Monday, September 18, 2017

Reassessing Kurzweil's 2009 Predictions

Raymond Kurzweil's 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines remains a touchstone of futurologists and their critics not only because of Kurzweil's continuing presence within the information technology and futurology worlds, but because the book also offered multiple, lengthy, even comprehensive lists of forecasts. Many of his forecasts were about subjects far outside his realm of expertise (macroeconomics, geopolitics, military science, etc.), and unsurprisingly were commonplaces, but a good many of them were precise technological forecasts lending themselves to testing against the day's technological state of the art--and thereby checking the progress of the technologies with which the book was concerned, and perhaps, also our progress in the direction he claimed we were going in, toward a technological Singularity.

Naturally a good many observers (myself included) reviewed Kurzweil's 1999 predictions for 2009 when that year arrived. Different writers, depending on which forecasts they chose to focus on, and how they judged them, came to different conclusions about his accuracy. I emphasized those precise, easily tested technological forecasts, and saw that many had not come to pass. I noted, too, that while not accounting for each and every error, there was a recognizable pattern in a good many of these, namely that Kurzweil assumed advances in neural networks enabling the kind of "bottom-up" machine learning that made for better and improving pattern recognition, as with the speech recognition supposed to make for the Language User Interfaces we never really got.

Looking back on those predictions from almost a decade on, however, it seems worth remarking that the improvement in neural nets was indeed disappointing in the first decade of the twenty-first century--but got a good deal better in the second decade. And right along with it there has been improvement in most of the areas he seemed to have been overoptimistic about, like translation technology. Indeed, as one of those who looked at his 1999 predictions for 2009 and was underwhelmed, I find myself increasingly suspecting that Kurzweil was accurate enough in guessing what would happen, and how, but, due to overoptimism about the rate of improvement in the underlying technology, was off the mark in regard to when by a rough decade.

Moreover, this does not seem to have been the only area where this was the case. The same may go for the use of carbon nanotubes, another area where after earlier disappointments this decade technologists achieved successes that may plausibly open the way to the new designs of 3-D chips he described, permitting vast improvements in computer performance. (As it happens, Kurzweil guessed that by 2019 3-D chips based on a nanomaterial substrate would be the norm. If IBM is right, he will have been off by rather less than a decade in this case.) It may also go for virtual reality--which likewise seems to be running a rough decade behind his guesses.

The advance in all these areas has, along with a burst of progress in other areas in which Kurzweil took much less interest (like self-driving cars of a different type than he conceived, and electricity production from renewable sources), contributed to a greater bullishness about these technologies--a techno-optimism such as I do not think we have had since the heady years of the late 1990s when access to personal computing, the Internet and mobile telephony began the proliferation and convergence that has people watching movies off Netflix on their "smart" phones while sitting on the bus.1

Of course, it should still be remembered that much of what has been talked about here is not yet an accomplished fact. The advances in AI have yet to make for proven improvements in consumer goods, while those 3-D nanotube-based chips have yet to enter production. At best, the first true self-driving car will not hit the market until 2020, while renewable energy (hydroelectric excepted) is just beginning to play a major role in the world's energy mix. Moreover, that the recent past has seen things pick up does not mean that the new pace of progress will remain the new norm. We might, in line with Kurzweil's expectation of accelerating returns, see it get faster still--or slow down once more.

1. Kurzweil's self-driving cars were based on "intelligent roads," whereas the cars getting the attention today are autonomous.

My Posts on Futurology
12/6/12
The Neoliberal Singularity
6/7/12
A Primer on the Technological Singularity
10/31/11

Review: The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze

New York, Penguin, 2006, pp. 799.

I remember that reading Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers back in college I pored over the figures for Germany's World War II-era income and production and felt that something didn't quite fit. German arms output seemed a good deal less formidable than I expected given the country's image as an ultra-efficient manufacturing colossus, and the fact of its control over nearly the whole of the European continent.

The common explanation for this was political--that an irrational Nazi regime, for various reasons (its slowness to move to a total war footing out of fear of a repeat of the Revolution of 1918, its brutal incompetence in exploiting Eastern Europe, Hitler's self-interestedly playing various interests off against each other at the expense of the war effort, etc.) failed to properly utilize its potentially overwhelming industrial capacity (at least, prior to the arrival of Albert Speer, who came along too late to accomplish very much).

By and large, I accepted this explanation.

