In what, from the outside, seemed like a blockbuster filler-year before 2015’s ludicrous blockbusterathon, a respectable number of giant cinema fodder has seen release in a season that is only now receding. So what better time for an overview of the years’ biggest releases?
Captain America – Winter Soldier: The season started on a remarkably high note with Marvel’s Captain America follow-up, a sequel to what this writer considers the studio’s weakest film to date. Winter Soldier was helmed by the Russo brothers, creators of TV’s Community, who crafted a vastly superior espionage-action flick that shifted the status quo of the Marvel cinematic universe and was far better than it had any right being, and set a hell of a benchmark for the rest of the year’s blockbusters.
Noah: Exiting production of both Robocop and The Wolverine, respectively, Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) instead decided to resurrect the contemporarily ignored biblical epic. Concentrating on re-imagining the story of Noah’s arc and casting burlyman, Russell Crowe, as the titular boat builder, Aronofsky looked to be taking a very interesting point of view, both visually and thematically, of the oft told story, to the extreme of changing its entire outcome and purpose, but in the end it turned out to be as judgemental and preachy as the bible itself, transforming something of potential interest into, well, a drag.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Keeping the first film’s excellent chemistry between its two leads then pretty much improving on everything else, ASM 2, though a little long and avoiding some basic logic in its villains’ respective stories, was absolutely full of heart and contained some truly breathtaking CG and action set pieces, not to mention some narrative sucker punches that made it more poignant than expected and a very pleasant surprise to someone who didn’t especially love the first film.
Pompeii: The fanboy baiting director, Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Death Race), not known for his subtlety or storytelling prowess, tries his hand at a transparent, Titanic-alike disaster film. Not even the casting of the ridiculously beautiful Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) and Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) could overcome the staggering ignorance of volcanic logistics that constantly brought you out of the film to the degree where you genuinely didn’t give a damn how it all ended. Good FX, good looking but otherwise the stinker of the year.
Godzilla: Jumping from his sleeper-hit, directorial debut, Monsters, made for far less than a million dollars, to this juggernaut of a franchise, with a budget in excess of a hundred and fifty million dollars, director Gareth Edwards destroyed all worries that this adaptation of the Japanese Kaiju series might resemble the 1998 attempt/hash job, by very much sticking to the rather silly spirit of those original films; at first teasing and then pitting gargantuan monster against gargantuan monster in city shattering battles. The swing at character depth fell short but that besides, this monster mash was a lot of fun.
Maleficent: Taking the intriguing concept of telling the Sleeping Beauty tale from the perspective of a misunderstood villain, Maleficent proved far less intelligent a story than it could have been by re-writing the story in total rather than writing around what already existed. Seemingly polarising its audience on a gender basis, Maleficent hung around at the theatres much longer than expected, to the appreciation of females everywhere. Knowingly girly as it was, there’s no denying some of the wonderful design work on display.
X-Men – Days of Future Past: Using the mess that the cinematic X-Men universe had become and crafting a new continuity that paired old and new cast members in a story that traversed past, present and future, Days of Future Past was the best X-Men film since X2. The combination of period settings and epic sci-fi made for some inventive action sequences and a final scene that was incredibly invigorating. Not the best film of the year, or even the best superhero film of the year, but entertaining and just what the franchise needed.
Edge of Tomorrow: By far the surprise of the year, not least because many wrote it off simply due to the fact that it was a Tom Cruise vehicle with a crap title, Edge of Tomorrow was in actual fact the smartest sci-fi film since Inception. Written by Chris McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and based on the Japanese book, All You Need is Kill, it blended exceptionally precise and economical storytelling with seamless visuals to results that deserved to be seen by far more people than who actually made the effort. Seek it out when you get the chance.
How To Train Your Dragon 2: The only animated film out this year deserving of the title, Blockbuster (The Lego Movie was exceptional but more in the ‘indie’ spirit), HTTYD 2 was as touching and exciting as the first film with improved visuals and a grander story; a sequel of the highest calibre that couldn’t possibly disappoint pre-existing fans.
Transformers 4 – Age of Extinction: Starting out as the most promising of the sequels to date, Age of Extinction soon degenerated into muddled characters, obscure leaps of logic and seemingly infinite (and infinitely stupid) plots, in the effort to supply ever more overblown action set-pieces that became more repetitive the longer the film went on, which eventually turned out to be a staggering two hours forty-five minutes. Quite the shame as, with a streamlined narrative, a decent ninety-minute film could have been salvaged.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Taking only one original cast member, this bold sequel decided on an entirely different direction from its forerunner. Now set in a quasi-post-apocalyptic future where small quantities of humans and smart apes live in close proximity, Dawn did what sci-fi always did well, hold a metaphorical mirror up to issues that plague humanity as much now in these enlightened times as they ever have. A little dower but certainly worth your time.
Hercules: Trailed to seem like an all-out monster fighting thrill ride, Bret Ratner’s adaptation of this Radical Comics property actually turned out to be an underwhelming combination of the Magnificent Seven and 300. Not un-entertaining, the film actually suffered from the inclusion of an opening prologue, which, featuring heavily in the trailer, would have made for a better film than what we actually were presented with. Handled better it could have been a decent franchise for Dwayne Johnson, but it just didn’t have it where it counted.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Marvel’s biggest gamble yet, basing a massive budget sci-fi epic on a set of characters that almost no one had heard of, this became a master-class in smart marketing and quirky storytelling. Written and directed by the formally underappreciated but undeniably talented, James Gunn (Slither, Super), Guardians mixed up lovable characters, brilliant visuals, oodles of laughs and a cracking soundtrack to a level of success that was unprecedented. Returning to the number one spot in the box office a number of times, it has become one of the years biggest and most critically acclaimed movies, and deservedly so.
The Expendables 3: This affectionately stupid franchise, it transpires, has actually improved significantly with this third instalment. The introduction of Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas, a whole host of young turks and the much maligned Mel Gibson, in brilliantly evil form as the film’s villain, ramps up the enjoyment factor by several notches with the added bonus that some of those woefully cringe-worthy moments of self reference from the previous films, to a large degree, have been rendered much more subtly here… if the word ‘subtle’ can be uses in association with this series at all. The very definition of a dumb popcorn actioner.
So there we have it, quite the bumper crop, and very easily separated into the excellent, decent and pretty bad categories. I guess it just goes to show that even in a year that looks set to be kind of barren for the blockbuster fan, you can still be confident that at least a handful of gems are going to come out of it if you go to the trouble of checking them out… You’ve read my recommendations, now get out there and get something watched.