This was a year of high anticipation: franchises staked at both ends of 2012, a crossover with "Harry Potter" implications, and a summer stuffed with superheroes in spandex to shake up box-office doldrums.
Could hype measure up to expectation -- and did it deliver in 2012? One good way to measure is to stack up movies' buzz -- in this case, the number of Searches on Yahoo!, visited by a half a billion people each month, during each film's debut month -- against its critical reviews and box-office receipts. One thing to note: Hollywood-hyped titles like "John Carter" and "Battleship" weren't fooling audiences; they knew to save their online energy for bigger things.
[Photos: 2012 Breakout Stars]
1. "The Hunger Games." The Suzanne Collins series had the makings of a crossover juggernaut like "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" before it. Its premise, however, involved a 16-year-old archer in post-apocalyptic America, sacrificing herself to fight in a killing field. Oh, and Katniss Everdeen was a girl, one of a growing cadre of underaged onscreen killing femmes. That kind of bloodlust shouldn't have been been surprising, given the female penchant for mysteries, true crime, and Lifetime women-in-peril-who-fight-back lineups. Hollywood also calculated, from "Twilight" figures, that ladies actually went to the movies, and judging from Yahoo! Searches (which ran 63% female), they would show up for this adaptation. The film had a massive opening weekend (in March), the third-biggest grosser in 2012, outperformed "Harry Potter" (in domestic grosses), and the best debut for a film that wasn't a sequel. Its influence didn't stop in the movie theaters: The impulse to shoot some arrows helped fill archery classes across the nation. All this will surely up the ante for sequel "Catching Fire," due out November 2013.
2. "The Dark Knight Rises." Director Christopher Nolan had a very short track record before taking on this reboot, but his phenomenal "Memento" hinted at grander things to come. Sure enough, the director completely reimagined and revitalized the superhero franchise over seven years, backing away from camp once and for all and bestowing a cinematic experience that tied together epic, action, and drama. Online, the demographics were the gender flip-side to "The Hunger Games," with males conducting 7 out of 10 of the Searches. After a four-year wait, the final in the trilogy didn't quite measure up with the critic -- nor the box office -- as much as the second installment. Still, the summer blockbuster came in second to "The Avengers" in domestic grosses. If you calculate dollars per superhero, Batman comes out ahead.
3. "Marvel's The Avengers." More bang for your superhero buck, the Marvel fantasy shoehorned in a half-dozen A-list stars including Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, and Samuel Jackson, plus A-list up-and-comers like the omnipresent Chris Hemsworth and Jeremy Renner. While all have their following, Mark Ruffalo's nuanced take on The Hulk excited Searches and fan talk of another solo-film try (although for now, he's rumored to portraying the raging scientist in the inevitable sequel). In an era of streaming entertainment at one's convenience, "The Avengers" (and "Avatar") are the only 21st-century films to make the top 25 all-time grossing movies adjusted for inflation, according to Box Office Mojo.
4. "The Amazing Spider-Man." Too soon? It seemed like only a decade ago when Tobey Maguire hung upside down to smooch Kirsten Dunst. Wait, that was only 10 years ago, and a fleeting five years since Maguire's last Spidey stand in "Spider-Man 3." But tingling Hollywood senses insisted the world wanted a reboot. At least parts of the world did: The growing Asian market scuttled to theaters to take in the 3D effects, while the Western world merely ambled to the Fourth of July opening. Broken down per screen, the opening weekend amounted to $14,360 -- well below the $35,540 average of "Spider-Man 3", but still plenty enough to take the No. 4 box-office spot, and the No. 4 slot in 2012 movie searches on Yahoo!.
5. "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2." Would fickle teen girls and their moms grow out of their adoration for the glittering vampire series? Did Kristen Stewart's fling with a married man (and from another movie, no less) not only end her real-life romance with Robert Pattinson, but also besmirch her allure among the faithful? We're kidding, right? The last standoff between covens had the fourth biggest opening in 2012, doubtless backed by the fiery teen + mom following conducting those Searches all year long: Of all the films in this list, "Twilight" had the biggest proportion of female teens, just barely surpassing "The Hunger Games." Its tremendous opening weekend -- with per-screen revenue even higher than "Skyfall" -- will likely push the romance-fantasy past "Brave" into the top five box-office earners.
