After an onslaught of interstellar bad guys, shape-shifting robots, giant monsters and costumed villains, the galaxy is safe and sound — but the state of the summer box office is another matter. This year's lackluster May-to-Labor Day movie season finished as the worst since 1997 (adjusting for inflation), with U.S. ticket sales dropping 15% from last year's record summer.
What went wrong — and what, if anything, went right? Here are five takeaways from Hollywood's slow summer.
1. The highlights weren't very high: For the third year in a row, a movie from Disney-owned Marvel Studios — in this case "Guardians of the Galaxy" — ruled the summer box office. Although the space opera earned excellent reviews and has taken in $280.5 million in the U.S. and Canada, setting August box-office records, it still fell considerably short of last year's "Iron Man 3" ($409 million) and 2012's "The Avengers" ($623 million).
No movie managed to crack the $300-million mark this summer, whereas two easily surpassed that number last year ("Iron Man 3" and "Despicable Me 2," with the latter grossing $368 million). In other words, none of this summer's multiplex offerings truly captured audiences' attention as they did in years past.
2. Playing it safe proved dangerous: Summer is traditionally packed with sequels, prequels, adaptations and reboots, but this year studios may have relied a bit too heavily on franchises that have delivered in the past, rather than taking chances on fresh offerings: None of the 10 top-grossing movies released this summer was an original creation (that is, not based on another movie or some other property, like a comic book).
Studios released a dozen sequels, including "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "X-Men: Days of Future Past," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "The Expendables 3," "Step Up All In" and "Think Like a Man Too," but not a single one surpassed $250 million domestically, and many were down from their previous installments. Franchise fatigue appears to be setting in for a number of those series.
By sticking to a relatively safe slate, studios managed to avoid high-profile bombs like last year's "The Lone Ranger," "After Earth" and "R.I.P.D," but they also failed to reach past heights.
3. Missing pieces were missed: This summer might not have been so dreary if some highly anticipated films hadn't been bumped from the calendar. "Fast and Furious 7," the next chapter in the blockbuster action franchise, was originally scheduled for a plum July release but was delayed after the death of Paul Walker.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. postponed the Wachowskis' sci-fi spectacle "Jupiter Ascending" from July to February 2015, and Disney pushed the Pixar animated movie "The Good Dinosaur" from May to November 2015. In general, there was a dearth of major family-friendly animated movies this summer, with just two, compared with six last year.
4. Female-driven movies picked up some slack: Among this summer's scant bright spots was the trend of movies with strong female characters performing well at the box office. "Maleficent," a revisionist take on "Sleeping Beauty" starring Angelina Jolie, was the third-highest-grossing movie of the summer, taking in more than $238 million domestically.
Other recent female-driven successes include the Scarlett Johansson thriller "Lucy" and the Shailene Woodley romantic drama "The Fault in Our Stars."
5. August wasn't the cruelest month: In the past, August has had a reputation as a bit of a cinematic dumping ground, beginning the sometimes awkward transitional period between the blockbusters of June and July and the prestige pictures of fall. But this summer, which unofficially opened early with "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" in April, also finished strong in August.
Two of the summer's top 10 grossers were released in August: "Guardians" and "Ninja Turtles," with the latter grossing about $166 million domestically. It wasn't enough to save summer, but it did help stop the bleeding.