Disappointments of the decade

I initially thought about doing another top ten list for games, films, and television series that left me disappointed or underwhelmed in the 2010s, but the truth is that I don’t think I could reasonably find ten of each that I was genuinely disappointed by. There have been a few, but not enough to fill three full lists. So I’ve condensed what I had into one piece.

“Disappointment” is a very broad term when it comes to entertainment. For example, a television series I really enjoyed this decade was Terra Nova (it was in the “honourable mentions” section of my list of top ten television series), but despite it being a wonderful show, it was cancelled after one season with a story that hadn’t concluded. That’s a disappointment, undoubtedly. And of course there are films, games, and series that were just outright bad. I can be pretty brutal when it comes to switching off something I’m not enjoying – if it doesn’t seem like it’s improving or will improve, I’ll happily switch to something else. Life’s too short, after all, for bad entertainment.

That said, here are a few titles that, for a variety of reasons, I found to be disappointing in the 2010s. Please keep in mind that, as with previous lists, this is 100% subjective. This in my own opinion, and if you like any or all of these titles, that’s okay. You like what you like and I like what I like – and that’s great!

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers ahead for the films, games, and television series listed below. If you don’t want to be spoiled, skip ahead to the next entry.

Film #1: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Promo poster for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

You may remember from my comments on the list of top ten films that I’m not a Marvel fan, all things considered. I’m not a fan of superheroes, nor of comic books; I just never have been and even as a kid I didn’t read comics – my reading preference was for novels and books. Despite this, by 2014 I had managed to watch (most) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films – albeit grudgingly in some cases – and I’d even started watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. which was at the time a solid television series.

But then along came Guardians of the Galaxy. I found this film to be an absolute bore from start to finish. The comedy fell flat, the characters were either stupidly uninteresting or childish caricatures who couldn’t stop making (bad) jokes for even ten seconds. But worst of all was the plot. I just couldn’t find a way to care even the tiniest amount about the alien races I’d never seen on a planet I’d never heard of (and can’t even remember the name of) when it was under threat. There were no stakes and thus, no drama. At least in a film like The Avengers, it was New York and Earth that were attacked. In that case I knew the stakes – even if I found the film to be a bland, over-the-top action flick on par with something like Transformers. But Guardians of the Galaxy just failed across the board – uninteresting characters, meaningless aliens, and a threat to an unknown, insignificant planet about which I simply did not care.

On that final point, the film failed to communicate the stakes and get me invested in its world. A lot of sci fi and fantasy stories take place in worlds away from Earth. In The Lord of the Rings, Middle-Earth is threatened – yet I didn’t sit in the cinema thinking “who cares?” the way I did in Guardians of the Galaxy – because Peter Jackson’s films hooked me in and got me invested in its characters and its world. Likewise in the Star Trek franchise – the destruction of Vulcan in 2009’s Star Trek reboot had emotional weight because the film (and the franchise overall) had successfully got the audience invested in its world. This is the failure of Guardians of the Galaxy for me – it just couldn’t make me give a damn what happened. In most of the other Marvel films I’ve seen, I at least worked up enough investment in the films and their setting to want to see it through to the end. But by the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, I was done with Marvel. I skipped a lot of the next films in the series, and when I saw some of the Guardians characters pop up in Avengers: Endgame this year I let out a sigh of disappointment that I had to put up with their crap again. Just a disappointing, uninspiring, boring film that thinks itself to be far funnier and cleverer than it actually is.

Film #2: Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar poster featuring Matthew McConaughey.

Interstellar reminded me exactly why I don’t like time travel stories. It basically takes everything that I find stupid and uninteresting about time travel and combines them into one slog of a film. It rightly received praise upon release for its visuals, including a stunning depiction of a black hole, but that aside there’s not much I enjoyed here, despite the hype.

Sometimes sci fi can be too science-heavy, with not enough attention paid to the “fiction” element – you know, the part which makes stories interesting. Interstellar falls into that trap at points, spending too much time explaining the relationship between gravity, speed, and the passage of time. And when it finally does get away from real-world science into a story, the plot is exceptionally convoluted, even for a time travel film, and it ties itself in knots in the second half basically creating a time loop – a form of paradox which just irks me.

It’s exceptionally hard to do time travel well, precisely for the reasons Interstellar shows. It’s too easy to write yourself into a corner, creating a scenario which is impossible to understand, let alone explain and communicate to your audience. And that just completely takes me out of it and ruins any enjoyment I might have otherwise got from the cast, who overall give good performances – just with a crap script.

