2012 proved a year of great expectations in several ways – to commemorate the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, the BBC as well as BBC Films, not to mention Baroque Theatre Company, produced adaptations of Great Expectations. I saw none of them, nor have I ever read the book, but there were a number of films released in 2012 that came loaded with expectations of various sorts.
Cast your mind back and you may recall The Hunger Games, the first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy. I posted on this back in April, saying that I had wanted to avoid all prior knowledge. I failed quite spectacularly in this regard, encountering reviews as well as an interview with star Jennifer Lawrence. Nonetheless, I was unprepared for the visceral thrill and the ominous portents of The Hunger Games, which succeeded in presenting a very grim portrait of the future and some thrilling yet disturbing action sequences. I was very impressed with The Hunger Games and have subsequently read the novel, which surpassed the film in some areas but not others. The most common response to adaptations is “The book is better than the film”, which is nonsense because films and books work differently and to compare them qualitatively is like saying a boat is better than a car. While both are vehicles, a boat is used for different purposes than a car, and while a book and a film are both media texts, they are consumed in different.
That said, the dystopia of The Hunger Games was more convincingly portrayed through Collins’ terse, urgent prose, which steadily built up the world of the book through Katniss Everdeen’s reminiscences and descriptions. Director Gary Ross’ excessive use of shaky cam was jarring and prevented a sense of oppression or a panopticon, but his decision to feature some action away from Katniss (Lawrence) did enable the social criticism of reality television to be made more strongly. The response of established fans of The Hunger Games was naturally influenced by their feelings towards the book, with some appreciating the adaptation and others disappointed that it did not meet their expectations (there’s that word again). Later in the year, the release of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part Two similarly fanned the flames of fan furore. I haven’t seen it, so no comment on the film itself (for that, see here), but The Hunger Games and Twilight serve as interesting examples of the expectations that surround adaptations.
Shortly after The Hunger Games came Marvel’s The Avengers, or Marvel’s Avengers Assemble if you’re in Britain. Joss Whedon’s superhero ensemble was the culmination of a remarkable feat of franchise filmmaking, beginning in 2008 with Iron Man and developing through The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. As a result of those earlier films, expectations for The Avengers were very high – the combination of these four superheroes plus the supervillain and three additional heroes, not to mention the steady campaign of teasers, trailers and excerpts, raised anticipation to a high level. I was more than satisfied with what came about: The Avengers fulfilled my expectations as a glorious, fun-filled, power flinging, well-balanced, gripping and compelling, not to mention funny, blockbuster. It broke multiple records and has become the third highest-grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation).
When I think back on The Avengers, which I saw twice at the cinema, my memories are very positive and I look forward to the Special Edition Blu-Ray which includes Whedon’s director’s commentary, since the current UK Blu-Ray does not include this special feature from the US release (not that I’m complaining; oh wait, yes, I am). And yet, even though I loved the film and expect it to be in my Top Ten of 2012, something about it continues to niggle me. I realise that it was a matter of having my expectations met. I am well aware that unreasonably high expectations can frequently lead to disappointment, so I am careful to keep my expectations reasonable. The Avengers fulfilled my expectations, but did not surpass them. So it wasn’t disappointing per se, but nor was it exceptional.
Next up was Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s much-vaunted return to science fiction and a sort-of prequel to Alien. Furthermore, it was to be Scott’s first use of stereoscopic photography and the marketing campaign was even more detailed than that of The Avengers, with trailers, teasers, an entire commercial section on Channel 4 during Homeland and variousviralvideos. The viral campaign helped to create a wider universe within which Prometheus is set, continuing the expansion of the Alien franchise’s world that has progressed since 1979. The marketing also served to create very high expectations for the film itself, and probably went too far. A large proportion of the response to Prometheus has been negative, with critics and audiences alike deriding its plot holes, indistinguishable characters and inconsistencies with the previous films. The rather cynical home release has done the film and its distributors financial favours but little else – if you want the seven hours worth of extra features, you need to buy the highly priced 3D Blu-Ray. Yes, I will be doing that, even though I don’t have a 3D TV.
