Here we go, diving into the year-in-review for the year that was 2017. This will be the first of a handful of year-end pieces, highlighting the year that is just about to end. The first one is one of my favorites, a look at films that arguably got a bum rap from critics or more of a lashing than they deserved.
Now, as always, there is a considerable difference between underrated and underseen. So, no, you won’t find stuff like Colossal or Professor Marston and the Wonder Women that earned positive reviews and strong word-of-mouth from the few that sought them out. Some are genuinely good films, and others are bad without being war crimes. All 11 deserved a closer look. These will be in alphabetical order save one at the end. To wit…
The Great Wall (Universal/Comcast Corp.)
Worldwide gross: $335 million
This was another project that was preemptively put to death before it was ever released. Granted, it was certainly sold as a “Matt Damon saves China”-type white savior fable. In truth, Zhang Yimou’s period piece actioner, about giant monsters attempting to scale the Great Wall of China, used Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe’s westerners as audience surrogates for the film’s “China is awesome!” messaging. Audiences got a dose of state propaganda (which isn’t a shock to those who have seen Hero) while also enjoying some top-shelf production values and some banger action sequences. Absent the “whitewashing” controversy that really wasn’t, this is an enjoyable piece of B-movie hokum.
Justice League (Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc.)
Worldwide gross: $636 million (and counting)
The end result of DC Films’ first round of DC Comics superhero universe is… fine? It’s a hack-job to be sure, with Zack Snyder’s original intentions twice reversed after Dawn of Justice’s poor reception and then again after Joss Whedon took over. And its attempts to mold itself into an Avengers clone was a terrible idea since folks had already seen a couple of Avengers movies. But, irony of ironies, it nails the core characters, giving us fun and entertaining variations on the Super Friends as a surrogate family unit. And by the end, we wouldn’t mind seeing Mom (Wonder Woman), Dad (Batman) and the three troublemaking kids (Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg) go up against a Legion of Doom.Worldwide gross: $32 million
Halle Berry may not get the prime roles that she arguably would if she were white (or a dude), but she seems to have found a niche old-school bruised-forearm movies. Kidnap isn’t quite as good as The Call (which is a masterpiece for its first hour), but it maintains its momentum for the entire running time. And it makes clever use out of its high concept (a mother witnesses her son being kidnapped and gives chase), while offering a near consistent sense of dread and “What would you do?” tension. With shockingly smart writing and a frighteningly plausible solution (no spoilers, but there is no grand conspiracy which explicitly targeted her), this is a terrific little bit of high-toned Hollywood suspense.Worldwide gross: $65 million
Another victim of a preemptive media assassination, this was one put out to pasture as soon as word leaked that A) it cost around $125 million to produce and B) it was inspired by the brainstorming of a studio executives’ son. Well, all due respect, but if you’re going to make a movie for kids, it’s not the worst idea to ask kids what they’d like to see. Anyway, this original, character-driven coming-of-age story is about a young teen (Lucas Till) who discovers an otherworldly creature inside his truck. It’s essentially The Shape of Water for kids. It’s too expensive, but it’s the kind of movie that we adult critics would still be discussing with fondness if it came out in 1985.Shock of shocks, but this buttoned-down Power Rangers origin story ensemble made me nostalgic for a time when movies like this weren’t run-of-the-mill, and where you didn’t have the money for non-stop action so you had to spend most of the movie on character development and production value. This grounded reboot works in a Batman Begins kinda way, offering us five sympathetic kids (including one who is gay and another who is autistic) whose eventual emergence as superheroes is cause for celebration and the action climax is A) worth the wait and B) a righteous celebration rather than a burden to be overcome. I’m still stunned that I liked the Power Rangers movie more than the Justice League movie.I wasn’t going to do another Justice League post for awhile, but in doing research for something else I stumbled upon this bizarre factoid. Currently, Wonder Woman has earned $412.5 million in North America and Justice League has earned $214.7m. All logical expectations for the Super Friends movie argue that it will end its domestic run with over/under $240m. So, give or take the breaks, the two DC Films offerings will earn around $650-$655m in North America.