Some people have told me I need to rewatch Interstellar four or five times in order to “get it” – as if that’s somehow a point in its favour. If a film is so bad that I barely made it through to the end the first time, I promise you I’m not going back for more. And if the only way your film is any good is on its fifth viewing, then I’m sorry but you made a crap film. And Interstellar, despite its star cast and great visual effects, is absolutely a crap film.

Film #3: Into The Woods (2014)

Poster for Into The Woods.

Musicals aren’t usually my thing. They can work – especially in animation – but most of the time, the cast randomly breaking into song midway through a scene is something I find incredibly jarring. It takes me out of whatever I’m watching, ruining any suspension of disbelief. On the stage or in animation I’m always aware that I’m watching something fictional, but with today’s exceptional visual effects, as well as great costuming and set design, there’s a much greater sense of immersion than in previous decades – and that’s partly what makes the random songs in any musical so offputting, I think.

But anyway, that’s a more general point. Into The Woods features some truly crap songs – sung badly by actors and actresses who aren’t natural singers. So at the numerous points where the film is interrupted by song, the songs aren’t even good or enjoyable to listen to. It also fails as a fantasy film, plagued by over-the-top hammy acting of the kind usually seen in pantomime. In fact, if it were a pantomime, Into The Woods might’ve been alright.

But as with a lot of modern films, Into The Woods wants to make a point. Something about how actions have consequences, maybe? I was so bored by the end I’m not even sure if that’s what it wanted to say. It also tries to satirise the fantasy genre and criticise fairy tales, but instead of gentle parody and laughing with its targets, it comes across as mean-spirited and laughing at them – and at the people who enjoy those genres.

There might’ve been the kernel of an interesting concept buried somewhere in the pre-production of Into The Woods, but it never made it to screen. And the bad acting, bad singing, and overall bad intentions as well as the aggressive, mean nature of the film made it a truly unenjoyable experience.

Film #4: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

The poster for The Force Awakens.

I actually really love this film. And I love its sequel, The Last Jedi, despite what many people have said about it. They are both great films – taken as standalone pieces. As two parts of a greater whole, however, they aren’t anywhere near as good.

The shift in tone from The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi is noticeable, and the reason why is because Disney and Lucasfilm decided that the way the sequel trilogy would be produced is that each writer and director would be given essentially free reign to tell whatever story they wanted. To me, that’s an absolutely absurd and inexplicable decision from a group of accomplished filmmakers. On what planet is that how storytelling works? If you’re creating a trilogy of films you need one writing team to tell a single, cohesive story – one story, told in three parts. Let alone that this trilogy is actually parts seven, eight, and nine to an already-existing series – and that that series happens to be one of the most important works of the genre. I just cannot fathom how this decision came to be made. It doesn’t make sense – and the result is a jarring tonal shift from one film to the next, epitomised by the scene at the very beginning of The Last Jedi where Luke Skywalker throws his lightsaber away.

As a standalone piece, The Force Awakens is a clone of A New Hope (aka Star Wars, the 1977 film). And on first viewing I thought that was exactly what I wanted – especially after the disappointment of the prequels ten years previously. A return to what made Star Wars great was fantastic – but on looking at it again it’s clear that JJ Abrams crossed that invisible line which divides nostalgic throwbacks from outright copying. The strange thing is that two years previously, while working on Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams had managed to pay homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan without falling into that trap. If he could do it there, how did he manage to go too far here?

One final point, the concept of “Luke Skywalker is missing”, which The Force Awakens sets up and uses as the driving force for much of its narrative was, in retrospect, a bad decision. Killing off Han Solo meant that fans of the original films never got to see any on-screen interaction between Han, Luke, and Leia – the trio of characters at the core of those films. As a sequel to a trilogy of films so reliant upon those three characters, I have to say I feel that was a big mistake. Carrie Fisher’s untimely death in 2016, as well as the supposed death of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi also means that we got very little Luke and Leia interaction on screen either. While I, like most Star Wars fans, left the cinema thrilled with what The Force Awakens did, looking back at it there are a number of issues which I’d say make it a disappointment.

Its sequel, while divisive, was much better and tried to take the franchise to different places. It was, however, constrained to a great extent by the concept of Luke Skywalker being missing, isolating himself on this small island. From that foundation, there weren’t many places to take the character and the story, and that contributes to the sense that The Force Awakens didn’t set up a strong narrative for the trilogy. But again, that failure is on the head of the producers, and their decision to allow the story to be split up. If one team of writers had worked from day one to tell a single story across three films, instead of three one-shots, the trilogy would arguably have been much better. The Rise of Skywalker – set to conclude the “Skywalker saga” – is to be released soon, and that could go a long way toward redeeming the series if it’s good enough. We’ll have to wait and see.

