Box Office Blues

Marty Was Right

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

—Martin Scorsese talks Marvel films

Last week on Twitter—nothing good can come of that phrase, I know. But, as I was saying, last week on Twitter, a writer and editor of some fame and mighty follower-count tweeted, in the course of Yet Another Discussion About Marvel, that “superhero movies are the modern version of spaghetti westerns.” 

The very outermost reaches of Film Twitter gathered to dunk on that declaration, which was nice to see. Less pleasant was Phase Two of the reaction, which went something like:

“No, of course they’re not spaghetti westerns. Spaghetti westerns were low-budget foreign indies. Superhero movies are like Hollywood westerns.”

Sweet ghost of Tom Mix, not again. For the gazillionth time: My Siamese cat is not a lion, and superhero movies are not westerns. There are superficial similarities but very few on a deeper level. It’s a comparison that writer John D’Amico shredded in less than 1200 words all the way back in 2014. I’ll give you the key graf: 

It’s a shame to see the same stereotype that’s been around since their heyday a half-century ago: that the westerns were a select crop of A-pictures by exceptional filmmakers surrounded by a sea of crap. In my experience, nothing is farther from the truth—there’s a seemingly endless pool of great and near-great westerns just under the radar, films like Henry Hathaway’s powerful To The Last Man or Ray Milland’s A Man Alone or the unforgettable Hugo Fregonese film The Raid—all carving new paths through pretty much the same story. I’m not aware of that kind of small-scale personal storytelling in the superhero boom. 

But there is another, even more insistent facet of this silly argument. For years now, when it’s noted that superhero movies have clearly colonized the upper end of what used to be the American movie industry, one rejoinder is heard:

“There used to be a lot of westerns, too!” 

“Tons of westerns!”

“So many westerns! There aren’t nearly as many superhero movies as there used to be westerns.” 

The first time I saw and hated that argument was at least seven years ago, and it keeps coming back, like a villain who only seemed to die in the last act of the third sequel. The Atlantic, for instance, came up with a chart that purports to show a teeny-weeny percentage of superhero movies sitting daintily below a solid wall of decades of westerns. Then there’s the Washington Post’s 2017 article “Five Myths About Hollywood,” which asks rhetorically, “Think seven superhero movies in 2017 is overkill? Imagine living in 1957, when studios released a staggering 61 westerns.”1

Yes indeed, there used to be a lot of westerns. However, all those happy refrains of “ ‘Twas ever thus! No problem here!” sidestep some crucial information. 

During the studio-era heyday of the western, more movies were released in one year than today. Since 1957 is on the table, that year saw about 533 U.S.–produced features, from both majors and independents, released into theaters.2 In 2017, the number given wide release was 131, and that also includes independents. While most film historians cite 1954 as the end of the B-movie era as such, a substantial number of 1957’s westerns were still low-budget programmers, made to fill out the bottom of a traditional movie program. Of the 61-some-odd westerns in 1957, about 45 were such offerings (and the status of some I’m counting as A-list productions is arguable). 

Yes, that still means that westerns made up a bigger proportion of studio output than superheroes do today. However. These days, superhero movies are, virtually without exception, big-ticket items, even when they aren’t tentpole releases expected to carry a studio’s yearly hopes on their rippling shoulders. Therefore, in order to have an apples-to-apples comparison of dominance, we should compare top 10 box-office hits, and not try to equate lavish mega-productions with a few dozen westerns rattling around the bottom of the balance sheets. Whatever the judgment of posterity turns out to be, it has always been the case that the hits drive coverage and conversation, our very perception of what a movie is

And so I move to boldface type to state: The objection to superhero movies is not, as a matter of fact, “There are too many.” The objection is that they vacuum up the budgets, the Internet oxygen, the news coverage, the TV interviews and glossy magazine spreads, and unless you live in a major metro area, most of the slots at the local Grim Plaza Octoplex. 

By all means, take a look at the U.S. box office results of 1957, when two good westerns made the top 10: Old Yeller, a Walt Disney movie about a boy and a dog, which had a desperately sad ending, a rarity for a major hit in any Hollywood decade; and Gunfight at the OK Corral (by far the biggest-budget western of that year) slipping in at number 9. Now look at 2017, with five superhero movies in the top 10, three kid movies, and the superhero-adjacent The Last Jedi at number one.

