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Critic's Notebook: Big-budget film, box office bonanza? Likely, if you follow these tips

Want to be more 'Avengers' than 'Battleship'? Creativity counts, so start with a bang, give audiences somebody to hate and keep the effects special.

June 10, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Thor (Chris Hemsworth), left, and Captain America (Chris Evans) join forces in "The Avengers."
Thor (Chris Hemsworth), left, and Captain America (Chris Evans) join forces… (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel )

Summer is when Hollywood takes out those big-budget, big-event films dubbed tent poles because their job is to prop up everything from studio profits and acting careers to producers' fortunes (someone's got to pay for the summer place in Barbados).

Moviegoers, of course, are the main target for these multimillion-dollar attractions. And who doesn't love a tasty popcorn extravaganza? We do tend to turn out in droves for the "Potters" and "Pirates," the "Transformers," the "Treks" and "Shreks" of the world. But as often happens when something is a major moneymaker, mass production sets in, and there are, ahem, quality issues —"Green Lantern," anyone?

The good ones — say J.J. Abrams' back-to-the-future"Star Trek" in 2009 — are few. The bad and the ugly, too many to name. The question — does it even matter? Is smarter better than dumb when it comes to tent pole flicks? The short answer is yes. Consider "Marvel's the Avengers" and "Battleship," two of the tent pole movies that kicked off summer 2012 (Spider-Man and Batman await ...).

The issue is not one of art versus commerce but rather the way in which keeping a close eye on the aesthetics can better the bottom line. Here are seven creative components I would argue help explain why "The Avengers" has topped $1 billion at the box office worldwide, while "Battleship" is at $282 million and drifting. There are take-aways for future tent pole makers too, because there is always next summer.

Start with a bang — It's not impossible to open small, but you best have the right stuff (see bar fight in "Star Trek"). Better to go bigger and be sure. Within minutes of "Avengers'" first flicker we had a stomach-churning sense of an ending; in "Battleship," we knew that Taylor Kitsch's bad boy would do anything for a chicken burrito if the girl was pretty.

Lesson: Don't bet on a burrito to bookend a movie.

Give us somebody we love to hate — Tom Hiddleston's Loki was a class A, um, villain in "Avengers." Brilliant, manipulative and handsome enough to wish for his redemption; "Battleship's" Navy faced a horde of aliens, but the bad guys from Planet G (oh, come on….) were basically faceless, nameless and with no mission and no leader. Oh, and they couldn't fight with the sun in their eyes.

Lesson: Only the Men in Black can pull off the shades.

Make the predictable unpredictable — We go in expecting that things will turn out all right, knowing that Earth or the U.S. or freedom won't be destroyed or that the fair maiden will be saved. So the movie's main job is to keep us guessing how. "Avengers" did that until the end with dialogue that was cheeky, whip smart and unexpectedly moving; "Battleship"? Ocean, boats, guns, ocean, boats, guns… And when a key line of dialogue starts with "Do you mean to tell me….," Houston, we have a problem.

Lesson: If we can see it, you don't have to say it.

Superheroes don't have to save the day — You could argue that the "Avengers'" deck was stacked with Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Captain America in their camp, but one of the best was not one of the bunch but Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson; on this count, "Battleship" came closer — Kitsch found some of his "Friday Night Lights" swagger, and real-life hero Gregory D. Gadson proved he didn't need legs to take a hill or steal a movie.

Lesson: Characters still matter, even if they can't fly.

Keep the effects special — In "Avengers," Loki's power kept shifting and his alien troops kept coming in new shapes and sizes, which helped when the battles went on too long to watch the enemy remake itself; in "Battleship," the aliens had gadgets on their suits and a spacey mothership in the ocean, but the spinning, fiery metal discs that did most of the destruction were a yawn by the end.

Lesson: Yes, there can be too much action.

Heroes need time to be heroic — "Avengers" had a lot of them, but the filmmakers gave each one their moment. Whether it was Mark Ruffalo blowing up as the best Hulk ever orRobert Downey Jr.'s wisecracking Iron Man, the heroes milked it; in "Battleship," Kitsch's bad boy sailor, who was about to be kicked out of the Navy when he was called on to step it up, never really got his. Yes, there were "situations," but none felt tight enough.

Lesson: Pay respect and let the heroes pay their dues.

The buck stops here — Ultimately, the test of success should be quality. But let's be real — it's a business; the bottom line matters. Both of these films cost $200 million-plus to make; one opened strong, the other got away, with "The Avengers" pulling in $207.4 million in its first weekend here and "Battleship" making $25.5 million and losing ground. "The Avengers" keeps piling up profits, while "Battleship" execs are no doubt contemplating how best to cut the losses.

Lesson: Can you hear us now?

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