More recently Adam Tooze's Wolfson prize winning study The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy offered a different view--that the question was not a matter of political failure of this type, but the material limitations of the German economic base. Germany was simply not big enough or rich enough to hold its own against an alliance of the United States, the British Empire and the Soviet Union--a gathering Tooze contends was virtually inevitable, so that Hitler's attempt to create a continental empire in the east in the face of their opposition was simply not explicable in any rational terms. (Indeed, he holds it to be comprehensible only in terms of Hitler's bizarre, conspiratorial, apocalyptic racial theories.)

To that end, most of Tooze's book is devoted to a study of the German economy through the crucial period (1933-1945), less on the basis of new data than old and well-known data (more or less like what I saw reading Kennedy) that has simply been marginalized in a great deal of analysis of the war. As he notes Germany was the world's second-largest industrial power in the early twentieth century, well ahead of its European neighbors in manufacturing productivity and output, and "world-class" in several key heavy industrial and high-tech lines like steel, chemicals, machine tools and electrical equipment.

However, German manufacturing appears less impressive when one looks at the sector overall. While Germany still excelled its European neighbors in productivity when taken this way, its lead was slighter than might be imagined, so much so that the difference between Germany, and for example, Britain, was negligible in comparison with the difference between Germany and the much more "Fordist" United States (America getting twice as much per-worker output in many lines). There were even key heavy/high-tech lines where Germany remained a relatively small producer--like motor vehicles, the volume of output of Germany's automotive industry far behind that of the U.S..

At the same time, because of its comparatively small territory and that territory's limited supplies of energy and key raw materials, Germany was much more reliant on imports of inputs for its production. This meant that, despite its great export strength, the country had a fragile current account balance in peacetime, and was very vulnerable to the cut-off of essential inputs in wartime. (And the fact was redressed only to a very limited extent by its much-touted efforts to develop domestic resources of imported materials like iron, invent synthetic substitutes for the oil and rubber it could not produce locally and stockpile what it could not otherwise acquire.)

Moreover, manufacturing was just one sector of the economy--with the other sectors, as this natural resource picture implies, presenting still greater disadvantages. Germany's agricultural sector, notably, lagged not just the U.S. but even Britain in productivity, suffering from having too many of its workers on too little land divided into too many farms--which meant that the food supply situation also worked against it. And that when taken altogether the country's per capita and overall national income were considerably less formidable than a focus on just its manufacturing successes would suggest.

This reading of the country's economy is borne out by what actually did happen, the German government actually making ruthless use of its domestic resources almost immediately on taking power--the facts about this refuting such cliches of the historiography as the unwillingness of the German government to sacrifice its people's living standards or put women to work for the sake of its military effort. (Indeed, already in the '30s the German government's system of central control of foreign exchange and key materials was gutting the production of consumer items like clothing in favor of armaments, while Germany had more of its women in the work force than Britain did.)

More generally, Germany's merely pre-war preparations--its drive for maximum short-term output--translated to severe, unsustainable economic strain before the fighting even began, in the neglect of key infrastructure like the railroads, the price distortions caused by intricate central control, and the emergence of crises of cash flow and foreign exchange in spite of all the managerial feats and painful sacrifices. The inescapable recognition that the German economy by 1938 was a house of cards forced the government to curtail its rearmament programs at a point at which it was still nowhere near to being a match for Britain at sea, and still disadvantaged in the face of combined Anglo-French air and ground forces in key respects (like numbers of up-to-date tanks), with the balance already swinging away from it to its opponents.1 And then even the cutbacks still left it in an economically precarious position.

Of course, the fighting did begin in 1939, and Germany did make successful conquests during the first year that did enlarge its resource base. However, in hindsight the conquests added less than might be imagined because of the limited size and development of the countries it overran, not just the nations of Eastern Europe, but in Western Europe as well (Norway and Denmark, the Low Countries, and even France).2 There was, too, the limited extent to which it could extract surpluses from them.3 (Where aircraft were concerned, for example, Germany got an additional 3,000 planes out of French and Dutch production over the war years--but this amounted to what American industry supplied to Britain in a single month of the conflict after its production got going--while the much more basic problem of securing sufficient coal and food remained beyond it.)

