Movie franchises are fun because they make a promise: “this thing you love? We’re gonna do more similar things, and you’re gonna love them the exact amount of much that you love this thing!” That’s exciting! But new things don’t always live up to that promise. Sometimes, you expect a thing to be good, and it turns out to be bad. Few things are all the way bad, though—most stories have some interesting ideas and just need a different editor, or maybe a 6000000th draft. Writing is hard, and it takes a village. So let’s dig into the gems that can be mined from the most expensive failed gold rushes in movie history.
Quantum of Solace Was Right About Water Crises
Why People Hated It: The first Daniel Craig James Bond (try writing that whole name on a birth certificate) movie, Casino Royale, ushered in a new era of Bond. It was an early entrance into the reboot trend, and it felt like anything was possible. (“Bond is blond!”) Gone was Pierce Brosnan-era sillinesses. No more campy puns, outlandish gadgets, and plastic surgery to change your race—
—wait a second, am I having a stroke? There were invisible cars too??! Anyway, “realism” reigned. This James Bond was not only good at spy-drinking and dressing like a GQ cover spread, but he also wasn’t afraid to beat someone to death with his fists. This was an actual, nitty-gritty, nose-to-the-grindstone
tool of British imperialism spy! It also had a promising cliffhanger ending that seemed like this rookie 00 agent was about to come into conflict with a mysterious criminal organization that only he could stop!
Unfortunately, Quantum of Solace came out in a pre-MCU world, when Hollywood hadn’t quite solved the question of “how do you build franchises” yet. Instead of re-inventing SPECTRE, QoS has the evil people say, “WE’RE EVERYWHERE!” as Bond randomly gestures to some tuxedoed jerks at an opera and then never really explains who anyone is. There was a whole grief subplot that was a clear motivator for ol’ James but didn’t wholly connect to the new issues: the dude responsible for Bond’s girlfriend’s death is onscreen for like 20 seconds, and we never see exactly how Bond found him.
Some of the unfocused, first-draft nature of the film was because the Writer’s Guild of America strike happened during filming. And solidarity to the writers and the right to a union and fair compensation because not having writers around turned out to be a big deal. Craig himself did script rewrites despite openly admitting “a writer I am not.” The end result was a confusing movie that didn’t do much besides look cool.
What It Got Right: Bond movies have an odd ability to predict real-world issues before anyone sees them coming, but doing so in such a convoluted way that people hate those movies. Nobody liked Tomorrow Never Dies because a newspaper magnate is a lamewad villain. Still, I personally wouldn’t mind living in an alternate universe where Jonathan Pryce owns a laser satellite instead of living in fear that a family member has started watching Fox News.
In QoS, instead of getting questions about Mr. Greene and his org chart answered, we get a convoluted digression about corruption and water shortages in Bolivia. Which is super important. Water scarcity is a big goddamn deal, and rich people/big corporations are super interested in privatizing water access. That weirdo Christian Bale played in The Big Short, who was right about everything? He’s a real guy who’s putting all his money into water right now. As climate change worsens, water crises are going to be exacerbated. And Quantum of Solace called it, all the way back in 2008. But the scene that explained it happened way late, and it could’ve been more impactful if it was the focus from the beginning.
Avengers: Age of Ultron Wonders Maybe The Avengers Are The Bad Guys
Why People Hated It: Age of Ultron isn’t the *worst* Marvel movie—Thor 2 exists—but it was a disappointment relative to the radness of The Avengers. Where the first team-up movie nailed the tricky balance of crossing over four big-time heroes working for a shadowy government agency to take down a heretofore-unseen alien menace, Ultron buckled under the weight of too many characters teasing future movies. We find out Hawkeye has a secret family for reasons that are still kind of a mystery box even after the Hawkeye TV show. Black Widow and Hulk develop a romantic relationship out of almost nowhere. Ultron’s “age” lasts like a week and a half (note: I’m not looking up the actual timeline, nerds, I’m just goddamn not, all I’m saying is calling it the “Age” of Ultron is like asking a child if closing a summertime lemonade stand and starting third grade was a difficult career change). It just didn’t all quite work. Plus, it was the first inkling the public had that Joss Whedon might be up for a total unraveling. Rough stuff, overall.
