This past weekend, Star Trek Into Darkness finally bowed in theaters across the United States. After a grueling four-year wait between J.J. Abrams' first critically acclaimed film relaunching the franchise and its inevitable sequel, much of the box office landscape has changed. With those changes come a great deal of expectation, some of which Into Darkness failed to live up to financially.
I think it becomes easy to forget, though, that until 2009 Star Trek didn't exactly qualify as a "blockbuster" franchise except for a couple of rare instances. Out of the first 11 released films in the franchise, only two of them broke $100 million at the box office, and adjusted for inflation only four of those 11 films have broken $200 million. It’s said that the studio is disappointed, since Star Trek Into Darkness has failed to cross the $100 million threshold in its opening weekend. But given franchise history, should it really be disappointed?
Upon its release in 2009, Star Trek made $75 million on its opening weekend, which is rather extraordinary from a franchise perspective when you consider that the last film in the franchise, 2002’s Star Trek Nemesis, earned $43 million ($58 with inflation) during its entire box office run throughout the 2002 holiday season. Prior to 2009, the closest that a Star Trek film ever got to that kind of number for an opening weekend was 1996’s First Contact, featuring the crew of The Next Generation going up against the Borg. That opening weekend raked in $30 million ($55 million adjusted), which is still a pretty significant increase.
Also prior to 2009, the highest grossing Star Trek film was 1986’s fourth entry in the series, The Voyage Home, earning $109 million ($229 million adjusted). Star Trek Into Darkness is well on its way to surpassing that number, and yet disappointment seems to be lingering with analysts and even fans of the series. Why is that?
Making Movies a Billion-Dollar Business
The end of 2009 brought the release of James Cameron’s 3D vehicle Avatar, and with that the box office landscape changed pretty significantly. The new heavy hitters at the box office weren’t the films hitting $500-700 million anymore -- now a major telling sign of solid success is their hitting the $1 billion mark. When The Dark Knight ended its initial theatrical run in 2008, a billion dollars seemed enormously monstrous, even considering that we’d seen it before with Titanic. Now, Iron Man 3 has become the 16th film to cross the billion-dollar mark, and that threshold has seemingly become the new benchmark for massive box office success.
I don’t think anyone expected Star Trek Into Darkness to cross that line, since its predecessor didn’t even hit the $400 million line back in ’09. With that first film by Abrams, Star Trek became a blockbuster franchise, and now that it has that title for the first time in nearly 20 years, some seem surprised that it’s not quite living up to the overblown expectations that were apparently had by so many. For Star Trek fans, I think it’s safe to say that it’s beyond gratifying to see that there is a lot expected of the starship Enterprise, but I also think that it’s a little disingenuous to write off the weekend take for Into Darkness when considering how far the franchise has come, and how much it’s been invigorated by the new series with J.J. Abrams at the helm.
From Box Office Blunder Back to Blockbuster
The way to best measure how far the franchise has come is by looking at where we last left it before it was considered dead. As previously mentioned, 2002’s Star Trek Nemesis barely managed to break $40 million for its full box office haul. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that it was released in December 2002, up against films like Gangs of New York and the second installment in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Two Towers. The Star Trek franchise itself was also ailing under its current masters, with a new series debuting the previous year to lackluster results, and a largely perceived lack of direction among fans. Most fans knew that the Star Trek franchise was not what it once was, and a lot of us were pinning our hopes on Nemesis to drag us out of a lurch.
Unfortunately, it proved to be the lowest performing Trek film to date, even below Into Darkness' four-day haul, and for many fans symbolized the end of the franchise. Star Trek: Enterprise limped into a fourth season before being cancelled in 2005, effectively ending almost 20 straight years of new Star Trek, both on the big and small screen.
When rumblings were first heard of the 2009 film, there was of course some backlash when it came to light that this would reintroduce the original crew with Captain Kirk. As we heard more and more, though, and when J.J. Abrams was announced as the director, many a Trek fan became cautiously optimistic at a possible rebirth for the series. Then, some big news came down while the film was still in production: this time Paramount executives felt that it could be enjoyed by a wider audience, necessitating a summer release. So, Star Trek was pushed to a May 2009 release date from its original 2008 holiday release, giving the franchise a summer release for the first time since 1989’s disastrous Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.
Star Trek Releases, Becomes “Cool”
We all know what happened next. The 2009 film was released to wide critical and commercial acclaim, showing up strong at the box office and going on to gross nearly $400 million. This made Star Trek the number-one film in the entire franchise, both domestic and worldwide. A pretty extraordinary feat considering that seven years earlier the franchise was on such life support that the only fast food tie-in it could get was with Del Taco. Nothing against Del Taco, but as far as name recognition, it’s not exactly Burger King.
In the end, I think it’s a little odd that Star Trek Into Darkness and its $84 million total being seen as “anemic” is laughable compared to how far the franchise has come, and how many people seem to be excited to see a new adventure for the starship Enterprise. If the box office drops off significantly over the next few weeks, that will be when I will start actively worrying.
Until then, it seems pretty incredible that a franchise that was DOA a little over a decade ago is now considered a basic contender for the box office crown, and as a Star Trek fan that’s a pretty good place to be in. Would it be nice if Into Darkness grossed that $100 million? Absolutely! Does that mean I’m not happy with only $84 million and high likelihood of a sequel with the new Captain Kirk and Spock? Definitely not. While things could always be better, Star Trek fans are all too familiar with how it looks when their favorite franchise is suffering. And, my friends, an $84 million opening is definitely not the worst we, or the franchise, have seen.
For more on Star Trek Into Darkness, be sure to check out my review of the film if you haven’t already!
My Pick This Week at the Comic Shop (Releasing 5/22)
This week is proving to be the end of an era for DC Comics fans everywhere, since writer Geoff Johns, who has been writing Green Lantern in one form or another since 2004's critically acclaimed miniseries Green Lantern: Rebirth, will be concluding his nearly decade-long run with Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps in this week's Green Lantern #20. Before Johns' run on the character, I'd never really given the Green lantern mythos a second thought, but I was captivated by Rebirth when I read it while playing hooky from high school in 2005, and I've been following the run through every wild twist and turn since then.
Johns innovated and reinvigorated many concepts for the Green Lantern line, turning it from a fledgling single monthly title to one of DC's most powerful and profitable franchises. Although the film itself could've benefitted from Johns' direct hand, it was the popularity of the writer's Green Lantern comics that gave hope to any feature adaptation, and I consider that in and of itself a rather massive achievement.
It'll be sad to see the run conclude, since we've gone through some truly incredible big-time stories like The Sinestro Corps War, Blackest Night and War of the Green Lanterns, to very personal stories. My single favorite issue of Johns' run is a rather quiet "done-in-one" featuring Batman. about how the two heroes repaired their friendship and how Hal was able to give Bruce a gift that the Dark Knight never thought possible by letting him briefly wear a Green Lantern Power Ring. Johns also taught some great allegorical lessons during his run on the title, especially one about overcoming fear that struck me at just the right time in my life as I left high school and attempted to set off into the world.
Green Lantern #20 is Geoff Johns' swan song with DC's emerald ring slinger, and I'll be very sorry to see him go.
That does it this week on the Geek Beat, be sure to check back next week to see what's on deck!
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, Batman-On-Film.com and ModernMythMedia.com. You can find his weekly piece The Geek Beat every Tuesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.