Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Alas, there will be no song entitled 'Quantum Of Solace' (a sampling of great terrible movie songs).

Looks like the Bond producers will be taking the easy way out. According to Variety, Jack White and Alicia Keys will be producing the theme song to Quantum Of Solace. But, alas, it will be called the much blander and easier to work with 'Another Way To Die'. Granted, it's the first duet in Bond song history, but I was genuinely hoping that some poor soul would have to make a workable tune out of 'Quantum Of Solace'.

Still, just because it isn't called Quantum Of Solace, doesn't mean we should give up that it will be terrible. How I yearn for the golden 80s, the glory days of terrible movie-based songs. In fact, there are few songs more terrible than terrible songs used in cheesy 80s and early 90s movies. Yes, when we had songs actually called 'The Living Daylights', or 'Lethal Weapon'. And, let's not forget the double-whammy of Rambo songs. Dan Hill's 'A Long Road' from First Blood or Frank Stallone's 'Peace In Our Life' from Rambo: First Blood Part II, both of these have become camp classics of overwrought lyrical emotionalism ("It's a real war... right outside your front door, I tell ya!"). In fact, Long Road has the gall to be set to Jerry Goldsmith's beautiful instrumental Rambo theme that has been used in all four movies.

Some favorites stand out -

Princes Of The Universe (from Highlander) - Flash Gordon is an epically goofy movie theme song, but at least it's tongue and cheek and it's faithful to the source. Did Queen actually read the script to Highlander before creating this hard-metal epic that slowly becomes some kind of sports rally pep tune? I'm guessing not as the song starts blabbing about romance, kings, passing the test, and people talking about them. This, for a movie about a super-secret clan of immortal Scotsman who run around beheading each other with broadswords. Most people have heard the first verse, but you really need to hear the rest.

It's A Long Road (from First Blood) - Dan Brown's obviously well-intentioned ode to the war within that Vietnam vets faced upon returning home quickly cascades into cheesy, overwrought platitudes from a guy who sounds too young to shave or drive, let alone enlist and return from war. Granted, it's a moodier and vaguely anti-war peace (and thus more faithful to the original intent of the First Blood novel and movie), but I prefer Billy Joel's 'Goodnight Saigon' thank you much.

Peace In Our Life (from Rambo: First Blood Part II) - Frank Stallone pens this allegedly touching ode to the sacrifice that vets made for their country. Alas, it's high-cheese factor and, I dunno, the fact that it's Frank Stallone, renders this about as an appropriate thank-you to the troops as Gulf War Syndrome, decrepit veterans hospitals, and Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor.

The Burning Heart (from Rocky IV) - Sorry to keep piling on Stallone, but the guy had a thing for cheese ball theme songs in the 1980s (even 1993's Demolition Man had a hard-rock theme song for the closing credits). This song by Survivor obviously tries to cash in on the popularity of Eye Of The Tiger, the unofficial theme from Rocky III. This jingoistic little ditty sells the film's apparent concept that this boxing match between Rocky and Drago is a battle for the souls of the world, the ultimate showdown between capitalism and communism. Favorite lyric - "There is so much at stake! Seems like freedom's up against the walls!"

The Glory Of Love (from The Karate Kid Part II) - Actually an entertaining, sweepingly corny love ballad. Peter Cetera tries to pull off the ultimate 'hero-complex' love song and it's oddly sincere. I suppose the reason I'm including it here is that it's one of those songs that everyone from the 1980s inexplicably knows most of the words to. It's terrible, but it's also kinda great.

The Living Daylights (from The Living Daylights) - The first Timothy Dalton Bond film may be the most realistic, intricate, and complicated of any Bond picture, but this Ah Ha theme song is utterly incomprehensible. I have, to this day, no idea what they are singing about or how it relates to our favorite 00-agent. It's catchy, but it's terrible. While Duran Duran's 'Dance Into The Fire' (from A View To A Kill) is equally terrible, it's a bit more comprehensible and it has a groovy, bad-ass dance beat that makes it a blast to listen to. The Living Daylights just stinks.

Batdance (from Batman) - I could easily include this entire album of really mediocre to terrible Prince songs (Party Man, anyone?). But this whacked out ode to uh, something related to Batman is an acid-trip mishmash of color, incomprehensibility, and attempted controversy (the random inclusion of hard profanity, a long scene in which a row of Vicki Vale's are shot dead) that has stood the test of time. But at least Burton had the good sense to use Danny Elfman's score as the driving music, with Prince only in the vague background. Originally, the studio wanted Prince to do a main theme, Michael Jackson to do a love theme, and then just have Elfman fill in the blanks. Random Oddity - When Prince is dressed up in Joker attire, his gaunt body shape and his wild poofy hair actually renders him a dead ringer for the comic book Joker, more so than anyone who's ever played him onscreen.

Original Sin (from The Shadow) - Alas, this one is unable to be embedded, and it's actually a loose remake of a 1986 tune, but Taylor Dane's theme song for the 1994 'Shadow' feature was the last grasp of hardcore movie-based cheese before the trend of a soundtrack comprised of unrelated songs 'inspired by the motion picture' settled in. Most impressive is how Dane finds a way to substitute various lyrics to incorporate the line 'Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?' into a rising rock beat. Here's the original for comparison.

Feel free to submit your favorite movie theme songs from the days of ole.

Scott Mendelson

"Did you know, Sir? Then?"

Here is the teaser to Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, which debuts in theaters on Friday (go here for downloads). It's an incredibly confident teaser, with two brief shots of Harry and not a glimpse of Hermione, Ron, or Snape. The only flaw comes at the very end, when they have a flash of 'you know who', and they pick the cheesiest, least frightening shot from the last movie (you'll know it when you see it). Better to have not even revealed who that young child is, as if anyone watching couldn't figure it out. Other than that, it's a fantastically creepy and moody teaser.

Scott Mendelson

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Batman In The Movies - Debunking the 'Dark Knight endorses the Bush/Cheney doctrine' stupidity...

Once a narrative gets going, especially a juicy one, it's hard to put back in the bottle. In the last two weeks, the official talking point, both of righteous conservatives and allegedly offended liberals, is that Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight explicitly endorses the 'War On Terror' doctrine that Bush and Cheney have carried out for the last several years. Absolute nonsense, as you'll see below (it's long as it's a bit of a 'point by point' rebuttal). Basically, the film asks many provocative questions and dares to not provide every answer. But, in the end, it comes out in favor of humanity's basic compassion and capacity for hope, community and sacrifice as opposed to self-interest and selfishness.
Heavy SPOILERS follow -

At the heart of this current madness is the 'chicken/egg' fallacy. Since taking office in January 2001, and especially after 9/11, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have conducted themselves in manner suggesting that they believe themselves to be cowboy super heroes, be it Batman, John Wayne, or Jack Bauer, fighting the forces of absolute darkness. They believe in simplistic notions of good and evil, might and right, and the ends justifying the means. Thus, it stands to reason that some of their rhetoric would resemble the very comic book superheroes they attempt to emulate. It's not a case of Batman sounding like Bush, but rather Bush trying to come off as a truly heroic figure such as Batman to justify his unheroic policies.

