There are very few years that stand out in the history of cinema as being truly transformative.
1984 had Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Amadeus, Blood Simple, The Terminator and others.
1977 had Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, Eraserhead, Suspiria and more.
1939, of course, had Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Gunga Din, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Young Mr. Lincoln.
The debate over what years might be added to that list goes on and on, reigniting any time there’s a particularly strong showing among new releases. While everyone will have their opinions, It’s hard to think 2008 won’t eventually be received into conventional wisdom, if it already hasn’t. That year saw five movies released that truly changed the landscape of film in many and various ways, setting the stage not just for the next decade of movies but entertainment as a whole.
There’s a whole generation of entertainment writers that has come up in the years since Paramount released Iron Man. They may not fully appreciate just how much of the press surrounding it communicated a conventional wisdom that was highly – HIGHLY – skeptical of a movie starring Robert Downey Jr. (still early in his career redemption), directed by the guy who wrote Swingers and about a comic book character that didn’t have the mainstream awareness of Batman, Spider-Man or Hulk.
It’s worth evaluating just where the “comic book movie” (a slightly derogatory term I’ll take issue with later) genre stood at the time. Putting aside Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, things weren’t in great shape. The two major franchises prior to 2008 were X-Men and Spider-Man, both of which had been devalued following poorly-received third installments. Meanwhile, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns had failed to relaunch that character.
All that made Iron Man a risky bet. When it paid off and launched what we now call the Marvel Cinematic Universe it didn’t just change how franchises are managed but how stories are crafted. Suddenly film became a serialized medium, not just a place for standalone sequels. Even the Star Wars series hadn’t done that since each installment was still seen as its own unique story. Now characters flowed in and out in the same way they do in comics and the story is never really over, it’s just waiting for the next “Phase” to start.
For all the love that’s been rained down on some of the other movies celebrating decade anniversaries this year, it’s disappointing to me that Cloverfield didn’t get more attention this past January.
The conceit of the film – that the story is told through the lens of someone’s video camera – wasn’t all that innovative. The Blair Witch Project had done it several years earlier. What was new, though, was its application to the giant monster genre. That kind of movie usually relied on massive scale to sell the size of the beast, putting it against skyscrapers and so on. The monster was meant to fill the screen.
By shifting the “screen” being filled from outside to inside the story, J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves shook things up quite a bit. That was a whole new perspective being communicated, one that brought the same kind of intimate scares offered by Blair Witch to a much bigger, earth-shattering story.
It also marked Abrams’ transition from television, which he had dominated with shows like “Felicity,” “Lost” and “Alias,” to movies. In the decade since, he’s directed both Star Trek and Star Wars movies as well as his own films while also producing and developing original films. And the Cloverfield name has become an umbrella for two additional anthology movies that haven’t exactly continued the story, but shared a number of thematic elements.
Finally, it has to be remembered that the ARG campaign that preceded the movie broke new interactive ground before The Dark Knight did. From the launch of 1-18-08.com to the videos of Jamie and Teddy and lots more, the Bad Robot team put together a story that provided a number of clues about what was to come. It took advantage of increased broadband penetration, the fact that YouTube was becoming a creative outlet and the obsessive fans who would analyze the source code of online images to find – and then share – hidden messages that unlocked the next part of the story.
The Dark Knight
So much has been written in the last several weeks about the anniversary of Christopher Nolan’s second Batman movie that anything I could say would likely be repetitive. That it was a truly outstanding movie can’t be denied or ignored, which is why at the time mainstream critics had to praise it despite their earlier palpable disdain for films based on comic book characters.
That the movie is so good stems from the fact that on almost every level it feels more like part of Christopher Nolan’s other films than Batman Begins did. That shouldn’t have been surprising. There are a number of examples showing how, when a big-name director with a unique style is hired for a genre film, the second movie feels more “them” than the first. Batman Returns is more Tim Burton than Batman. Spider-Man 2 is a Sam Raimi movie in ways Spider-Man isn’t. So that makes sense.
While all the praise given to The Dark Knight is well-deserved, there were also a number of questionable lessons people learned from the movie. First, “grounded and somewhat realistic” is not the same as “grainy and depressing.” Second, just because a super hero story doesn’t offer deep, emotionally complex characters doesn’t make it disappointing. Third, not every villain needs to be played in a way that leaves no scenery unchewed.
It’s the legacy of Heath Ledger’s Joker that most disappoints me. Everyone thinks he went so big with his performance, which made the character so genuinely chilling. But there’s more going on in the side eye he gives the mobsters assembled in the restaurant kitchen than in Jared Leto’s entire time on-screen in Suicide Squad. The point is not to go big, it’s to inhabit the character.
In that regard, Nolan and the movie’s screenwriters deserve more of the credit for Joker than they’re usually given. They crafted a character that was unknowable by the good guys because he seemed to be unknown by himself as well. We never get even the tiniest sliver of flashback or backstory here, something that goes against just about everything audiences would come to expect over the next decade, when every villain needs a motivation that makes their mission understandable, often eliciting empathy.
That kind of chaos agent – someone who just wants “to watch the world burn” – is a far cry from almost every other protagonist before or since. He has no agenda. Ledger inhabited that, to be sure, but it started on the page, and too few filmmakers have realized *that* while they’ve been focused on the on-screen performance.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
By all rights, the theatrical release of Star Wars: The Clone Wars should have flopped. We were three years removed from Revenge of the Sith and many people felt if the Prequel Trilogy was the kind of Star Wars story we were going to keep getting then maybe we should just let it go. The books and comics were still alright, though even they had peaked a few years prior with the New Jedi Order maxi-series of interconnected stories.
It wasn’t even a real movie, but the first three episodes of the upcoming Cartoon Network series stitched together into a theatrical release to get people interested.
While the first season or so of that show was met with mixed reactions, a retooling and clearer focus turned it into a fan-favorite, one so popular the 10th anniversary of its debut was heralded at Comic-Con, where a surprise seventh season was announced. The show proved so popular over the years it lead into “Rebels” and arguably kept Star Wars fandom active in the years before The Force Awakens revitalized the film franchise in a way the books, no matter how good, just couldn’t.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
It’s kind of interesting how this movie’s 10th anniversary earlier this year went largely unremarked upon. That’s indicative of how controversial it is among movie fans, who decry a number of elements about it, particularly anything involving Shia LaBeouf.
What it did, though, was kick off the next 10 years of “legacy sequels” or whatever we’re calling them, that arrive a decade or more after the originals or last installments. It may not be critically acclaimed, but it paved the way for a number of long-awaited sequels that have resurrected original casts to provide some fan entertainment.
It also announced that Harrison Ford was not going gently into that good night. The cantankerous actor showed, despite whatever story problems may exist, he could still run, jump and fall down with the best of them. This was the first stop on his tour revisiting some of his most iconic roles and you can’t deny the guy still has charisma to spare.
Another Indy is reportedly in the works, though its development has been backburned by Disney since it took over Lucasfilm and additional delays were recently announced. Whatever that movie looks like, the goal will be to clear the low bar set by this one
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.