I recently mentioned to a friend that I hadn’t bothered to see The Words since it had only received a 17% on RottenTomatoes. He was shocked; he had attended a test screening of the film and loved it. So I started thinking: what movies have I enjoyed until people started talking about how bad they were? Over time, some mediocre films seem to get worse in our collective consciousness.
In honor of all such films that get a bad rap, here are a few of the most notable cases (IMHO).
Spoilers below. Ye be warned.
Following up what many called the best comic book movie ever (at the time) is no small feat, as Christopher Nolan will gladly tell you. Spider-Man 2 had taken Sam Raimi’s universe to its stylistic limit, ratcheting up the action, the romance, the awkwardness, and the post-adolescent themes. The question of how the third adventure could possibly top it was a valid one, but that couldn’t topple the incredibly high expectations.
Even while the movie broke opening weekend records, word spread about Spidey’s emo-Venom dance, and as the name implies, it wasn’t positive. Raimi had taken a bit too much license with the Venom character, a fan-favorite, and the only other new antagonist available to pick up the slack was Sandman, whose presence in the film is never justified.
But in the midst of these lackluster villains and black hair dye, we’re taken on an emotional ride as Peter Parker learns a hard lesson about pride. In these scenes, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are at the top of their game, portraying the kind of relationship growing pains anyone who’s been in a long term relationship understands. It’s unusual territory for a superhero film, and Maguire’s dancing notwithstanding, it’s executed quite effectively. In addition, vengeance-seeking Harry’s amnesia subplot, which should be old hat, creates a ticking time bomb of tension bookended by exciting action scenes with sharp, detailed special effects.
I believe so many remember the negatives because Raimi committed three cardinal sins: 1) overhauling a beloved villain, 2) failing to balance too many new characters and subplots, and 3) making a third film in a trilogy.
War of the Worlds (2005)
For the first 15 minutes of Spielberg’s remake of the sci-fi classic, I forgot there were aliens involved. I was immediately gripped by the family drama, so when giant pods stood up and started vaporizing people, I was already invested in the characters enough to follow them anywhere. The rest of the film played out just as I’d hoped, with lots of deftly directed set pieces in which Tom Cruise rescues Dakota Fanning. Did anyone walk in expecting something else?
I’m honestly not sure why this film got such a bum rap. It wouldn’t be fair to omit the fact that, just prior to this film’s release, it seemed as though everyone in America was inexplicably angry at Cruise for jumping on Oprah’s couch. Why, was it an antique? If I were to guess as something related to the film, however, I’d have to say that I see how Cruise’s on-screen teenaged son would get of some people’s nerves. Along with being outlandishly rebellious and hard-headed, his story arc might have felt rather forced and distracting in a story whose source didn’t include such family dynamics.
I have a couple of theories about why I didn’t see the problems. For one thing, I’d been a teenage boy shortly before War of the Worlds hit theaters, so I found the character at least a little bit understandable, if not exactly lovable. Also, as a science fiction fan, I had a passing familiarity with the story and knew the broad strokes of the plot, so that when events occurred that weren’t explained clearly (such as, spoiler alert, the alien invaders are eventually defeated), I recognized and appreciated the events more than the average moviegoer. I rarely hear anyone say good things about this film, but it didn’t exactly tank at the box office, so that makes it a good choice for this list.
If there’s one person Batman fans love to hate, it’s director Joel Schumacher. And after his braindead Batman & Robin all but killed the franchise, he’s certainly an easy target. One of the worst things about it is that the previous film is often forgotten or remembered as just as dreadful as its successor, which isn’t the case at all. Batman Forever was well-received by audiences after Tim Burton’s increasingly gloomy and disjointed films.
Forever has a lot going for it when compared to the other Batman films in this series: it features the best action scenes, is technically well-executed and is full of iconic visuals. The plot actually contains an internal logic, even with its sci-fi elements. Jim Carrey is right at home playing the Riddler, an unhinged scientist-turned-supercriminal. And for the first and only time until Begins, Batman’s origins are addressed from a psychological angle, if only in a half-formed subplot (the rest was cut for time).
Of course, like all films on this list, it’s not without its share of problems. The never-ending rave party that is Gotham City is difficult to reconcile with the previous films. Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face is wacky and cartoonish in a film that already had that angle covered, not to mention its incongruity with the character’s history. But I believe that most films live or die on how their central characters are treated, and even through the neon lights, Batman shines.
Die Another Day
Another film that gets a scarlet letter for one regrettably silly scene. I’m sure we all could have lived full and happy lives if we hadn’t seen Pierce Brosnan windsurfing in Iceland with the help of glaringly obvious CGI. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
The increasing ridiculousness of the film overshadows a rather promising first half. The opening hovercraft chase is fun and ends on a unique note with Bond’s capture. The title sequences end with a bearded Bond resigned to die in prison. When he takes off after whoever betrays him, it’s a great setup, and the film is chock full of crowd pleasing one-liners and creative action scenes. What’s not to like?
Well, plenty. A bland bad guy. A sci-fi plot that’s old hat. Too much cheese and not enough drama for its exciting setup. Even Oscar-winner Halle Barry is more distracting than scintillating. Unfortunately, these issues are most glaring late in the film, as though the filmmakers gradually ran out of steam in the planning stages.
Now Bond is all blood and grit, and while the quality and risk-taking is undoubtedly higher, some people yearn for the more fun, playful Bond they loved as they grew up. Die Another Day is the last Bond of its kind, and may be for a long time.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Wait, don’t leave! I can explain!
Since its release in ’99, The Phantom Menace has been a favorite punching bag of fanboys everywhere. Most people probably would point to stiff directing from George Lucas, but the inclusion of one of the most annoying characters in blockbuster history certainly didn’t help. It’s way too easy to make fun of, but none of those issues are the primary reason this film is considered such a joke.
I believe that, like Spider-Man 3, the first Star Wars prequel was a victim of impossibly high expectations. Lucas tried to following the films that practically invented blockbusters and had the greatest cultural impact of any film property, and because it wasn’t one of the greatest movies ever made, because it didn’t cover the same ground, because it didn’t emulate the look and feel of the original trilogy, it disappointed many. The criticisms above (and more) are still valid, but they didn’t become the film’s defining features in our minds until later.
We forget just how flat-out entertaining the film is. It features Jedi tearing through bad guys throughout, not to mention a climactic, badass lightsaber duel that redefines the term. The ingenious podrace doesn’t need 3D to be jawdroppingly effective. It features groundbreaking special effects that wouldn’t be replicated by other films for years. Its legacy includes making Natalie Portman a household name and giving nerd culture a boost and sends it mainstream over the past decade. That’s right: you can thank George Lucas for The Avengers.
I suppose the point I’m making isn’t that these films are forgotten classics, but that they don’t have to be in order to be enjoyable or significant. Have we reached a point where we need every film to match our exact expectations to enjoy it? Sounds like a topic for a future post.