Here’s the weird thing: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($330 million) and Suicide Squad ($325m) earned almost identical combined North American grosses. Now that’s not to say that Justice League wasn’t a gigantic disappointment, even though I’d argue the film’s post-debut legs were fine and the film’s overseas figures were okay (more on that in a moment). But let’s imagine a different scenario: Let’s pretend that Wonder Woman “only” made $325 million this summer and Justice League made around $330m.
You’d have the same combined DC Films domestic box office on the same would-be production budgets ($150m for Wonder Woman and around $300m for Justice League). The only difference would be the narrative, which was that Wonder Woman did really well (as opposed to jaw-droppingly miraculous) while Justice League did just fine under the circumstances. Or, had Wonder Woman made “only” $255m while Justice League snagged $400m, it’d be the same numbers but a vastly different narrative.
It wouldn’t be that much different than, if in the summer of 2008, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk both earned around $225 million apiece, as opposed to the former earning $318m and the latter earning $132m. By the way, Iron Man and Incredible Hulk earned a combined $848m worldwide in 2008, which is more than what Thor and Captain America earned ($820m) in 2011. Of course, it helps that folks liked most of the MCU movies, but that’s a different conversation.
Speaking of budgets, I can only go by the official figures so bear with me. Batman v Superman officially cost $250 million while Suicide Squad officially cost $175m. That’s a combined budget of $425m and a total domestic gross of $655m. And Wonder Woman reportedly cost $150m while Justice League cost, well, let’s assume the $300m figure is correct. So the 2017 DC Films movies will earn around $650m-$655m on a combined budget of $450m.
If you’re just going by domestic grosses, that’s not a huge difference, with the major factor being that Wonder Woman greatly overperformed while Justice League underperformed. Yes, Justice League by itself is a disappointing and potentially money-losing movie. But the DC Films offerings as a whole did about as well this year as they did last year. And if we’re going to treat these movies as part of the same brand, that consistency should not be ignored even if the smaller movie did better than the bigger movie.
So what about worldwide grosses? Well, here’s where it gets a little complicated. And yeah, there will be some guesswork in regard to Justice League.
In 2016, Batman v Superman earned $542.9 million overseas for an $873.3m worldwide total. Suicide Squad, which didn’t play in China, earned $420.5m overseas for a $745.6m worldwide cume. That’s $963.4m overseas and $1.619 billion worldwide for the two movies. And this year, Wonder Woman earned $409.2m overseas and $821.8m worldwide while Justice League will probably earn around $425m-$450m overseas for an over/under $665m worldwide cume. So that would be a combined $835m overseas and around $1.488b worldwide.
So looking at all five respective releases in the DC Films library thus far, you’ll notice that Wonder Woman overperformed in North America, Batman v Superman overperformed overseas and Justice League underperformed in North America. Otherwise, and this is counting Man of Steel ($291 million domestic/$377m overseas/$668m worldwide on a $225m budget in 2013), the numbers have been relatively consistent. What has fluctuated is the budgetary figures and the constant hope that THIS DC Films movie was going to play like a top-tier MCU movie.
But maybe that was and is never going to happen. Maybe Batman v Superman is the peak and that film’s overseas overperformance was something of a fluke. If the rest of the films can be expected to earn over/under $300 million domestic (assuming Aquaman plays like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug adjusted for inflation) and over/under $400m overseas, then those are projected numbers that can be accounted for when considering expectations and budgets.
But the fact remains that the two DC Films from 2017 made almost identical domestic grosses compared to the two DC Films offerings from 2016. If Wonder Woman overperformed while Justice League underperformed, that’s still an average domestic figure of around $325m a pop. The idea of having to start from scratch or do a soft reboot every time one of these films doesn’t hit Avengers numbers may be in itself the key “flaw” in the DC Films game plan. Assuming the budgets can be kept in check, there is little reason why a DC Films franchise can’t flourish with movies that aren’t expected to earn more than $700m worldwide.