This was a year of massive victories and horrendous defeats. Science fiction and fantasy rocked pop culture like never before, but that just meant the stakes were higher and the lessons were harsher. For every Avengers, there was a John Carter. Television shows struggled and died. Publishing convulsed.
Here are 12 lessons that the entertainment industry should learn from this brutal, glorious year.
1) It's worth making decent movies
This year saw a pretty decent increase in U.S. box office, after years and years of decline — they bottomed out in 2011 — and the reason seems to be that people were jazzed about movies again. Actual movie attendance was way up, so the increased box office wasn't just studios finding ways to squeeze more money out of the same number of people with post-processed 3-D and fake IMAX. And the general consensus seems to be, the movies were just better this year. Obviously, you can't do Avengers every single year, but you can raise the overall quality and pick good source material instead of drek. Which brings us to...
2) Nostalgia isn't necessarily a license to print money
Do you have tons of fond memories of playing Battleship as a kid? Did you grow up watching Dark Shadows on television? Were your dreams of exploration shaped by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom stories? If so, apparently, you're on your own. If you list the year's biggest failures, many of them seem like an attempt to capture nostalgia for things that not that many people actually felt nostalgic for. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Total Recall was a big hit in 1990, but how many people were clamoring for a remake? Also, I feel like Prometheus was this year's Tron Legacy — a very shiny, stylized CG-heavy follow-up to a beloved movie from a few decades ago, that wound up doing well enough, but not breaking the bank domestically.
3) People love a massive culmination
If you can build up to the final movie in a series, or the huge team-up after a bunch of solo movies, and you can actually deliver, people will be stoked. Breaking Dawn Part 2 may not have been our favorite movie, but it did amazingly well and satisfied the legions of Twi-hards. Avengers paid off years of anticipation, while Dark Knight Rises and Men in Black III both benefited from being massively long-awaited threequels.
4) China is the future of movies
This was probably the year that China's power as a consumer of Hollywood films became apparent. Looper benefited tremendously from Chinese co-production, and Chinese audiences saw a different cut of the film with more material set in Shanghai. Chinese theatergoers also saw a different version of Men in Black 3, with less of the obnoxious "Chinese restaurant" scene. When China decided to open Amazing Spider-Man and Dark Knight Rises on the same day, you could hear the cries of consternation across the globe. And when Iron Man 3 looked like it was going to accept Chinese co-production status without filming in China, there was enough of a backlash that even Tony Stark no longer looked invulnerable.
5) The Lost era is over
Lost was the kind of hit that only comes along once in a blue moon. It was still getting pretty blockbuster ratings in its sixth and final season, and it was watercooler television. So it's understandable that the TV networks really, really wanted to have more soap-operatic shows with huge mysteries, where people talk in riddles and nobody ever just comes out and explains shit. But I think we finally saw the death of the Lost copycat. ABC, in particular, tried so freaking hard to have another Lost, with shows like FlashForward — and this year, they launched The River and 666 Park Avenue, which starred John Locke himself. Another show that died in 2012: Alcatraz, a J.J. Abrams show that featured an island full of mysterious secrets and a lot of gratuitous weirdness. Awake seemed to be toying with Lost's penchant for surreal mystery too, and Revolution had the mysteries and the flashbacks. But people seem to be getting the memo at last: drawing things out and having mysteries for mysteries sake isn't cool, and it doesn't make us fall in love automatically. Former Lost producers Adam Kitsis and Edward Horowitz showed how it's done, with Once Upon a Time, a show that didn't make us years to wait for its big curse to be broken. Revolution is a hit for now, but everybody seems to agree it needs to pick up the pace to survive.
6) Female characters with agency are hot
This was the year of Katniss Everdeen. But also, even though Pixar's Brave got mixed buzz, it was one of the top 10 most successful films of the year and made more money than Wall-E. Also, Skyfall rode on the shoulders of Judi Dench more than any of the previous James Bond films had, and the result was amazing. Oh, and of the two dueling Snow White movies, Snow White and the Huntsman — which featured a tough, armor-wearing Snow White — did way better than Mirror Mirror. And getting back to Revolution, we complained a lot about Charlie as a protagonist, but when she stopped whining and killed some mooks, she was generally a lot more watchable. And women's fantasies were hot too, which brings us to...
7) The only way to cash in on a publishing sensation is to delve into the fantasy
Book publishers had been trying for years to cash in on the Twilight craze, with dozens of copycats and an entire Paranormal Romance genre — but this year, it finally happened. In the weirdest way you can possibly imagine. The year's biggest book? Fifty Shades of Grey. Possibly the year's second biggest book? Fifty Shades Darker. This former Twilight fanfic did the only thing you could possibly do to make Twilight even more addictive — strip away all the vampire carpeting and expose the hardwood floors of raw, sexy BDSM.
8) Arrows are awesome
This is hardly a new observation — but this really was the year of the arrow. From Katniss to Merida to Oliver Queen to Hawkeye, everybody was shooting fricken arrows this year. But this was also the year that everybody seemed to decide that enough gun violence was enough gun violence — we had at least two very high-profile gun massacres, and a ton of random gun death. And so the fact that our biggest heroes all seemed to be toting somewhat less lethal ordnance — and in the case of Arrow, actually lecturing about the benefits of non-lethality — seemed significant.
9) Big books do better on television than in movies
It seemed like a bit of a miracle that Hunger Games translated to the big screen as well as it did — but Cloud Atlas seemed like it was never going to work, and indeed, it didn't quite work out. And meanwhile, book adaptations clearly started to rule television, especially Game of Thrones and Walking Dead. With tons and tons of book adaptations in the pipeline at the major networks and cable channels, execs finally seem to be recognizing that audiences love a big weighty story, full of complicated characters, on the small screen.
10) Noir is fundamental
Noir popped up everywhere this year — there were little moments of noir in The Avengers, with Black Widow's dark, tormented past, and The Dark Knight Rises brought Christopher Nolan's love of noir to a new level. Person of Interest was often at its best when it brought in tinges of noir as well, with its stories of a dirty cop trying to go straight and a hacker who has seen too much "bad code" in the world. And then there was Looper, which proved once and for all that noir is science fiction's best friend.
11) We want heroes who are actually heroic
As in selfless. As in self-sacrificing. As in "This time, it's not personal." A lot of the year's best heroic stories were about selfish people learning to be selfless, and discovering the true meaning of being a hero. Like Merida, who just wants to do her own thing but needs to learn about responsibility. Or Wreck-It Ralph, who wants a medal that says "Hero," but doesn't know what it means to be a hero. Or Oliver Queen, who needs Diggle to kick his ass every week. Or Tony Stark, who is willing to lay down his life in The Avengers. Also, to the extent that Amazing Spider-Man worked and wasn't just a boring retread, it was because of the scenes where Dennis Leary schools Andrew Garfield in the real heroism of real cops, and explains why Spider-Man seeking revenge for his uncle's death isn't the same thing.
12) Use genre to tell a story, not to comment on the story
This was perhaps the clearest contrast of the year — you had things like Frankenweenie and ParaNorman, which seemed to be winking at their genre trappings. You had weird postmodern genre mashups like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and campy sequels like Ghost Rider 2. And then you had things that seemed to be trying to tell a story, and using the genre trappings as tools to tell the story. Aliens attacked Earth in both Battleship and Avengers — but in Battleship, it just seemed like a thing that happened because there needed to be some disaster porn and a threat for Taylor Kitsch to pout at. The biggest lesson of 2012: DON'T WEAR YOUR GENRE TRAPPINGS LIKE A HAT.