But aside from words, the actions do far more to differentiate the two. Even Batman's vigilantism is presented as something that is selfless and meant to inspire the people of Gotham to feel safer and take control of their corrupt city. Batman does not kill and never harms the innocent. Yes he does walk that fine line in terms of being judge and jury. Any movie about a superhero must deal with that, but that doesn't make Batman a right-winger.

Even as a vigilante, Batman is primarily concerned about protecting the innocent, even at the expense of punishing the guilty (he always chooses saving a life over capturing the villain, as seen at least twice in the film). Bush and co are primarily concerned with punishing the (allegedly) guilty, even at the expense of not protecting and/or punishing the (allegedly) innocent. One could argue that this is the defining split in liberal/conservative ideology. Speaking in broad terms, liberals are more concerned with protecting the (allegedly) innocent while conservatives are more concerned with punishing the (allegedly) guilty. And Batman constantly goes after the people who are actually responsible for the crime in Gotham, be it The Joker or the mob, rather than choosing straw men to hold up as evildoers. If you use the logic of the Bush administration, after discovering the location of The Joker and the intent of his plan, Batman would immediately dash after The Riddler or The Penguin and punish them severely while The Joker ran free.

In fact, the one character acts in that nature, who becomes a true Bush-type vigilante is presented as a tragic villain. As Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face and rampages through the Gotham underworld, he kills purely based on the flip of a coin rather than rational thoughts of justice. He becomes so determined to kill 'the evildoers' that he takes his anger out on the children of his alleged enemy. Not content to wrongly blame Jim Gordon for the death of Rachel, Harvey Dent decides to murder Gordon's young children as a form of punishment. In fact, Two-Face spends the last act of the film attempting to murder everyone tangentially connecting to his maiming except the person actually responsible: The Joker. So Two-Face targets everyone except the one person truly responsible for his plight, and then chooses innocent bystanders when those targets don't suffice. Almost sounds like Bush attacking Iraq to avenge the aggression Osama Bin Laden and 19 Saudi nationals.

As for the picture being right-wing because the Joker is a motiveless killer, that's just a variation on a right-wing cliche (that liberals make excuses for every criminal and thus want to set them all free). Hell, James Gordon himself made a speech about that subject in an Ed Brubaker written issue of Gotham Central (a series that The Dark Knight cribs from heavily). Basically, Gordon acknowledged that it is fine to feel compassion for criminals who are simply messed up or make stupid childish mistakes, and we can certainly sympathize with their actions now and then. But in order for society to function, it still can't be completely tolerated, so off to jail they go. I don't recall Nolan feeling too much pity for Jonathan Crane or Ra's Al Ghul or Carmone Falcone in Batman Begins. That Nolan presented Joe Chill as a flawed and guilt-ridden human does not make him a tree-hugging hippie, nor does his presentation of The Joker as an soulless demon make him an advocate for the Heritage Foundation.

Also used as ammunition is the idea that The Joker is an alleged stand-in for Osama Bin Laden, a wanton terrorist who kills indiscriminately and slaughters civilians on a whim. But the film shows quite clearly that this is not the case. The Joker kills only when he finds it necessary, and he only kills just enough people to cause panic in the city. In the course of the film, he kills slightly over 20 people, almost all of whom are cops, criminals, judges, vigilantes, or public officials. He does not explicitly kill a single bystander, even when left alone in Wayne's penthouse, because that is not part of his fiendish plan. He does not randomly blow up buildings and he does not randomly slaughter the innocent. The only time he even targets random bystanders is at the conclusion of the second-act chase scene, where he opens fire on random cars to goad Batman into using lethal force. Otherwise, the people that Joker chooses to kill are specific and intentional, with malice and forethought. Oh, and super villains have been videotaping their kidnappings and murders since the 1940s. Jack Nicholson's Joker did the exact same thing to an unlucky Smylax test subject in Tim Burton's Batman.

Further more, The Joker does not hate us for our freedoms anymore than Osama Bin Laden does. Whatever Bin Laden's motives are, The Joker simply wants to test his theory that people are generally selfish and evil and that when pushed, they'll turn on each other. One could fairly argue that Bin Laden's goal for the US is similar, to watch the country burn, but then one must acknowledge that in our current state, Bush has given Bin Laden exactly what he desired. The Joker is a much closer relative of the Zodiac killer (note how he mentions how few people he had to kill and how little destruction he had to cause in order to drive the city into panic).

Besides, in the end The Joker's experiment fails because the people of Gotham are shown to be unwilling or unable to be so self-centered that they would slaughter innocents to save themselves (as opposed to the stereotypical right-wing view that countless dead Iraqis are a fair price to save a few American lives). In one of the most emotional scenes, a hardened convict chooses to toss his ship's detonator out the window, potentially at the cost of his own life, rather than play a part in the shedding of innocent blood. In Nolan's world, criminals are not beyond rehabilitation and redemption, and thus Batman's mercy towards them is justified. Needless to say, Bush and co are not known for their mercy.

As far as Harvey Dent's cries about not giving into terrorism during the second act, let us remember that, immediately after 9/11, it was Bush who immediately closed the military bases in Saudi Arabia (which was one of Bin Laden's chief demands against the US). Bruce Wayne immediately wants to cave but is advised against it by Rachel and Alfred, two out of three of his moral compasses. Furthermore, Batman doesn't just want to quit because The Joker is killing people to expose him. Batman wants to quit because he doesn't want to become the type of man who would 'burn the forest down' to catch this madman. And, in the end, he doesn't have to. He does not kill The Joker and he still saves the lives of every person on the two doomed ferries. He even finds time to save the lives of Jim Gordon and his family. Yes, he has done things that maybe should be condemned, but he does them with a heavy heart, rather than a boastful chuckle.

Does this all mean that The Dark Knight is a liberal movie? Probably not anymore so that it's a conservative tract. In the end, Batman still tramples on the constitution as a matter of course (as he has done for seventy-years in the comic world). And yes, Batman commits an act of something strongly resembling 'extraordinary rendition' (the abduction of Lau from Hong Kong). It's more like rendition in the fashion that Clinton originally intended it when he (wrongly) allowed it back in 1998 (no torture, for one thing), but it still gave me the liberal heebie-jeebies. Although, one could argue, it is this extreme and illegal action that instigates the entire rampage by The Joker, since the mobsters overreact and hire The Joker out of desperation (and of course, Alfred warns him as it's happening). IE - Batman told them to 'bring it on', and they did in the form of a murderous clown. Whether or not Batman's actions resemble right-wing behavior, one would find it hard to argue that the film is championing this behavior, considering the blow back that occurs as a result. Again - questions but no solid answers.

