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2008: This was the year that...

Five developments that marked entertainment in the past 12 months: Blockbusters got smart; troubled favorites made the most of second chances; TV’s second golden age ended; ”Rock Band” ruled; and everybody turned (gulp!) 50

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Iron Man, The Dark Knight, ...
The Dark Knight: Stephen Vaughaun; Iron Man: Jamie Bivers; Tropic Thunder: Merie Weismiller Wallace

BLOCKBUSTERS GOT SMARTER

To understand just how miraculous the summer of 2008 was at the multiplex, try to remember all the deep thoughts and heated conversations inspired by the biggest blockbusters of previous years. Go on, we’ll wait.

Anything? No? Now consider this year. Iron Man tweaked the military-industrial complex and obsessed over design schematics, while WALL-E poked at the (literal) bloat of super-size consumerism and its lethal chokehold on the environment. The Dark Knight blurred the lines between justice and madness, and had us not-so-secretly rooting for an anarchic sociopath. And Tropic Thunder delivered such sharp satire about dumb Hollywood that it made Tom Cruise cool again, and got America to laugh at a man in blackface.

It’s long been a hardened Hollywood maxim that complex ideas and nuanced storytelling belong nowhere near the summer movie season. But that quartet of brainy blockbusters raked in $1.2 billion in domestic box office, and nearly twice that worldwide. What’s more, audiences rejected more typically idiotic summer fare like The Happening, The Love Guru, and Meet Dave, all of which flopped. (The Dark Knight grossed more in its opening weekend than those three films in their entire runs combined.) Yes, we still packed theaters to see Shia LaBeouf swinging with the monkeys in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Stupid Movie Title. But 2008 also proved what some substance-starved hot-weather movie fans have long suspected: Popcorn can be brain food, too.

For the studios, it was definitely unfamiliar territory. When presented with the idea of a robot who lives on a barren Earth and meets humanity’s morbidly obese survivors, Disney chairman Dick Cook admits that he was a bit nervous. ”Ohhhh, boy,” he remembers thinking. ”What is this going to be?” And after director Christopher Nolan turned in the Dark Knight script, Warner Bros. immediately knew it wasn’t just another goofy CGI-fest. ”It certainly wasn’t as light as Spider-Man,” says the studio’s president, Jeff Robinov. To their credit, however, both execs trusted their respective filmmakers to deliver movies that audiences would line up to see.

Part of the reason these films were so successful is that they didn’t forget to blow a lot of stuff up. Iron Man director Jon Favreau says his goal was always to make his movie both fun and thoughtful. It didn’t hurt that he had three past Oscar nominees and one winner on hand. ”Fortunately, I was working with actors who were not used to [action movies],” says Favreau of Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow. ”I was concerned about the way the characters interacted and grew. We just treated it as though we were making a regular movie.” That attention to emotional detail made the film accessible to nonfanboys, and arguably helped elevate it from a mere Fantastic Four-level hit into a true phenomenon. In fact, Favreau thinks making an action movie let him get away with some substance that might have turned audiences off without all those explosions. ”It gives you room to comment on what’s going on in the world without being seen as a heavy political film,” he says. ”People are just along for the ride.”

Alas, Hollywood could easily see this year’s smart successes as just that: a ride — fun while it lasted. (Buckle up next summer for a Transformers sequel and the mega-disaster flick 2012.) Then again, Dick Cook lauds the fact that WALL-E ”was breaking a lot of rules. I think that’s actually what made it so popular.” Sounding more like an artist than the man who greenlit Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Cook adds, ”The smarter, the better.” —Adam B. Vary

NEXT PAGE: 2008 Was the Year Everybody Made a Comeback