Number one in 1957? The Bridge on the River Kwai. “Imagine living in 1957”—solely in terms of what’s playing at the Roxy, I do that all the time.

Children’s movies come in for less heat than superhero movies, though they dominate even more than Marvel. That is undoubtedly because a few of them are excellent. But between those two poles, what has happened to the cinema experience—where you venture to the theater and buy popcorn and See It Big, as they used to say—is that vast numbers of people consider going to the movies either to be a way to take the kids for an outing, or a special occasion to experience what Matt Zoller Seitz calls “Thing Crashing Into Other Thing 3.” (Scott Mendelsohn did a good article about this trend at Forbes in 2019.) 

The result appears to be a feedback loop, where superhero films get the big budgets because they make money, and they make money because they are big-budget films worth the expense of a night out. When it comes to what’s all over the cinemas, kid movies and superheroes are muscling out the rest of the field, with plain old adult-oriented fare treated like art movies, and actual art movies becoming the hobby interest of an ever-smaller slice of the population. 

Which brings me to the epigraph, over-exposed though it is at this point. Martin Scorsese was stating the obvious about the Avengers, and stating it politely considering that the man has devoted his life not just to his own movies, but the work of hundreds of other film artists worldwide. Here I add, less politely, that 1957 alone produced more than a half-dozen creatively ambitious and yes, cinematic westerns, all of them superior to 2017’s money-spinners. I’d point out 3:10 to Yuma, Forty Guns, Run of the Arrow, The Restless Breed, The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, and The Tin Star; lovers of the genre will probably have others. Of the ones I cite, a few were made on budgets so tight everybody probably had to bring their own hats. Money can buy a lot of things. Artistic merit isn’t one of them. Marty was right. 

If this strikes you as a jim-dandy state of affairs, all right then. Someone, indeed huge numbers of someones, must like this arrangement, otherwise it wouldn’t keep going. The frustration, for those of us whose tastes do not run to Marvel or DC, young adult or children’s fare, is that we’re constantly told their obvious hegemony isn’t happening. Or if it is happening, it doesn’t matter, because there’s always TV—look at Mare of Easttown, that was great! What are you complaining about? 

Listen, I’m more than willing to “let people like things.” I’m less willing to sit still while I’m told, despite a mountain of evidence, that the great big corporate things aren’t crowding out other things. 

And here is where I present my mini-mountain of evidence, available to anybody who’s willing to Google. I am using box-office charts from Wikipedia, because IMDB’s interface drives me nuts these days. As you will see, slight variations between lists from different sources would make no difference to my overall point. I’m leaving off 2020, a sui generis year (or so I ardently hope) where there was little box office to speak of; and of course we aren’t done with 2021. Let’s start with 2019, and working our way backward, we will look for films that aren’t aimed squarely at the wallets of parents of small children, at teenagers, and at ComicCon Nation. The search begins for a movie that is

  • Aimed at adults. In addition to eliminating Pixar and other youth-oriented animated films, that means it isn’t based on a fairy tale or a YA novel.

  • Has no superheroes or comic-book characters

  • Isn’t science fiction and has nothing to do with Star Wars

  • Isn’t heavily dependent on special effects or thrill-a-minute action (yes, in the modern era that means no James Bond)

  • Was reasonably well-reviewed. By that, I don’t mean a movie that had critics frantically rewriting their 2022 Sight and Sound poll ballots. Just a film that had, at minimum, a slim majority of my colleagues saying “Yeah, that was pretty good.” 

I’ll allow sequels and prequels and IP-harvesting whatevers, provided the film meets the other criteria. I also maintain that there’s nothing unreasonable or snooty about these criteria. We’ll count movies that include, but are not limited to the following:

Comedies
Dramas
Crime
Thrillers
Horror
Musicals
Biopics
Adventure 
War
Historical/costume 
Literary adaptations

I’m not asking for the moon (Jerry) or the stars, either. We don’t have to hit a jackpot like 1939 or 1973. I just want a reasonably good movie about earthbound adults who never meet any ghosts or elves or aliens. Let’s start.