It's true that Batman wiretaps every cell phone in Gotham in a desperate attempt to locate The Joker, but the film leaves the issue opened-ended. Yes, it's a ticking-bomb scenario, but it's strongly condemned by one of the film's chief moral outlets (if Morgan Freeman condemns something, most movie goers will believe him). Furthermore, unlike Bush's warrant-less spying, Batman does not keep copies of the phone calls, he does not spy on lawyers and political opponents (allegedly), he does not listen to the phone calls that are being monitored. When Lucius Fox discovers the machine, the audio is an indecipherable blur, with only the audio of The Joker himself distinguished amongst the masses. And, tellingly, as Gordon states in his closing monologue that 'sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded', we see Fox smile just a bit as he realizes that Wayne has programed the machine to destroy itself once its one-time use is finished. Point being, Batman knows damn well that what he is doing is wrong, but it may be necessary in this one case, in a manner which violates no one's privacy, since no one's phone call is actually listened to. It's still constitutionally awkward, but it's quite different than an illegal ongoing wiretapping program that collects countless random phone calls and stores them in a database for who knows what purpose.

And the finale of the movie brings about all kinds of questions, but it also exposes the fallacy of the whole right-wing argument in regards to The Dark Knight. In the end, Batman chooses to take the blame for Harvey Dent's murders so that the people of Gotham can still have their unwavering symbol of lawful justice and lawful heroism. On one hand, Nolan is stating that people desire symbols of people who do good within the law and within the system that has been set up for a civilized society (as opposed to Bush and Cheney, who brag about going above and outside the law in their pursuit of terrorists). On the other hand, it brings up the propaganda campaigns involving the fake rescue of Jessica Lynch and the false story surrounding the death of Pat Tillmen.

I'd personally argue that Batman's falling on the sword is unnecessary because the people of Gotham can be inspired by the selfless actions of the ferry passengers. Point being, The Dark Knight implicitly seems to endorse the idea that its ok for figures in authority to lie to people in order to make them feel better about themselves. Again, at the very least, Batman is making a sacrifice for the good of his city and as a way to make the criminal underworld afraid of him once more. Regardless of whether I endorse that decision, it must be acknowledged that it's based on the absurd notion that the criminals arrested by the squeaky-clean Dent would go free because he was kidnapped, brutalized, and snapped under duress.

But the biggest reason that The Dark Knight fails as an endorsement of Bush/Cheney is that Batman is actually successful at saving Gotham and he sacrifices for it. Batman loses his best friend and would-be lover, and he loses the trust of his business partner. Furthermore, in the end, he has lost the faith of the very people he strives to protect, choosing to forgo their love to protect their lives. While some argue that Bush and Cheney forgo the love of their constituents in order to keep us safe, the fact still remains that they have lost the faith only because they have failed in that duty outright. The Iraq war has left the Middle East in chaos, Bin Laden is still free, our country is going broke, and the average family is struggling like never before with such necessities as health care, food, and gas.

Batman is not Bush because Batman succeeds in his primary goal. He captures The Joker and saves countless lives without killing his enemy. Batman is not Bush because he makes sacrifices and pays horrible tolls for his quest, while Bush and Cheney have not only not sacrificed but benefited financially through their various business enterprises that have in turn profited from the various military engagements. It's a complicated, messy movie that wrestles with big questions. I don't think it completely aspires to any rigid political dogma. I'd argue that the film as a whole is a blistering bleak commentary on how we, as Americans caved into fear and irrationality following the 9/11 attacks (as The Joker states, we are only as civilized as circumstances allow us to be). But it sure as heck doesn't champion the unsuccessful and counter productive policies that make up the current 'War On Terror'.

Scott Mendelson

Jon Voight's hilariously propagandistic Obama editorial...

I'm pretty sure John McCain doesn't even believe this about Obama. A sample from this morning's Washington Times editorial:

"The Democratic Party, in its quest for power, has managed a propaganda campaign with subliminal messages, creating a God-like figure in a man who falls short in every way. It seems to me that if Mr. Obama wins the presidential election, then Messrs. Farrakhan, Wright, Ayers and Pfleger will gain power for their need to demoralize this country and help create a socialist America."

This isn't about whether Voight is a conservative. There are plenty of level-headed conservatives who simply prefer McCain's policies. This is about Voight believing and spreading the GOP talking-points that Obama will being the radical Black Power president who will lead our country to ruin and chaos. Really? Another favorite sample:

"Gen. Wesley Clark, who himself has shame upon him, having been relieved of his command, has done their bidding and become a lying fool in his need to demean a fellow soldier and a true hero."

Clark earns this libel because he asked the question that deserves asking - "Does the fact that he was shot down during the Vietnam war and spend five years as a POW give McCain extra special qualification to be president of the United States?"

It is always unfortunate when an actor I enjoy ends up spouting talking points from the other side of the isle. I suppose it's fair though. I was just shocked that this relatively educated and seemingly intelligent actor genuinely believes this childish propaganda. Again, it's not that he's a Republican, it's not he's fallen for the base spin.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, July 28, 2008

Inventing The Narrative - Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull vs Iron Man

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is now a mere $1.3 million behind Iron Man. It's on more screens and pulled in $200,000 more than Iron Man this weekend, so this is going to be a photo finish.

Both are Paramount movies that cost about $160 million to produce. Both are only distributed by Paramount and thus Paramount won't see most of the profits. Both movies will close out with about $316 million in the domestic box office. Yet one of these films is a massive smash hit, and the other is an under performer. Does that make any sense? Of course it does, if you're an entertainment journalist!

Even if Dr. Jones does pass Mr. Stark, look for countless end of summer-end articles to claim that Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull 'underperformed compared to Iron Man'. It's a much 'sexier' narrative to claim that Indiana Jones 4 disappointed while Iron Man kicked its butt, as opposed to the truth. Indy Jones did exactly what it was expected to do. No one should have expected Phantom Menace numbers, since the highest grossing Indiana Jones film (Raiders Of The Lost Ark - $242 million) was still much lower than the lowest grossing Star Wars film (The Empire Strikes Back - $290 million with re-releases). Iron Man simply vastly surpassed expectations and turned it into a horse-race. And of course, as expected, Indiana Jones slaughtered Iron Man overseas ($800 million to $600 million). Both were popular and relatively well-liked films that were huge financial winners, and both should be credited as such.

Scott Mendelson

If you're going to slander, slander correctly!

There is an article up detailing the '10 Most Slanderous Cinematic Slights', basically detailing ten instances where filmmakers made inside jokes taking shots at someone else (ie - Dr. Evil being based on Lorne Michaels). It's amusing enough, but it misses my favorite inside joke...

In Austin Powers 3: Goldmember, one of the few moments of wit comes when Scott Evil slowly turns down his father's path of darkness. No, this in itself isn't funny, but it is amusing that Scott Evil's hair changes throughout the picture, first resembling Brian Grazer and finally, at the height of his evil, Ron Howard.

Now, of course, at the time, Mike Myers was involved in a bitter feud with them regarding Myers having left the Sprockets project just before shooting was to start, citing script issues. As a result, Myers was sued for $20 million and the suit was pending when Goldmember went into production. Not subtle, but it's as much of a dig as anything else on the list. One could argue that Myers got his revenge on Universal by making The Cat In The Hat for them, a movie so terrible that the Earth in the Universal logo almost stopped spinning.

