From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

They Shoot, They Score! The Ten Biggest Movies of 2008, and Why

It was a good year to release a science fiction movie: of the top ten grossing movies of 2008, nine were genre. It’s always easy to draw a parallel between the difficulties of the real world and the relative popularity of escapist fantasy and science-fiction fare; however, this year’s big movies tackled some big issues, as well. Whether the studios developed a conscientious point-of-view to battle dark times remains to be seen. Looking at this list, though, the relevant undertones of this year’s “escapist” movies are hard to deny. Below, we go by the numbers and check out what made the best, the best.

The Dark Knight — Gross: $529,696,290

Sure, it’s a given. It’s BATMAN. But there are no Prince ditties for this incarnation of the seminal hero. In a decaying Gotham, this Batman fights opponents who use terrorist tactics rather than fancy umbrellas, and Bruce Wayne’s greatest enemy is himself. Grungy, bleak, and ultimately unresolved, this sequel proves that comic book heroes don’t have to sling quips (or webs) to make it big.

Iron Man — Gross: $318,298,180

The Dark Knight got you down? Try a peppy comedy about a megalomaniac billionaire and the magic suit that stops war in the Middle East! Okay, so the message wasn’t subtle, but it was what people wanted to hear, and it sent this ingenious inventor soaring to the top of the box office. (Though we mustn’t discount Robert Downey Jr.’s radioactive abs — more sharply cut than his metal suit — who bravely did their part to fill seats.)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — Gross: $317,011,114

Of course there were aliens at the end — with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas at the helm, what else would there be? But the real fantasy in this long-awaited sequel was group time-travel. Audiences lined up to check out the old-school adventures of a hero they’d loved for twenty years, hoping he would still be the same. Good luck with that, guys. For a refund, send mail care of Skywalker Ranch.

Hancock — Gross: $227,946,274

This story, about a powerful being who falls from grace with the public when he creates more problems than he solves, could have been subtitled Bush’s Second Term. They tried to smooth things over with Will Smith and some nice sunglasses. Even though the movie fell flat the moment Charlize Theron spilled the beans about their freaky heritage, the sunglasses did their job: the movie made a quarter of a trillion dollars.

WALL•E — $223,454,780

An animated fable about where humankind is headed if we don’t shape up, WALL-E was a kid-friendly cautionary tale. The adorable, lovelorn cleanup droid sent to sort out Earth’s trashed surface taught us all about the heartwarming potential of environmental responsibility, sentient technology, and cockroaches. It drew tears from audiences’ eyes and millions of dollars from their wallets.

Kung Fu Panda — $215,395,021

Okay, they can’t all have a message. Sometimes a movie about a panda learning martial arts is just an excuse for dumpling fights.

Horton Hears a Who! — $154,529,187

Dr. Seuss’s children’s book fantasy about the importance of caring for one another (especially if you’re an elephant, apparently) was timely; with liberals and conservatives locked in combat about human rights, it’s nice to see a movie where everyone is treated as equally deserving of the pursuit of happiness. The fact that there was no profanity or blood spatter helped entice the parents-with-kids-in-tow contingent. Recession special for under-12s at the afternoon matinee!

Sex and the City — $152,637,269

The biggest fantasy of the year, since we’re all three weeks away from living in The Grapes of Wrath.

Mamma Mia! — $143,704,210

In this Mallomar of a musical, a young lady on the eve of her wedding invites her three potential fathers to the gorgeous Greek isle, where her free-spirited mother, Meryl Streep, waits to out-act them all. Technically not a “genre” movie, though I maintain that if you can only express your feelings by bursting into song you have some kind of auditory aphasia, and it should be classified as science fiction.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian — $141,614,023

In this sequel to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, a family of young idealists is pulled from one war-torn place into another, and must fight against an enemy they thought they had vanquished. In the meantime, they get caught up in international warfare, leadership struggles, and matters of succession. Deleted subtitle: Bush’s Second Term.

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