A few questionable analogies apart (as when Tooze compares Germany's economic development in the 1930s to that of mid-income countries like South Africa today) Tooze offers a comprehensive and convincing image of the German economy, and especially its critical weaknesses. Moreover, while he pays less detailed attention to the other side of the balance sheet (it seemed to me that he was insufficiently attentive not just to France's demographic and industrial vulnerabilities but to Britain's financial and industrial weaknesses and problems of military overstretch in the late '30s), he is quite correct to contend that Germany, and even a Germany in control of much of continental Europe, was at a grave disadvantage in a prolonged war with a U.S.-U.K.-Soviet alliance.4

Nonetheless, this emphasis on the inability of Germany to hold its own against the combined Allied Big Three obscures a weakness much more important than the deficiencies of the economic analysis--namely his depiction of the anti-Nazi alliance's coming together the way it did as a virtual certainty, his case for which is far more superficial and conventional than his economic analysis.5 He slights the leeriness of the U.K. and France about allying themselves with the Soviet Union that actually did prevent their coming together in 1939, with disastrous consequences. (Even after Poland, French conservatives were much more interested in fighting the Soviets than fighting Hitler. Indeed, the response of many of them to French defeat appears to have been a George Costanza-like "restrained jubilation" at the prospect of dispensing with democracy and setting up a fascist state in William Shirer's account of the Third Republic's collapse.)

Naturally, Tooze goes on to slight the reality that, after the shock of the Battle of France (which brought Italy into the war on Germany's side), the hard-pressed, cash-strapped U.K. might have sought a negotiated peace, or that isolationism might have won the day in the United States, depriving Britain of American support. (In its absence the country would have had to settle with Germany--and the U.S. would have had few plausible options against Germany afterward, in spite of Germany's failures in the Battle of Britain and its naval limitations.) These developments would not have changed Germany's asset base--but they would have taken Britain out of the war, and likely kept Germany from having to fight the United States as well, leaving it to focus on just the Soviet Union, which would have changed the balance between them dramatically. Equally Tooze slights the possibility that, in spite of the balance of power being so heavily against it as it was different German military or political decisions (most obviously "the Mediterranean strategy") could have produced a situation more favorable to it.

Additionally, these oft-studied "What ifs" aside, it is worth remembering the way the war did go. After Britain decided to stick it out against Germany, American support was exceedingly slow in coming, Britain bankrupt in March 1941 before the aid spigot was turned on fully. Moreover, even with Britain still against it, even after a delay by one crucial month due to the German invasion of the Balkans, an exceptionally rainy and muddy fall, and the onset of an especially early and harsh winter afterward (and despite mid-course changes to the plan of attack that cost additional time), German troops managed to come within sight of Moscow before the invasion ran out of steam. Then after that defeat, and the official entry of the U.S. into the war in December 1941, it took the United States time to deploy its full resources, while a depleted Soviet Union was in ways even more vulnerable than before through 1942, permitting Germany to continue taking the offensive through the year--and even after. Indeed, after Pearl Harbor the Allies had to fight for three and a half years before seeing V-E Day--two-and-a-half of those years of fighting following the turning point of Stalingrad.

One should also remember the cost of this protracted effort. The Soviet Union lost some twenty-five million lives. Britain lost what remained of the foundations of its status as a world empire, a great power, and even an independent force in world affairs (in such a weak position that it had to take a $4 billion U.S. loan immediately after the war). The U.S. did not suffer anything comparable, but it is worth remembering that its extraordinary industrial effort went far beyond what even the optimists thought possible at the time--and was a thing the Allies could not have taken for granted in the earlier part of the war, even after the American entry.

Consequently, while in hindsight it appears clear that Germany's chances for attaining anything resembling its maximum war aims were never more than low (indeed, would probably be deemed delusional but for the astonishing Allied timidity and incompetence in the key September 1939-May 1940 period), became increasingly implausible again after the failures of German forces against the Soviet Union in late 1941, and virtually inconceivable after 1942 came to a close, a victory so long, horrifically costly and deeply exhausting cannot be regarded with the complacency Tooze shows.

Indeed, in his failure to critically examine this side of the issue, it appears that while Tooze takes on, and debunks, one myth of World War II (of German economic might), he promotes others--most importantly, that of the political establishments of the future members of the wartime United Nations having been steadfast opponents of Nazism from the very beginning. One might go so far as to say that even before his book came out much of what it had to say on this score has been previously debunked.6