Also making the list is the bone-headedly unfunny Siskel & Ebert clones in Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, apparently included as punishment for the two legendary film critics rightly comparing Stargate to an Ed Wood film (I guess that makes 10,000 BC a Uwe Boll film). Ebert was apparently was quoted as having said "Now that I've inspired a character in a Godzilla movie, all I really still desire is for several Ingmar Bergman characters to sit in a circle and read my reviews to one another in hushed tones." At the time, Ebert also expressed disappointment that he was not eaten by Godzilla.

And he's right. Detective Comics writer Chuck Dixon had the right idea in 1994 when they included Siskel And Ebert look-a likes, as gun-toting film critics/thugs, in an arc involving The Joker making a movie about the death of Batman. And, exactly as it should be, S & E eventually panned the movie, leading The Joker to give them 'two thumbs down' as he shot them both.

If you're going to be in a Godzilla movie, you want to be eaten by Godzilla. If you're going to be in a Joker-centered Batman comic book, you really want to get killed by The Joker. Although if I had my say, I would have demanded that I go out via Joker Venom, with a big post-rictus grin. It's a shame that Nolan couldn't find a way to plausibly include the trademark death grins in The Dark Knight, but I suppose the three corpses that are found covered in clown paint and with their mouths slit open is close enough.

Scott Mendelson

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Batman In The Movies - Stories of The Dark Knight

If you liked The Dark Knight, then you'll love these comic stories that the film rips-off... well, sort of.

Chris Nolan and company are not shy about claiming that The Dark Knight takes some bits and pieces from some of the more famous Batman stories. The Long Halloween (an epic year-long story about how the crumbling mob in Gotham was supplanted by the super-villains), The Killing Joke (the definitive Joker story, from 1988), and Batman Vs The Joker (the first Joker story, from Batman 01 in 1940)... these are all cited as sources of inspiration. But there are three stories, unmentioned by anyone, that have an awful lot in common with the current Batman movie. Either it's a coincidence (probably), or someone owes someone a check or an acknowledgment.

Oh, and for the record, despite what writers seem to keep saying, Batman comics were dark, introspective, and violent again by 1969, a full seventeen years before Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, it was a groundbreaking piece of social satire, but crediting Miller with single-handedly saving Batman from the camp of the 1950s and 1960s is a slap in the face to Neal Adams, Denny O'Neil, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and all of the other writers that did so much good, truly groundbreaking work in the 1970s and 1980s.

Anyway, onto the three unsung (possible) sources of inspiration for The Dark Knight:

Eye Of The Beholder - Batman Annual 11 (1990).
In my mind, this Andrew Helfner story is the definitive Harvey Dent origin story. While The Long Halloween weaves Dent's fall into a labyrinth tale of Batman's second year, the downfall of the Gotham mob, and the rise of the costumed freaks, Eye Of The Beholder is specifically about Harvey Dent. It was the first to suggest that Harvey had issues long before his face-scarring accident. Like The Dark Knight, Dent's downfall here comes not at the hands of a whole crowd of mobsters, but from a single insane murderer (in this case, a socialite who butchers senior citizens). This was the first story to tell the tale of how Batman and Gordon had teamed with Dent to make Batman's captures hold up in a court of law. Much of The Long Halloween's Dent-related story is taken directly from this under read story, even taking the same character names for minor characters. It's not so much that Nolan and co should have credited this story, but rather than Jeph Loeb and Time Sale should have acknowledged in when publicizing The Long Halloween six years later. It's well worth a read as it truly laid the groundwork for the Harvey Dent story as we know it today.

Batman: The Man Who Laughs (2005)
This swan song from Ed Brubaker, the last thing he did for DC Comics before becoming the prince of Marvel Comics (the king being his friend Brian Michael Bendis), is a re imagining of the Joker's first days in Gotham. There are bits and pieces that are used in The Dark Knight, such as The Joker's use of asylum inmates, the bond that grows between Batman and Gordon during The Joker's rampage, and Batman's shock at this very new kind of criminal, the sort that he had not trained for and was not prepared for. None of these ideas are terribly groundbreaking, but the unique element that The Man Who Laughs deals with is the panic of the city, the collapse of morale and the complete pandemonium that sets in as The Joker just keeps on killing. Like The Dark Knight, The Joker does have a master plan, a reason for his madness, and a twisted rationality behind his actions. The story of The Joker's first encounters with Batman has been told at least four times, and this is by far the best version.

Soft Targets - Gotham Central 13-16 (2004).
Also written by Ed Brubaker, along with Greg Rucka, this four-part comic arc basically serves as the blue print from the entire second act of The Dark Knight. Really. Go buy 'Unresolved Targets', the trade paperback of Gotham Central that collects Soft Targets and Unresolved. I'm leery to go into too many details as I don't want to spoil the story. But for those who don't believe me, thar be spoilers...
The Joker targets public officials for death in the week before Christmas. After The Joker kills several people via sniper rifle, the entire city goes into panic mode and life in Gotham grinds to a halt. Bitterness against Batman grows as the cops wearily partake in another game between these two madmen. As the cops and Batman frantically attempt to bring this slaughter to a halt, The Joker turns himself in just before Christmas Eve. Sitting in an interrogation room, he is grilled by members of the Major Crimes Unit, when he tosses off a nasty surprise. He has kidnapped a famous news reporter and hidden her in a bomb-rigged location. In the end, for reasons that I won't reveal but that differ from the movie, it is revealed that The Joker's capture was part of the plan. Allowing himself to get beaten by a police officer, he turns the tables, kills that officer, and then goes on a killing spree inside the Gotham Police station leaving several cops dead in his wake. And, when the location of the missing reporter and the bomb is found, Batman must make a terrible choice between saving an innocent civilian and saving a police officer.


Sound familiar? Yes, any arch-typical Batman story is going to have elements that can't help but be similar to one story or another. But the sheer similarity of the general plot and the characterization and the consequences were genuinely surprising, especially with the Gotham Central story. Again, I bring this up mainly to inquire just why Nolan seemed intent on crediting stories that provided only general similarities to his script while missing other stories that almost seemed to be rough-drafts for the movie he would eventually make.

At the very least, you have three fantastic stories that are well worth checking out. Make that five, if you count the other Gotham Central storyline 'Unresolved' (a dark, sober murder mystery involving The Mad Hatter and The Penguin) and the story that comes with the hardback of The Man Who Laughs (a terrific three-part murder mystery involving Batman's friendship with Gordon and the original Green Lantern).

Star Trek: the $150 million reboot for a series that has never crossed $110 million!