What It Got Right: Time travel with me back to 2015. There were starting to be rumblings about superhero movies basically causing more damage than 9/11 with every single outing. “How could they be heroes??!” the internet cried into the night, “The insurance claims alone would be astronomical!” Age of Ultron heard those (fair) questions, and MCU movies have been trying to address it ever since. Before Ultron, we have hints of Tony Stark rejecting being a weapons manufacturer, Thor being chastised for warmongering, Hulk regretting his entire life, and Captain America learning his supersoldier serum has been used to turn his best friend into a villain. But those are personal journeys that happen before their supposed hero turns.
Ultron directly confronts the Avengers’ damage with, well, Ultron, who decides the best chance at world peace is to kill the Avengers.
There’s also Scarlett Witch and Quicksilver, who voluntarily sign up for an experimental superhero program specifically because they want revenge on the Avengers. Nearly every MCU film after Ultron has tried to address the problem of “violence begets violence.” This bloated mess at least got the conversation started.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones Predicted The Alt-Right
Why People Hated It: Where to begin? Well, a lot of places. This is Cracked dot com. If you’re reading this, you’ve got your opinions on Attack Of The Clones. Let’s not beat a dead Bantha over here (the smell of the Bantha poodoo will kill us both). So let’s zero in on Anakin Skywalker. Namely, George Lucas/Hayden Christensen turning the most menacing villain in cinema history into a whiny baby moaning about sand. Instead of a compelling hero-turned-monster who fathered the greatest Jedi in history and who older Obi-Wan could only speak about with genuine mourning in his voice, we got a teenager so wooden about his anxieties that even Dashboard Confessional would probably be like, “Yo, pick yourself up and figure it, dude.”
Mix that with his eugenicsy sense of entitlement because he knows he has a high Midclorian count? Toxic cocktail, man. Like bottom-shelf vodka cut with Hi-C mixed in a fraternity bathtub, but bro, no roofies, I swear, dude. That’s prequel Anakin.
Every bit of Attack of the Clones was a head-scratcher at best, but let’s try something different. Let’s be on our best internet-comedy-nerd behavior. Promise? Okay. Let’s try to meet George Lucas on his own terms *ducks.*
What It Got Right: In my opinion, the most charitable thing you can say about character development in the prequels is “could use a second draft.” But in hindsight, turning Darth Vader’s pre-Sith self into an irritating prick who believes in his own talent so much that he doesn’t “believe the system works” and supports people “being made to” agree with one another accurately predicted a whole generation of debate-club-dorks-turned-fascist-pundits.
Lucas has openly talked about how he was trying to address his issues with the Bush administration and fears about American imperialism with the prequels. While it seemed nonsensical and annoying at the time because the goal of Star Wars is largely to get children to demand new toys every time you have to make a Target trip, it’s possible George had his finger on the pulse of a budding style of new, dorky fascism.
How different is Anakin’s whiny voice and teenage pampering from Tucker Carlson’s? How different is Anakin’s failure to achieve Jedi Master rank from Stephen Crowder or Dave Rubin’s failed comedy careers? These are people who failed at something and immediately decided the problem was that they didn’t have supreme power. Anakin’s willingness to sell out while remaining an insufferable know-it-all the moment Palpatine offers him the slightest validation mirrors the journey of these billionaire-backed unfunny podcasters. Who knows, maybe Christensen’s choice to portray Anakin as a swaggerless loser who clearly thinks he’s being charming without realizing everything about him is skin-peelingly creepy was just him channeling the alt-right a decade before it was a thing. Let’s just hope some clay-faced dweeb like Tucker Carlson doesn’t have a whole planet full of Star Destroyers hiding away somewhere.
X-Men: The Last Stand and Angel’s Shame Being A Metaphor For Coming Out
Why People Hated It: X-2: X-Men United is still the best movie of the X-Men franchise almost 20 years after its release, which is a super bummer, given its magnificent casting and vast potential for various storylines. It explicitly stated that the franchise was a metaphor for LGBTQ+ acceptance …
… and it ended with a teaser for one of the most beloved X-Men stories: the Dark Phoenix Saga. Instead of interrogating feminism or power or gay rights in a meaningful way, however, X-Men: The Last Stand mashed together two very different comic stories (“Dark Phoenix” and “Gifted”), and the result was a jumbled mess with too many characters hastily introduced and Jean Grey’s Dark Phoenix being less “uncontrollable power” and more “she doesn’t talk much and hangs out with Magneto now.”
