With the holidays looming large, 'tis the season for giving thanks – and this year has provided more than a few things to be thankful for if you're a fan of Hollywood's geekier side.
Whether it's original ideas, fresh spins on familiar material, or actors and filmmakers who occasionally seem to know what we want before we know it ourselves, 2013 has been ripe with moments worth thanking the gods of geekery for all that they've bestowed upon us. Heck, even when things haven't gone quite as we hoped, there's been reason to celebrate, debate and anticipate the future of our favorite genre fare.
Here are eight things I'm thankful for this year:
Marvel's doing a lot of things right with its cinematic universe, but one of my favorite elements of its big-screen strategy is its commitment to inserting mid- and postcredits scenes into all of its films. The filmmakers certainly weren't the first to do it, but they're doing it better than anyone else ever has – if only because they're consistently more than just a throwaway scene. The “extra” footage tacked into the credits of every Marvel movie not only advances the overarching stories, but also makes Marvel's movies the only screenings that remain packed long after the credits begin to roll. So why am I especially thankful for it this year? If you have to ask that question, you probably haven't seen Thor: The Dark World yet. Remedy that situation posthaste, true believer!
Fresh Meat in the Zombie-verse
I'm sure I'm not alone in beginning to feel like the flesh-hungry hordes have begun to wear out their welcome, but this year gave me pause with a pair of films that breathed new (for lack of a better word) life into the zombie genre. February's Warm Bodies was a surprisingly smart, funny twist on the typical “life after the zombie apocalypse” adventure that offered more than we've come to expect from stories culled from the young-adult market. Sure, the zombie love story has been done before in My Boyfriend's Back, but it never felt quite as fresh as it does in Warm Bodies.
Also offering some new angles on the zombie apocalypse was June's World War Z, which surprised everyone by actually being, well... pretty darn good. Everyone expected Marc Forster's adaptation of Max Brooks' celebrated novel to be just another, well-worn, zombie-outbreak movie, but with Brad Pitt as its star zombie fighter. What we got, though, was a fascinating look at the global implications of a zombie virus that explored the viral nature of the outbreak and the different ways that various geographic and cultural communities would be affected by such an apocalyptic event.
One of the difficult lessons we've learned in recent years years is that U.S. movie audiences are a lot like Gotham's criminals; they're a superstitious, cowardly lot that tends to favor the familiar over the new and untested – even if “the familiar” is Grown Ups 2. (Insert heavyhearted sigh here.) Fortunately, overseas audiences have provided a nice bit of check and balance at the box office by coming out in droves for some of our recent, underperforming favorites. After a rough start that had everyone declaring Guillermo del Toro's giant robots-vs.-monsters extravaganza Pacific Rim a massive flop, foreign audiences burned through tickets like wildfire, to the tune of over $300 million sold (over 75 percent of the film's total gross). The current tally puts the well-received Pacific Rim at over $400 million worldwide, and in a lot better position for us to see more giant robots kick monsters' butts in a sequel. G.I. Joe: Retaliation and The Wolverine received similar boosts to their overall revenue from overseas ticket sales after mediocre performance in the U.S. – a fact which makes me far more willing to forgive the massive ($276 million) bump overseas audiences gave The Smurfs 2.
The Return of the Ninja
It's no secret that I'm a big fan of all things ninja, but over the last few years, movies featuring shuriken-tossing, katana-wielding guys in black pajamas have been few and far between – and usually not very easy to find when they do arrive. Sure, we've had one or two each year that were pretty decent (Ninja Assassin, Shinobi: Heart Under Blade and The Warrior's Way were all fun films), but this year's slate of big-screen releases included multiple films featuring full-on ninja brawls. Chief among them was the epic, mountainside ninja duel in G.I. Joe: Retaliation that was easily one of the most memorable action sequences of the year. (I think I've watched that scene a few dozen times since the film was released.) Ninjas also played a significant role in The Wolverine, and a large group of them managed to give Logan a rough time during his overseas adventure. I'm secretly hoping that this is just the beginning of a trend that will see ninjas become the new zombies, harkening back to the ninja-movie glory days of the '80s when a new movie with “ninja” in its title would come out every month. Please let ninjas be the new zombies.