Although originally slated to open in December of 2008, Star Trek (The Motion Picture, but really just a prequel to Star Trek, but we can't give it its own subtitle lest people think it's a direct sequel to the terrible Star Trek: Nemesis) come out on May 8th, 2009 instead (ie - the Speed Racer/Poseidon slot of doom). Had it come out when it was intended, 2008 would have been even more a rerun of summer 1989 (Indiana Jones, Batman, James Bond, Star Trek - all that's missing is Ghostbusters and Lethal Weapon).

I have no idea if it'll be any good, but I have to question the logic. Paramount is spending $150 million on a series that has never topped $109 million and has averaged $75 million. Does anyone else think it's hilarious that Paramount is basically spending so much that it'll have to triple the highest-grossing Star Trek movie in order to just break even? Even if it grosses as much as JJ Abraham's previous picture, the slightly overrated Mission: Impossible III, it'll still struggle to stay in the black. That also cost $150 million, but topped out at $135 million and $398 million internationally, a solid hit but well below expectations and cost (although I assume Cruise won't be taking his zillion-percent of the gross cut on this one).

And, that's probably best case scenario. More likely we're looking at Cloverfield numbers, a boffo $40 million opening followed by a quick exodus of all non-geeks and non-fans to the final tune of $90 million. And remember, Star Trek doesn't do diddly overseas. At the end of the day, Star Trek is still Star Trek and the fan base is limited. To put this in perspective, the 1996 $30 million opening weekend of Star Trek: First Contact (the biggest opening in the series) was still $6 million less than the opening weekend for Star Wars: Special Edition, the 20th anniversary rerelease just three months later.

I always say that you should never spend more on a sequel than the original made domestically (comparitively, Live Free Or Die Hard cost $110 million, about $10 million less than part II grossed back in 1990). I guess I should make a new rule: never spend $150 million+ on a sequel/prequel to a series where the highest grossing, by far, of ten films was $109 million. Nothing would make me laugh harder if the film makes the same $90 million that Star Trek: First Contact made in 1996. It's one thing to take a risk and spend $150 million on an unproven property that you hope can break out (Lord Of The Rings, Transformers, The Golden Compass). It's quite another to spend $150 million on a series that you know doesn't have the track record to deliver on that investment. I like the franchise and I can't imagine the movie will be any worse than Nemesis, The Search For Spock, or The Final Frontier, but that doesn't mean Paramount should have spent Star Wars money on Star Trek.

Scott Mendelson

Note - the picture at the top was created by Slash Film.

Weekend Finals... (updated from yesterday)

The List.

The Dark Knight - $75.1 million. The biggest non-opening weekend of all time, by a good $4 million (of course, adjusted for inflation, Shrek 2 and Spider-Man probably sold more tickets in their second weekends). A Damn fine hold (-52%) for an incredibly popular picture. The new ten-day total is and obscene $314 million. Despite all the talk of taking down Titanic (plausible but not probable), it's still playing like a hyper-popular version of Pirates Of The Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest. And remember, summer was pretty much over after Pirates 2 in 2006 (look out Jack Sparrow, it's Miami Vice, Snakes Of A Plane, and Lady In The Water!). But The Dark Knight still has to face The Mummy 3, The Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and Star Wars: Clone Wars. So far, it's running about 15-20% ahead, so using that math, 120% of $421 million = $507 million. Poor Dark Knight, it might have to settle for being the number two grossing movie of all time. Smallest sign of peril - it's second Saturday ($28 million) was actually the third-biggest second Saturday, behind Shrek 2 and Spider-Man, despite having bigger second-Fridays then both of them. Smallest sign of uber-hope - it did more on Sunday than Friday.

Ironically, in the global market, it may have to settle for third place. Batman films have never been overseas juggernauts (as I've mentioned elsewhere, Batman lost the global crown to Indiana Jones 3 back in 1989), so Indiana Jones 4's $800 million global take could be out of reach. And, truth be told, the number one international hit of the year will likely be Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, coming out November 21st. I am looking forward to Potter 6, as it's one of my favorite books of the series. I can't wait to watch the movie with people who don't read the books, as this story contains the biggest 'Holy crap!' moment of the entire series. Still, it's too early to make any ironclad predictions about Batman quite yet.

Stepbrothers opened with $31 million. Mazel tov to Sony, who really did a solid stealth campaign on this one. Even as someone who kinda liked Semi-Pro (the director's cut especially worked better as a light Woody Harrelson drama than a wacked-out Will Ferrell comedy), the marketing for Step-Brothers was far superior in every way (aside from Hairspray, New Line Cinema couldn't open an envelope during its last two years). A clear knowledge of what the movie was about, those clever video posters, and jokes that you could actually put in the trailer (yes it was R too, but Semi-Pro's jokes were the sort of verbal vulgarity that you couldn't put in a trailer). Love live the R-rated Will Ferrell comedy. Mama Mia! grossed $17.7 million in its second weekend. Down a solid 36 % for a 10-day $62.5 million total, this one is flying past Hairspray despite some struggling during the week. Granted, I think that Hairspray is a far better film in every way, but Mama Mia is a darn good time and its success can only be a good thing for the demographics that it targeted. Nice work, Universal. And, guys, lay off Pierce Brosnan. He sounds just fine if you don't look at his over-the-top mouth movements (for songs to be recorded and dubbed in) that were probably the fault of bad direction. On the soundtrack, he sounds just fine. He just looks goofy onscreen.

The X-Files: I Want To Believe: $10.0 million. It was like Serenity, only mediocre! I saw it Friday morning, and unless they get more money, get an R rating, and bring in Martin Campbell to revitalize the franchise, I'll be waiting till BluRay next time. It's not a ghastly movie, just a very cheap-looking, slow and mediocre one (it does have one great visual scene which will remind people of Brian DePalma). Anyway, only the die-hards came out for this one, and a pox on Fox for opening this on the same weekend as the Comic Con. For a movie this geek-entrenched, that was suicide. Waiting till next weekend and letting the cast a crew do a bit for the crowd this weekend could have given you an extra $5 million (of course, making a better movie wouldn't have hurt, but I digress). Rest in Peace, beloved television show. Burn in hell, dumbed-down overly on-the-nose movies that make the show look bad (Fight The Future, I'm talking about you too). Fun fact (minor spoiler) - at the end of the film, when a surprise cameo appears, I laughed to myself in realization that he/she was the only person who could cameo in this film because every other major supporting character on the show has been killed off.

Other bits -

Journey To The Center Of The Earth is holding incredibly, having dropped a mere 21% in weekend three. This $45 million production has already crossed $60 million. This one could theoretically make it to $90 million. Hancock has passed the $200 million mark, Wall-E will get there next weekend. Poor Hellboy II looks to stuggle to get to $80 million. A damn shame as this was one of the best films of the summer. Wanted looks to die at $135 million just as I figured (same situation as the equally terrible Tomb Raider), and Get Smart will top at $130 million (it cost $80 million, but a lot of that apparently was paid for by product plugs and tie-ins). Sex And The City has crossed $150 million, Prince Caspian has crossed $140 million (and $300 million globally), The Incredible Hulk has finally equaled the $132 million of Ang Lee's Hulk (sigh). Space Chimps looks to close out at $25 million (which would amusingly put it in the upper-wrung of bargain basement cartoons).

