So far, 2020 hasn’t been easy on any of us—owner of Amazon excluded—and as the year winds down without any awards season or holiday tent pole releases, it’s a lackluster end to the most dismal 365 days of wide releases ever. Marvel didn’t have a movie premiered for the first time since 2010. We’ve had movies punt releases back to 2021 or opt for digital releases, which feels more Band-Aid than culture movement, and we saw films in pre-production wiped from the slate entirely. While I’d be rather amused at the Tenet vs Onward vs Bad Boys For Life Best Picture race in February, it’s hard not to feel a little lost as a cinephile these days.
But enough with the negatives! Let’s take a look at some of the bright spots of the year along with some things to look forward to ahead.
Sonic the Hedgehog
As social media has worked its way into our everyday lives, there is a negativity around it that is both understandable and bizarre. It seems most of us have a dislike and a general mocking attitude towards the platforms, yet we can’t stay away from them, either. That negativity is often earned. My first thought goes with the truly embarrassing manner in which Star Wars fans conducted themselves, bullying sequel trilogy star Kelly Marie Tran to the point of deleting her Twitter, after the release of The Last Jedi.
However, through the toxicity comes some truly unique and inspiring moments as well. I want to stop and take a moment of genuine appreciation that there is a way through social media for the fans to speak to the studios beyond whether they spend their money at the theaters or not. What’s happened over the last year and a half with both Sonic the Hedgehog and Justice League: The Snyder Cut is incredible. In the case of Sonic, a trailer was released and the design of the lead character was… let’s be nice and say wrongly inspired, and an immediate movement began on social media calling for a redesign that more properly represented the little blue speedster that has been in some of our lives for close to 30 years now. Much to our surprise, they listened.
Shortly after the trailer underwhelmed all, the studio—in this case, Paramount—announced that the release date would be pushed back from fall 2019 to winter 2020 to give them time to do an overhaul of the visual effects and character design. It seems like a bit of an obvious thing, but for any real fans of film, it was a bit of a momentous occasion. A major studio taking fans’ opinions into consideration in such a major manner was new ground. I wasn’t overly interested in a Sonic movie, but once that all happened, I was there opening weekend as a thank you to the studio for listening; the fact that the redesign worked nicely and that the movie ended up being a blast were a nice bonus.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
What’s happened with Justice League is equally unheard of. This time, a movie that essentially served as a final nail in the coffin of the DCEU was going to be resurrected, reshot, reedited, redirected, and rereleased on one of the major streaming services. Whoa! The DCEU has had plenty of issues since the start: the studio’s overreaction to Batman v Superman underperforming ended up with a neutered version of Suicide Squad being released, and a personal tragedy that led Zack Snyder to leave Justice League during filming. The decision was quickly made to bring in The Avengers director Joss Whedon to not only finish the movie but do massive rewrites and reshoots, and change the tone and color scheme.
The result was a mess of a movie that is the lowest grossing of all the newer DC films. It’s almost harder to make a movie with Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash flop than it would be to make it a success, which speaks to just how bad this production really was.
Fast forward to almost two and a half years later, and DC seems to be finding its footing a bit. But still, the Twitter community felt dissatisfied with the fact that we started a journey in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman that had no conclusion; and we knew the theatrical version of Justice League wasn’t it. Then, suddenly: “Look up there! It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! No! Wait! That’s…” HBOMax! Coming to the rescue with the announcement that part of their original 2021 lineup will be Justice League: The Snyder Cut, which felt like a hell of a victory by itself.
Since then, it’s continuously gotten better. This isn’t just a restoration of material left on the cutting room floor; Snyder’s full vision will be brought to life over a 6 part series that includes $70 million of reshoots and new footage, along with the announcement that nothing shot by Whedon would be in this version. Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, and Jared Leto were all thought to be finished playing their iterations of Batman, Superman and The Joker, but have all been back to film new sequences. If the version released next year is a big success, we might actually get to see this series continue as it was originally intended.
These kinds of results beg the question: what if there had been a meaningful way to connect the studios to their audiences previously? Maybe Fox would have realized the majority of ticket sales are to adults and that the market for R-rated properties have always been there, waiting to be tapped. Imagine having an R-rated Wolverine trilogy commencing in something as incredible as Logan instead of Logan sticking out like a sore thumb because it is of such a higher quality than the rest of the franchise. Or maybe someone could have gotten through to the folks at Universal who keep trying to launch a monster movie universe with an assault of CGI instead of establishing an element of horror.
Another positive to this year was the release of Tenet. The studio may not agree, but I view the box office numbers pulled in over the weeks since its release as a good sign. While the US totals may look more like an opening weekend than a full domestic theatrical run, when you take into account that the two biggest film markets in the country weren’t involved, the markets that were open had limited capacity seating, and the amount of potential audience numbers who didn’t come out due to caution, the demand was actually there. In a year in which almost every major release bowed out, Tenet still took its shot, and at just under $400 million worldwide, I’d consider it a weighted success… perhaps just successful enough to save movies like Black Widow and Fast 9 from the Mulan treatment.
The other element of Tenet that has been slightly downplayed is that the director is the selling point. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson are excellent actors, but without Christopher Nolan being attached, no studio is sinking $200 million into a non-franchise movie with them as the leads. Outside of Tarantino, I don’t think there’s another director whose films can be considered must see and will have people lined up at the theater, regardless of genre, cast, or worldwide pandemic.
Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to the streaming services for both providing some great original content and for serving as a place for studios to take some chances. Disney+ got things started early by moving Onward from theaters to the streaming service without an upcharge shortly after the theaters began to close, as well as moving up their release date for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker so people could get to see it during quarantine. While the attempt at a $30 charge to watch Mulan from home might not have been an overwhelming success, it was still one of the most streamed movies on the service, and it was a shot at both providing the entertainment while not eating all of the losses like they had to with Artemis Fowl.
Movies like The Invisible Man and The Way Back made the jump to home pay-per-view from theaters, while Trolls: World Tour was one of the first to skip its theatrical release and enjoy quite a bit of success On Demand as parents were struggling to find new ways to keep everyone busy as the world shifted towards home back in March. Netflix dropped some great originals like Extraction with Chris Hemsworth and a new season of Umbrella Academy. Most importantly, there was the cultural force that was Tiger King. I don’t know if any of us could have held our sanity without being able to occasionally sing a little of I Saw A Tiger or blame everything on Carole Baskin.
A few weeks later, Amazon Prime unleashed a Borat sequel that many didn’t even know was in development and now seems to be a smash hit for them, despite the hefty price tag to distribute the film without any box office returns. In a surprising announcement made this week, Wonder Woman 84 would be released simultaneously in theaters and on HBOMax this Christmas. This is a wonderful present for DC and Wonder Woman fans, and if it is safe, I’ll still seek out seeing it in a theater as that’ll always be my favorite way to watch a movie.
I know this year has been tough, but we shall emerge and look back on this as the “year without the movies” instead of a time of establishing a new normal. Hold on, theater chains, for we miss you, too, and we will be back when it is safe to do so. Next year has a chance at being one of the greatest movie years in history, so let’s get through these holidays safely and smartly and give ourselves some wonderful things to look forward to!