December 2018 Forecast
By Michael Lynderey
December 7, 2018
There's... there's no new movie starring Tiffany Haddish coming out this month, a development that is unexpected, unpleasant, unfortunate, and completely inconsistent with December being a month in the year 2018.
Ms Haddish's presence is sorely missed in particular because this year takes a turn away from the usual December collection of fantasy epics and big-star comedies, and slams into just the latest chapter of our unsparing assimilation by the comic book industry. Stan Lee is dead. Long live Stan Lee.
1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (December 14th)
I was thirteen years old when the world was hit by the single most monumental cinematic event of my lifetime. The long-anticipated prequel Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released on May 19, 1999, inspiring fan hysteria, months-in-advance lineups, rampant attendance, and an initial box office total of $431 million, and beginning what every anthropologist, cultural and otherwise, must assume will be the Century of the Fanboy at the movies.
X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), and many others followed, and followed, and followed, and as we get on through the years we arrive at what is their natural continuation, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018). Released to help keep things interesting between the live action Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far from Head (2019); it is a CGI animated meta-cartoon, self-referential and reverential, and stars the character Miles Morales, "the black/Latino Spider-Man," with large supporting roles by alternate universe super-powered Spider-peoples of all shapes, colours, and religious denominations (even that Episcopalian Spider-Man everyone's been asking for! there's a piece of ham dressed in a spider-man outfit also). It is receiving reviews unheard of for even the pretentiousest of Oscar contenders (100% Fresh even after 71 review filings, with a startling 9/10 average). And it will make a whole lot of money.
(funnily enough, I didn't even see The Phantom Menace in theatres. Miss anything, did I?)
Now, OK. When I was a kid I loved superheroes and read Spider-Man comic books and sure, I would go to that year's annual superhero movie, if there was one, with merriment in my heart and glee in my doe-struck eyes - there was Batman Forever, and uh, Spider-Man, and X2, and a few more. It was nice to have the one, and I'm sure I would or at the very least could have appreciated seeing two, three, or maybe even four superhero movies at the movie theatre every year. What kid wouldn't?
But what about ten of them?
How about fifteen?
Twenty superhero movies every year?
Each of them with glowing reviews declaring it the best or greatest ever at something? This is moral exhaustion. We're still on the upswing here. This year, the measly puny, merely 12 month-long 2018, has already given us Black Panther ($700m total, 97% Fresh), Avengers: Infinity War ($678m, 84%), Deadpool 2 ($318m, 83%), and Ant-Man (88% Fresh) and Venom (not 88% Fresh), and for some lack of variety, even the Pixar movie was about superheroes, as Incredibles 2 (94% Fresh) put another $608m on the tab. You know, Captain Marvel is out in March, and that will be needing $400m or so worth of box office added to its credentials.
For a while, it looked like cheery old Mary Poppins, such as she is, would win the month, as a family film with musical tendencies and a Disney advertising seal. Then people looked at the release schedule and said, "oh, hey, there are two superhero movies coming out. Being human beings in the year 2018, why don't we just go see those two instead, as is our nature?" And so it will be, with Star Wars in momentary hibernation, that superhero films will seize on the occasion to take over this quiet little December season, even away from what seem like more natural candidates, the Grinch or the Poppins woman. The days when a Terms of Endearment or The Color Purple would be the highest-grossing film of the winter season are long behind us, dead, and buried. They're ovah.
Indeed, when Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse reaches $100m on around December 21st, it will be only the first superhero film to gross $100m in the month of December since Superman did it in 1978. That's because December is a month which rarely finds superhero films poking around for a release date: other than the original Superman, the only December superheroes have been four cultural oddities, the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), the graphic and punishing Punisher: War Zone (2008), the gnarly The Spirit (2008), and, well, Blade: Trinity (2004), which maybe had some game, until people saw it.
So, clearly this new movie is fantastic (well... for you. As Bane might say), and will make s--tloads of money, but, uh, does it really have to? Does it need to? Isn't there something nice starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton we could all go see instead? Really, I can assure you my thirteen year-old self is wondering just the same thing.
