What we have learned from the summer season's flicks?

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On June 1, "Snow White and the Huntsman" was known as the second Snow White movie in as many months, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were still married, and it seemed as if "The Dark Knight Rises" would give "Marvel's The Avengers" a run for its money.

Now, as the summer season winds down, "Snow White" is notable for the dalliance it sparked between actress Kristen Stewart and her married director, while Mr. Cruise is divorced and daughter Suri is living in New York with her mom.

And talking about the box-office gross for "The Dark Knight Rises" seems insensitive in light of the savage attack that killed a dozen people, including a 6-year-old girl, and wounded 58 in a Colorado theater.

Pittsburghers, especially those who sweltered in the heat at Heinz Field, scooped up artificial snow Downtown or proudly worked on the crew under director Christopher Nolan, still flocked to see the movie, but some of the thrill was tempered or gone.

PG graphic: Summer films
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Eleven weeks before Batman arrived, summer opened with "Marvel's The Avengers," the movie that would become the No. 1 release of the year.

"It was a roller-coaster ride from then on, with some box-office ups ('Ted,' 'Brave,' 'Ice Age,' 'The Dark Knight Rises' and 'Spider-Man') and some downs ('The Watch,' 'Step Up Revolution,' 'Rock of Ages,' 'That's My Boy')," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box-office division of hollywood.com.

"High hopes for a record-breaking revenue number were dashed by a weak late summer marketplace, with no 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' or 'The Help' to give us a big home-stretch push," Mr. Dergarabedian said.

A year ago, those movies boosted the summer bottom line by $286.8 million. "There was no late summer one-two punch like that this year," he said.

As the season winds down, there are lessons aplenty.

1. The early bird sometimes does get the worm
PG graphic: Box office comparison
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The Post-Gazette's Tony Norman called "The Avengers" the movie comic-book fans had been curled up in their parents' basements fantasizing about for half a century. They embraced it, but so did others who never owned a single comic book although they may have seen the feeder movies about Iron Man, Thor or Captain America.

As "The Expendables" learned, assemble enough action heroes and you'll bring in their respective fans and generate curiosity about whether they play well with others.

"The Avengers" has grossed nearly $618 million in North America and almost $1.5 billion worldwide. It got out of the gate early, launching the summer season May 4, had the 3-D surcharge ("The Dark Knight Rises" did not) and generated largely enthusiastic reviews.

2. Some men just want to watch the world burn

Michael Caine's character, Alfred, uttered the memorable line in "The Dark Knight," but it applied more than ever when a Colorado man opened fire during a midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises."

You can take the movies out of this world, but you cannot take this world out of the movies, which meant some families and others decided to wait for the DVD. The incident reignited debate about gun ownership and recognition and treatment of apparent mental illness and spawned accounts of fools trying to bring weapons into theaters as if smuggling in dollar-store candy.

3. You sunk my "Battleship" and box office -- "Battleship," the action picture based on the board game, cost a reported $209 million but made only about $65 million in North America. It fared far better overseas, but a catch phrase, a cast led by Taylor Kitsch, Brooklyn Decker, Rihanna and Liam Neeson, and nostalgia or fondness for a game don't necessarily translate into box office appeal.

Other surprising underperformers: "The Watch," a muddle about an alien invasion that lost the "Neighborhood" part of its title after the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida; "Step Up Revolution," the fourth installment in the dance series that could use a Channing Tatum visit; "That's My Boy," a particularly awful Adam Sandler comedy; "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," a bust based on the popular novel; and "Rock of Ages" a music-soaked adaptation of the play starring Mr. Cruise as a sexy rocker.

4. You talkin' to us? -- On paper, "Ted" might have seemed like the most absurd concept of the summer. In 1985, an 8-year-old boy tells his new Christmas gift of a teddy bear, "I wish you could really talk to me because then we could be best friends forever and ever."

His wish comes true, and Ted can walk and talk and, once older, smoke pot, invite hookers over to watch bad comedies and drive buddy John (Mark Wahlberg) to work. Seth MacFarlane, director, co-writer and the voice of Ted, reeled in young men and their dates along with plenty of other moviegoers.

It's sparked talk of a sequel and, The Hollywood Reporter says, will spawn a line of talking teddy bears ranging from $14 to $59.99 with sentiments likely not suitable for show-and-tell.

5. Ladies night never goes out of fashion -- "Magic Mike" was the ticket for groups of women looking for what we called "a wonderfully low-fat summer treat." Yes, there were some men in the audience; in his Web review, Pittsburgh Dad thought he was going to "Mike the Magician" and expected card tricks and sawing people in half.

The R-rated movie was inspired by Channing Tatum, who worked as a stripper for eight months when he was 18 and 19 years old. He's still got the moves.

6. Everyone's a critic -- Never was this driven home more than when two young brothers sobbed (and we do mean sobbed!) over the fate of the title character in "The Odd Life of Timothy Green." Their parents uploaded video of their hysterical heartbreak on YouTube, and it went viral, prompting strangers to react to their reaction to the movie rated PG.

7. Give studios an A for animation -- Parents pretty much could not lose, whether they took their children to see "Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted," "Brave," "Ice Age: Continental Drift" or "ParaNorman." A thread in "ParaNorman" about the fate of a youthful witch is disturbing although the story was salted with all sorts of clever horror-movie references, such as the innocent hockey mask Norman's pal wears.

It has been a remarkable year for animated movies with such standouts as "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" and "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" although the best didn't need 3-D to be appreciated. Still to come are another half-dozen releases, including "Finding Nemo" and "Monsters, Inc." in 3-D, Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie," "Hotel Transylvania," "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Rise of the Guardians."

8. Let's hear it for: The animators who created and curled Merida's red hair in "Brave"; Andrew Garfield for reinvigorating Spider-Man; singer Katy Perry for reminding us, "The show must go on," even when the marriage to Russell Brand will not; and Josh Brolin for channeling Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black 3."

Kudos also to "Beasts of the Southern Wild" director Benh Zeitlin for gambling on non-actors, including Quvenzhane Wallis, now 8 and filming "Twelve Years a Slave"; the makers of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Bernie," "To Rome With Love," "The Intouchables," "The Queen of Versailles," "Take This Waltz" and "Robot & Frank" for giving mature moviegoers alternatives or supplemental choices; and Christian Bale for visiting shooting victims in Colorado and laying flowers at a makeshift memorial.

9. It's good news-bad news at the box office: More people have gone to the movies this year than last, but when you look only at estimates for the summer, attendance is down about 4 percent and box-office gross off by almost 3 percent, according to hollywood.com.

10. Oscar buzz is barely audible: At this time last year, three of the eventual best picture nominees had been released. "Midnight in Paris" and "The Tree of Life" arrived in May and "The Help" in August.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild" and its fierce young star may factor into the race, and here's hoping "The Dark Knight Rises" receives its awards due, despite the tragic shadow cast over it.

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan has been nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences three times, once for the original "Memento" screenplay and twice for "Inception," as a producer of the best picture nominee and screenwriter. He has never won an Oscar.

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Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies. First Published August 31, 2012 4:00 AM


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