Television series #1: Game of Thrones’ eighth season (2019)

Teaser poster for Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season.

This really boils down to the first three episodes of the season. After that it did improve, though the disappointment of what happened in those first episodes wasn’t wiped away by what came after.

In the premiere episode of Game of Thrones way back in 2011, the White Walkers are shown for the first time, and throughout the entire seven seasons leading to this point, the overall message of the show was that the politics and infighting may be interesting, but something far greater and more dangerous lies beyond The Wall and is coming – and it won’t care who’s in charge. In the background, behind all the wars and all the politics, slowly building up over seven seasons was The Night King and his army of the dead. Finally, at the end of season seven, he brings part of The Wall crashing down and is able to lead his army south – atop an undead dragon, no less.

As the eighth season begins, many of the main characters have arrived at Winterfell, and the first couple of episodes lead up to a climactic battle in the third episode – where The Night King finally unleashes his army and all of his firepower upon our heroes. This is the moment the entire show feels like it’s been building up to… and then, just like that, he’s dead at the end of it.

The Night King, built up over seven seasons as the greatest threat our characters have ever faced, doesn’t even last one episode south of The Wall and is killed in his first battle against any significant opposing army. To me, that’s an unforgivable storytelling mistake. Game of Thrones is rightly held up as one of the all-time great works of television, and is a seminal event in this decade’s storytelling, but this one moment, and the episodes preceding it when looking back in hindsight, threatens to undo all of that. It taints Game of Thrones with just how badly it was done.

I won’t go over all of it here – because I plan to do a full article or even a series on this topic – but Game of Thrones deserved a better final season than it got. Luckily, the remaining episodes were largely good and did go some way to saving the season, but even so it remains a disappointment and the way that The Night King didn’t even bring his “long night” for a single day, let alone years, is incredibly disappointing.

Television series #2: House of Cards’ sixth season (2018)

Robin Wright on a promo poster for the sixth season of House of Cards.

House of Cards – a remake of a British series of the same name from the 1990s – is an incredibly important television series. While not on par with something like Game of Thrones, perhaps, it is nevertheless the show that pioneered Netflix’s original programming, and that was the first significant show to premiere all the episodes of its season in a single day. Other Netflix shows owe their existence to House of Cards, and Netflix’s decision to diversify into original programming – as opposed to merely licensing other peoples’ properties – is what will allow it to survive as we enter the “streaming wars”.

In 2017, Kevin Spacey, who played devious mastermind Frank Underwood in House of Cards, was accused of a number of serious sexual offences. His response to the allegations was widely criticised, and as a result he became persona non grata overnight, even being digitally erased from the film All the Money in the World. As the sixth season of House of Cards was in early production, Netflix quickly announced he’d be dropped from that too, and production was restarted without him.

As happens in a lot of cases when a main character leaves a series, the way in which he was written out (he died off-screen) was ham-fisted and just poor overall. For a main character to just be dumped never sits well, but in a story so focused on a single character like House of Cards, where Frank Underwood is so central to everything that happened, there’s basically no point in carrying on without him.

At the end of season five, Frank had resigned as President amidst a scandal (of his own making), thus arguably completing the “rise and fall” narrative of House of Cards. With Spacey embroiled in scandal there was no way Netflix could continue to work with him, so the decision should have been to pull the plug and end the series. The sixth season was just an unnecessary disappointment. This isn’t, by the way, a criticism of Robin Wright, who did an admirable job stepping into the role of protagonist/anti-hero that Spacey had occupied. It’s simply the fact that the series was never her character’s story, and jettisoning its main lead while production was underway and a deadline was coming up meant that the sixth season had to be rapidly adjusted to fit the new circumstances. And unfortunately, it came up short.

Television series #3: The Walking Dead (2010-Present)

Promo poster for The Walking Dead featuring Andrew Lincoln.

Even speaking as someone who isn’t a huge fan of horror, the first couple of seasons of AMC’s zombie show were decent. Playing more on the post-apocalyptic setting than the zombies themselves, the earlier episodes of The Walking Dead had some great character moments and performances by the cast. But as time has passed, the series has completely run out of ideas.