Opening weekend: $68 million / Total gross: $323 million
2. Aquaman (December 21st)
"Oh, I'm sorry, did you say it's a superhero movie? Ah, f--k it. Let's give this one $300m, too."
The holiday schedule initially reminded me of 2008's long winter movie season, which had no unifying mega-blockbuster to bring us all out of hibernation. And so the title of biggest film was ceded to Twilight, with a total of a mere $192m, in a season usually won by $300m+ earners even then. Similarly, at one point, I believed that the highest-grossing film to be released in December 2018 actually has already been released in May: I mean Once Upon a Deadpool, a weird re-issue of Deadpool 2, which opens on December 12 except without the fun parts, so now it's PG-13 and wouldn't hurt a fly.
But I think things have changed with Spider-Man and Aquaman. Much like its web-headed compatriot on the release schedule, this is a superhero film, it is receiving marvelously positive reviews (or at least will be shortly), and it is being released in December, a month that had long been anticipating another serious superhero venture since the good old days of Superman (and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, of course).
Aquaman was glimpsed under shadowy tile in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), he graduated to a co-starring role and was plucked out of the waters by Sir Affleck in Justice League (2017), and now he is the star of his own film, carrying his own name, as the royally designated Prince of the Seas returns to his underwater homeland to reclaim his crown and save the world from its tormentors, a second consecutive year running.
Nicole Kidman joins the Distinguished Competition Cinematic Universe as a celestial aqua-queen of some sort, and the mother of our hero (and yes, there's nary an age difference between them). Amber Heard reprises her Justice League role as an underwater goddess love interest. Willem Dafoe sprouts gills and an attitude as a wise old fish creature. And Patrick Wilson is Aquaman's mean blond brother, who wants to unleash his fish armies on the non-sea dwelling population ("the ruination of my plan to dominate the universe must be avenged!," to quote Divatox). And If you think some of that sounds a little like the plot of Black Panther, I can assure you that it does not.
Playing as the lead himself is Jason Momoa, who debuted on Baywatch: Hawaii as a teen two decades ago and starred as Conan the Barbarian, not Conan the Comedian, in the 2011 remake that was apparently so little-seen it hasn't even been seen by me (I'm coming!). The direction is by James Wan, who directed Furious 7 (that's the implausible one), and also created what will probably be regarded by archaeologists of the future as the definitive horror series of the 2010s, The Conjuring (though he gave himself a run for his money with his Insidious). His frequent leading man Wilson rejoins him here for good luck and camaraderie.
I'm probably supposed to drop in a word about DC's hit-and-miss film record, etc., but hey, most of those movies were kind of interesting to me, and at least they didn't match each other in dull conformity of quality like some other cinematic universe I can think of. True genius requires imperfection and error. Sometimes a lot of it.
Opening weekend: $72 million / Total gross: $315 million
3. Mary Poppins Returns (December 18th)
I know I used the same Michael Myers joke on The Grinch last month, but it still seems appropriate:
December 18th is The Night She Came Home.
It's opening on a Tuesday, maybe because that's when alcohol is cheaper.
All jokes about numbing the pain aside, Mary Poppins is a 1964 film starring Julie Andrews as a helpful nanny who leaps down from the sky and into the hearts and minds of a dysfunctional English family. At the end, everyone feels better. So much so that, just one year later, the film was remade word-for-word and song-for-song, but with Nazis this time, as The Sound of Music.
I'm not sure I've seen Mary Poppins, but if I ever did, I can assure you it wasn't my idea. In any case, I'm reliably informed that many others did see it, and so Mary Poppins Returns arrives as a Golden Globe-nominated sequel to a beloved favourite, a Disney children's entertainment packed with holiday paraphernalia, such as festive red and green colouring, searing musical tunes, Christmas trees, and Meryl Streep.
In Mary Poppins Returns, Emily Blunt stars as the immortal Mary, Colin Firth and Ben Whishaw are family men in need of a good woman, I guess, and Broadway's Lin-Manuel Miranda is a London lamp-changer with a lot of free time on his hands. Miranda also wrote the songs (warning issued). The OG Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews, does cameo in a December 2018 film, but, uh, it's not this one. It is Aquaman she has a voice role in (I'm not kidding here).