Man of Steel
Whether you liked Zack Snyder's reboot of the Superman franchise or hated it, Man of Steel easily goes down as one of the most polarizing films of the year – and that's a good thing, the way I see it. Not only did the film get us talking about Superman again, but it got everyone talking about what they really want from a movie about the last son of Krypton. Ever since Superman Returns left the franchise in limbo, fans have been endlessly debating where the franchise went wrong – with many pointing toward the lack of action in the 2006 film and the slapstick tone of the later films in Christopher Reeve's run. Cut to seven years later and we have a film that's all action and dark, brooding exploration of the nature of humanity. It may not be the Superman movie we wanted, but it's the one many of us asked for, and because of that Man of Steel offers the perfect reference point for any future discussions of Superman's big-screen presence. I may not be a fan of everything the film did with Superman, but I've enjoyed all of the conversations that have happened because of it.
Sure, there are more than a few ladies (and guys) I know who are thankful for Michael Fassbender for different reasons, but my reason for appreciation stems from what is quickly becoming a noticeably sincere commitment to taking our favorite characters and properties seriously. As Erik “Magneto” Lensherr in 2011's X-Men: First Class, Fassbender added an impressive amount of depth and nuance to the character Ian McKellen had made his own in a trio of X-Men movies. Not once did this well-versed dramatic actor seem put off by the more fantastic elements of the character, and his performance was easily the standout role of the film. A year later, Fassbender was back on the big screen for Prometheus, the pseudo-prequel to Ridley Scott's Alien, and his performance as the android David similarly ranks among the best in the franchise, adding detail and layers to a character that could've easily been written off. As if that wasn't enough to make Fassbender a geeky movie lover's best friend, this year saw him take on the role of star and producer for Assassin's Creed, the upcoming film based on one of the most popular video game franchises of all time. For many fans, it was enough to simply see him cast in the role of series protagonist Desmond Miles, but for him to jump on board as producer of the project, well... let's just say that if he dropped by Thanksgiving dinner at my house, he'd get whatever part of the turkey he wanted.
The Expansion of Expanded Universes
It's nothing new to have a mediocre (or frequently less than mediocre) tie-in game released every time a new superhero or sci-fi movie hits theaters, but only recently has the notion of expanded universes really become something we can look forward to instead of shrug off. Again, Marvel is leading the pack when it comes to bringing its cinematic universe into other media, delivering fans a live-action television series (Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) that plays in the same sandbox as its films, as well as various comic book miniseries and add-ons for successful games across multiple platforms (Marvel: Avengers Alliance and Marvel Heroes chief among them) that all connect with the Marvel movie-verse. Comic book publishers like IDW Publishing and Boom! Studios have also been making the best of their movie and television licenses with compelling series that expand the narrative of big-screen properties like the new Star Trek and Transformers franchises and fan-favorite TV shows like Sons of Anarchy and Adventure Time. With a stable of characters that includes Superman and Batman, DC Comics and its parents at Warner Bros. would be wise to follow these examples, as there's nothing more appealing than a fictional universe you can explore long after you leave the theater.
The Never-Ending Fight Against Rebootsequeladaptationitis
I don't have anything against a good remake, reboot, sequel or adaptation, but let's face it: Hollywood could use some fresh material. Thankfully, we've had more than a few films arrive in theaters over the last few years that were based on original stories instead of existing franchises, characters or source material. The aforementioned Pacific Rim was one of the highest profile additions to the “original material” list of geek-friendly films this year, but it was far from alone. Found-footage sci-fi film Europa Report flew under the radar but is well worth checking out for its tense, claustrophobic take on a mission to a far-off moon that goes awry. Looking back, last year's superpower-centric Chronicle may have been my second-favorite film of the year (after The Avengers), while Frank Langella's performance in Robot & Frank ranks right up there among the greatest human-robot buddy movies ever made.
So there are a few things I'm thankful for this year, folks. What about you? When it comes to the geekier side of Hollywood, what are you thankful for?
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and is still not quite sure how he ended up writing (and talking) about comics, video games, and movies for a living. His personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org, and you can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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