The past 10 years have seen massive strides forward in the realm of genre cinema. Thanks to everything from Marvel’s continued dominance of the box office to a new Star Wars trilogy to innovations in how genre films are shot and delivered, there have been quite a few significant leaps forward. Or at least tiny steps that were a long time coming.
But 10 trends and events grabbed our attention more than most, and that’s what we’ll be discussing here. To be sure, this is not a straight-up list of the biggest and/or best films of the past 10 years, just some of the most significant in what they represent or the trends they started. We’ll be looking at broad themes as much as individual films, and if you think there’s something you missed, drop a (civil and respectful) comment to keep the conversation going.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.
1. The Birth of the Cinematic Universe
Marvel Studios began the year building up an impressive head of steam, but it wasn’t until 2012’s The Avengers that we realized what was really going on. This film, still one of the MCU’s best, represented not only the culmination of careful planning but the birth of the cinematic universe, a concept many studios have tried to replicate to varying degrees of success. DC Comics’ got off to a rocky start, and Universal’s Dark Universe was dead before it’s first film’s opening weekend was even over. Oddly enough, the most solid cinematic universe outside Marvel might be the one started by 2013’s The Conjuring, which so far includes seven films across four series.
2. Superhero Films Ain’t Just For Kids
The films of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes have one thing in common: they’re all rated PG-13. This is to ensure maximum profitability: the PG-13 means you can have violence, some dark themes, and even the occasional dirty word without alienating families. However, that doesn’t serve every character and every narrative. Then along came Deadpool in 2016. Gleefully R-rated in every possible way — we’re talking blood, sex, and f-bombs galore — it was a risky film that almost didn’t get made, and the studio had very limited faith in it. But it ended up breaking box office records, winning critical acclaim, and opening the door for more mature, challenging superhero films like Logan and less mature, equally challenging films like Joker.
3. Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves
By 2017, we’d had seven films about Superman and nine about Batman (although oddly, thirteen scenes of the Bruce Wayne’s parents getting shot down). But not a single one of the world’s most famous and well-known female superhero, Wonder Woman. Conventional wisdom stated that people simple wouldn’t turn out to see a female-led superhero film, pointing to bombs like Catwoman and Elektra. Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot proved everybody wrong, however, when Wonder Woman went on to become one of the biggest superhero films of all time and the thing that single-handedly turned around the critical reception to the DC Extended Universe. Unlike the other DCEU films, this was colorful, hopeful, and featured a hero who did the right thing because it was the right thing to do. (Angst? What angst?) Two years later, Marvel upped the ante with Captain Marvel, which became the first female superhero film to pass the $1 billion box office mark. Now, if we could only get a queer hero to lead their own film…
4. Black Is Beautiful
In the first half of the decade, Jordan Peele was known primarily for his Key & Peele comedy show. His only major cinematic outing was writer/star of the stolen kitten action/comedy Keanu. To say that the world was not ready for his directorial debut in 2017 was an understatement. Get Out, besides being a wickedly effective and insidious horror film at face value, was a cutting and brutal examination of race relations and the American black experience that became cultural shorthand for issues surrounding assimilation and identity. It was a shining example of the metaphorical power of horror films. A year later, Marvel gave us Black Panther, which looked at similar issues through the lens of superhero cinema in almost equally effective measures.
5. The Fandom Menace
The world was more than ready for a new Star Wars trilogy when The Force Awakens came out in 2015. Soaked in nostalgia and immediately comforting, it was a massive success and made people excited for the next film. But when The Last Jedi came out in 2017, it became one of the most bitterly divisive films in the Star Wars franchise and indeed in sci-fi film history. While critics praised the challenging deconstructionism that director Rian Johnson brought, just as many fans rejected it, and the spotlight on this divided repsonse ended up overshadowing the film itself. A particularly toxic portion of the fanbase came out against the inclusion of a more diverse cast — including more female characters and characters of color — to the point where Kelly Marie Tran (who played Rose Tico) was forced off of social media by racist, misogynistic Star Wars fans. The response was so polarizing, and the anti-Last Jedi faction so vocal, that 2019’s The Rise Of Skywalker was mostly concerned with offering a mea culpa, retconning or outright ignoring most of what happened in TLJ. (Including Rose Tico.) A year before TLJ, a similarly virtiolic (and sometimes outright racist and hateful) response ended up smothering the 2016 female-led Ghostbusters reboot, reminding the world why we can’t have nice things.