What It Got Right: I’m not going to say one story was the right choice and one was the wrong choice. Both “Dark Phoenix” and “Gifted” deserve proper movie treatment. But since two of my deepest obsessions are kicking around ideas for X-Men movies and being absolutely furious about how queer rights were discussed in the early 2000s, I want to focus on the “Gifted” elements.
Take away the Dark Phoenix stuff, and there is an excellent story of oppressed people rising up here. As rad as Famke Janssen is and as much as Jean’s story needed resolving, the strongest moments in this movie are the “cure” moments. A child Angel sawing off his wings …
… Rogue being so desperate for a physical relationship with Iceman that she ops for the cure …
… and Magneto’s line about “nobody ever talks about , they just do it” all point to a story more deserving of the title “Last Stand.” Remember: this was in 2006, before gay marriage was even close to being legal in the U.S. Throwing around homophobic slurs was sometimes the central point of a comedy bit. The church I grew up in actually held debates over whether or not it was permissible to have gay pastors. Look: I’m straight and cis, and I was a teenager at the time, and I definitely wasn’t perfect when it came to understanding the experience of LGBTQ+ people. But I at least knew bigotry was wrong, and seeing X-Men try to explore that in the language of the early 2000s gave me (and others) a window into better understanding.
Growing past my own 2006 stupidity, making LGBTQ+ friends, having a dear family member I feel very protective of come out, having a young child who I want to feel supported no matter what his orientation turns out to be—all that makes me see Angel’s crying and self-mutilation and Magento’s angry fear and Rogue’s anxieties about needing to change portrayed with a little more care.
You might say that’s a big, dramatic ask from a superhero franchise. That these are fundamentally movies for children about wild and zany characters in colorful costumes. My response is that X-Men set itself up for these themes on purpose, and they almost got it right …
That Dance Party in The Matrix Reloaded Is The Only Time Anyone Has Fun
Why People Hated It: After absolutely blowing the entire world’s mind with a tight, self-contained story about martial arts, philosophy, AI, and how best to pair green ties with rimless sunglasses, The Matrix sequels got a little bloated and overly ambitious with world-building. Both Reloaded and Revolutions feature a bunch of weirdly dressed people acting like the smuggest philosophy major in the freshman dorm until it’s time to do Kung Fu or car chases or Dragon Ball-esque fights.
It got so out of hand that there’s a whole scene in 20-years-later fourth installment where people debate what The Matrix is without ever coming to a conclusion (like freshman philosophy students).
What It Got Right: This is not a new argument to make; hell, it’s an argument that precedes the 21st century, but let’s do it: it’s kinda better, in an “enjoying life” sense, to be plugged into the Matrix instead of freedom fighting. Being unplugged means you truly understand reality, but it also means a miserable, cold life wearing threadbare sweaters and eating gruel on underground ships.
You’re also constantly afraid that robot squids will laser you to death. Being plugged in means that you get to eat juicy and delicious steaks and have beautiful women in red dresses flirt with you (a reminder to men that street harassment is not okay). The term “creature comforts” is always used in a derogatory fashion, but creatures are what humans are, and comforts are very nice. If fighting an endless war in a post-apocalyptic hellscape is so important, shouldn’t there at least be some kind of fun, pleasurable thing that, y’know … is worth fighting for?
That’s why the seemingly random rave in The Matrix Reloaded is so important. It’s an entire city of people, relatively secure in the knowledge that they are being their truest selves, expressing real physical freedom.
Now, at the ghastly elder age of 34, I’m not the biggest fan of being in massive crowds of horny techno enthusiasts, but I did spend my teenage years moshing at punk shows, so I understand the appeal. You know what I really like doing now? Having quiet, intimate nights with my wife where we feel like we are totally free to do whatever we want. Neo and Trinity have sex—which my wife and I would never do because we are good God-fearing Christians—but the film implies that they have been looking forward to this moment for like six months and have been too busy for it to have happened. After half a year of fighting a war, they finally get to comfortably spend some time together. It’s the only scene in the original trilogy where anyone seems like they are actually having fun. It’s a reminder of what they’re actually fighting for. After all, what’s the point of living in reality if you can’t enjoy reality?
Chris Corlew would like to say once again that he is a good Christian who has never had sex, despite being the biological father of a precocious child obsessed with mechanical things. His best guess is that Midiclorians are the real father. Send him tips on how to prevent intergalactic clone wars on Twitter.
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