1. The initial plans had called for an air force of 21,000 planes when Germany went to war. The Luftwaffe never had more than 5,000, however.
2. Paul Bairoch's oft-cited 1982 data set on world manufacturing output through history gives Germany 13 percent of world industrial capacity. All the rest of non-Soviet, continental Europe together was another 13 percent, widely dispersed among its various nations, not all of which Germany controlled (Sweden and Switzerland remained independent), while the productivity of Germany and occupied Europe was hampered by the cut-off from imported inputs by the Allies' control of the oceans. By contrast, Bairoch's data gives the U.S. alone 31 percent of world manufacturing output in 1938 (more than all non-Soviet Europe combined).
3. In his study Does Conquest Pay? Peter Lieberman argued that Nazi Germany managed to make it do so--but all the same, conquered territories were not simple additions to the German resource base, as Tooze notes in his analysis.
4. To return to Bairoch's figures, the U.S. in coalition with the U.K. (another 11 percent) and the Soviet Union (another 9 percent) possessed 51 percent of world manufacturing capacity--a 4-to-1 advantage over Germany, and a 2-to-1 advantage over all of non-Soviet, continental Europe combined (independent states that merely traded with Germany included). Moreover, even these figures understate the margin of Allied advantage, given how the U.S. economy boomed during the war years (its economy growing about three-quarters), and Britain brought its broader Empire with its additional resources into the alliance.
 To be sure, this was somewhat offset by two factors: German conquest of much of the western Soviet Union, and the absorption of a portion of Allied resources by the simultaneous war in the Asia-Pacific region. However, much of the Soviet industrial base in the conquered parts was hurriedly relocated eastward ahead of their advance, and contributed to the Soviet productive effort (and more still denied the Germans). At the same time the diversion of Allied resources by the Pacific War was limited by Japan's more modest military-industrial capability (it had just 5 percent of world manufacturing in 1938), China's weight on the Allied side (much of the Japanese army and air force tied up fighting against the Chinese), and the Allies' prioritization of the war in Europe (the "Europe First" or "Germany First" policy).
5. While the critique of German strategy is solid, Tooze treats Allied strategy much less critically--a particular weakness when it comes to his assessment of the Combined Bomber Offensive.
6. The body of work regarding Britain in this respect can be found distilled in Clive Ponting's impressive 1940: Myth and Reality.

Reading Revisionism

It seems to me that I have been running across a great deal of revisionist World War II-era economic history as of late, focused primarily on how the balance stood between two of the war's major participants--Britain and Germany.

The old view was that the British Empire was stodgy and enfeebled, and looked it when it went up against sleek, ultra-modern, ultra-efficient Germany.

Much recent historiography has taken a different view--that Germany was not really so tough, nor Britain's performance so shabby. That it was really Germany that was the economic underdog against the trading and financial colossus--and, for all its dings, the techno-industrial colossus--Britain happened to be.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with revisionism as such. New information, and the availability of new ways of looking at, should prompt rethinkings of old perceptions and assumptions. However, revisionism also has a way of pandering to the fashion of the times--and this seems to be one of those cases.

This line of argument seems to say that Britain didn't do so badly out of free trade. That the country's weaknesses in manufacturing just didn't matter that much--that the emphasis on finance instead was just fine. That, by implication, the conservative establishment did just fine, overseeing the economy, and managing the country's foreign affairs, and then fighting the war--not needing any help from a bunch of lefties and Laborites, thank you very much, and certainly not disgracing itself the way they claim it had clearly done post-Dunkirk.

It seems more than coincidence that this is all very congenial to a conservative outlook--in particular the one that today says free trade, financialization, deindustrialization, the balance of payments (and all the rest of the consequences the neoliberal turn has had for the economies of the developed world) simply do not matter, that our future can be trusted to economic orthodoxy, that critical and dissenting views have nothing to offer. And also the one that says Britain can do just fine on its own, without any allies, continental or otherwise.

It is no more convincing in regard to the past than it is in regard to the present.

Still, even if one doubts the more extreme claims (there is simply no refuting Britain's failures as a manufacturing and trading nation), there is a considerable body of hard fact making it clear that Germany had some grave weaknesses--and Britain, some strengths that have to be acknowledged in any proper appraisal of the way the war was fought. So does it go in two books I have just reviewed here--Adam Tooze's study of the German economy in the Nazi period, The Wages of Destruction; and David Edgerton's more self-explanatory title, Britain's War Machine.