More wrongheaded predictions on Thursday night as The Mummy 3 looks to somehow measure up to its predecessor's shattering $69 million opening seven years ago (it was the mega-opening that started the trend of mega-openings).

Scott Mendelson

Friday, July 25, 2008

Weekend Box Office Bingo...

Another tough nut to crack. Here's my iron-clad prediction - The Dark Knight will be number 01 again (wow, I sure am ballsy).

The Dark Knight - $85 million. It's impossible to guess how much it will drop in the second weekend, especially in light of the obscene weekday business (it did $64 million on just Mon-Wed, which would have made it the third-biggest three-day opening of the year). Still, the rush of repeat business during the week could hurt would-be repeat business this weekend, as moviegoers decide to take a break from Batsy to check out the new releases (or, god willing, catch up on Hellboy II). Also, anecdotal evidence suggests that the press-coverage of said weekend and weekday coverage may scare away the casually interested, who may wait till the week or next weekend to avoid crowds. Still, the fan-love of this film and casual interest of this 'event' will more than prevent the usual 60%+ drop that mega-openers often face. So, yes, it most likely will crack $300 million by Sunday, if not Saturday. And, no, I will not be all that surprised if it only drops 37% and pulls off the first-ever $100 million non-opening weekend.

Stepbrothers - $22 million. Hard to peg, since the tracking is similar to Semi-Pro, which surprised with a mere $15 million last March. Still, the ad campaign is much better and forceful this time around (those video posters with Ferrell and Reilly picking on each other are genuinely clever), and the film feels like enough of a departure for Ferrell to bring in the faithful. The reviews are been mixed-to-positive and the film just looks funnier than Semi-Pro (although that film is slightly better than its reputation). For anyone looking for a straight comedy, this has been the only game in town thus far this summer. Although it will hurt the bottom line, as it did on Semi-Pro, it's nice that Ferrell is now making R-rated comedies. We'll see if that keeps up even if this one under performs.

X-Files: I Want To Believe - $20 million. At a cost of merely $35 million, this sequel merely needs to survive in order to turn a long-term profit. The reviews are mediocre, although many of the reviews are complaining that the film is either too much for newbies, not enough for newbies, or plays like an extended episode of the show (as if that's a bad thing considering the show's consistent quality). If not for the juggernaut that is Batman, I'd expect this one to get closer to $25 million, and that may still happen. The X-Files fan base is still relatively obsessed, and even the casual fans (like myself) are likely looking forward to a reunion with old friends. Again, I ask, if the film was going to be made so cheaply, why not go for an R-rating? THAT would have gotten the mainstream public at least a little curious. Anyway, I'd imagine that the film will do about 40% of its business over the next three days, but Fox was smart to restrict the budget and may yet get a franchise of 'stand-alone' episodes every few years.

Both of the above could easily switch places and either of them could hit the $25 million mark.

Check back tomorrow afternoon for a rundown of the Friday night numbers (remember, I won't be first because I want to wait till the ACCURATE estimates come in).

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

X-Files - Scully's tragic journey

Salon's Rebecca Traister has a nice article up about her hero-worship of Dana Scully over the years. As the second movie is about to be released, it is worth noting that for me, and perhaps for the creator himself, Chris Carter, the show was never really about Fox Mulder. No, the journey that we were taking for nine long years was really the tragic assimilation and destruction of Dana Scully.

Fox Mulder was the freak, the loner, and the brainy, handsome loser. Instead of using his intelligence and knack for profiling to work in the prestigious behavioral science unit, he chose to work in the basement on a little-funded section called 'The X-Files'. Aliens, ghosts, monsters, ESP, and all manner of 'unexplained phenomena' was the gimmick. Obsessed with his nine-year old sister's apparent alien abduction, Mulder had allowed his obsessions to dominate his life and his career.

But Dana Scully was different. She had a promising career as both an FBI agent and a doctor. Assigned to basically spy on 'Spooky' Mulder, she quickly proved a solid counter balance. Mulder was quick to believe, while Scully used reason and science to counter her new partner's wild assumptions.

For the record, there is a common misconception about the show, that of Scully always being wrong and Mulder always being right. In more episodes than not, they ended up both being a little wrong. There usually was something unexplained and supernatural afoot, but there usually ended up being a scientific explanation behind the phenomena. It often was a haunted house or a monster in the woods, but there was usually established science behind the haunting and that monster always had a biological origin.

Alas, for Scully, her tragedy was that as the years went on, she quickly became enveloped in the far-reaching conspiracy that made up the 'mythology'. Her twin sister was murdered, she was abducted (by aliens?), she was rendered infertile, and had tracking devices planted in her neck. As the later seasons unfolded, she would lost not one, but two children that were apparently (miraculously?) born of her fertile womb (one child died of a mysterious illness, the other was giving to a random farm family for adaption). To be fair, Mulder paid a terrible price as well, losing his father to gunfire and learning some very disturbing secrets about his family history in the process. But, it was Mulder's quest and his choice about whether to endure. Scully was never all that willing a participant, yet Mulder's obsessions soon consumed her as well.

After nine-years of ghost busting and alien-hunting, she ended her television journey as just a female version of Mulder. Embittered, alone, as completely obsessed with the powers that lurk in the shadows and the things that go bump in the night, Scully's descent was complete. By the end, with Mulder having left her in the final season, she sounded every bit as loony as Fox Mulder, every bit as distrusting, and every bit as cut off from the society that the planned to make her home. In the end, as she helped Mulder escape from government custody and went on the lam with him, she had signed off on every bit of potential that she had arrived with. While fans begged and pleaded over the years to make Mulder and Scully a romantic couple, their final union was one of bitterness. Scully ended up with Mulder because she truly had no where else to go.

While the first reviews are not overwhelmingly optimistic, they seem to imply that it continues that arc of Dana Scully and correctly renders Fox Mulder as merely the antagonist in this most unfortunate relationship. Considering all she has lost, it would be only logical that Scully would often rue the day she ever met the sunflower seed-eating, porn-loving, paranoid-nutcase who would slowly but surely wreck her life.

Scott Mendelson

Space Chimps rockets to $9 million in five days. The Dark Knight does $203 million in same.

First of all, Mama Mia is already trailing Hairspray by about $30,000. And Space Chimps continues its epic quest to $25 million (it'll cross $10 million today). Oh, and Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is about $1.4 million away from surpassing Iron Man in the battle for, um... soon to be second-highest grossing movie of the summer.

On that note...

Like the headline says, The Dark Knight has crossed the $200 million mark in a mere five days. Dropping a low 14.8%, The Dark Knight placed second on all-time Tuesday numbers with $20.8 million. Transformers made $27 million on Tuesday, its first full opening day (it had advance-night Monday night screenings starting at 8pm). By the time you read this, The Dark Knight will have surpassed Batman Begins' entire domestic total in just over five days. On Friday, it will likely out-gross the $251 million take of the original Tim Burton Batman, making it the highest grossing Batman film ever. Of course, adjusted for inflation, the original would have made about $433 million today... but hey, it's only Tuesday right? Amazing.