6. Action Gets An Upgrade
In my 10 years as a professional film critic, I have given out only one perfect score. That film was 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a captivating, adrenaline-soaked dieselpunk opera. Perfect structure, efficient narrative, and some of the most captivating practical action scenes filmed in decades, it not only became heralded as the best film in the Mad Max franchise but as one of the best actions films of all time. It ended up getting 10 Academy Awards nominations — including Best Picture and Best Director — something unheard of for genre films, action or otherwise. On a more intimate but equally innovative scale, 2014’s John Wick established a new language of action cinema with its mind-boggling fight choreography and kick-to-the-jugular narrative flow.
7. Disney’s New Renaissance
Did the cold ever bother you anyway? Do you have “Let It Go” stuck in your head now? Disney’s 2013 film Frozen not only became their biggest animated hit of all time* but a genuine cultural event that’s still happening to this day. After the apocalypse, they’ll be nothing left but cockroaches, Cher, and a million pieces of Frozen merchandise. While sticking true to the time-honored Disney formula, this was also a metatextual story that touched on themes of love, acceptance, and self-determination. Ice queen Elsa became a queer icon, thanks in no small part to Idina Menzel’s inspiring vocal in “Let It Go.” While similar themes had been explored in (the arguably superior) Tangled, it was Frozen that re-established Disney’s complete and total domination of the animated world.
* Unless you consider the 2019 remake of The Lion King to be an animated film, which…maybe it is?
8. Disney’s New Recycling Bin
But just as Disney’s animation division was soaring with new (sort of) stories and characters, their live-action side was far more concerned with reliving the past. The 2010s introduced us to the now-ubiquitous concept of Disney live-action remakes. While 2014’s Maleficent was the first shot fired, and at least gets credit for being quasi-revisionist, it was 2017’s Beauty and the Beast that locked in the formula. Take the original, address a bunch of bad-faith fan complaints, put in some nods to corporate-branded woke-ness, et voila. Instant money, and you get to stop worrying about copyrights lapsing for a few more years. While the remakes started out promising, recent entries like Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King aren’t being as well-received…but that hasn’t stopped people from going. It remains to be seen it the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid can justify the continued existence of this trend.
9. Horror, Thy Name Is Pennywise
The 1990 mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s It is something of a cult classic. Sure, it’s not all that great, but Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise became iconic. 2017’s new adaptation was a revelation in comparison. Fully R-rated and embracing some of the darkest and most outrageous parts of the novel, It became a landmark of horror cinema. And if Tim Curry’s Pennywise was iconic, Bill Skarsgaard’s take on the character became legendarily terrifying. It broke box office records, won critical acclaim, and helped legitimize and mainstream the horror genre for a new generation. The sequel…well, the sequel was…fine. Just fine. If anything, it made the first film seem all the more relevant and revelatory.
10. Pushing The Boundaries of Animation
After decades of Spider-Man films focusing on Peter Parker, we finally got a film focusing on Miles Morales, the Spider-Man from Marvel’s Ultimate universe. And it was glorious. Not only a pinnacle of animation excellence, Into The Spider-Verse was widely regarded as both the best Spider-Man film ever and one of the purest translations of comic book to screen. Embracing comic structure and art style while keeping a sharp focus on characters, narrative, and theme, Spider-Verse became one of the best-received superhero films of all time. In a related event, 2019’s Invader Zim: Enter The Florpus, a similarly psychedelic animated film that also defied traditional visual and narrative tropes, became the first Netflix original film that wasn’t a documentary to score a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
That’s a lot for 10 years, and it remains to be seen how many of these trends are sustainable. Here’s to the next decade of genre cinema and more growth and innovation. Now, about that queer superhero film…