The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
The Harry Potter series was too big to fail, and yet it could’ve failed so easily, again and again. In Harry Potter, Warner Bros. had a diamond mine: a series of books that had become a massively lucrative global phenomenon, with a built-in and devoted young audience, plus some blockbuster-ready good-and-evil spectacle. It also had a cast full of children, a gigantic budget, a very active author with veto power, and a fanbase that would’ve been happy to riot at all but the most minute changes. The series lasted a decade. Its trio of young stars stayed with the franchise the whole time, handled the brain-crushing media attention with grace, and managed not to become cautionary tales. None of this was inevitable.
The Harry Potter movies are no masterpieces, but it’s a small miracle that the series managed to get through all eight of its installments without ever veering off the tracks. With most of the copycat franchises, things turned out differently. When Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone became the biggest box-office earner of 2001, Hollywood’s studios raced to catch up, adapting virtually every halfway popular series of young-adult fantasy novels. By the time the Harry Potter films reached their climactic 2011 ending, those other attempts had crashed and burned spectacularly.
All through the ’00s, the Harry Potter imitators were legion. If you had a book series about a special kid with secret powers entering into a magical new world, your book series was about to become at least one movie. Most of those films failed wildly, and their titles now exist only as strange and mysterious curiosities left over from a forgotten time: Eragon, Seventh Son, Alex Rider: Stormbreaker, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. You’re not having a stroke! These movies exist!
In those misbegotten years, the studios tossed up brick after brick, attempting to hit that elusive Potter-level half-court shot. Disney tried to turn its old Fantasia short The Sorcerer’s Apprentice into a Jerry Bruckheimer fantasy, with Nicolas Cage as a Dumbledore type and Jay Baruchel as a Potter type. Fox got the rights for Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, probably the best and most popular books of the post-Potter zeitgeist, and the studio brought in Chris Columbus, director of the first two Potter films, to kick off the saga. But they cast a group of deeply bland and uninteresting kids, and the movies hit like a wet fart. The first Percy Jackson got one lower-budgeted sequel, and that was it for the series. New Line took a run at Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, but the 2007 adaptation The Golden Compass was a boring, confusing mess. The film attempted to omit just about all the anti-religious messaging of the book, but religious organizations freaked out anyway, and the planned film series immediately died. His Dark Materials seems to be faring much better as an HBO show.
Even Narnia clanged off the back of the rim. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe was a smash, one of the biggest hits of 2005. But the public met its two sequels with a collective shrug. Somewhere, someone was probably planning a whole C.S. Lewis theme park that will never come into being. Supposedly, another two Narnia movies will eventually come out as direct-to-Netflix releases, but nobody seems too worried about if and when that will actually happen. Somehow, the Potter imitations are still coming out and still flailing; witness the 2020 Disney+ release of Artemis Fowl, the widely reviled kid-lit adaptation from former Potter cast member Kenneth Branagh.
The one attempt at Potter-level mania that actually worked was Twilight, which had its own literary-phenomenon headwinds and also had Potter-alum heartthrob Robert Pattinson at its center. The absolutely bonkers Twilight films had a whole cosmology of their own, which really had nothing to do with the extended Potter universe. Instead, the Twilight movies seemed aimed at the older sisters of the Potter fans—or maybe at the Potter fans who weren’t kids anymore. In 2011, when the Potter series wrapped up, Twilight was getting close to the finish line as well. The No. 3 hit of that year was the penultimate entry The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1. The success of Twilight would lead to its own young-adult mini-boom.
Really, though, Harry Potter was peerless. In retrospect, the series’ whole 10-year project serves as a model for long-term blockbuster world-building. Marvel certainly followed its lead—introducing screen adaptations of beloved print characters, building them slowly over multiple movies, bringing everything to the big climax that dominates all its theatrical rivals. (Marvel also borrowed the effect where the big-bad villain dissolves into dust at the end.) The Potter movies had started out wooden and pedestrian, but they’d grown with their stars, finding new emotional notes and big, imaginatively staged moments. By the time they finished up in 2011, the movies were pretty good.
A lot of that has to do with the directors. After those underwhelming first two Chris Columbus movies, Potter producer David Heyman brought in ringers Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell for one film apiece. But for the last four Potter entries, the film found its steward: David Yates, a veteran of British TV, who oversaw things as the series entered its darker, more grown-up second half. It made sense, really. When you were coming out with another movie almost every year, the movies themselves practically became TV, so a TV guy might’ve been best-qualified to keep the gears turning. Marvel probably learned something from that, too. For its Avengers franchise, Marvel started out with Joss Whedon and then moved onto the Russo Brothers. TV guys all.
J.K. Rowling was still writing the Potter books as the movies came out, and the books got longer and longer. By the end, they physically looked and felt like cinderblocks, so the producers made the entirely sane decision to cut the final book into two films. (Virtually every successful fantasy series would follow that model, including Avengers.) As a result, 2010’s Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is a bit of a grim slog, full of endless scenes of the movie’s kids teleporting to different picturesque bits of remote British landscape and sweatily arguing with each other. But Part 2, by far the highest-grossing film of 2011, is practically all climax. It’s two straight hours at the fireworks factory, and it’s a lot of fun.