2019

1 Avengers: Endgame
2 The Lion King
3 Frozen II
4 Spider-Man: Far From Home
5 Captain Marvel
6 Joker
7 Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
8 Toy Story 4
9 Aladdin
10 Jumanji: The Next Level

Joker is, god knows, a serious movie, it got Oscars and some good reviews, but I’m eliminating it anyway because it has Bruce Wayne and Alfred and is based on DC Comics characters. You can give it an asterisk if you like. Tally: 5 kid films, 3 superhero movies, 1 Star Wars, 1 slightly anomalous superhero prequel. 

2018

1 Avengers: Infinity War
2 Black Panther
3 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
4 Incredibles 2
5 Aquaman
6 Bohemian Rhapsody
7 Venom
8 Mission: Impossible – Fallout
9 Deadpool 2
10 Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Hm. Bohemian Rhapsody, 60% on Rotten Tomatoes, although it wasn’t all that beloved by critics despite its Oscars; even the good reviews were mixed. I thought the film had its moments, but overall wasn’t great. However, it’s a musical/biopic that appealed to millions of adults; it has no elves and no space lasers. We’ll tally one in my win column, and keep on to see if it has any company. 1 for Farran, 2 kid movies, 4 superheroes, 2 thrill rides.

2017

1 Star Wars: The Last Jedi
2 Beauty and the Beast
3 The Fate of the Furious
4 Despicable Me 3
5 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
6 Spider-Man: Homecoming
7 Wolf Warrior 2
8 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
9 Thor: Ragnarok
10 Wonder Woman

3 kids, 4 superheroes, 1 Star Wars, 2 thrill rides.

2016

1 Captain America: Civil War
2 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
3 Finding Dory
4 Zootopia
5 The Jungle Book
6 The Secret Life of Pets
7 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
8 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
9 Deadpool
10 Suicide Squad  

5 kid movies, 4 superheroes, 1 Star Wars.

2015

1 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2 Jurassic World
3 Furious 7
4 Avengers: Age of Ultron
5 Minions
6 Spectre
7 Inside Out
8 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
9 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
10 The Martian

Inside Out is lovely; and it’s a children’s movie. Tally: 3 kid films, 1 superhero, 2 sci-fi/Star Wars, 4 thrill rides. 

2014

1 Transformers: Age of Extinction
2 The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
3 Guardians of the Galaxy
4 Maleficent
5 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
6 X-Men: Days of Future Past
7 Captain America: The Winter Soldier
8 Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
9 The Amazing Spider-Man 2
10 Interstellar

I liked Interstellar, but it fails our sci-fi special-effects requirement. I am still left with one (1) movie in the win column. 2 kids, 4 superheroes, 3 sci-fi, 1 special-effects whatsit (The Hobbit)

2013

1 Frozen
2 Iron Man 3
3 Despicable Me 2
4 The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
5 The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
6 Fast & Furious 6
7 Monsters University
8 Gravity
9 Man of Steel
10 Thor: The Dark World

Gravity: another good movie with a great performance by Sandra Bullock, but what I want is a film that takes place on Earth. We used to have a lot of those. Moving along: 4 kids, 3 superheroes, 1 sci-fi, 1 thrill ride, 1 special-effects whatsit.

2012

1 The Avengers
2 Skyfall
3 The Dark Knight Rises
4 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
5 Ice Age: Continental Drift
6 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2
7 The Amazing Spider-Man
8 Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted
9 The Hunger Games
10 Men in Black 3

My god, I’m depressed. Will I feel better if I go back and count Interstellar and Gravity? No, damnit, rules are rules: 4 kid movies, 3 superheroes, 1 sci-fi, 1 thrill ride, 1 special-effects whatsit. 

2011

1 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
2 Transformers: Dark of the Moon
3 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
4 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1
5 Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
6 Kung Fu Panda 2
7 Fast Five
8 The Hangover Part II
9 The Smurfs
10 Cars 2

Would love to count The Hangover: Part II, but the reviews were terrible. No can do. 5 kid movies, 1 sci-fi, 3 thrill rides, one bad comedy. No superheroes. Remember, we started in 2019, so far we have exactly one movie that fulfills my asks, and it is, god help us, Bohemian Rhapsody.

