Amid all the franchises and generic blockbusters that define modern cinema, there are some films that defy our expectations and surprise us. Whether these films were completely original stories that no one knew before hand or films that breathed new life into their dying franchises, some films manage to surprise us both in terms of how much we enjoyed them and also how successful they were among both critics and the box office. As we think about Guardians of the Galaxy and its unexpected success from audiences in 2014, here are some films that surpassed my, and hopefully your, previous expectations:
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Loosely based on an obscure 2012 comic The Secret Service, audiences were expecting another James Bond-wannabe spy flop. However, with a stellar cast including Colin Firth, Michael Caine and Samuel L. Jackson and daring to use more cursing and on-screen blood than any other spy thriller before it, director Matthew Vaughn expertly blended intense stylised action with black humour to give a fresh look at private espionage on the silver screen. Plus, I doubt any spy film could boast a scene like Firth’s character taking out an entire church congregation to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Coming 30 years after the last installment of the Mad Max franchise, Fury Road not only brought back a half-forgotten action series, but redefined modern-day blockbuster cinema. In a time dominated by CGI, Australian director George Miller mostly utilised practical effects to create eye-watering action and visuals in what is effectively a 2-hour long dystopian car chase. Fans and critics were left amazed by its direction and editing, as well as inspiring performances from Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, with some calling it one of the best action films of all time. A nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards only goes to show how Fury Road stole our hearts and minds.
Iron Man (2008)
Few could have expected the success that originated from this first installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Take a superhero not known well beyond the comic book world, plus an actor beset with drug-related issues and struggling to get back to his prime, and the result is a smart, funny and fresh superhero film. Downey’s defining performance as Tony Stark has made him a fan favourite, and this film set the stage for Marvel Studios to build upon and create the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it today. When we consider the best Marvel films, this early gem should always be in the mix.
Casino Royale (2006)
How do you revitalise cinema’s foremost spy franchise and compete with the growing popularity of new series such as Jason Bourne and Mission Impossible? Well, the 21st installment of the James Bond franchise chose to drop the silliness and campness of the Roger Moore and Piers Brosnan eras and replace it with gritty action and a dark and suave portrayal of 007 by Daniel Craig. Coming after the flop that was Die Another Day, Casino Royale defied our expectations and changed our view of the Bond saga, from a goofy, gadget-filled adventure to a brutal and realistic look at modern-day espionage.
Star Trek (2009)
Though the fan base had stayed strong, the later film installments in the Star Trek franchise had not and the future of this sci-fi series looked bleak. However, director J.J. Abrams restored hope in his 2009 reboot. His combination of a brand new cast with the old characters made the return to the USS Enterprise an enjoyable ride. Good performances, well-directed action sequences, and a strong story appealed to Trekkies and new fans alike as well as attracting fans from this franchise’s main rival, Star Wars, still unsettled from the mediocre prequels. All in all, Star Trek delivered life back to the sci-fi genre, not just the series itself.
Batman Begins (2005)
Following some truly awful films about the Caped Crusader such as Batman and Robin in 1997, Batman Begins was the revival we deserved. From a relatively unknown Christopher Nolan at the time, it would have been easy to have not expected much. However, by asking the question whether Batman could work in the real world, Nolan’s gritty and dark reboot brought one of cinema’s favourite superheroes back into the spotlight. Christian Bale’s performance captures the true essence of an eccentric billionaire-turned-vigilante crime fighter, and the focus on characters and story over action appealed to both fans and critics. Plus, this film kicked off the highly successful Dark Knight trilogy; arguably one of the greatest trilogies of the 21st century, if not ever.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
After Iron Man, Marvel went through a string of adequate to poor solo films which all felt too similar, with little character story and unsatisfactory action. However, Winter Soldier broke this chain. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo dialed down the scale, focusing more on plot and characters and not the world-ending trope of earlier films. With action more akin to a Bourne film and a story you would expect from a Cold War spy thriller not a superhero film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is full of suspense and surprising character development, setting it apart from its predecessors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel really did step up their game in 2014!