Deathly Hallows: Part 2 uses apocalypse as its starting point. The non-evil side of the wizarding world has fallen. The Minister Of Magic is dead, with a fascist puppet in his place. Lord Voldemort’s fanatical minions have taken power, and they kill at will. Several beloved characters are already dead, and more will die. Our heroes are on the run, in a mad Hail Mary scramble. They have to make their move or all is lost. If you’d been following along with all the Potter films leading up to this, that’s a pretty thrilling place to be. And given that all seven of the previous movies had been hits, the Potter producers could be fairly confident that you had been following along.
Yates and his actors filmed Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Part 2 back-to-back, and the two movies opened just eight months apart. Part 2 has a bit of throat-clearing, including an action set piece that seems clearly designed to be remade as a roller coaster. But the early scenes don’t take too long, and they do a nice job selling the stakes of what’s to come. A lot of that has to do with the casting. Early on, the producers made the smart decision to surround their young cast members with grand and imperious British Shakespearean stage actors. But the time the films wrapped up, practically the entire U.K. theatrical ecosystem was involved. On days when the Battle Of Hogwarts was filming, there must’ve been tumbleweeds blowing through the West End.
J.K. Rowling’s books are practically plot machines, and Deathly Hallows: Part 2 handles all the frantic story twists of the book with relative aplomb, never getting too deep into the woods about what, exactly, a horcrux is. Part 2 is only a little over two hours, and it seems to rocket by. The movie barely slows down to breathe for some of the story’s big emotional beats, but considering that it covers a time when the characters couldn’t exactly process those events either, the speed works.
The final battle itself has an appropriately grand scale, and it’s wild how much better the effects became over 10 years of Potter movies. There are cool sights aplenty in Part 2, from Dementors eerily hovering in the mist to a giant sweeping a battleaxe back and forth like a hockey stick to a werewolf gloating over a kid’s bloody corpse. (I bet this movie fucked some kids up.) Eduardo Serra’s cinematography is dark, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s going on, but the sense of all-enveloping chaos is still effective. A few images linger: The Malfoy family fleeing Hogwarts in rictus silent-film panic; the sympathetic ghosts of dead protectors hovering around Harry; the searing brightness of Harry’s afterlife vision. For a blockbuster that has to follow a rigid storyline and fulfill its corporate obligations, little moments like those are sometimes enough.
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 couldn’t ever be a truly moving cinematic vision. It had to follow a severely restrictive and intricately laid out story, it had to appeal to the widest possible global audience, and it had to avoid pissing off any of the people who’d constructed identities around loving Harry Potter. In a way, maybe it’s better to judge a film like Deathly Hallows: Part 2 as if it’s a season finale of a massive-budget TV series. In season finale terms, though, Deathly Hallows delivers. It even gives its characters a nice little grace note, flashing forward a couple of decades to when the characters, in convincing middle-aged makeup, are parents themselves. For a coming-of-age story, that epilogue works as one final rite of passage.
Of course, the end wasn’t the end. The Potter kids all went on to varyingly successful post-Potter careers, and the beloved adult character actors went back to being beloved adult character actors onstage and in films with relatively few CGI effects. But David Yates followed Deathly Hallows: Part 2 with the disastrous 2016 flop The Legend Of Tarzan, and then he went right back to the wizard stuff. Yates has already directed the first two of Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them spin-offs. Those movies got everything wrong that the original Potter series got right. They’re narratively incoherent, irritatingly antic, and catastrophically badly cast, with Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne gracelessly mugging and Johnny Depp radiating creep-vibes in all directions. That series, like so many of the Potter pretenders of years past, should feel free to hurl itself into the nearest dumpster.
J.K. Rowling, meanwhile, has taken apparent delight in revealing herself to be a shithead. In the years after the Potter films ended, she’s made occasional baffling pronouncements about her characters, proclaiming traits that simply don’t exist in the books and providing the material for some of the best pieces in Clickhole history. Then Rowling decided to make a whole holy-war campaign out of denying that trans women are women, doubling and tripling and quadrupling down on her rancidly shitty take. In the process, she’s risked losing the affection of entire generations who came up on her books. The Harry Potter movies stuck the landing. J.K. Rowling did not.
The runner-up: Two of 2011’s biggest hits were entries in long-running action-movie franchises, and both of them were wild stunt spectaculars. I love them both, and it’s hard to pick a favorite. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, the year’s No. 7 earner, had Tom Cruise climbing the side of the Burj Khalifa and then running down the wall, in real life. I watched that sequence on an IMAX screen while extremely high, and I practically chewed the knuckles off of my hand. But I’ve got to give the slight edge to Fast Five, No. 6 for the year, which brought back a cast full of crowd favorites, booked Vin Diesel to beat the Rock in a hand-to-hand fight, and then ended everything with the glorious bedlam of the bank vault being dragged through the streets of Rio—a beautiful achievement in the field of sheer delirious spectacle.
Next time: Marvel reaches the first of its intricately plotted-out climactic moments, uniting its carefully compiled cast of characters in The Avengers.