2010

1 Toy Story 3
2 Alice in Wonderland
3 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1
4 Inception
5 Shrek Forever After
6 The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
7 Iron Man 2
8 Tangled
9 Despicable Me
10 How to Train Your Dragon

Another non-superhero movie by Christopher Nolan sneaks into the top 10. Bless him for that, and while we’re at it, bless him for loving film, not digital. Inception is still a special-effects movie, and so our tally is: 8 kid movies (good grief, did everyone fire their babysitter in 2010), 1 superhero, 1 sci-fi. 

2009

1 Avatar
2 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
3 Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
4 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
5 2012
6 Up
7 The Twilight Saga: New Moon
8 Sherlock Holmes
9 Angels & Demons
10 The Hangover

We have found two more, and they are, like it or not, Sherlock Holmes and The Hangover. Decent reviews, adult-oriented, no spaceships or superheroes or hobbits or jumping from planes into convertibles. Sherlock Holmes is a borderline thrill ride/special effects thing, but I’ll put it in the other column merely by virtue of it being Sherlock Holmes. Angels & Demons is a miss due to its bad reviews. So now we have three movies that fit my arbitrary (yet reasonable!) requirements. But I don’t like any of them all that much. We’re here anyway, let’s see if we can find a top-10 box office hit that fulfills the requirements and also was something Farran liked. Meanwhile, the rest: 4 kids, 2 sci-fi, 1 thrill ride, 1 adult but bad.

2008

1 The Dark Knight
2 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
3 Kung Fu Panda
4 Hancock
5 Mamma Mia!
6 Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
7 Quantum of Solace
8 Iron Man
9 WALL*E
10 The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Bingo. Mamma Mia!. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg it ain’t, but I liked Mamma Mia. Remaining tally: 4 kid movies, 3 superheroes, 2 thrill rides. (My favorite movie on this year’s list is, by a considerable margin, WALL*E, but once again, I didn’t make the rules. Oh wait, I did. Then it’s even more imperative that I stick to them.)

Let’s catch our collective breath while I put together a chart for the dozen years we’ve looked at. 

Top 10 Box Office Hits by Genre, 2008 to 2019

Want some percentages? Come on, it’ll be fun, let’s do percentages. Of the 120 top-10 box office hits for 2008–2019, 42.5% were aimed at children/youths; 25% were superhero movies; 11.7% were Star Wars/science fiction; 13.3% were thrill rides; 2.5% were whatever the Hobbit was supposed to be; 1.7% were poorly reviewed movies for adults; and 3.3% were well-reviewed movies for adults. 

Three-point-three percent. Four movies over the course of 12 years. That ain’t much. Especially when one of them is Bohemian Rhapsody. Let’s say you’re working from a list that shows Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, which I think is a terrific film, made the top 10 in 2019. Those numbers above are going to budge only slightly. The trends are what they are. They may shift slightly year to year, but this is the world we’ve been stuck in for all these nightmarish (did I say that out loud?) years. 

Now, the questions arises: When did Hollywood decide that so few of its big-ticket movies —the ones that get the enormous budgets, the best stars and directors, the super-wide releases that last more than a week or two, the infinite PR funds—would be aimed at anyone who’s not keen on children’s fare, special effects, superheroes, or elves? I’m weird, but I’m not that weird. I do have The One and Only Martin Scorsese for company. I could introduce you to a lot of people, none of them critics, who would love a good movie about 100% human adults who live in a real-life place and visit real-life places. What happened? Can we find a tipping point?

Yes! We can! Come with the Siren, and she will show you this fate creeping up on us, up to the very year that it happened. Let’s start with a look, decade by decade, at some typical years for Hollywood, and what sort of movies were dominating the old B.O. We’ll start 100 years ago, when features had been established for a nice long while and the movies were still silent, and then we will advance in 10-year increments. Box-office results for the pre-1960 studio era can be slippery, but again, even if we substitute other lists that show variations, the patterns are clear.