Review: The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze
9/18/17
Review: Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War, by David Edgerton
2/5/17
My Posts on William Haggard's Slow Burner
2/5/17
Review: Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, by David Edgerton
12/18/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
11/4/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15

September 2017

Reassessing Kurzweil's 2009 Predictions
9/18/17
Reading Revisionism
9/18/17
Review: The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze
9/18/17

Friday, August 18, 2017

Animated Films at the U.S. Box Office, 1980-2016: The Stats

Considering the stats on the action film (such films now typically six of the ten top-grossing films in a given year), I naturally found myself wondering--what about the other four? Naturally I thought of animated films--and again noticed a trend that exploded a little later. In the '80s there was not a single animated feature in the top ten of any year, apart from the partial exception of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). (Even the celebrated The Little Mermaid only made the #13 spot.) However, starting with 1991's Beauty and the Beast it became common in the '90s for there to be at least one such film in the top ten (six years had at least one, for an average of 0.8), much more standard in the 2000s (1.7 films a year, with 2008 having four such movies), and yet again in the 2010s. Every single year from 2010 on has had at least one, every year but 2011 at least two, and 2010 an amazing five of the top ten--clearly, at the expense of the action movies which had an especially poor showing that year.

In the 2010s that means that between the action movies, and the animated films, together accounting for eight to nine of the top ten movies in any given year, they pretty much have the uppermost reaches of the box office monopolized in a way that no two genres have ever had before, so far as I can tell. That one to two spots at most? One is often taken up by something similar--like a live-action version of an animated hit of yesteryear's (like 2014's Maleficent or 2015's Cinderella), leaving at most one other for any and everything else, from adult-oriented comedies (like 2012's Ted) to the occasional mainstream drama (like 2014's American Sniper).

Feel free to check my data (and my math) for yourself.

The Data Set
1980-1989: 0.
1990-1999: 8. (0.8 a year.)
1991-1: Beauty and the Beast.
1992-1: Aladdin.
1994-1: The Lion King.
1995-2: Toy Story, Pocahontas.
1998-1: A Bug's Life.
1999-2: Toy Story 2, Tarzan.
2000-2009: 17 films (1.7 a year).
2000-0
2001-2: Shrek, Monsters Inc.
2002-1: Ice Age.
2003-1: Finding Nemo.
2004-3: Shrek 2, The Incredibles, Polar Express.
2005-1: Madagascar.
2006-3: Cars, Happy Feet, Ice Age 2.
2007-1: Shrek 3.
2008-4: Wall-E, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, Dr. Suess' Horton Hears a Who.
2009-1: Up.
2010-2016: 19 films (2.7 a year).
2010-5: Toy Story 3, Despicable Me, Shrek 4, How to Train Your Dragon, Tangled.
2011-1: Cars 2.
2012-2: Brave, Madagascar 3.
2013-3: Frozen, Despicable Me 2, Monsters University.
2014-2: The LEGO Movie, Big Hero 6.
2015-2: Inside Out, Minions.
2016-4: Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, Zootopia, Sing.

The Action Film Becomes King of the Box Office: Actual Numbers
7/5/17

August 2017

Animated Films at the U.S. Box Office, 1980-2016: The Stats
8/18/17

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Action Film Becomes King of the Box Office: Actual Numbers

It seems generally understood that the action movie took off in the '80s, and, while going through some changes (becoming less often R-rated and more often PG-13-rated, setting aside the cops and commandos to focus on fantasy and science fiction themes), captured a bigger and bigger share of the box office until it reached its predominant position today.

Still, this is something people seem to take as a given without generally checking it for themselves, and so I decided to do just that, looking at the ten highest-grossing films of every year from 1980 to the present, as listed by that ever-handy database, BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Of course, this was a trickier endeavor than it might sound. I had to decide, after all, just what to count as an action film. In my particular count I strove to leave aside action-comedies where the accent is on comedy (Stakeout, Kindergarten Cop), sports dramas (the Rocky series), and suspense thrillers (Witness, Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct), war films (Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor), historical epics (Titanic) and fantasy and science fiction movies (Harry Potter) that may contain action but strike me as not really being put together as action films. I also left out animated films of all types even when they might have qualified (The Incredibles) to focus solely on live-action features. Some subjectivity was unavoidably involved in determining whether or not films made the cut even so. Still, I generally let myself be guided by BoxOfficeMojo when in doubt, and I suspect that, especially toward the latter part of the period, I undercounted rather than overcounted, and in the process understated just how much the market had shifted in the direction of action films (and to be frank, thought that the safer side to err on).

Ultimately I concluded that 2.2 such films a year were average in the '80s (1980--1989), 3.6 in '90s (1990-1999), 4.8 in the '00s (2000-2009), and 5.4 for the current decade so far (2010-2016). Moreover, discarding the unusual year of 2010 (just 2 action movies), a half dozen action films in the top ten have been the the norm for the last period (2011-2016). This amounts not just to a clear majority of the most-seen movies, but close to triple the proportion seen in the '80s.