The season is big for moviegoing by families, though I don't know that a few thirteen year-old boys mightn't veto their clan's attendance on this one (I mean, really, it's Mary Poppins). Though Emily Blunt is charming, I'm sure.
So, hey, I was planning to be kind of hard on old Poppins here, but then the raves started coming in for all those superhero movies (and the wildly positive reviews, too). So I figured I'd cut the old girl a little slack. Sure, this material seems sweet and inoffensive and cuddly and just completely not in my zone, but at the same time, at least it isn't the year's 19th critically-beloved and excessively financially solvent superhero movie. And in this time of year, when the present is besieged forever by the ghosts of comic book past and future, shouldn't I cut it a little break?
Opening weekend: $75 million (6-day) / Total gross: $232 million
4. Bumblebee (December 21st)
In 1987, Hailee Steinfeld is a good-hearted teenage girl who - like Shia LaBeouf before/after her - stumbles upon the intergalactic refugee robot, Bumblebee, befriends him, forging an emotional connection, and is then convocated into the inevitable web of explosions and chases as government agents and hateful robots wean themselves into the situation. And so this is the sixth Transformers film.
Travis Knight of Laika films directs, John Cena is some kind of military tough-man with a heart of gold, Pamela Adlon plays Hailee's mother, and a gaggle of supporting kids are bused in for comic relief.
A prequel, this is said to be a kinder, gentler, Transformers (and finally a Transformers movie that appeals to children!), with a big theme of friendship and less intensive focus on machinery clanking against other metal all the way till dawn, even though you may like that sort of thing. In a way it's back to basics: the first Transformers film spent a full hour and a half on the boy and robot courtship, before proceeding to give the audience their money's worth in special effects.
Looking back a little, last year's Transformers 5 (The Last Knight) was such an undeniable hit that another film in the series had practically requested itself to be made. I'm joking, of course, not really, but the man-and-machine can get along theme here is working to appeal Bumblebee thoroughly to holiday-going family audiences, who are always on the lookout for a consensus option, a film that would satisfy father, grandfather, and daughter alike, among others. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and The Greatest Showman fit that niche in 2017. Whether Bumblebee can carry this torch also is its central existential question.
As with Mary Poppins, my tone should perhaps be more welcoming: not only is Bumblebee, fantastic though he is, not a comic book superhero, but also how many times in this space have I asked for more films about hateful robots, even if I was actually talking about the Power Rangers' sadly underrepresented nemesis, the Machine Empire? (the Royal House of Gadgetry still sands). So here I get what I deserve.
Opening weekend: $45 million / Total gross: $189 million
5. Vice (December 25th; wide?)
Adam McKay directs and Christian Bale stars as Dick Cheney. Amy Adams is his dutiful spouse Lynne, Sam Rockwell is George W. Bush, and Mabel "Madea" Simmons (stage name: Tyler Perry) is cast, maybe aptly, as general Colin Powell. Yes, it's a comedy. A farce, one way or the other.
Now, many if not all obituaries of the recently deceased George H. W. Bush omitted one of President Bush's biggest accomplishments: in his very first year in office, 1989, he presided over a Friday the 13th movie, a Halloween movie, and a A Nightmare on Elm Street movie all coming out in the same year, for the second time in a row. (as with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush didn't comment much on the matter.)
Unfortunately for his re-election prospects, those three 1989 sequels were each the lowest-grossing film in their series to that point, and all are still in at least the bottom two.
I mention this historically illuminating information because, well, I felt like it, and also because Bush's defense secretary was one Richard Bruce Cheney, a Wyoming congressman who remained around the Bush orbit and, in the year 2000, was given the all-important task of selecting the Vice Presidential nominee/running mate/sidekick of presumptive Republican nominee for President George W. Bush.
In a feat of logic that was essentially faultless, Secretary Cheney closely examined all the candidates under consideration, found them wanting, and then simply decided to pick himself for the position. Then-nominee Bush agreed with his conclusions, the pair retired to an early winter holiday down in Florida (don't ask), and what eventually transpired was the George Bush presidency, from 2001 all the way to 2009. It happens.
