Free State Of Jones came out of nowhere, with relatively little advertising before May or June. Yet once the ads arrived they did so in full force, and seemed to be promising one of the better war epics in recent memory. Watching the trailers, it was impossible not to draw parallels between Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight and Mel Gibson’s famous Benjamin Martin from The Patriot. Indeed, this was the tale of a single man who essentially erected a rebellious militia— in this case, a southern farmer revolting against the Confederacy during and after the Civil War.
Free State Of Jones is entertaining, and for fans of movies like The Patriot (or perhaps even Braveheart) who don’t mind historical films overflowing with a sense of self-importance, there’s a lot of good to be found in it. But the reviews have been underwhelming and though The Patriot was never that well reviewed either it seems unlikely that this film will live on with any particular significance. One critic at the relatively new sports and culture site The Ringer was so disheartened by the project that he declared the McConaissance over (that term being a popular one used to refer to Matthew McConaughey’s rise to the top of the Hollywood totem pole in recent years).
It’s all a little bit disappointing in a summer hungry for a hit that doesn’t come in the form of a sequel or reboot. But it’s also something we’ve grown somewhat used to over the years, with Hollywood pushing bigger and bigger budgets into marketing films that just don’t live up to expectations. I’d argue personally that Free State Of Jones is at least marginally better than these projects, but here are a few more that come to mind in this ever-expanding category of blockbusters that missed the mark, both this year and in the recent past.
“The Legend Of Tarzan” (2016)
As summer blockbusters go, The Legend Of Tarzan looked at least a little bit risky from the start. Billed as a massive (perhaps King Kong-style) jungle epic, it had no foundation to build on in terms of previous films or even really a prevailing Tarzan narrative. The general public knows the character as a mysterious jungle man with the capabilities of an alpha primate, at odds with a more sophisticated world invading his environment. But beyond that, Warner Bros. and director David Yates pretty much had carte blanche.
Frankly, the first trailer looked incredibly thrilling. Visuals seemed to be a cross between Avatar and King Kong; the cast included the likes of Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, and Samuel L. Jackson; and even a soundtrack filled with heart-pounding percussion seemed to promise an exciting brand of drama. But while the film has done relatively well in terms of money, the reviews have been lackluster. One review summed it up best, stating that the tale had been admirably reconfigured to meet modern sensibilities, albeit with a somewhat hollow result. It’s a shame, because this could have been a real hit.
“Warcraft: The Beginning” (2016)
Okay, so Warcraft: The Beginning is a little different than some of these other films, in that it had an exceptionally popular piece of modern entertainment to build on. The World Of Warcraft games pretty much defined the MMORPG space to gamers, and remains incredibly popular to this day. That accounts for why this film topped $400 million worldwide at the box office (and probably isn’t quite done yet). But let’s be realistic…. This was a horrible movie.
Frustratingly, it didn’t have to be! The trailers looked more like The Hobbit films (which most would categorize as good, not great) than the average video game adaptation, and the lead actor, Travis Fimmel, was already very popular as a result of his role in the show Vikings. Unfortunately, what could have been a surprise hit and perhaps the film to turn people around on the very idea of video game-to-movie developments wound up being a cluttered mess of a war epic. There’s just not that much going on here aside from waves of CGI soldiers and cheesy tropes about the reasons for and lessons of war.
“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009)
Looking back before 2016, it’s clear there are plenty of other would-be summer hits that fit a similar bill. For instance, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Boy, was everybody excited about this one. Three X-Men films that effectively kicked off the modern genre of superhero movies had included some good and some bad, but Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine was pretty much universally beloved. The timing was perfect. Fans were perhaps growing slightly tired of massive X-Men sagas but wanted more of Jackman, who was at the peak of his career. A full movie’s worth of slashing, growling, and ass-kicking seemed like solid gold – so much so that 20th Century Fox sunk $150 million into it.
In the end, however, even a character known for his ability to heal wounds on the fly couldn’t withstand the barrage of insults and despair from critics (and fans). X-Men Origins: Wolverine is still one of the most critically panned superhero films we’ve ever seen (though Jackman himself was still excellent working within an abominably bad script). At least the accompanying video game was good!
Billed as a sort of descendent of 300 and boasting similar comic book style visuals, an absolutely epic scope, and Henry Cavill’s undeniably god-like physique, this film looked like a massive hit. But that was only until we all learned that 300‘s style was better left alone and that Henry Cavill is a robotically stiff and unemotional actor. Immortals had its entertaining moments, to be sure, but it was no epic hit.
Some have suggested that this was due to the involvement of actual immortal figures, which gave the film a slight Clash Of The Titans vibe, but this probably isn’t really what put people off. In fact, oddly enough, people seem more interested in the ancient world’s godly figures than ever these days, five years after the release of Immortals. This popular obsession with mythology been particularly evident in video games. Several mobile games involve these legendary figures, as does the newly announced God Of War 4. Gala’s Bingo platform features three separate casino games invoking Olympian figures among the selection of character-focused games that feature everyone from gods like Zeus and Poseidon to iconic heroes such as Hercules. Whether bingo and casino games, apps, and console experiences individually indicate much about the public’s mindset is up for debate, but the prevalence of these characters across all these differ
ent mediums suggests they’re not that off-putting to people. And they weren’t in Immortals either — it was just a bad movie.
Here’s one that could really have driven a serious film fan crazy. Writer/director Neill Blomkamp was red-hot after his low-budget surprise hit District 9, and another inventive sci-fi saga from this man was at the top of a lot of fans’ wish lists. Elysium was an attempt to provide just that, and the thoroughly advertised premise was gripping enough to convince droves of fans to go out and buy tickets. The movie was set in the 22nd century at a time when Earth’s elite had built a Utopian space community orbiting Earth, leaving the sick and poor to fester on the planet. Matt Damon played the hero who, out of his own desperation and an increasing perception of general injustice, would bridge the gap between social classes.
Perhaps not the most original story of all time, but still one that could have made for a very good movie. Unfortunately, this wound up being a predictable mess that somehow felt familiar and played out despite the meticulous creation of a creepy dystopian environment. That, and miserable acting from everyone not named Matt Damon, pretty much made this a disaster.
And then there’s Spectre, which may or may not have been Daniel Craig’s finale as James Bond depending on which report you’re reading (and on what day). Through the massive successes of Casino Royale and Skyfall, Craig and the other folks behind the latest Bond had built up quite a bit of credit with fans. And on top of that it’s hard to imagine a more exciting trailer than what we got with our first looks at Spectre. Seriously, watch this trailer again. It looks like it’s going to be the best film you’ve seen in quite some time.
But like so many sequels before it, Spectre seemed to be simultaneously lazy and drawn-out. This was a film full of fun pieces and beautiful scenes stuck together haphazardly in a bet that the public would be so busy watching Craig it wouldn’t notice.
The interesting thing about all these titles, however, is that none of them are too bad to watch. You can find a lot to enjoy in these titles. It’s just that they totally missed the mark of public expectations heightened by big advertising budgets and other circumstances.
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