Frankly, in the era of the modern blockbuster, this is completely unprecedented. It's not just the sheer amount of money, but the speed and consistency of those large amounts. It broke the $200 million mark three days faster than the three previous record holders. It broke the record for best opening week with two days left to go. It'll likely make about $75 million from Mon-Thur, a total that only the very biggest blockbusters make on their opening weekend.

After a long, long absence from the top-tiers, Batman is finally acting like Batman. For comparison, mixing and matching the screen count and per-screen averages of Batman and The Dark Knight gets you $81 million for the first three days. Multiply that by 1.75 for inflation, then add $20 million for the Heath Ledger morbid curiosity factor and the front-loaded nature of today's business, and you've got The Dark Knight's opening weekend take almost to the dollar. Think inflation is too much? Consider that Batman cost $35 million back in 1989, 5.14x less than the $180 million budget of The Dark Knight. Each of the first three Batman films did unprecedented short-term damage to cash registers, so don't believe all the polls and pundits who give all the credit to Heath Ledger. Batman & Robin blew out due to infamous word of mouth and Batman Begins was just a trial run to get people back in the mood. If you make a good live-action Batman film, everyone will show up.

The difference is that none of the sequels had this kind of consistency. The sequels, specifically Batman Returns, pretty much invented the 'quick-kill blockbuster', in which a film opens huge, then plummets back to earth but still makes enough money in the first ten days to be considered a hit. Usually it's word of mouth, sometimes it's just a pent-up demand by a specific demographic that never spreads past the cult. Dropping 45-50% over your second weekend used to be a sign of distress. Now, it's called having legs. For comparison, in 1992, Batman Returns plunged 45% in its second-weekend and the panic bells sounded around the industry. In 2005, Batman Begins dropped 45% in its second weekend and everyone was relieved that it had legs and word of mouth following a softer than expected opening. But the word of mouth on this one is stunning and the numbers are barely dropping (hell, it only dropped 44% from Sunday to Monday, which is probably also a record for any mega-opening).

Obviously only an idiot would make long-term projections after five-days. Eventually, unless it's Titanic, and we shall assume it's not, it will eventually slow down. Spider-Man seemed a legitimate threat for number 01 after pulling in $223 million in 10 days. But, after a month Spidey lost momentum and limped to $405 million (it ended up number 5, which is where Batman ended up at the end of its run back in 1989). After it's $50 million+ second weekend, there were predictions that The Passion Of The Christ would threaten Titanic's all-time berth. Eventually, the faithful decided not to see it again and the film settled into a still-stunning $371 million.

I still believe to this day that had The Phantom Menace been well-liked by the geeks that it would have found that extra $170 million and crossed over (the perception was that everyone hated it yet it still made $431 million). And the sky would have been the limit had Pearl Harbor opened in November 2001 instead of May 2001. So, let's not start sending taunting letters to Jim Cameron just yet. No matter what, these numbers can't keep up because A) other geek-targeted films will flood the marketplace starting Friday and B) kids will be going back to college and school within the next forty-days.

Here are some fun numbers to chew on - The Dark Knight almost equaled Spider-Man's $114.844 million three-day weekend in just two days (by Saturday, it had $114.815 million). The Dark Knight can drop 53% next weekend and still cross the $73 million mark, which would set the record for a best second-weekend. And, if The Dark Knight drops the same 37% that Spidey dropped on its second weekend, we'll have the first $100 million non-opening weekend in history. Is that feasible? Not really (no more so than it equaling the 10% second-weekend drop of Twister or the 20% drop of Jurassic Park). Is it possible? Absolutely. Success feeds success. All of the free coverage will only make the mildly curious that much more likely to check it out.

Plausible numbers from here - $300 million in 10 days. $400 million in 17 days. The previous record is 44 days for Shrek 2, so don't panic if it takes a 'whopping' 25 days to make that meager $400 million. I will say with absolute certainty that it will be the highest grossing film of the year by this time next week, at least domestically (Batman films have a habit of being beaten internationally by Indiana Jones and Harry Potter). For now, anyway, Batfans and geeks alike are partying like it's 1989.

Scott Mendelson

Monday, July 21, 2008

1989... 1992... 1995... 2008 (plus a history of the opening weekend)

When I was growing up, there was no bigger franchise than Batman. When it came to box-office records, especially short term records, there was Batman and then there was everyone else. So, it is with great pleasure that I again witness my favorite characters reclaim the crown, to reclaim the records that they more or less invented. Yes, ladies and gents, The Dark Knight has now claimed the record for...
the biggest midnight gross - $18.5 million
the biggest single day ever - $66 million
the biggest opening day ever - $66 million
the biggest Friday ever - $66 million
the biggest Sunday ever - $43 million
the biggest three-day IMAX opening weekend ever - $6.2 million
the biggest total three-day opening weekend ever - $158 million

It's Saturday total ($48 million) was the number two Saturday behind Spider-Man 3's $53 million. Can't have em all I guess. Now, who knows how long these records will hold up? A history of the modern opening weekend... from Batman to The Dark Knight.

Back in 1989, the opening weekend record was literally broken 3 times in a month, as of course 1989 was the first modern summer of mega-openers and somewhat quick-playing theatrical runs. Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade broke $29.3 million over Memorial Day weekend ($37 million over the five days). Ghostbusters II broke $29.4 million in the middle of June. And, one week later, Tim Burton's Batman rode a six-month tidal wave of unprecedented hype to became the first modern blockbuster (in ways both good and bad) with a whopping $42 million in three days. Over the next eight years, that record would be broken four times. Batman Returns scored $46 million in June of 1992, Jurassic Park used advance-night Thursday screenings to cross the $50 million mark in 1993, and Batman Forever reclaimed the crown with $53 million in 1995 (scoring on Friday the first $20 million single day). Then, finally, in 1997, The Lost World: Jurassic Park stole the record right back with a towering $72 million over the Fri-Sun portion of its Memorial Day weekend opening (total for four days - a seemingly insurmountable $90 million - with a record $26 million on Sunday).

That record held for 4.5 years, bettering even such sure-fire record breakers as Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace (it's five day opening pulled in a then-record $106 million, but the Fri-Sun portion netted a 'mere' $65 million). The record finally fell in November, 2001, to Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone, which netted a whopping (but more or less expected) $91 million in three days (it's $32 million opening Friday was the first single day to nab $30 million+). That record stood for a mere six months, before Sony shocked the living hell out of everyone and steered Spider-Man to a mammoth $114 million over three days (its Saturday scored the first $40 million+ single day). Stan Lee to this day complains that Batman co-creator Bob Kane never lived to see Spider-Man whup Batman's ass (Kane died in 1998). For comparison, in 13 years, we had gone from a record $42 million weekend to a record $43 million single day.