Much of this history is depicted in the film, which seems to be a horror show drama with a tint of comedy, somewhere along the lines of the same team's The Big Short from a few years ago. The hook is of course Cheney's status as one of the most powerful Vice Presidents in U.S. history, and the course of action the Bush administration took is plainly well-known. The Big Short may have seemed like news to a lot of people. Vice probably won't.
Recent political films have not received merry welcomes (The hapless The Front Runner is not even going to outgross the unfairly lesser-known indie stalwart Indignation, which made $3.4m). But Vice's reviews are excellent, Bale and Adams' performances are already at the top of the awards meter in their respective categories, and there ought to still be a few viewers left among moviegoers willing to tear themselves away from the special effects department to give this one a go.
As for that title: Dick (1999) was already taken.
Opening weekend: not much. Total gross: $65 million
6. Holmes & Watson (December 25th)
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly tumble into Victorian London and make it home, and if you know that Ferrell is playing Sherlock Holmes than Reilly could only be Watson. Yes, they are not British, and one assumes neither will their accents be, at least convincingly. That's not the point.
A Reilly and Ferrell teaming seams as worn as an old sock, and three times as funny, but other than cameos and "hey, how are yous?" they've not shared a set full-time since Step Brothers (2008), a silly film that has apparently developed a remarkable reputation as a successful comedy. Before that, they did Talladega Nights together. Perhaps that makes it a trilogy.
The rest of the cast is faultless: Rebecca Hall has the Rachel McAdams role, if not by name, and English actors have been cast aplenty to remind us Holmes & Watson really is set in London - Hugh Laurie, Ralph Fiennes, Noah Jupe, and Pam Ferris as the Queen. All quality.
This excursion is directed by Etan Cohen, who was also behind Ferrell's Get Hard, a film that was not strictly universally acclaimed, and now helpfully typifies the actor's last five years: a comedy with some laughs, but veering toward the lower ranks of his box office permanent record (though I thought The House, 2017 was very funny, and worth seeing). Christmas season legs ought to be enough to get his and Mr. Reilly's new venture to respectable terrain, though comic book superheroes, sadly, they ain't, not till the next film.
As for the character, I don't know about his television shenanigans, but Sherlock Holmes films seem eternally wed to the month of December, from Amblin's Young Sherlock Holmes (December 6, 1985) to the pair of Robert Downey, Jr. adventures that at least provided the man with some remarkably rare non-Marvel Universe pasttime. The Downey films were themselves comedies, more or less (jokes don't always land, you know), and indeed the character and his matchless and precise intuition itself are natural inducers of humour, usually, intentional. This film takes it just the one step further. Maybe that's enough.
Opening weekend: $6 million (1st day) / Total gross: $63 million
7. Mortal Engines (December 14th)
There are five of these special effects pictures out this month, and it looks like Mortal Engines has found itself outflanked by the rest, name properties in more popular subgenres with extravagant advertising campaigns.
The film stars Robert Sheehan, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; Hugo Weaving, a genre veteran whose deadpan dialect as Mr. Smith in The Matrix still reverberates through the years; and Hera Hilmar, an Icelandic star in her first big cinema outing. Mortal Engines' biggest credited name is the producer, Peter Jackson, a veteran of big budget fantasies that had the habit of opening on this exact weekend for so many of years past (Lord of the Rings, King Kong, The Hobbit); more to the point, the direction is by Christian Rivers, Jackson's perennial visual effects director and storyboard supervisor, and other regulars of Jackson's Tolkien epics are on board. Clearly, it's a film from the same family.
In Mortal Engines, the above actors and many others play fantastic characters in a strange land, in fact a futuristic London, who must do battle within themselves and others for the sake of the world and its survival. This is the plot of many and most such films, and I don't know if the picture is distinguished from its rivals. Something about the release date and the bleak setting reminded me of the unjustly maligned The Golden Compass (2007), from the Dark Materials series. The series titles almost sound similar, some how.
The film's reviews have been more mixed. Christmas legs might help it finish somewhere on the respectable level, but its likely fishing den is overseas, where audiences can still occasionally be impressed by fantasy adventures conducted by men and women not bearing capes.
