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Five popular franchises walk into a bar

By in Culture

Arts Writer

As the summer of 2009 draws to a close, it leaves behind a memorable movie season filled with financial successes and critical failures.

Though interspersed with gems like Up and District 9, the summer was dominated by big action blockbusters: X Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator Salvation and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. (I could include Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in this, but that ended up being a romantic comedy.)

These five movies performed well in the box office, with worldwide grosses ranging from 256 million for G.I. Joe to 827 million for Transformers. The critics, however, have not been as kind as moviegoers’ wallets. Transformers has probably received the most violent criticism since its release, while Star Trek is the only one of these blockbusters that has maintained a positive reception.

The two films actually have much in common. They both faced the challenge of creating a movie that would appeal equally to long-time fans of the source material and to moviegoers who were alien to it.

Star Trek, against considerable odds, pulled this off. Part of this is due to J.J. Abrams, a popular, up-and-coming director with little investment in the Star Trek series. He very clearly put his own stamp on it but still paid respect to the original. It was an entirely new experience but fans of Star Trek could still feel a connection.

Transformers received criticism from fans because it focused too much on the human story and treated the actual Transformers as background objects. For the sequel, Michael Bay ramped up the action but despite all the time they spent fighting, the Transformers as characters were even more distant than before. It succeeded in alienating fans of the series while also alienating casual viewers with incessant action and a forced love story that weighted the plot but served little purpose.

Wolverine and Terminator Salvation faced different challenges as prequels to popular film series (the latter, while ostensibly a sequel, is still a prequel of sorts). Critically, these two came in the middle ground between positive reviews and complete massacres. The reason is that they are well-made films that suffer because of a complete lack of direction.

Wolverine exists mainly to mash together Marvel characters for brief and unsatisfying cameos, while splitting along two paths to be both an action movie and love story but reaching neither. Then it just descends into confusion towards the end, while the unravelling plot desperately tries to make its loose ends match up with the rest of the series.

Terminator Salvation is much more well-paced, visually impressive and well-acted (except for a disappointing turn by Christian Bale, portraying John Connor as Batman with 10 per cent more angst). But it sinks in a field of plot-holes, and never decides whether it wants to tell the story of John Connor’s rise to power or the tragic struggle of the human-robot hybrid Marcus Wright.

Terminator Salvation is well-acted except for Christian Bale, portraying John Connor as Batman with 10 per cent more angst.

G.I. Joe has been panned as a senseless action movie. It is. It is cheesy, action-packed and loaded with action tropes — in other words, everything a G.I. Joe movie should be. It is not a good movie — it certainly won’t win any awards — but it is enjoyable because it doesn’t try to be something it isn’t and then fail.

The Transformers and G.I. Joe series are both known for being corny and over-the-top. Transformers tried to fix that, while G.I. Joe did not, and while it suffered from some of the same failings, it ended up feeling more satisfying.

Five films for five franchises, all of them with sequels announced or soon to be announced. Will filmmakers learn from their mistakes or will the wheel keep on turning?

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