Moreover, the upward trend was steady through the whole period. It does not seem insignificant that, while 2 a year were average for the '80s, 1989 was the first year in which the three top spots were all claimed by action movies (Batman, Indiana Jones and Lethal Weapon #1, #2 and #3 respectively). Nor that no year after 1988 had fewer than two such movies in the top ten, and only 3 of the 28 years that followed (1991, 1992 and 2010) had under three. Indeed, during the 2000-2009 period, not one year had less than four movies of the type in its top ten, and after 2010, not one year had under six.

Especially considering that I probably undercounted rather than overcounted, there is no denying the magnitude of that shift by this measure. And while at the moment I have not taken an equally comprehensive approach to the top 20 (which would provide an even fuller picture), my impression is that it would reinforce this assessment, rather than undermine it. If in 1980 we look at the top 20, we still see just one action movie--Empire Strikes Back. But if we do the same in 2016 we add to the six films in the top ten Doctor Strange, Jason Bourne, Star Trek Beyond and X-Men: Apocalypse, four more films (even while we leave out such films as Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Kung Fu Panda 3).

Anyone who cares to can check my counting below and see if they come up with anything much different.

The Data
1980-1989 average: 22 films (2.2 a year).
1980-top 10 films, only 1 action movie-Empire Strikes Back.
1981-2: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman II.
1982-2: Star Trek 2 and 48 HRS.
1983-3: Return of the Jedi, Octopussy, Sudden Impact.
1984-3: Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones, Star Trek 3.
1985-2: Rambo 2, Jewel of the Nile.
1986-2: Top Gun, Aliens.
1987-3: Beverly Hills Cop 2, Lethal Weapon, The Untouchables.
1988-1: Die Hard.
1989-3: Batman, Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon 2 (all in the top 3 slots, the first time this ever happened).

1990-1999: 36 films (3.6 a year).
1990-4: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Hunt for Red October, Total Recall, Die Hard 2.
1991-2: Terminator 2, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
1992-2: Batman 2, Lethal Weapon 3.
1993-4: Jurassic Park, The Fugitive, In the Line of Fire, Cliffhanger.
1994-3: True Lies, Clear and Present Danger, Speed.
1995-5: Batman 3, Goldeneye, Die Hard 3, Apollo 13, Jumanji.
1996-4: ID, Twister, Mission: Impossible, The Rock.
1997-5: Men in Black, The Lost World, Air Force One, Star Wars (Episode IV reissue), Tomorrow Never Dies.
1998-4: Armageddon, Rush Hour, Deep Impact, Godzilla.
1999-3: Star Wars: Episode I, The Matrix, The Mummy.

2000-2009: 48 films (4.8 a year).
2000-4: Mission: Impossible 2, Gladiator, A Perfect Storm, X-Men.
2001-5: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) 1, Rush Hour 2, Mummy, Jurassic 3, The Planet of the Apes.
2002-4: Spiderman, Star Wars: Episode II, LOTR 2, Men In Black 2.
2003-6:  LOTR 3, The Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix 2, X-Men 2, Terminator 3, The Matrix 3.
2004-4: Spiderman 2, The Day After Tomorrow, The Bourne Supremacy, National Treasure.
2005-5: Star Wars: Episode III, The War of the Worlds, King Kong, Batman Begins, Mr and Mrs. Smith.
2006-4: Pirates of the Caribbean 2, X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Casino Royale.
2007-7: Spiderman 3, The Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, National Treasure 2, The Bourne Ultimatum, I Am Legend Legend, 300.
2008-5: The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man, Hancock, Quantum of Solace.
2009-4: Avatar, Transformers 2, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes.

2010-2016: 38 films (5.4 a year).
2010-2: Iron Man 2, Inception.
2011-6: Transformers 3, Pirates 4, Fast Five, MI 4, Sherlock 2, Thor.
2012-6: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Hunger Games, Skyfall, Hobbit 1, Spiderman.
2013-6: Hunger Games 2, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Hobbit 2, Fast 6, Oz the Great and Powerful.
2014-6: Hunger Games 3, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America 2, Hobbit 3, Transformers 4, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
2015-6: Star Wars, Jurassic, Avengers 2, Furious, Hunger Games 4, Specter.
2016-6: Rogue One, Captain America III, Jungle Book, Deadpool, Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad.

