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Winners And Losers In The Summer 2008 Cinematic Post-Mortem

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
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Labor Day Weekend closed out the summer 2008 movie season on a dark note. It is, traditionally, the only holiday weekend of the year in which box office receipts actually drop. And drop they did, further dampened by the roaring winds of Hurricane Gustav, which all but destroyed (in some cases literally) box office revenue along the Gulf Coast. Last year, Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween set the record, scaring up $30 million over the Labor Day weekend. This year, the highest-grossing new film ( Babylon A.D ., starring the seemingly moribund Vin Diesel) barely scraped together $10 million over the same four-day weekend.

Despite going out with a whimper, the summer 2008 movie season had an impressive run, racking up monster hits and breaking numerous records. While there are still a few columns left to be added, subtracted and multiplied (some films are still in release, others have yet to hit second run), the official top 10 Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day domestic box office looks to be as follows:

The Dark Knight $504.6 million

Iron Man $317.5 million

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull $315.3 million

Hancock $226.4 million

Wall-E $218.3 million

Kung Fu Panda $212.7 million

Sex and The City $152.4 million

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian $141.5 million

The Incredible Hulk $134.5 million

Wanted $133.9 million

Clearly, Americans like their heroes and they like them super. Of the top 10 films, four (
The Dark Knight, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Wanted ) were based on comic books and one ( Hancock ) was an original superhero movie. It’s no real surprise that The Dark Knight , Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to the hit Batman Begins , wound up at the top of the charts. Few could have predicted, however, that the grim, complex (not to mention lengthy) film would end up busting past the $400 million mark, landing it a spot as the second highest-grossing film of all time. (Though The Dark Knight will continue to earn money, not many analysts think it can challenge Titanic ’s $601 million domestic purse.) The performance of The Dark Knight is a testament to either Americans’ maturing tastes or a perfect storm of publicity fueled by the untimely death of star Heath Ledger. (We’ll chalk it up as six of one, half a dozen of the other.)

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The Dark Knight was this summer’s dark horse, Iron Man . Few analysts expected Tony Stark to defeat Indiana Jones at the box office, but a late influx of cash in the form of more post-production special effects showed that Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures had a great deal of confidence in their man. Despite Shellhead’s second-tier comic book status, he rose to the occasion, anchoring an entertaining action film and guaranteeing a string of sequels. Kudos go to star Robert Downey Jr. for delivering an unexpected performance and Marvel for taking the reins on their first in-house production.

Of the two computer-animated films that topped the summer box office, many critics were surprised to see Pixar’s
Wall-E garner just a tiny bit more than DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda . The universally lauded Wall-E ended up earning less than 2006’s Cars , which is generally regarded as Pixar’s weakest offering to date. Why the underachievement? A PG-13-heavy summer might be to blame, although some cite Wall-E ’s heavy-handed message as turning off some viewers. (For the record, I don’t think the film’s simple moral could have been delivered in any lighter a tone.)

The other box office surprise this summer was the strength of
Sex and the City . Despite catering to a seemingly narrow audience of hardcore fangirls (the show went off the air four years ago), the feature film version beat out Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in Indy’s second week of release. This may be a sign of the fourth Jones film’s relative weakness as much as the desperate need for more female-oriented programming at the multiplex.

Leading the parade of summer losers (rightfully or wrongfully) was Warner Bros.’
Speed Racer , which limped to the finish line with a meager $44 million (not good considering it cost an estimated $120 million to make). Mr. Austin Powers himself, Mike Myers, struck out for the first time in a long time with his undercooked comedy The Love Guru ($32 million), as did Eddie Murphy and his forgotten sci-fi romcom Meet Dave ($11 million). The X-Files: I Want to Believe ($20 million) proved there was little life left in that TV franchise (though producer Chris Carter is talking about doing some direct-to-DVD follow-ups). Despite the success of Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda, lesser, space-based CGI toons Space Chimps and Fly Me to the Moon flamed-out on launch.

Despite a few missteps, this summer was a successful one at the cineplex. According to the
Hollywood Reporter , this year’s seasonal box office will exceed expectations with an astonishing $4 billion in ticket sales. That puts it about one percentage point up from last year’s record-high final tally, leaving a sizable high water mark for summer 2009 to overcome. … Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, Angels & Demons, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra and Hannah Montana: The Movie , we’re looking at you!
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