That stunning result (and really, at that time, it was an incredible and unexpected feat, resembling the excitement of the first Batman's record three day run) lasted a surprising four years. Surely, had certain movies opened on Friday instead of Wednesday or Thursday, the record would have fallen sooner. The Matrix Reloaded, The Passion Of The Christ, Spider-Man 2, Shrek 2 and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith... any of those five possibly would have broken the opening weekend record had they not opened on Wednesday or Thursday. In fact, Revenge Of The Sith's first three days were a then-record $126 million, but that was Thursday to Saturday (its opening Thursday broke the $50 million single day mark). The record breaker came in July 2006, when Pirates Of The Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest rode a tidal wave of audience goodwill towards the first installment to a $135 million opening three-day. The original film was a leggy word of mouth smash, parlaying a $73 million five-day opening to a $303 million finish. As is often the case when films build slowly through word of mouth, the sequel exploded out of the gate. The record would stand for less than a year, until Spider-Man 3 opened summer 2007 with a colossal $151 million. Alas, no one liked the film and it collapsed quickly, still winning the year with $337 million.

But now, be it due to a dark and tantalizing marketing campaign, audience goodwill over the much-liked Batman Begins, the general popularity of The Joker, the early critical raves, or the curiosity involving the death of Heath Ledger... or a likely combination of all of that... The Dark Knight has, at least for the moment, returned Batman back to its place at the top of the box office mantle. This really was a perfect storm for Warner Bros, with the studio daring to market this $180 million picture to an older audience, with a quote-filled ad campaign ('Why So Serious?' will soon become a catchphrase) that capitalized on the both revitalized and faithful interpretation of The Joker. While Warner will never admit it, Heath Ledger's death early this year was a lucky break, giving the picture tons of free publicity and making the film more of an event than it already was. The board was set, the pieces were in play, and the film itself delivered in spades. Uh, take that Stan Lee? How about... mazel tov, Jerry Robinson!

Whether The Dark Knight will keep any for any of the above records for any length of time is in question. Depending on if they choose to open on Fridays, a few titles have a chance to break this stunning number before the inevitable third Batman film is released. Among the contenders - Transformers 2, Iron Man 2, the final Harry Potter films, Spider-Man 4, and The Avengers. But for the moment, Bat geeks and fans of quality genre film making can rejoice. The record is finally being held by a movie that most people actually really like (something that hasn't happened since Spider-Man back in 2002).

Not to be completely outdone, Mama Mia opened to $27.7 million, just $400,000 more than Hairspray, thus besting the record for the best opening for a live-action musical. While it's probable that The Dark Knight and Mama Mia each lost a few bucks by competing against each other, Universal did a terrific job of counter programming. Alas, for Universal, the real casualty this weekend was the exceptional Hellboy II, which lost all of its geek audience to the tune of a record 71% drop in weekend two (biggest drop for any movie opening over $19 million). Although it'll pass Hellboy 1's $59 million gross in a few days, $100 million is now out of reach. It'll do just fine on DVD, but it's a shame that this terrific genre entry had to be cut down by an equally good comic book adventure's ascent.

Stay tuned for more as we see how quickly The Dark Knight can race to $200 million and whether the alleged 64% of those polled on Fandango will keep their word about seeing it again. Come what may, it's a good thing that The X-Files: I Want To Believe only cost $35 million.

Scott Mendelson

Apologies for the delays...

There is lots to discuss and 'report', but real life has intruded just a bit. I'm back in town and all is well, but my wife caught a bug so I'm on full-on dad duty for at least the rest of the day.

Future topics (I promise)

- The Dark Knight's opening weekend numbers (apparently realism was a bad instinct - yay for optimism).

- Ebert cuts ties with 'Ebert At The Movies' and Roeper is set to depart - what it means.

- Various political nuggets

- The politics of The Dark Knight and the fallacy of its alleged 9/11 allegories (it's in there, but not in the way the pundits are claiming).

More to come and my apologies for the delays.

Scott Mendelson

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Weekend Box Office Bingo...

NOTE - This is early because I will be out of town from Thursday morning to around Sunday morning. I will be back on Sunday for a detailed rundown on The Dark Knight numbers.
I've argued with myself back and forth for the whole summer about whether The Dark Knight could take down Spider-Man 3's opening weekend record of $151 million. No more pussy footing around... time to make a call and live with it.

The Dark Knight - $125 million. Tonight I choose realism over possible hyperbole. Because young kids will not be as large a force as other recent tent-polers, and because no film has ever opened to over $100 million when opening against any other major film (Dark Knight has genuine competition with Mama Mia!), and because only one film (Pirates 2's $135 million) has ever opened to over $90 million in July...

The reviews are glowing (hell, my 'A-' review is almost a pan in comparison), the online sales are through the roof, and everyone that I know wants to see this movie. I haven't seen this kind of anticipation for any event movie in a long, long time. Perhaps this weekend Batman will reclaim its title amongst super heroes as box-office champion. This is a character whose first series that broke the opening weekend record three times in a row (the first three entries opened to $43 million, $46 million, and $52 million). Batman Begins had a learning curve, not everyone knew if they could trust the franchise after 1997's Batman & Robin. Batman Begins opened to $48 million over Fri-Sun and $72 million from Wed-Sun and earned $200 million the old fashioned way - slowly and through positive word of mouth.

And as we all know, sequels to word of mouth sensations usually explode over opening weekend (Austin Powers 2, Bourne Supremacy, Terminator 2). The theater count will be a record 4,366. Plus, the kids who won't be allowed to see it may be compensated by the adults who will be drawn by the reviews and the cinematic pedigree. And, one can't underestimate the sheer number of people who will show up merely to watch a very famous dead man live one last time onscreen.

But, keep in mind that for this record to fall, The Dark Knight would have to come close to or top Spider-Man 3's $59 million opening day. That means that Batman 2 would have to gross $11 million more in one day than Batman 1 made in its three day opening weekend. And, kids will be a factor, perhaps a fatal one. Almost every review warns not to bring the younger set, so that will be a potential deal breaker. Frankly, most of the press comes from the record-setting online ticket sales, but Sex & The City sold about as many tickets online prior to opening weekend just two months ago. I'm pretty sure that Warner Bros. is hoping for something more than $55 million. I say this to warn against the naysayers who cry foul if it does not shatter any records this weekend. Make no mistake, anything over $90 million is a huge win for this sure-to-be leggy word of mouth hit. So, either it opens like Spider-Man 3 or it opens like Spider-Man. Worst case scenario, it opens like The Matrix Reloaded with $85-90 million. Don't believe anyone who tells you that the latter is a failure. But gosh I'd love to be wrong on this one.

Mama Mia! - $30 million. The reviews are pretty decent, the show has a huge fan base, and the ads have been pretty prevalent. Universal is going after the same audience that New Line chased with Hairspray last year, and they probably will get it. Note - if The Dark Knight pulls is $150 million+, downgrade this prediction to $20 million.

Space Chimps - $155 million. Wouldn't that be ironic? Ok, seriously, about $5 million.

Scott Mendelson


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