1921

1 The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
2 The Kid
3 The Three Musketeers
4 The Sheik
5 The Affairs of Anatol
6 Orphans of the Storm
7 Little Lord Fauntleroy
8 School Days
9 Why Girls Leave Home

Good news: Despite silent film’s notoriously poor survival rate, only one of these hits is completely lost. Four Horsemen is the antiwar blockbuster that made Rudolph Valentino a star. It’s the story of an Argentine family during the Great War which, of course, had barely ended, and it is one of a small number of tragedies on any of these lists. The Kid is one of Chaplin’s greatest (and though children loved Chaplin, his movies were not children’s films per se). The Three Musketeers had some early color scenes and was in some ways a thrill ride as well as based on prior material. The Sheik was a hot-and-heavy romance aimed at Paramount getting Valentino back into theaters as fast as humanly possible. The Affairs of Anatol starred Gloria Swanson and poor doomed Wallace Reid; based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler, it is a drawing-room comedy and nicely adult. Orphans of the Storm is D.W. Griffith and a major French Revolution eyeful; Little Lord Fauntleroy, based on a children’s book by the woman who wrote The Secret Garden and boasting Mary Pickford in a double role; School Days I haven’t seen, but is apparently a Tom Sawyer-ish tale of boys and their mischief (it survives with one reel missing): and the list finishes with a lost film, Why Girls Leave Home. All the ones I’ve seen are good, one masterpiece. 

1931

1 Trader Horn
2 Palmy Days
3 City Lights
4 The Man Who Came Back
5 Merely Mary Ann
6 Arrowsmith
7 A Connecticut Yankee
8 Cimarron
9 Bad Girl
10 Possessed

Trader Horn was filmed partly on location in Africa and the travelogue footage remains fascinating, but the racial/colonial politics are ghastly, the animals were mistreated and so was lead actress Edwina Booth. I don’t like this movie at all, but we’ll say it’s a thrill ride by the era’s standards. Palmy Days is an Eddie Cantor musical with early Busby Berkeley dance direction, the Goldwyn Girls, and a number called “Glorifying the American Doughnut”; I guess I would characterize it as being for somewhat specialized tastes, although the girls are gorgeous. City Lights is one of the greatest movies ever made. The Man Who Came Back and Merely Mary Ann are Janet Gaynor–Charles Farrell musicals, both unseen by me; the first is Raoul Walsh at Fox, the second directed by Henry King. Arrowsmith is John Ford, flawed but gorgeous and based on a literary source. A Connecticut Yankee counts as fantasy in my book. Cimarron is the first western to show up; it has a magnificent Oklahoma Land Run sequence but not much else, although the Siren can’t bash it too much because the movie made Irene Dunne a star. Bad Girl is one of Frank Borzage’s greatest films, so there’s another masterpiece; and Possessed is an excellent woman’s picture with the goddess Joan Crawford. 

1941

1 Sergeant York
2 Honky Tonk
3 Louisiana Purchase
4 How Green Was My Valley
5 Caught in the Draft
(tied) Ball of Fire
6 The Little Foxes
(tied) Road to Zanzibar
7 A Yank in the R.A.F.
8 Men of Boys Town
9 Nothing But the Truth
10 In the Navy

Sergeant York, war movie, Howard Hawks, still a well-loved classic even if it didn’t reach the heights of Only Angels Have Wings. Honky Tonk, boom, another western. Louisiana Purchase, a Bob Hope political-satire musical (you read that right). Caught in the Draft, Nothing But the Truth, and Road to Zanzibar are also Bob Hope vehicles, so now you need never sit around wondering why Bob Hope was once such a big deal. In the Navy is Abbott and Costello, it’s no monument of cinema but it does make me laugh. A Yank in the R.A.F., war film with a romance angle; Men of Boys Town, sequel to the smash Boys Town; both No. 7 and 8 are pretty good movies. But this list is rounded out with three permanent classics that got great reviews at the time: How Green Was My Valley, Ball of Fire, and The Little Foxes. Two were based on prior material and the other is an original screenplay. 

