By Owen Gleiberman
Updated June 14, 2011 at 02:39 PM EDT
Credit: Film Images

If you’re an entertainment junkie, the fascination of the weekend box-office report is that all those cold, hard numbers represent an objective index — the most honest one we have — of the interface between the movie industry and the public. How well a movie is doing really means two things at once: how profitable it is for the studio that made it; and how popular it is with the people. Those two things tend to go together, and should. But in the nearly 30 years that following the box office has gone from being a weekly inside-baseball game to a media-driven spectator sport, other elements besides numbers have entered the equation. There is studio spin. There is the awareness — at times, the over-awareness — that every movie, based on budget and marketing, writes its own rules. Then, of course, there’s that deeply elusive concept that exists at the opposite end of the spectrum from raw numerical data. It’s called expectations.

This past weekend, Super 8, the back-to-the-late-’70s otherworldly home-movie/train-wreck/beastie spectacular directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, made $35.5 million at the box office (per-screen average: $10,492). In any universe that can be called sane, that is not chump change. It was the definition of a solid performance; it was also not exactly record-setting, in fact or in spirit. And yet, everywhere you looked (trade papers, fan sites, newspapers), observers were united in a single breathless cry: The movie hadn’t just done well — it had surpassed expectations.

The logic went something like this. Super 8 is one of the few big-scale movies opening this summer that is not a sequel, a remake, or a comic-book action rouser with a built-in fan base. It also has no stars. And so, within our popcorn-on-steroids movie universe, it had a bit of an uphill battle. And it emerged, during that crucial first weekend, victorious.

There’s another way to look at it, though, and I say this without any backlash impulse to knock the film’s performance. Super 8 is the huge new summer movie from J.J. Abrams, the director of Star Trek and the co-creator of Lost. It’s also a Steven Spielberg production that’s designed to evoke some of the most beloved movies that Spielberg ever made. If it lacks the built-in advantage of being a sequel/remake/comic-book/rehash, that’s also a central aspect of the film’s appeal. It’s the rare movie this summer that’s really trying for something. Which raises the question: Do we now occupy a movie landscape in which a film as hooky and ambitious (and acclaimed) as Super 8, by virtue of the fact that it’s trying to be original, and that it’s aimed at adults as much as it is kids, has taken on the status of — gulp! — an art film?

The whole hey, it’s not a sequel! conceit starts to come apart at the seams when you compare the box-office performance of Super 8 with that of several noteworthy films that didn’t come out in the summer. This past March, for instance, Battle: Los Angeles (pictured above, right) made $35.5 million in its opening weekend, exactly what Super 8 did. The movie wasn’t a sequel, it wasn’t based on a comic book, and it didn’t have stars, unless you count Aaron Eckhart, an actor I like who isn’t exactly Mr. Marquee. True, this alien-invasion thriller did recyle a lot of other movies — but then, so does Super 8. The biggest difference between them, as far as I can tell, is that Battle: Los Angeles was a noisy, overblown, and monotonous firepower-meets-F/X bash. Yet no one in the press said so much as a syllable about it “surpassing expectations.”

Then, of course, there’s Cloverfield. That 2008 thriller, produced by J.J. Abrams, grossed $41 million in its opening weekend. It wasn’t a sequel, it wasn’t based on a comic book, and it really had no stars. What it did have, of course, was a spectacularly catchy low-rent concept: Basically, it was Godzilla shot with a Blair Witch camera. Like a lot of people, I enjoyed Cloverfield without pretending that it was a very good movie, and at the time its instant popularity seemed to be no great shock. No one talked about it “surpassing expectations,” even though it came out in January, for chrissakes — hardly as popular a movie moment as the first half of June. Yes, it was a big old greasy-popcorn monster movie. But then, Super 8, when you get right down to it, is also a big old greasy-popcorn monster movie. It’s just not one that consumers instantly perceive to be a glorified piece of junk.

And there’s the rub. This weekend, when the infotainment pundits rose up as one to declare that Super 8, with its perfectly respectable and modest $35 million gross, had “surpassed expectations,” they may have been channeling a bit of studio spin, but what they were really saying, in essence, was: No movie that isn’t pandering, that isn’t an over-the-top turn-off-your-brain extravaganza — even if it’s crafted by entertainers as powerful, in every sense, as J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg — can truly be expected to be a major hit. They were saying that Super 8, by virtue of trying to be a really good movie, is now closer in spirit to being a relatively marginal “prestige” movie than it is to being a natural-born blockbuster. And that’s enough to give one pause about what all of us are expecting — not from the weekend box-office returns, but from today’s audiences.

So what did you think of the box office performance of Super 8? Has the movie’s success been overstated? Do you think it will continue to perform? Or is there simply too much competition out there from movies that don’t aim high?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

Battle: Los Angeles

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 116 minutes
  • Jonathan Liebesman