Personally, I liked Prometheus very much. It was gripping, atmospheric, scary and thought-provoking. It also provided a useful example for identifying what I like in movies and why I have fairly wide taste. But I also think it was over-hyped and left me wanting more. It is very likely there will be further instalments as it features a clear set-up for a sequel, but Prometheus itself has numerous flaws and did not live up to the expectations it created.
Perhaps the most anticipated film of 2012 was The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s “EPIC CONCLUSION TO THE DARK KNIGHT LEGEND”, according to the trailer. This was the film that, for me, carried the greatest potential for disappointment. Superhero trilogies, including Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men, have a record of 1. Good; 2. Better; 3. Worse. So far, the Batman trilogy had started well and then gotten better, so there was concern that The Dark Knight Rises might follow the pattern and be worse. Furthermore, The Dark Knight had been such an exceptional movie, perhaps the most impressive superhero film ever partly by being more than a superhero film. For a threequel to top that seemed unlikely. To make matters worse, Nolan had hardly rested on his laurels, following up The Dark Knight with the remarkable Inception, and setting his sights even higher for The Dark Knight Rises which was touted as epic and grand. Nolan is the most significant Hollywood director of the 21st century, so it was reasonable to hope but perhaps not to expect that he would surpass himself. Advertising again raised expectations even higher, with teasers, trailers, excerpts and viral marketing escalating anticipation to fever pitch. The result was not only a very healthy box office take, but some rather bizarre screening options – 6am at the cinema, anybody?
Was The Dark Knight Rises everything I wanted it to be? Yes. Was it everything I expected it to be? Yes. And did I expect it to blow my socks off and leave me flabbergasted at its extraordinary power? No. I knew it was unrealistic to expect as big a surprise as The Dark Knight, so I didn’t. I anticipated that the trilogy closer would be at least something of a comedown, despite its epic build-up, and I was right. One review of The Dark Knight argued that if Heath Ledger were removed from the film, you would be left with a fairly standard action movie. I disagree on this – Heath Ledger is not the only exceptional thing about The Dark Knight, but he is outstanding, both in terms of his performance and the way the Joker is written. The Dark Knight Rises is The Dark Knight without the earlier film’s central element of anarchy, personified in but not limited to the Joker. It is this theme which makes The Dark Knight special, a serious exploration of the anarchy inherent in costumed heroics and villainy. The Dark Knight Rises is more conventional with Bane’s baroque schemes and, ultimately, a clash between “good” and “evil”, rather than an in-depth meditative study which pushes The Dark Knight into serious, philosophical art. The Dark Knight Rises is by no means bad, but its ultimate purpose is to close the trilogy, and it accomplishes this with aplomb. I expected a spectacular finale to the trilogy and I got it. I didn’t expect any more, and I didn’t get any more. It would therefore be unfair to call The Dark Knight Rises disappointing, but it would still have been nice to be surprised.
All of these films were marketed to within an inch of their lives, and in each case the hype may have damaged the films’ reception. It would be unfair to criticise the films’ distributors for this hype, as studies have shown that good marketing is key to the box office success of major films, whereas bad marketing can lead to flops like Fight Club and this year’s John Carter. Box office success is not an indicator of public enjoyment – more than $1 billion gross for The Avengers does not mean all those cinema-goers enjoyed the film – but the bottom line is movies are put into cinemas to earn money, and marketing helps that happen. Marketing works by raising expectations, yet paradoxically it can have a negative affect on audience enjoyment as we may expect too much. I think the seasoned movie-goer understands the effect of marketing, but that does not mean we are immune to it. The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises had firmly established themselves in public consciousness weeks if not months before their release, and it was a rare cinema patron who saw these films with no preconceptions. Quite often, these preconceptions can have a negative effect on our response to the film itself, but if we manage our expectations we can make them realistic, and therefore avoid disappointment. I am carefully managing my expectations for Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.