Opening weekend: $13 million / Total gross: $45 million
8. Second Act (December 21st)
I remember Jennifer Lopez exploding like a lightning bolt through the 2000s, headlining one romantic comedy after the other with ebullient success. That chapter in our lives seemed to close with Monster-in-Law, in 2005, which in fact grossed a sturdy and unshakeable $82m (hey, that's more than every straightforward comedy has this year), though critics and other viewers may have been unkind. For whatever reason, Lopez's original comedy run ended there, and in the years since she has dabbled in music, television, musical television, and a comeback vehicle or two in film (the maternal The Back-Up Plan in 2010, and the tawdry The Boy Next Door five years later. Needless to say, I prefer the latter).
Second Act is another comeback, as its title clearly states, with Lopez taking out the old saw about a 40ish executive who hits her stride by faking her resume and landing a dream job, and then juggling the excitement of her new life with the constant threat of mocking exposure (Amy Schumer played some variation on this in the recent and entertaining I Feel Pretty). Frequent Adam Sandler enabler/director Peter Segal helms, and the supporting cast is fairly impressive: Vanessa Hudgens, Milo Ventimiglia, and in what I assume is the role of the hardened employer whose heart grows a size or four, Treat Williams.
So, the premise is pretty clear-cut, Lopez is Lopez, and the poster sort of wallows in simplicity: it's a shot of the star standing astride in the middle of a corporate office, with a high-rise skyline ominously glaring back behind her (or maybe the glare is just my imagination). That's it. But this is a season without a whole lot of films about regular human beings engaged in more-or-less everyday, irrelevant-in-the-grand scheme of things activities, and maybe that's enough sometimes.
Opening weekend: $8 million / Total gross: $36 million
9. Welcome to Marwen (December 21st)
Steve Carell is also out there in Beautiful Boy and Vice, but this season Welcome to Marwen is probably his biggest role, and strangest: it's a fantasy with a dark twist, the true story of Mark Hogancamp, who is attacked and beaten by neo-Nazis in a bar for some reason that I'm sure made perfect sense to them at the time, and who in his recovery fantasizes a rich war-time life of fighting the real thing during WWII.
Hogancamp really did build this town, Marwencol, a lifesize replica city with toy people standing guard all about the place. Marwencol would make a great setting for a horror film, truly, but this is a nice drama: Leslie Mann is Mark's love interest, Gwendoline Christie is his Slavic-accented caretaker, and Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, and Eiza González are other assorted friends and interested parties. All of the preceding are reimagined by Mark as period piece action figure archetypes of war, an all-female crew of resistors against the Nazi threat.
The director is Robert Zemeckis, no stranger to A-list star vehicles that range from the iconic (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) to a few that are only well-reviewed and profitable (Cast Away, Flight). He knows how to center a drama around a leading man and an unusual premise, and there's no fleeing from the weird here: the posters consist heavily of action figures of its stars dressed up in period regalia and ready for war. Oorah.
It's tough to say which way the critics' thumb will go here (for a film like this, they're paramount) and tougher still to figure if a drama with such an unusual premise can break through as Americans head to the movies this Christmas, offered a film without necessary guarantee of cheer.
Opening weekend: $6 million / Total gross: $35 million
Elsewhere on the movie real estate, the final round of awards contenders start marking their territory for attention. Whether any excite the box office is a tough question, especially in a season already crowded with well-reviewed dramas that were thoroughly ignored and/or mocked by box office crowds. We've got the excelsior Lucas Hedges in his second fall film, giving another strong performance as a young drug addict in Ben is Back (Julia Roberts is his soon to be Academy Award-nominated mother); while Clint Eastwood stars in, and as, The Mule, a true story about a drug smuggler of a certain age, and the latest in the series of Last Hurrah roles he has been playing since approximately 1944. Elsewhere on the docket, Barry Jenkins of Moonlight directs another dark period piece, If Beale Street Could Talk; John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan play Laurel and Hardy in Stan & Ollie; Nicole Kidman is a police detective on the brink in Destroyer; and Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer command the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biography On the Basis of Sex (and, hey, speaking of biopics, a film about Armand Hammer [1898-1990] would be interesting).
So, this holiday season, when seeking that consensus option, don't stop at the obvious.