1951 

1 Quo Vadis
2 Show Boat
3 David and Bathsheba
4 The Great Caruso
5 A Streetcar Named Desire
6 The African Queen
7 That's My Boy
8 An American in Paris
9 A Place in the Sun
10 At War with the Army

Quo Vadis, Show Boat and The Great Caruso, major costume productions for MGM, David and Bathsheba fulfilling the same for 20th-C Fox. That’s My Boy and At War With the Army: Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis stepping up to fill Bob Hope/Bing Crosby’s shoes. And whatever the merits of the other films alongside them, we have four unassailable classics sitting in the top 10 (so please do not assail them): A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen, An American in Paris, and A Place in the Sun. No westerns; musicals and musical numbers aplenty.

1961

1 West Side Story
2 The Guns of Navarone
3 El Cid
4 The Parent Trap
5 The Absent-Minded Professor
6 Lover Come Back
7 King of Kings
8 One Hundred and One Dalmatians
9 La Dolce Vita
10 Come September

Is a shift detectable? Look at all that Disney, three children’s movies in the top 10; one enjoyable (The Parent Trap), one classic (the Dalmatians) and one OK I guess (the Professor). Nah, this is still a pretty good year. I enjoy The Guns of Navarone; we’ll call it a thrill ride, it’s certainly an action movie. The original West Side Story I also love (two words for those who don’t: Jerome Robbins) and it’s the second tragedy in our yearly tallies. El Cid, now regarded as a great Anthony Mann film from his epic period; Come September, a comedy and a childhood favorite but I make no huge claims for it (ahem, see how easy that is?); King of Kings, Bible movie. But number 9, isn’t that great? La Dolce Vita’s so-called “orgy” scene must have helped the box office, but a subtitled movie, right there in the top 10, warms a critic’s heart.

1971

1 Fiddler on the Roof
2 Billy Jack
3 The French Connection
4 Summer of '42
5 Diamonds Are Forever
6 Dirty Harry
7 A Clockwork Orange
8 Carnal Knowledge
9 The Last Picture Show
10 Willard

Pound for pound, one of the best lists we will see. I don't think we need me to describe these, but there are at least five classics on this list (for the curious, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, Carnal Knowledge, and The Last Picture Show) and one movie that, for good or ill, would never be made now (Summer of ‘42). Actually, as my friend Tom Doherty pointed out, it’s debatable whether anyone would touch A Clockwork Orange now. No kids’ movies.

Instead of jumping to 1981, let’s go through the rest of the 1970s, because that’s my idea of fun, and it is illustrative.

1972

1 The Godfather
2 The Poseidon Adventure
3 What's Up, Doc?
4 Deliverance
5 Jeremiah Johnson
6 Cabaret
7 Deep Throat
8 The Getaway
9 Lady Sings the Blues
10 Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex

This list certainly demonstrates that the 1970s were nothing if not adult. I’d probably call Deep Throat the only bad movie on this list (yes, I’ve seen it); but by the standards of its genre, maybe that’s not so? I’m not in a position to judge. The Godfather aside, you know what is still magnificent and haunting? Cabaret, that’s what.

1973

1 The Exorcist
2 The Sting
3 American Graffiti
4 Papillon
5 The Way We Were
6 Magnum Force
7 Last Tango in Paris
8 Paper Moon
9 Live and Let Die
10 The Devil in Miss Jones

Another largely adult-rated and astonishingly strong list, the major exception in quality being The Devil in Miss Jones (yes, I’ve seen that one too), against which I bear an immovable grudge for all the dumb jokes I have heard every time I wanted to talk about the charming 1941 pro-labor comedy The Devil AND Miss Jones, starring Jean Arthur. 

1974

1 The Towering Inferno
2 Blazing Saddles
3 Young Frankenstein
4 Earthquake
5 The Trial of Billy Jack
6 The Godfather Part II
7 Airport 1975
8 The Longest Yard
9 The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams
10 Murder on the Orient Express

The year of the disaster flicks. I enjoy the hell out of The Towering Inferno but because I wish to play fair, I will admit that it’s a thrill ride of a disaster film and its quality is debatable. Earthquake is bad. Airport 1975 is camp (and I can’t be the only one who foresees that as a fate for some recent box-office champs). Vintage year for Mel Brooks, who’s a genius. Grizzly Adams is a G-rated crowd-pleaser. The Trial of Billy Jack isn’t a very good film, but comparing its proudly left-wing politics with any recent box-office smash would be...instructive. The Longest Yard and Orient Express are excellent, and The Godfather Part II is a masterpiece, but you knew that.

