it was a lousy summer in terms of box office, it wasn’t without its high points — which the movie fans of today will soon be able to relive on Redbox in the comfort of their own homes.
Unless you're a theater owner, that has to be taken as some kind of sign that things have improved over the past two decades.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website FilmInquiry.com.