Take a look at the cinema landscape of 2012 and you may be left with the impression that the movie going public is just a bunch of geeks. So many of this year’s tent pole releases, as well as a number of its hidden gems, have been distinctly nerdy in flavour.
Think about it. So far this year we’ve had not one, not two, but three major summer releases based on comic book material. What’s most surprising about the triple threat of The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises is that all three have been well received by critics as well as being huge box office smashes. The Avengers took a staggering one and a half billion dollars at box office and The Dark Knight Rises looks set to meet that figure. The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t do too shabby either, netting itself well over half a billion dollars at release. What you have here are three big summer superhero films that have won over not just their comic reading fan-base, but also the public at large.
But this costumed trio are just the tip of the iceberg. First time director Josh Tank also threw his hat into the superhero ring this year with the well received Chronicle, a low-budget tale of three ordinary boys dealing with their newfound superpowers. The film was a huge success. As well as directing The Avengers, geek super-star Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly) also found time to write the trippy Cabin in the Woods. Directed by Drew Goddard, this twist on the horror genre was met with great acclaim when it was released a few months ago. We’ve had Welsh director Gareth Evans delivering a straight ahead martial arts action movie, The Raid which, again, found success on a shoestring budget. Then of course there has been Ridley Scott’s return to science-fiction with his Alien prequel Prometheus. Again, it did pretty well for itself.
But it doesn’t stop there. Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi classic Total Recall has just received the reboot treatment with Colin Farrell now in Arnie’s not insubstantial shoes. British comic icon Judge Dredd is also getting another shot at movie success, which promises to be much truer to the source material than 1995’s Judge Dredd, starring Sylvester Stallone, ever was. Then you have Disney’s upcoming Wreck-It-Ralf, an animated film based on a fictional video game character that incorporates cameos from dozens of real video game characters such as Bowser and Sonic the hedgehog. And then of course there’s The Hobbit. This December Peter Jackson will return audiences to Middle Earth for the first of three instalments adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic prequel to The Lord of the Rings.
This isn’t exactly without precedent. Recent years have seen dozens of comic book characters jump to the big screen as well as old franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek and Transformers return to cinemas. There have been low budget science fiction successes like Moon and District 9. There has also been Avatar – the most successful film of all time.
Yet 2012 is different. 2012 is the year in which all these geeky origins and retro references have come together in a celebration of nerd-dom unlike any other. The geeks have finally taken over the movies. So why now? Well the simple answer is that all those young people inspired by Spielberg, Lucas and Donner in the 70’s and 80’s have started making films of their own. Today’s generation of directors are young enough to have comic books and video games as genuine reference points, elements from their childhood that have fuelled their passion for filmmaking.
What makes 2012 extra special though, is not the quantity of films with built in geek-appeal, nor their quality (which, to be fair, has been pretty high). No, what makes 2012 special is their sheer popularity. Virtually all of the movies, from The Avengers and Prometheus to Chronicle and The Raid have been, on their own terms, huge successes. As I write this, The Dark Knight Rises is set to be the second comic-book film of the year to cross the $1 billion mark. 20 years ago this would have been unfathomable. These throwbacks to the characters and hobbies of our youth are finding an unprecedented audience. It’s not just the hard-core comic books fans who are rushing out to see these films, but an entire generation of people who grew up with a Gameboy in their pocket.
It’s possible that in a few years audiences will tire of seeing their childhood cornerstones on the big screen and will move on to something else. The major studios are hoping they won’t. Marvel alone has Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, Ant Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers 2 in the works while DC comics are hoping next year’s Man of Steel will finally make Superman resonate with modern audiences. For a while, at least, it’s hip to be square.