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story.lead_photo.caption Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker felt like “a heightened version of fan service” designed to mollify those made uncomfortable by Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi.

In a year in which six out of the 10 highest-grossing films came from one single behemoth of a studio, you'd think the vying for box office attention would somehow be quelled with the reality of the entertainment monopolizing currently happening in Hollywood, but that would be a misapprehension. Instead, 2019 was stuffed with gigantic-budget brigadoons. Some of these costly conflagrations served their studios well -- in a year with a box office take at an estimated $11.36 billion, the second-highest all-time -- others suffered far more ignoble fates. Let's take a look at some of the films that soared, and others that crashed and burned.

Closing Strong or Shuffling Along: Avengers: Endgame vs. Star Wars: Episode IX -- The Rise of Skywalker

Somewhat lost in the miserable conflict that was Martin Scorsese v. Fanboy Community (the director sniffed that Marvel movies were not cinema -- he derisively called them "theme parks" -- as they weren't about "human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being;" fans of the MCU went berserk) was the idea that one's personal context was paramount to one's feelings about the genre.

Scorsese, as a lad growing up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, spent much of his time staring out the window of his parents' apartment (one reason, it is believed, he's so fond of overhead shots in his films) and watching an endless stream of movies. His genuine love of cinema stems from his childhood experiences of film as an escape. So, too, it can be said, for people who grew up poring over comics. For those people -- and, again, I include myself among them -- seeing one's childhood heroes repped on the big screen with actual actors, playing out their adventures in these sorts of high-budget showcases, is like a childhood wish come into being. For those of us kids of the '70s, who spent agonizing hours watching episodes of The Electric Company just for a chance to watch a dude in a spandex Spider-Man costume throw "webs" of yarn at would-be burglars for 30 seconds at a time, it can indeed be emotionally satisfying to watch the MCU films, especially when they offer an emotional payoff as resounding as Endgame, which somehow wrapped up the MCU era in a way that made them feel largely justified.

The film, whose estimated budget at $400 million made it one of the most expensive ever made, rung up an ungodly $2.8 billion worldwide, overtaking Avatar as the highest-grossing film of all time. Yet, its basis was its keen emotional firepower. It's exceedingly rare for a film of this magnitude to actually work in smaller, more resonant ways (see the previous title holder for highest-grossing film above), yet Endgame pulls it off, by actually having stakes met -- major characters die, or retire, or move away from the superhero life -- which felt meaningfully like the end of an era. For a series often accused of playing everything too safe, Endgame felt almost dangerously willing to embrace the consequences of herodom.

By unhappy contrast, the other conclusive film from a massive, multi-episode saga in 2019, The Rise of Skywalker, feels the very opposite of dangerous: rote and obvious. J.J. Abrams' movie, which will undoubtedly make gobs of money beyond its early high-take, hardly bothers to address its vastly superior lead-in film, The Last Jedi, and instead plays like a heightened version of fan service, offering up obsessive viewers of the Star Wars universe most everything they might have thought they wanted, en route to a dull film that performs almost exactly how you would expect.

I suspect the reason for this has less to do with the individual filmmakers -- though, I would take Rian Johnson every day of the week over Abrams -- and more with studio heads waffling on how the series should play out. There's a real sense in Skywalker that Disney got cold feet after the fanboy outcry against Jedi, and decided to bring Abrams back on board to smooth everything out. Without challenging the Star Wars well-established hierarchy, the film naturally plays like a too-similar version of what we had all seen before. If I had to guess, 20 years from now, The Last Jedi will be much more fondly remembered than Skywalker, even if a certain faction of fans were unhappy about it in the moment.

A Tale of Two Dark Bombs: X-Men: Dark Phoenix vs. Terminator: Dark Fate

In as much as a film's box office take can suggest to us the film's success at achieving its goals -- a very different thing from anything about its actual quality -- the contrast between these two movies offers a depressing look at the capriciousness of the public movie-going sector. Dark Fate, co-produced by original mastermind James Cameron, successfully updated its well-known plot cycle -- a deadly robot sent from the machine-ruled future attempts to kill a significant human being, as the future humans send a protector to thwart their plan -- brought back a commanding Linda Hamilton, and added a strong female terminator (ably played by Mackenzie Davis), in a film that felt like a gleeful throwback to the series' heyday in the late '80s and early '90s.

Meanwhile, Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix, the second time Fox has utterly screwed up one of the most powerful and beloved storylines in the history of Marvel comics, was nonsensical and torpid -- a lazy mishmash of bad ideas underneath a skeen of CGI gloss -- more than deserved an unprofitable demise.

Yet, both films barely made back a third of their massive budgets (at least domestically). Dark Fate scored a paltry $62 million on a budget of an estimated $185 million, while Dark Phoenix eked out $65 million on an estimated $200 million budget. One film was an exciting action-thriller that successfully paid homage to its predecessors while progressing the saga forward, the other was a lame, poorly conceived cash-out of a storied franchise whose fortunes have run from surprisingly engaging to utterly reviled, but they were dealt the same, er, fate. There is no justice.

Viva Captains! Captain Marvel & Shazam!

There's a whole legal saga involved here as the original Captain Marvel, from 1939 was a little orphan kid named Billy Batson who turned into the powerful adult hero when he uttered the magic word "Shazam!" DC comics thought the character was too much of a rip-off of its own Superman, so they sued Fawcett, the series' creator, forcing them to shut him down. Later, DC negotiated the rights to the character for themselves, but only after Marvel comics had taken over the name trademark, leaving the former Captain Marvel to become Shazam unto himself. Meanwhile, Marvel's Captain went through several iterations him-/her-self, beginning as a man (who eventually, and meaningfully died of cancer), the mantle was then handed down his son and then to Carol Danvers, the female former Air Force pilot who has settled in as the primary character seen in the movie.

After all this flitting about from iteration to iteration, both DC's Shazam! (which became a kind of superhero version of Big), and Marvel's Captain Marvel (which had Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson in the title role) played well for audiences, to the tune of $140 million (the former), and $426 million (the latter), making good return for their studios.

Both films are fun and engagingly vibrant, the greater success of the MCU edition was no doubt enhanced by the tie-in of the film to the then-forthcoming Endgame (as Carol Danvers plays a hugely significant role in battling Thanos), but both proved that the comic book genre still had room to stretch itself, either by loose, comedic vibe, or feminist empowerment.

The Power of the Mouse: Frozen II & The Lion King

Finally, if there was any doubt who our new Hollywood insect overlords are at this point, Disney, the aforementioned owner of 6 of the top 10 grossing films in 2019 (including the entirety of the top five), placed both of these films, one a sequel to the highest-grossing animated film of all time, the other a live-action remake of its own animated property, in the top five.

As you can imagine, due in no small part to Disney's high-rolling marketing muscle, critical reception seemed to have little effect on the films' box office fortunes. The Lion King, whose CGI-created animals left many viewers flat, grossed a colossal $543 million despite a paltry 53% Rotten Tomatoes score. Frozen II, meanwhile, with its higher critical appraisal (RT 77%), made $421 million of its own. Either way, it seems, Disney could not lose. The Frozen sequel could have been nothing but long shots of ice chunks on a snowy mountain range and still made a profit, and by dint of its built-in audiences, the Mouse correctly deduced it could maximize its profit base by releasing live-action updates of its old animated lineup, no matter what the critical reception might have been. The lesson, as always, Disney wins.

MovieStyle on 01/10/2020

Print Headline: The year in blockbusters: An assault on the senses

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