In Hollywood, 2008 was a very good summer for men who fly, women who bond and pandas who roundhouse kick. And it wasn't a bad summer for the overall domestic box office, which will total roughly the same as last year about $4 billion with higher ticket prices balancing a slight drop in attendance. For a season that lacked the bait of 2007's array of sequels, it's a decent enough haul. But one brooding hero is carrying a disproportionate burden on his muscular shoulders.
Over Labor Day weekend The Dark Knight will probably surpass $500 million at the U.S. box office. It has already swept into the record books, with the biggest opening weekend of all time ($158.4 million) and widest opening release of all time (4,366 theaters), and is also the second-highest grossing film ever, behind Titanic's $600.8 million. Director Christopher Nolan's bleak reinvention of the classic comic book character was savvily marketed and aggressively distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures (TIME and Warner Bros. are both subsidiaries of Time Warner) and warmly welcomed by critics, sparking a box office phenomenon with which no other hero of summer could compete. "Nobody saw Batman coming," says David Poland, editor of Movie City News. "The thing we learned from this summer was we don't know a thing."
The second tier of summer's heroes included some surprises, too. Iron Man, a new franchise built around a lesser-known Marvel Comics character and a lead actor, Robert Downey Jr., whose indie-heavy resume didn't suggest he'd lure the masses, managed to take in $317.5 million. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the film most prognosticators expected to whip into first place, came in third with a respectable though not earth-shattering $315 million. Another summer sure thing Will Smith in the superhero movie Hancock made $226 million, a hit by most actors' standards but not the stratospheric heights Smith reached with some of his other Fourth of July openings, like Independence Day and Men in Black.
Studios found success with underserved groups this summer. Women's buddy movies Sex and the City ($152 million) and Mamma Mia! ($126 million) and the romantic comedy What Happens in Vegas ($80 million) were, if not home runs, all solid doubles built on female audiences apparently dying to leave the house. "The lesson was you don't need guys to make money on a movie," says Steve Mason, box-office analyst at FantasyMoguls.com. "You can make movies that are a little nichier and still do remarkably well." Animated films Wall-E ($216 million) and Kung Fu Panda ($212 million), meanwhile, served the quality-starved family audience.
Virtually absent from the summer box office, however, was product for art houses. Only The Visitor, a well-reviewed drama that hit theaters in April and stayed all summer, and Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona managed to get any traction, each earning more than $9 million to date.
Among the summer's high-profile flops was the Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer ($43.9 million), which couldn't surmount a demographic challenge it was a kids' movie based on a 1960s cartoon no kid can remember. "It looked like a video game in the TV commercials, a blitz of colors and not much else," says Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo. "You really had to see the movie to get it. Unfortunately, not that many people did." A less noble failure, perhaps, was The Love Guru, which only took in $32 million despite Mike Myers' relentless promotion on American Idol and the MTV Movie Awards. "Was it a sex comedy? Was it a sports comedy? It had a very confused marketing campaign," Gray says. The X-Files: I Want to Believe revealed most audiences don't believe in that '90s show anymore it earned only $20.7 million. "X-Files proves just because something was on TV once doesn't mean it makes sense as a movie," says Mason.
Thanks to Hollywood's 2007-08 work stoppages, next summer so far looks light on blockbusters. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and sequels to Harry Potter, Transformers and The Da Vinci Code will bring built-in audiences. Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to Borat, may pique some interest, as should Pixar's Up. Still missing from the slate is anything to capture that female-over-40 Mamma Mia! spirit. Madonna, perhaps now's the time to pitch your jukebox musical.