Rick Grimes and his ever-changing group of survivors seem to stumble from bad situation to bad situation, and in recent years all of those bad situations have been essentially the same thing. When the zombies lost their fear factor a couple of seasons in, writers began looking for new threats for the group to deal with. And since then, every season has followed basically the same pattern – Rick and his group arrive in an area, other human survivors decide they don’t like Rick and his group, the two groups fight, and then that’s it. Roll on the next group of human survivors with an inexplicable and poorly-written anti-Rick agenda. The Governor came first, so he gets somewhat of a pass. But after him came the Terminus cannibals, then Negan, and it’s just become so boring and repetitive that I tuned out.

Fear The Walking Dead – a spin-off of the main show – is actually much better. It’s taken a look at the immediate aftermath of the zombie virus in a way that The Walking Dead didn’t, and thus its post-apocalyptic setting, while the same as that featured in the main series, feels like it has more of a foundation to build upon.

Any villain or enemy can be overused or overexposed. And when they are, when the protagonists have defeated them so many times, they lose their fear factor. And even though The Walking Dead was up there with Game of Thrones in pioneering the “disposable” cast (i.e. main cast members could be killed off at any time and you couldn’t be sure who’d survive), by this point in the show as it passes its tenth season, the vast majority of the original cast have gone, and the few survivors who are left from earlier seasons don’t feel like they’re in danger. Add to that that the new characters are less interesting and less well-known to the audience and the show has become boring. Some series have a natural lifespan – and The Walking Dead should’ve ended after perhaps four seasons or so.

Television series #4: Doctor Who (2005-Present)

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman on a promo poster for Doctor Who.

There have been some great Doctor Who stories this decade – The Day of the Doctor is brilliant, for example. But unfortunately, after Matt Smith left the role in the 2013 Christmas Special, things went downhill fast.

Peter Capaldi is exactly how I’d imagine The Doctor if someone just described the character to me. He has a certain quality, perhaps best described as “gravitas” or “weight”, allowing him to seamlessly and successfully step into the role of this ancient, time-travelling alien. Which is something that previous Doctor Who actors of the relaunched series arguably lacked.

Sadly, though, Capaldi just had nothing to work with. For the entire three seasons he was in the role, the writing and stories were just bad. They started bad and even managed to get worse over time, as the team being the series simply ran out of ideas. Modern Doctor Who has suffered from an overuse of three key villains – the Daleks most notably, but also the Cybermen and Weeping Angels. All of these adversaries were great in their initial appearances in 2005, 2006, and even up to the end of the last decade. But by the time Peter Capaldi took over they were played out. And the stories featuring new opponents for The Doctor simply didn’t get off the ground.

Clara, who had been the companion to the previous Doctor, was written out of the show in a bad way, and Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame is introduced as an incredibly annoying immortal character. The only decent companion of this era, Bill (played by Pearl Mackie) only lasted a single season and was treated as a complete afterthought in most of her stories – and also came to a stupidly annoying end.

I struggled on through Capaldi’s reign as The Doctor, waiting for the writing to improve so the show could finally shine, but unfortunately it never happened, and his departure was thus the last time I bothered watching. Doctor Who needs a root-and-branch overhaul, and since that seems impossible right now, it would be better to put it back on hiatus for a while. Perhaps we can come back to it in a few years when someone has a genuinely good idea for its revival.

Video game #1: Fallout 76 (2018)

Fallout 76 box art.

What’s at the core of a great story? Whether we’re talking about a film, a television series, or a video game, characters are at the heart of any story. And the Fallout series, from its inception in the 1990s through the three more recent titles, have been story-focused games. So why, then, did Bethesda choose to release Fallout 76 – an online game where there are no non-player characters?

Forget about the bugs for a moment. Fallout 76 was riddled with glitches and graphical errors, but if, underneath all of that, there had been a story worth telling, a lot of that could have been and would have been forgiven. But there wasn’t, and the fact that Fallout 76 is essentially a big, empty world has meant that the issues which are present seem all the more egregious. I’m honestly not sure what the point of this game was. Aside from walking around to look at the decently pretty – if somewhat last-gen – environment, and fighting off a few monsters, there’s literally nothing to do.

I’m not a multiplayer gamer; I don’t enjoy playing online with strangers. But I fully understand that a lot of people do, and that this game was aimed at them. But even if that was the objective, it’s completely failed. The lack of story meant that even players who teamed up to tackle Fallout 76‘s environment together would be bored pretty quickly, and the shoddy gunplay – which Fallout’s signature VATS system concealed so well in Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4 – means that it’s worthless as a multiplayer player-versus-player shooter like Call of Duty. So honestly, what was the point of this game? It’s been nothing but a massive PR own goal from Bethesda, and their damaged brand will take a long time to recover. If their next title isn’t absolutely fantastic, they’ll be in a mess of trouble.