1975:

1 Jaws
2 One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
3 Shampoo
4 Dog Day Afternoon
5 The Return of the Pink Panther
6 Three Days of the Condor
7 Funny Lady
8 The Other Side of the Mountain
9 Tommy
10 The Apple Dumpling Gang

Loses steam by #7, but that is a breathtaking top four. Aside: I vaguely recall being taken to see The Apple Dumpling Gang and being bored out of my skull. Did you notice that it is the first 100% kid movie we’ve seen for a while? For the record, the last one had been The Aristocats, number five in 1970.

1976:

1 Rocky
2 A Star Is Born
3 King Kong
4 Silver Streak
5 All the President's Men
6 The Omen
7 The Bad News Bears
8 The Enforcer
9 In Search of Noah's Ark
10 Midway

I thought I knew childhood boredom, then my grandmother took me to see In Search of Noah’s Ark. I had asked for The Bad News Bears. Which is a classic. All the President’s Men, The Omen, and Rocky, all good. I like The Enforcer, and I love Silver Streak

1977:

1 Star Wars
2 Smokey and the Bandit
3 Close Encounters of the Third Kind
4 Saturday Night Fever
5 The Goodbye Girl
6 A Bridge Too Far
7 The Deep
8 The Spy Who Loved Me
9 Oh, God!
10 Annie Hall

The Deep is bad, so is Oh, God!. The Goodbye Girl is middling, though Richard Dreyfus is a treat. The Spy Who Loved Me is James Bond—and terrific. And the other six! Yes, Star Wars too, by which I mean the one I saw in 1977 and I guess will never see in that form again.

1978:

1 Superman
2 Grease
3 Animal House
4 Every Which Way but Loose
5 Heaven Can Wait
6 Hooper
7 Jaws 2
8 Up In Smoke
9 Revenge of the Pink Panther
10 The Deer Hunter

Comedies dominating this year like, well, superheroes. At least two of them are good. I’m referring to Heaven Can Wait and, of course, Hooper. No, I’m not joking, I love Hooper. What, you think I’m some kind of snob? 1 superhero, no kid movies. Another extremely downbeat film, The Deer Hunter, in the top 10. 

1979:

1 Kramer vs. Kramer
2 The Amityville Horror
3 Rocky II
4 Apocalypse Now
5 Star Trek: The Motion Picture
6 Alien
7 10
8 The Jerk
9 Moonraker
10 The Muppet Movie

Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie about divorce and a custody battle, at No. 1; and the brutal Apocalypse Now at No. 4. The blood-soaked Alien at No. 6; it’s sci-fi, but not much like our recent crop. Plenty for an adult on this list, plus I’m a Muppets fan from way back. 

That was fun, now back to our decade-by-decade programming.

1981

1 Raiders of the Lost Ark
2 On Golden Pond
3 Superman II
4 Arthur
5 Stripes
6 The Cannonball Run
7 Chariots of Fire
8 For Your Eyes Only
9 The Four Seasons
10 Time Bandits

Uh-oh. What’s going on here? Just look at Superman II sitting ominously at number 3. I do like The Four Seasons and Chariots of Fire, I also like For Your Eyes Only, Arthur, and (sue me) The Cannonball Run, but none of those are major classics, and I won’t argue that Cannonball Run is even good by any rational standards. No, wait; Arthur has Liza Minnelli, Arthur is therefore a classic.

1991

1 Terminator 2: Judgment Day
2 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
3 Beauty and the Beast
4 Hook
5 The Silence of the Lambs
6 JFK
7 The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear
8 The Addams Family
9 Cape Fear
10 Hot Shots!

Worrisome. Hook is godawful. Two classics, Lambs and JFK. Too bad that the only time we’re seeing Scorsese make one of these lists, it’s a subpar film by his standards. But I’ll take it.