The Superhero Film Gets a Makeover
6/16/17
Thoughts on the Wonder Woman Movie Actually Happening
6/16/17
On the Historiography of Science Fiction: Info-Dumping and Incluing
6/3/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Reconsidering Watchmen
5/21/16
The Enduring Superhero Boom
5/21/16
Have Superheroes Taken Over the Box Office?
10/25/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
The American Box Office, First Half of 2015
7/6/15
The Decline of the R-Rated Movie
8/11/14
The Decline of the R-Rated Action Movie
8/11/14
My Posts on Superheroes
12/12/12

July 2017

The Action Film Becomes King of the Box Office: Actual Numbers
7/5/17

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Superhero Film Gets a Makeover

As regular readers of this blog (all two of you, unless I'm miscounting by two) know, I have been watching the superhero movie bubble for years expecting it to pop. Of course it hasn't, so far--this, seventeen summers after Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) (which in turn came a decade after 1989's Batman became the biggest hit of the year, and its franchise the most successful of the 1989-1995 period). And the conventional wisdom seems to be that this longest-running of action movie fashions can go on indefinitely.

I'm less sure of what to think than before. The studios have slates packed with superhero films through 2020, and by now probably beyond it as well, and at this moment I wouldn't care to bet on their shelving those plans because of an untoward change in the market--still less because of three approaches which are proving commercially viable.

R-Rated Superhero Movies
Of course, there have been plenty of R-rated superhero movies before--like the Blade movies, and Wanted and Watchmen. The difference was that they tended to not be made about first-string characters, or given first-rate budgets, with the expectation justified by their small prospect of first-rate grosses.

So did it also go with Deadpool, who was not a first-string character (Deadpool reminds us of this himself, rather crudely, in the early part of the film), and who didn't get the really big budget (Deadpool gabbing endlessly about this too). Rather than original or fresh or subversive (it had nothing on Watchmen here, or even the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four) it struck me as a mediocre second-stringer, notable only in how heavy on tired independent film-type shtick. Still, the film exploded ($363 million at the U.S. box office, nearly $800 million worldwide--a feat the more impressive for it not having played in the ever-more important Chinese market), and has already had a sort of follow-up in a genuine first-stringer--Wolverine--getting an R-rated film, Logan, earlier this year. (The budget was, again, limited next to the full-blown X-Men movies at under $100 million, but the character and the budget were a bigger investment than Deadpool represented, and with over $600 million banked it seems likely to encourage even bolder moves of this kind later.)

What's going on here?

One possibility is the change in the makeup of the market. It seems that R-rated films (and not just raunchy comedies), while far from where they were in the '80s and even '90s in terms of market share, have done better recently than at any time this century, and superhero films have reflected the turn. (In 2014, American Sniper topped the box office and Gone Girl also did well, while 2015 saw The Revenant and Fifty Shades of Grey become top 20 hits at the American box office, and Mad Max: Fury Road claim the #21 spot.) I might add that reading the Box Office Guru's biweekly reports, I'm struck by how much the audience for recent films has been dominated by the over-25 crowd--younger people perhaps going to the movies less often. (Living life online, while having less access to cars and less money in general, I suspect they don't go to the theater so much as they used to do.) This might make an R-rating less prohibitive than it used to be for an action film producer, perhaps especially in this case. By this point anyone who is twenty-five probably has little memory of a time when the action genre was not dominated by superheroes. They grew up on superheroes, are used to superheroes, and so R-rated films about people with unlikely powers dressed in colorful spandex seem less silly to them, and so not such a tough sell as they would have been once upon a time.

Woman-Centered Superhero Movies
Just as we have had plenty of R-rated superhero movies in the past, we have had plenty of superhero films with female protagonists. The difference was that, as I recently wrote here, while there were movies with female superhero protagonists (Elektra, for example), and first-string superhero movies prominently including female superheroes in their casts (Black Widow in the Avengers), the flops of the early 2000s left Hollywood discouraged about presenting really first-string superhero movies centered on female protagonists. The grosses of YA dystopia films like The Hunger Games, Lucy and Mad Max have made the studios readier to go down this road, however--and the success of Wonder Woman is reinforcing this. And I suspect that at the very least the trend will endure for a while, if not prove here to stay.