6. "Magic Mike." Who knew Channing Tatum would save 2012? Well, OK, 2012 didn't exactly need saving, but he and Jonas Hill did help audiences crack a smile with "21 Jump Street," the first highly rated movie of the year. Then Tatum's gyroscopic hips joined up with director Steven Soderbergh, who returned to his "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" roots for his comic, incisive take on American carnal desires. Hands down and pants off, this was the most appealing film on this list to women of a certain age (actually, a pretty big swath: ages 25-64). "Magic Mike" made Matthew McConaughey as the sleazy nightclub owner detestably likable again and helped secure Tatum's crown as Sexiest Man Alive. His way with Velcro even inspired Joseph Gordon-Levitt -- busy enough being the Dark Knight's successor and Abraham Lincoln's son -- to try some gyrating on his own on SNL. (Don't say you didn't try a few moves yourself.) The feel-good-yet-slightly-tawdry movie pulled in a respectable 21st-place showing at the box office with a $113 million domestic take: That's a lot of dollars shoved down a waistband.
7. "Prometheus." Helmed by Ridley Scott, stocked with talent and swathed in mystery, the sci-fi thriller would win hands down in stealth marketing. Would this magnificent offering be a precursor to "Alien"? More importantly, would it be a return to Scott's youthful, audacious grit, when he directed not just "Alien," but also "Blade Runner"? According to Yahoo! Searches, "Prometheus" tied with "Dark Knight" for its heavy male appeal (71% male, 29% female), but this crowd of fanboys tended to be more grown-up fanmen (ages 30-54). When the thriller finally landed, critics and audiences were similarly split over extolling its undeniable grandeur and decrying its implausible plot; even Total Film fans grudgingly ranked it No. 23 on its list of "50 Most Disappointing Movies of All Time." Ultimately, the movie translated into respectable but hardly zealous attendance, making just a little more than "Safe House" and less than "21 Jump Street."
8. "Snow White and the Huntsman." The gamble was big: Snow White as a warrior with dwarf henchmen. Still, with the rebirth of the female action heroine, the title alone promised a fairy tale for our times. (A working-class woodsman over a prince? Wait, isn't that Thor?) Not only was Charlize Theron delectably cast as the wicked stepmother, but it was also daring just to have Kristen Stewart (with Thor!) in a big-screen blockbuster released just months before her "Twilight" bow-out. An earlier Snow White movie -- "Mirror, Mirror" dubbed a humorless comedy -- may have actually improved the buzz for this one. Of the movies on this list, this film actually had the closest gender Search parity: a 58% female/42% male split. Despite a mixed critical reaction, "Snow White" did fairly well as the 13th-highest grosser -- especially considering the scandal that broke midway through its theatrical run: star Stewart caught in flagrante delicto with director Rupert Sanders, a married man and father of two.
9. "Skyfall." MGM's debt problems did what psychopaths and femme fatales failed to do for decades: Stop James Bond. At least, the franchise was on hold for four years. But 2012 would turn out to be a good year for Anglophiles, what with the queen's Diamond Jubilee, the Olympics (where Daniel Craig "escorted" the Queen), and Bond's own 50th anniversary. Agent 007 even parachuted into the Games' Opening Ceremony, and was praised as the highest praise as the most admired man, surpassing the likes of former President Bill Clinton and Usain Bolt. Enraptured Bondsmen have so far placed "Skyfall" in seventh place at the 2012 box office, a few discreet paces behind "Twilight."
10. "The Expendables 2." The 1980s dream team returns! Really, did anybody expect this to be a huge moneymaker? In fact, who knew a sequel was warranted, after the schtick wore off about a reunion of aging action heroes? Then again -- Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris in one place? No joke generator could crank out that kind of awesome bundle of machismo, in a movie tailor-made for Internet buzz (and the 35-54-year-old set, who pushed most of the Searches). The multivitamin-pumped mindless pleasure earned enough to put the ragtag team at No. 27 in box-office receipts -- below "Think Like a Man" but above "John Carter" and "Cloud Atlas." No surprise: In its first week out on video, the curiosity is a top rental.
[Photos: 2012 Best and Worst Movie Posters]