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The summer movie season of 2018: a recap

Contributed by
Aug 31, 2018

The summer of 2018 is in the books, and another so-called "summer movie season" with it. So, how did this year's offerings in the realms of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and superhero movies stack up?

Well, before we answer that question, we have to ask whether the term "summer movie season" even applies anymore. In an era where (most) Star Wars movies come out in December and Marvel issued Thor: Ragnarok in November — and where the biggest genre movie of the year came out a full week before the "summer movie season" officially started (more on that in a minute) — it's becoming more difficult to gauge whether there even is such a thing at all.

But for our purposes, let's say there is, and that it still starts at the beginning of May and ends right around this time (pre-Labor Day). That still means the most gargantuan release of the year, Avengers: Infinity War, still avoided the season by opening on April 27.

And that's why the epic clash between Marvel's superheroes and Thanos the Mad Titan stands alone — it came out before the summer rush and it frankly dwarfed everything that came before and after it this year with its $2 billion-plus worldwide box-office take (it's doubtful that anything else the rest of this year will even come close).

So now that the Avengers question is out of the way, let's take a look at the rest of the summer's genre film slate — how various subgenres fared with critics and ticket buyers, whether some franchises are showing signs of fatigue, and what caught audiences by surprise. Shall we begin?

Deadpool 2

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Snarky Superheroes

Yes, there were a couple of other superhero movies out this summer even after Avengers: Infinity War stomped its way through multiplexes — two, to be exact, and after the somber, universe-devastating events of the former it only seemed fitting that both served as humorous palate cleansers.

Deadpool 2 had a stronger plot and was funnier in many ways than its predecessor, but it also suffered from the tired device of serving up the heroine as the sacrifice that kickstarts the hero's journey while also exhibiting signs of stretching the Deadpool concept itself a little too thin. We still had a good time, though, and so did audiences ($734 million worldwide), even if a few less showed up this time.

As for Ant-Man and the Wasp, we went into a bit more detail here about the film's box-office gross; despite Marvel haters wanting to paint it as a failure, it has earned more than the first movie both here and abroad. It's clearly the smallest (pun intended) of the Marvel sub-franchises, but the movies are fun, zippy, nice to take the kids to, and effective counter-programming to the Avengers epics they have followed.

Takeaway: Critics had to hold their "is superhero fatigue setting in?" think pieces for next year, it seems.

Solo

Credit: Lucasfilm

Franchise Fever

Three jumbo non-comics franchises rolled out new entries this summer, with the first instantly becoming the season's most discussed letdown. There is no way not to see Solo: A Star Wars Story as the first outright failure in the history of the Star Wars movies: Whether you liked the film or not, it stumbled out of the gate and never recovered, and is likely to end up as the series' first clear money loser (it did not make it to even $400 million worldwide).

To our thinking, Solo did fulfill our worst fears about a prequel: While reasonably diverting (when you could see it — that movie was all dark blues and browns), it was devoid of suspense, drama, or a point. We already have known all we need to know about this character for decades.

It was perhaps that, along with the lack of a great lead and some lingering hangover from The Last Jedi, that sunk Solo. What we don't know yet is whether this is a sign of some overall exhaustion with the Star Wars brand or an anomaly that will be course-corrected when Episode IX comes out in 15 months.

The other two big franchise entries seem to be on solid ground. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was not quite as huge as its predecessor, 2015's Jurassic World, but still earned a healthy $1.3 billion around the world and even landed some better reviews. This is a series that is truly bereft of fresh ideas (and has been since The Lost World: Jurassic Park way back in 1997), but it certainly seems audiences love their dinosaurs and will come see them over and over again.

As for Mission: Impossible - Fallout, it's "genre-adjacent" — meaning it's not exactly sci-fi fare despite utilizing a number of the genre's trappings — and a lot of you reading this probably went to see it. This is the rare franchise that audiences and critics seem to love more and more with each entry, while the filmmakers themselves keep upping the stakes in terms of action and spectacle. Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt is sort of the American James Bond, and he shows no signs of going away yet.

Takeaway: That other critics' favorite, "franchise fatigue," is a bit too slippery to predict.

The First Purge

Credit: Blumhouse

Dystopian Dramas

Only one movie set in a bleak(ish) future, The First Purge, scored at the box office this summer, and that's because it was the fourth in an already successful franchise. Plus that success is relative: The film earned just $133 million worldwide, but that is not chump change against a fairly meager budget of $13 million.

The First Purge was not a particularly good movie (the original is still probably the best, followed by the third entry), but the idea of using a minority community as ground zero for the first experiment in controlled lawlessness did strike some sensitive chords in this era of top-down divisiveness and outright racism endorsed at the highest levels of government.

As for the other near-future melodramas we got this summer, the most acclaimed was Upgrade, about a man whose nanotech enhancements turn him into a part-superman, part-assassin. A sort of throwback to 1980s-style indie sci-fi like The Terminator, the movie has all the makings of a cult classic to come and was low-budget enough to make a little money.