Mega-Franchises
Where the decision to make big-budget films centered on female superheroes is a case of the superhero movie following trends set by others, in this case the superheroes have led the way. The Marvel studio gambled big and won big with a larger Marvel Comics Universe, which regularized Avengers-style grosses to such a degree that even an Iron Man or Captain America sequel could deliver them. Inspired by this course Warner Brothers gambled (but has not yet won big) with a comparable Justice League franchise. Since then Disney (Marvel's current owner) has given Star Wars the same treatment (and so far, won big again), while Universal, not to be left behind, has decided to do the same with a film franchise based on its classic movie monsters. (The first effort, the recent reboot of The Mummy, is a commercial disappointment, but as the WB demonstrated in plowing ahead with its Justice League despite the reservations about Man of Steel and Superman vs. Batman, the project is too big to be shut down by a single setback.)

A credulous postmodernist might gush at the possibilities for intertextuality. But the reality is that this is of principally commercial rather than artistic significance--as is the case with the other two trends discussed here. Indeed, by upping the commercial pressure (studios now want not a series delivering a solid hit every two or three years on the strength of the built-in audience, but a hit machine delivering record breaking-blockbusters once or twice a year) the greater synchronization, the higher financial stakes would seem likely to tie the artists' hands to a degree those who still lament the decline of New Hollywood can scarcely fathom as yet. Still, superficial as most of this is (we are not talking about a reinvention of superhero films here), the success of Deadpool says something about how little it might take to keep the boom going longer than the decades it has already managed.

Thoughts on the Wonder Woman Movie Actually Happening
6/16/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2015)
8/18/16
Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2005)
5/25/16
Reconsidering Watchmen
5/21/16
The Enduring Superhero Boom
5/21/16
Have Superheroes Taken Over the Box Office?
10/25/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Star Wars: Another Marvel Movie Machine
7/19/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
The American Box Office, First Half of 2015
7/6/15
The Decline of the R-Rated Movie
8/11/14
The Decline of the R-Rated Action Movie
8/11/14
Man of Steel Part 2, Wonder Woman Part 0?
12/16/13
A Note on Independent Film
8/1/13
My Posts on Superheroes
12/12/12
Give the Superheroes a Rest?
9/14/10

Thoughts on the Wonder Woman Movie Actually Happening

As is well known by now to anyone who pays much attention to films of the type, DC got the Wonder Woman film made, and got it out this summer, and it has already pulled in enough money to be safely confirmed as a commercial success. (Its $460 million is just over half the $873 million the "disappointing" Superman vs. Batman made back in early 2016, and the final tally will probably fall well short of that figure--the Box Office Guru figuring something on the order $750 million. But it was not quite so big an investment, making it a very healthy return.)

In the process DC has realized what I described a few years ago as a longshot.

Of course, quite a lot has happened since--some of it, what seemed to me to be prerequisites for a Wonder Woman film. Warner Brothers firmly committed itself to a Justice League megafranchise comparable to the Marvel Comics Universe, and used the "backdoor" Justice League movie Superman vs. Batman: The Dawn of Justice to introduce new characters, Wonder Woman included.

There has, too, been something of a resurgence in big-budget action movies with female protagonists. Again, the female action hero didn't go away in the preceding years. There were still plenty of really high-profile, big-budget movies featuring action heroines--if as part of an ensemble, like the Black Widow (featured in five movies to date). There were still plenty of second-string action movies with female leads getting by on lower budgets and lower grosses--like the films of the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises (which have continued up to the present).

What there wasn't a lot of were movies combining a first-string production with a female lead between the early 2000s (the underperformance of the Charlie's Angels and Tomb Raider sequels in the summer of 2003, Catwoman winding up a flop in 2004, Aeon Flux becoming another disappointment in 2005, putting studios off) and the middle of this decade, when they began to crop up again. The Hunger Games exploded (2012), and was followed up by its mega-budgeted sequels (2013, 2014, 2015), the initially cautious but later bigger-budgeted Divergent films (2013, 2014, 2015) and the $150 million Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) (with the low-budget but high-grossing Lucy in 2014) reinforcing the trend. Still, even if this makes clear what an exaggeration the claims for Wonder Woman as something unprecedented are (both by the studios, and the sycophantic entertainment press), it has some claim to looking like a watershed moment.

That said, the question would seem to be whether such films will now be a commonplace of the cinematic landscape, or prone to the kind of boom and bust seen in the early 2000s. What do you think?

Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Have Superheroes Taken Over the Box Office?
10/25/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Man of Steel Part 2, Wonder Woman Part 0?
12/16/13
Why the Wonder Woman Movie Hasn't Happened
3/16/13
My Posts on Superheroes
12/12/12

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