And, drumroll … here it is. The year where you can see it happen. No superheroes, but they’re coming, like the monster eating its way through the spaceship...

2001

1 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
2 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
3 Monsters, Inc.
4 Shrek
5 Ocean's Eleven
6 Pearl Harbor
7 The Mummy Returns
8 Jurassic Park III
9 Planet of the Apes
10 Hannibal

With 2001, we enter what I call the “Throw Us a Bone” era. By which I mean, for the next 10 years or so, there’s one movie a year that either meets the adults-on-earth and actually-a-good-movie requirements, or comes close enough. After 2001, scarcely anything in the Box Office Top 10 is all that good, but we’ll be generous. This year, our bone is Ocean’s Eleven, a remake but a pleasant one and well-liked. I’m going to round out the 2000s by noting 

The Bone of the Year 

2002: My Big Fat Greek Wedding
2003: The Last Samurai
2004: The Passion of the Christ (I hated it, but many did not)
2005: Mr. and Mrs. Smith 
2006: The Da Vinci Code (yeah, I know, awful reviews, but at least it has Da Vinci in it)
2007: 300 (sort of)

And now we come back around to 2008, which is where we left off. 

As I reach the end of this remembrance of grosses past, it seems that maybe what I’m mapping out isn’t so much the superhero ascendancy, but rather the gradual, near-total homogenization of mainstream American moviegoing taste. We’ve gone from seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai en masse, to 20 years of otherworldly and juvenile. But my aim has been not to diagnose causes, but merely to prove that nobody is crazy, and nobody is overreacting. The takeover of top-budget top-10 filmmaking by superheroes, K–12 movies, and whiz-bang actioners that have more in common with Marvel than Samuel Fuller ever did—it’s happened. Waving your hands at 1957 is irrelevant except insofar as it may prompt someone to seek out Forty Guns. Whatever’s caused this situation, I don’t expect it to change anytime soon. I often wonder if this will be what see-it-big movies are for the rest of my life. Like it or lump it, I can hear some say. Which is a legitimate response. And my legitimate counter-response is, I’ll lump it, thanks. 

Because I will happily die on the hill marked “Sergeant York is a better movie than Avengers: Endgame,” and Sergeant York isn’t even top-10 Howard Hawks. Jaws, The Godfather, even The Exorcist which I don’t like — I could pull a more cinematic (in the Marty sense) number-one box-office hit than Avengers: Endgame out of a hat. And that’s just comparing number-one hits. Is there a single top-10 movie of the past 20 years that lands in the same zip code of achievement as City Lights? If that comparison goes back too far, how about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Marvel fans in particular have been known to say, “These movies aren’t for you.” Well, this disquisition is not for those who are loving the Age of Greenscreen. It’s for people who have had enough of seeing apples compared to sofabeds and being told everything’s fine, movies are better than ever. For those comrades of mine: Should someone declare in your presence “There aren’t that many superhero movies. They made so many more westerns in the 1950s,” briefly explain how low-budget filmmaking worked in that decade. Then refuse to say anything more until they’ve seen The Tall T.

And should they say, as some have said to me before I wrote this jeremiad, “Popcorn flicks have always been the big earners. Were the hit movies really any better in the last century?” please ask the person to scan some old box-office results. Then tell them the logical, indeed the only possible critically and intellectually honest response to that question is, “Of course they fucking well were.” 

1

For the “61 westerns” figure, the Washington Post links to the now-moribund Birth Movies Death, which in turn didn’t cite a source. My best guess is that the number was arrived at by counting the 1957 U.S. westerns listed in Wikipedia; that strikes me as a reasonable way to get an estimate, although I wouldn’t call it definitive. But if you follow the Wikipedia link, you’ll also notice that Wiki slapped “B movie” on (most of) the programmers, which label the Atlantic, BMD, and WaPo ignored.

2

“Motion Picture Industry Statistics: Features Released in U.S. Market, 1917 to 1962;” Film Daily Year Book, 1963, page 107. Many thanks to Prof. Thomas Doherty of Brandeis University for his invaluable assistance in tracking down that number; thanks also to Prof. Doherty for the shelfie lower down in this post.