Mark Ellis on summer 2022 movies, Top Gun: Maverick’s success, and the state of comic book films

Mark Ellis is a comedian, actor, podcaster, and self-proclaimed “dog stepfather” who has been dissecting pop culture for over a decade. In addition to performing in comedy clubs nationwide, Ellis co-hosts Rotten Tomatoes is Wrong, where he dissects both critically fresh and rotten movies like Spider-Man 3, Cats, and Thor: The Dark World. He also regularly appears on The Rotten Tomatoes Channel (which can be found on Peacock, The Roku Channel, Xumo TV, and Samsung TV Plus) to discuss a wide variety of topics, from this year’s Academy Awards to the rough critical reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Ellis took time away from his duties as a Rotten Tomatoes contributing editor and correspondent to talk to Digital Trends about the state of the movie industry after a successful summer. He gives his thoughts on the state of superhero films after the release of Doctor Strange 2 and the cancellation of Batgirl, the phenomenon that is Top Gun: Maverick, and what we can look forward to at the multiplex of the rest of the year.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.

Digital Trends: We started off the summer movie season with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and continued with Thor: Love and Thunder and DC League of Super-Pets. What’s the current state of comic book movies with the summer season officially over?

Mark Ellis: I feel like the current state of comic book movies is healthy, even though there is not a comic book film standing atop the summer 2022 box office. Because, I mean, let’s face it, Top Gun: Maverick overperformed. It just did historical numbers, so any time you have a movie that clears the field by just about $500 million worldwide, you’re going to look at it and say, well, that looks off. What was wrong with comic book movies?

Xochitl Gomez, Benedict Wong, and Benedict Cumberbatch stare into the camera in a scene from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Nothing’s wrong with comic book movies because Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness  is 74% on the Tomatometer and Thor: Love and Thunder is 65% on the Tomatometer. They’re both critically “fresh” (maybe as fresh as some previous MCU entries), and they did about $1.8 billion worth of business. Doctor Strange got really close to $1 billion worldwide and Thor: Love and Thunder is going to get close to $800 million.

Neither one of those movies got a big release in China, and they didn’t get a lot of love in Russia either for obvious worldwide geopolitical reasons. I think that the lack of that box office from those two countries prevented those two MCU movies from joining their siblings at the over-billion-dollar club.

What about DC? Super-Pets did OK, nothing great, but the big news was what didn’t get released: Batgirl.  Comic book movies are doing alright but largely because of Marvel. How is DC going to move forward from here?

Leslie Grace as Batgirl poses in Batgirl.

It’s interesting with Batgirl. I feel like the way to look at that is that it’s less on the character or the creative team behind that movie, and it’s more on the brain trust with Warner Brothers and HBO Max, because that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the problems they’ve been having. It’s less about Batgirl, and it’s more about a company that is looking to save cash and take care of their tax refund than caring about the character.

How can you explain the phenomenon that is Top Gun: Maverick? Because to me, it was a merely OK film that just became the movie of the moment. It just topped the Labor Day weekend box office, which is unheard of for a film that debuted at #1 on Memorial Day.

I have a couple of different theories on this. First, you’re right, the support for Maverick is huge. It’s 96% certified on Rotten Tomatoes, and the audience score is 99% with over 50,000 verified ratings. You can point to the more obvious reason which is that Tom Cruise is still a viable box office star with the Mission: Impossible films. He shows that returning to another iconic role of his with Maverick.

Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly embrace on a runway.

Also, I think that the appeal of the way it was filmed, where it was actually real jet fighters in action with some of the actors piloting these planes, I think was something that appealed to viewers.

Probably most importantly, the buzz around Top Gun: Maverick was that the reason why Paramount was holding it back is that you needed to see it on the big screen. With Maverick, we hadn’t had a movie like that in awhile: a good old-fashioned blockbuster with practical stunts. At the end of the day, we do love seeing aerial dogfights actually take place.

I feel like Maverick symbolized a thing bigger than itself: the return to movie theaters and a full summertime moviegoing season. We’ve seen that not only with Maverick and the Marvel blockbusters, but also with smaller films like The Black Phone and Where the Crawdads Sing. Are theaters where they need to be at this point in terms of their recovery?

I believe so, yes. There was no alternative to go see Maverick other than in the movie theater. With horror movies like The Black Phone, audiences love getting scared together in the dark as a collective experience. People want to come together to see something truly remarkable together. Either they want to get scared or they want to laugh together or they just want to have their socks blown off with something like Maverick.

Amber Midthunder hides behind a tree as a Predator lurks in the background in a scene from Prey.

From May to July, it’s been a success story at the box office, but it’s also been a success story with a lot of different movies and genres that have connected with audiences. Now, we’re in this sort of sleepy period between summer and fall, even more so than usual, where there’s just not anything scheduled to come out that’s really kind of attractive to audiences to pull them in the theaters. Did Hollywood miss an opportunity here by not putting films like Prey, which got a lot of critical and fan acclaim on Hulu, and genre fare like Orphan: First Kill in theatres instead of on streaming?

I think that a couple of those examples would have benefited from the big screen treatment. Hindsight is always 2020, but if you think about something like Prey, for example, I think in retrospect, yes, it would have made an impact on the big screen because it was so positively reviewed by critics and audiences. And it’s a Predator movie, and you want to see those on the big screen. Those are just fun to see.

But, the past few Predator movies hadn’t performed that well, so maybe to get these things back up and running properly, we don’t need to go big and bombastic with a giant marketing campaign to try to get people back in theaters. Maybe the way you do it is how Prey did it: build a more grassroots of support on a streaming service. Because now, after seeing Prey and what they did with the property in a specific time period in history, I want to see the Predator in all of the time periods in history. I would love to see biblical times with Jesus and the apostles versus the Predator. I want to see Frodo meets Prey. Maybe one day, based on the success of Prey on a streaming service, maybe we do get to see a Predator movie on the big screen.

Now that the summer of 2022 is over, what can we look forward to for the rest of the year?

Well, you have a few giant movies and one studio, in particular, that is really banking on a movie to reinvigorate its shared franchises, which would be DC with its Black Adam in October. That movie has so much riding on it because Shazam 2 just got pushed to March of 2023, so this is it for them for the year. You really hope that the Rock can bring his magic — and crowds — to the DCEU again.

Marvel Studios’ Black Panther: Wakanda Forever | Official Teaser

I think that the MCU is in a slightly more favorable position simply because they did have big movies opened up this past summer and now they have Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in November. And, you got to expect that sequel to surpass $1 billion and get the MCU back to where it was in 2019. It’s going to resonate with a lot of folks because of the sad passing of Chadwick Boseman. There’s mystery as to who’s inheriting the mantle in this film, and then you also have your teases and your nuggets and your Easter eggs for what to expect from Phase Five.

Avatar: The Way of Water | Official Teaser Trailer

Avatar 2 is something that everybody’s going to be looking at with a keen eye as to whether it can get anywhere close to what the previous iteration of Avatar did in terms of box office and the cultural impact it had in 2009. Disney is re-releasing the original Avatar in theaters later this month to whet our appetite for the sequel.

With his track record, it’s hard to bet against James Cameron.  

You wonder with James Cameron. I think the success of Avatar 2 is going to be determined by the marketing campaign and when it releases. I think a Christmas release date and a clear runway into 2023 is the right release period for it.

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