Video game #2: Mass Effect 3 (2012)

Female of Commander Shepard on the alternate box art for Mass Effect 3.

I picked Mass Effect 2 for my game of the decade – spoiler warning for that list. But its sequel struggled to conclude the trilogy in a satisfactory way. Mass Effect 3 told what should’ve been the most interesting part of the story. After Shepard is introduced to the idea of The Reapers – space-dwelling robot aliens who want to rid the galaxy of all intelligent life – in the first game, and the second game uncovers another part of their plan, this game features the actual war against The Reapers – and players have to fight battles and bring the galaxy together to defeat them.

On paper, it sounds like the best part. But, coming out only two years after Mass Effect 2, Mass Effect 3 was rushed. Gameplay remains solid, though not notably improved from its predecessor, and there are none of the bugs and graphical issues which would plague Mass Effect: Andromeda. But as the story ramps up, it’s clear that developers Bioware simply ran out of time to pull everything together.

It isn’t just the “pick a colour” ending – though that is a significant disappointment in itself – but the fact that choices made throughout the game, and indeed in the previous two games, not only don’t matter but aren’t even given lip service as Mass Effect 3 enters its final climactic fight.

To give an example, if players have followed a specific path across all three titles, it’s possible to save both the Geth species and the Quarian species when it seems like it should only be possible to save one or the other. This is an incredible moment in the game, and it feels like having both powerful fleets on your side will make a difference when you reach Earth – where The Reapers have massed their forces. But it doesn’t – literally the only difference comes in the cut-scene immediately after arriving at Earth, where the different fleets check in to confirm they’ve all arrived. Two seconds of dialogue reveals that you have both the Geth and Quarians on your side… then that’s it. And there are dozens of other instances throughout the final third of the game where an extra few months of development time would’ve allowed for a much more satisfying way of recognising the player’s choices.

In a series where players were promised that “every choice matters”, it turned out by the end of Mass Effect 3 that that simply wasn’t the case. And while the game is solid overall, it’s a poor relation to its predecessor.

Video game #3: Shenmue III (2019)

Ryo Hazuki and Shenua on Shenmue III‘s box art.

I’ve already written an article detailing at length my problems with Shenmue III, but suffice to say it’s absolutely one of the biggest let-downs for me personally.

As a big fan of the first two Shenmue games, back when I had a Dreamcast, I was absolutely thrilled to hear that series creator Yu Suzuki had managed to buy the rights to the legendary series with a view to finally making a sequel. Eighteen years have passed since I left protagonist Ryo in a cave in China, and I was really looking forward to learning what happened next after that cliffhanger, as well as finally seeing the story brought to an end.

But Shenmue III doesn’t bring the story to an end – thanks to an absolutely inexplicable decision not to make cuts to the bloated story of the series. Yu Suzuki genuinely thinks he can get lightning to strike twice and that he’ll somehow get the money together to make Shenmue IV – and presumably V and VI as well? Fat chance.

His studio had been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by a dedicated group of fans to conclude the story, and they blew it. The Shenmue series was as dead as it was possible to be, and Sega was only willing to part with the rights because they knew that it would never make them any money. As great as Shenmue was, it was a colossal failure, and Shenmue II managed to retain less than 10% of its fans from the first game, resulting in a massive drop in sales from one title to the next. By every conceivable metric, the games failed. And despite that, a small, vocal group of fans managed to stump up over $7,000,000 – some individuals contributing thousands of dollars.

I don’t claim to speak for all of them, but the one thing I expected from Shenmue III – in fact, the only thing I expected from it – is that it would finally complete the story. And if Yu Suzuki couldn’t find a way to cut it down to fit into one game, someone needed to be brought in to swing that axe and make those cuts. As a result of this, I haven’t even bought the game. And I won’t, because what’s the point? Get drawn back into that world, only to be left on another unresolved cliffhanger? No thank you.

So that’s it. A few titles across entertainment which I found to be disappointing or underwhelming this decade. If your favourite is on the list, well I’m sorry. But we all have our own preferences and tastes. These are just my opinions, and are wholly subjective.

The 2010s have, overall, been a wonderful decade for entertainment. TV shows are better than ever, often with cinema-quality acting and visuals, video games continue to get bigger and better, and at the box office there have been some incredible films. But there are always going to be misses to go along with the hits, and this list just runs through a few that didn’t work – at least for me.

All titles listed above are copyright of their respective studio, developer, producer, and/or distributor. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

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