You come into every year with the expectation of promise. Sometimes, things turn out the way you’d hoped. Sometimes they don’t—and sometimes, something else comes along out of nowhere and sweeps you off your feet entirely, for better or worse. Here are a few of the surprises that delighted or disappointed us in 2019.
Alita: Battle Angel, based on the iconic manga, was James Cameron’s dream project and took years to finally come to fruition. Once we learned that not only was it happening, but Cameron was bringing Robert Rodriguez and Altered Carbon showrunner Laeta Kalogridis onboard, we were hyped—even after seeing the creepy eyes. Unfortunately, the final product was lackluster. Rosa Salazar shined as Alita, but the movie couldn’t figure out how to do her justice. It was overstuffed with plot exposition—with Alita forced to listen to people tell her things more than act —and the regressive love story with Hugo felt like something out of Cameron’s previous works like Avatar or Titanic. The movie ended on sequel bait thanks to a cameo from Edward Norton, but it seems unlikely this story is going to continue.
We’re not sure we’ll ever get over this one. Unbreakable is, unquestionably, one of the most unique superhero movies ever. Split was just OK, but its link to Unbreakable was so shocking that it gained a whole other level of appreciation. Then finally, after years of waiting, M. Night Shyamalan was ready to officially return to the world of David Dunn and Mr. Glass with Glass, the trilogy capper we hoped would be the ultimate superhero finale. But...no. Glass was an empty vessel—a hodgepodge of ideas and characters that never quite came together. It felt like act three of a four-act play, instead of the finale of a three-act play. All these months after its release, very little about it is memorable except the painful feeling of disappointment that Shyamalan got a chance to make his superhero magnum opus, and instead left us cold and drowning in a puddle.
Everything that had to go right did with Terminator: Dark Fate did...until it didn’t. James Cameron was back creating the story and producing. Talented director Tim Miller was behind the camera. Arnold Schwarzenegger was back once again but also, for the first time, Linda Hamilton. Holy shit! This was the Terminator movie fans had wanted to see since the early ‘90s. When it came out, the film actually delivered! It’s got a great balance of action and character with emotion and pathos. The problem, however, seemed to be the past. The saying goes “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” and after two beyond awful Terminator sequels, Salvation and Genisys, it just seemed audiences were not going to be fooled again no matter what. Upon release, despite above average reviews, Dark Fate bombed and bombed hard at the box office, all but negating any chance fans would have to see how Sarah Connor and her new protégé, Dani, would fight to stop the inevitability of war against machines.
The Watchmen graphic novel is...fine. But Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work holds an iconic place in comic book history, so much so that when DC announced it was doing a Before Watchmen prequel comic series in 2012, some fans got very upset. Similarly, when it was revealed way back in June of 2017 that we were getting a Watchmen TV series on HBO, there was a lot of concern around the project. While there was some relief when we found out the show would take place after the events of the comics, neither Before Watchmen or HBO’s Watchmen had the original creators involved and Moore went on record to say he was squarely against both. Even with Damon Lindelof’s impassioned plea about what this series meant to him, a lot could have gone wrong and HBO could have been banking big on a big loser.
No one really thought Watchmen would work. And then...it did. It wasn’t only good, it was great. We have Lindelof, Nick Cuse, Lila Byock, Christal Henry, Cord Jefferson, Jeff Jensen, Claire Kiechel, Stacy Osei-Kuffour, and Carly Wray to thank for bringing us a story that somehow worked on every level. It told what felt like a natural progression of the original story, adding on new and exciting characters, plots, mysteries, and imagery (Lube Man 4Ever). It also deftly gave viewers a history lesson and offered scathing commentary on where we are right now. The cast? Well, to be fair, we were all in on them from the moment they were announced. Even then, they exceeded our expectations too. Watchmen was truly a masterpiece we did not foresee. We can’t all be Doctor Manhattan, we guess...
It’s safe to say that even people who don’t normally pay attention to comic book movies were intrigued by Joker. The gritty, grim, R-rated tale of a misfit whose disintegrating mental state, exacerbated by a world that’s falling apart around him, also just happened to be an origin story (or perhaps inspiration story, depending on how you interpret it) for Batman’s best-known villain. Before its release, Joker earned some negative press because its director, Todd Phillips, and star, Joaquin Phoenix, seemed reluctant to engage with media concerns about the film’s place within America’s culture of violence; this atmosphere of unease only worsened with reports that “incels” were planning some kind of action around Joker screenings. But once the movie opened, another story entirely grabbed even more headlines: Joker’s jaw-dropping, record-setting box office success, and, perhaps even more incredibly, talk of a sequel.
The X-Men have been in a weird rut in Marvel’s comics for what felt like an age. There was that whole time they got sidelined so the comics could push their relatively obscure siblings, the Inhumans, because they were the ones Marvel Studios had the rights to. Their first attempt at a major comeback after that particular pipe dream failed to spark intrigue among fans. So even with a legendary name like Jonathan Hickman attached, yet another crack at the X-book reboot whip so soon brought considerable skepticism with it.
What we got instead was one of the most compelling superhero sagas of the year. Week after week, the one-two punch of House and Powers of X audaciously re-imagined and re-contextualized an ascendant mutantkind that not only dared to position decades worth of conflicting histories into a single, important, cohesive whole, but reframed Charles Xavier and his gifted children as esoteric, alien, and proud peoples unlike anything else in Marvel’s comic book universe. Dawn of X, the line relaunch that has followed, has hit the ground running with a bunch of intriguing ideas and new status quos for beloved characters (Kitty Pryde, X-Men Pirate Captain, has to be the best of a great bunch). The X-Men are back, and we should all be intrigued, excited, and frankly, a little bit scared.
The original Dark Crystal still holds up thanks to its incredible puppet work, so maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised that its modern-made successor (well, prequel) could deftly bring a similar artistry to 21st century design and technology. And yet, just how jaw-droppingly beautiful the puppets of Age of Resistance are completely took us by surprise. Minutes into the first episode of the series, you almost completely forget you’re watching very intricately detailed figurines being pulled and pushed about by people just below camera, wielding a strange mix of levers and strings and sticks with remotely-controlled animatronics. The puppets of Age of Resistance quickly just became…people. You accepted them as real, living, breathing characters immediately, and it was only when something truly spectacular happened—a grand action setpiece or a big, dramatic character scene that you remembered that, holy shit, these are puppets.
There was a brief moment where, unsure they could replicate the groundbreaking work of the original, the Henson company considered mixing CG characters with a few puppeteered creations. They quickly realized that CG couldn’t completely replace the physicality and charm of a puppet (instead, it could be used to enhance it, something Age of Resistance also does to delightful effect), and we’re so very glad they did.
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