Another wholly original project, Hotel Artemis, was graced with a terrific cast (Jodie Foster, Dave Bautista, Jeff Goldblum, Sterling K. Brown, etc.) but failed to even recoup its relatively small $15 million at the box office. Critics praised the cast, but the movie's creation of a secret criminal underworld was too reminiscent of the John Wick films, and the story played out in predictable fashion.

Finally, The Darkest Minds, based on a YA novel by Alexandra Bracken, was a disaster both creatively and financially. A movie that was simply five years too late to catch the YA film craze, even its sprinkling of an X-Men-style theme couldn't save it from utter predictability on the screen and complete indifference with the public.

Takeaway: You can stick a fork in YA genre films — they're as dead as Elvis — and dystopian futures don't play that well at the box office when we're living in one.

The Meg

Credit: Warner Bros.

Horror Hits/Misses

There was a time for a while when horror movies almost exclusively got released in the fall, ostensibly to capitalize on the ever-expanding Halloween season. But summertime chills have become increasingly just as effective as air conditioning for moviegoers looking to escape the summer heat.

Having said that, this past season was fairly light on horror fare — at least in wide release; the genre is busier than ever in limited release, streaming and on demand platforms, where it's become almost a full-time job to keep up with the product available. In terms of mainstream public viewing, however, The Meg dominated all with its old-fashioned monster movie template, genuine sense of fun, and always-charismatic leading man, Jason Statham.

Ostensibly a self-aware rewrite of Jaws, The Meg never aspired to be anything more than it was and was better for it. Audiences have agreed, showering some $414 million (and counting) on the movie around the globe. There are several more books in the Meg series, so brace yourself.

The best horror offering of the summer, however, if not all of 2018, was Hereditary, the "WTF did I just watch?" debut from writer/director Ari Aster. Genuinely scary and full of awful images that were hard to unsee, Hereditary also delivered on excellent characterizations and performances, a key ingredient in all the truly great horror movies. An indie release all the way (from distributor A24), it cost $10 million to make and raked in $79 million.

We have little to say about Slender Man: A fictional supernatural tale based on tragic and sordid real-life events, the film was reportedly recut extensively to both achieve a PG-13 rating and remove some scenes that might have caused a backlash in light of the real-life events. We didn't see the final product, but critics and horror fans condemned it as the worst genre outing in a long time.

Takeaway: Horror and monster movies need a real vision to cast a spell on genre fans and general audiences.

Incredibles 2

Credit: Disney

Animation Adventures

As with the summer movies in general, one animated movie dwarfed all others: Incredibles 2 was the second-biggest blockbuster of the season (if not the year), raking in nearly $600 million in North America alone and posting a worldwide total of more than $1.1 billion.

While some critics were a bit sour on the record-breaking hit due to its perceived lack of freshness after a 14-year wait (with reason), many others praised it for its often stunning animation, the relevant storyline and whip-smart sense of humor (also with reason). Was it an instant classic like its predecessor? No. But for a sequel so long in the making and so hyped beforehand, it held its own.

Sadly, the season's other superhero-centric animated feature, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, did not score as well despite being an outrageously funny, snarky, and yet affectionate takedown of superhero movies — and Hollywood's way of making them — in general. The beloved TV series had no real problems stretching to feature length, but audiences largely stayed away. Too bad, because the movie's lunatic humor and pointed satire were exactly what the DC universe needed.

The other major animated yarn of the summer was Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, which has climbed to more than $460 million worldwide while also holding its own at home. There's absolutely nothing special about the movie, but the familiar jokes and characters no doubt played well to the kiddies. Hopefully it encourages them to seek out all those classic monsters in other media as they get older.

Takeaway: Playing it safe with familiar brands was the trick for animation shops this year.

Skyscraper

Credit: Universal Pictures

Original Orphans

Our last little section here looks at a group of films that were all original (if not derivative in some cases) in concept and either squarely in genre or adjacent, but which all failed to connect with audiences or critics in a positive way.

The biggest of the bunch was clearly Skyscraper, an action/disaster film that pitted Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson against high-tech criminals and a flaming mega-building. Johnson's output has been hit and miss: For every blockbuster like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle or Moana, there's a Rampage that struggles to hit $100 million or this, which audiences perhaps perceived (correctly) as a rehash of both Die Hard and The Towering Inferno. The film was entertaining enough, and Johnson always has presence to spare, but the movie couldn't get away from that "seen it all before" vibe.

Meanwhile, Alpha was a throwback to both caveman and boy-meets-animal films that, while exquisitely shot and well performed, did not capture audiences' imaginations the way Quest for Fire did a few decades back. The disastrous A.X.L. tried to play the kid-and-his-dog storyline as well, this time with a robot canine, but no one bit on that either.

As for the adult puppet comedy The Happytime Murders, it too tanked at the box office, while critics also savaged the film as unfunny and tasteless, indicating that the Jim Henson Company perhaps should never have sold the Muppets to Disney.

Takeaway: Nothing... these movies are already forgotten.

And that's a wrap on the summer of 2018, folks. Did we miss anything? Do you have any thoughts on the films we covered, or the season in general?