Summary: Today Locke Peterseim gives us something different than his usually insightful review of a summer blockbuster; he gives a macro-review of summer blockbusters as an art form. What does their triumph over what might be called “real” films (i.e., with plots, characters, etc) reveal about us? This is one of his best. Post your thoughts in the comments.
By Locke Peterseim.
From the film blog of Open Letters Monthly.
Reposted with his generous permission.
Oh hey, look, it’s officially the end of the summer movie season.
I had a half dozen clever ways into this piece, but let’s cut to the chase (scenes, literally): I didn’t write much about this summer’s big blockbuster “air-conditioning-and-popcorn” movies.
I didn’t write much about the summer’s small art-house indie films, either, for a variety of reasons I’m working to remedy, but in part because even as I near 50, I’m still somewhat conditioned and programmed to focus first on the big-name, big-box-office summer action movies. They get “stuck in my craw,” and when I couldn’t write about them this summer, for reasons I’ll elaborate on here today, I found myself unable to write about much else until I cleared the flue. Or craw… or whatever this metaphor was about…
Since my youth, I’ve been told (by studios and entertainment media, in the past couple decades by online social media, and always by myself) that Summer Movies are “special;” that if they’re not always cinematically deep, they’re culturally, seasonally, personally important. Most of all, Summer Movie Season (and the upcoming Awards Season) is intentionally, collectively branded by the studios and the Grand Entertainment Marketing Machine as Something We Are Supposed to Care About (i.e. “Spend Our Money On”).
In past summers I’d written about the nostalgic pull of the “idea” of these big summer movies, all of it keyed directly into the warm emotional glow of my 10-16-year-old self’s rose-tinted memories of lining up on summer sidewalks to see films like Star Wars, Empire, Raiders, E.T., and even, in a rare case of my young-adult self successfully capturing that childhood thrill, Burton’s first Batman (which I saw in my early-20s rather than my teens). Right up until the last five years (not coincidentally, around when I began to write about film professionally), I could still muster something like that excitement and giddy anticipation for the Summer Movie Season, all of it, again, fueled almost purely on nostalgia, not reality. “Chasing the experience,” we call it.
These days I don’t feel much of that anymore. Yes, it bubbled up a bit in recent years for the new Star Trek and Avengers movies. (Those and the upcoming new Star Wars are just about the only releases I still find myself seeking out and watching trailers for. Otherwise — and I promise a full-length rant on this someday soon — I think trailers and the over-attention paid to them these days are one of the Interweb’s many cultural blights — a case of the marketing tail wagging the filmmaking dog.)
What I usually feel now when approaching Summer Movie Season is some varying degree of jaded curiosity, usually run through with thick strains of hope or dread, depending on the new movie’s franchise, filmmakers, or corporate brand identity.
The reasons for that are numerous; some of them personal, some of them professional, none of them all that revelatory or interesting. Yes, I’m getting older. I’ve seen a lot of summer action and sci-fi and fantasy films over the decades, and yes, a lot of superhero movies since 1990.
It’s not so much that my tastes have become rarified, as they’ve gotten numbed. I love warm, comforting, fun wades through the nostalgia bath as much as anyone, but for various Industry reasons (that I’ll touch on in a sec), that warm nostalgia bath of genre familiarity (or “high brand awareness”) is almost all we get anymore, and at some point the relaxing bath starts to feel like slowly drowning.
Part of me still enjoys the Marvel superheroes, and dinosaur-sized visual effects spectacles, and Mission-Impossible action flicks, still dutifully trots out to the theater to see them on the big screens, but no matter how much each successive entry in those summer sub-genres is “newer” and “bigger” and “more more-y!” their songs remain essentially the same, and they’re songs I don’t need to hear every weekend from every new big-budget genre film.
So unless a summer action film really nails it, really just puts the pedal down and roars tightly and perfectly through the tropes (ahem, a little more on Mad Max: Fury Road in a bit), I don’t really care anymore. Nor does “show me something new” mean “show me something bigger and louder and with more 3D IMAX pixels” — it means show me some new ideas, some new ways to telling these old tales, show me something unique, something original and weird. (And sadly, as I’ll discuss below, simple things like well-realized characters and storytelling and solid filmmaking craft are rare enough these days to qualify as “unique.”)
Last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy nudged up against some of that craving for new flavors, thanks to director-writer James Gunn’s off-beat exploit-indie sensibilities and musical taste, but in the end, it remained mostly Marvel-Disney superhero product.
But it’s not just that I’m getting old and jaded and I’ve seen it all before. There are larger financial forces at work in recent years. As has been written about and discussed at length both here by me and all over the media, the Film Industry’s economic model is (like the world’s entire economic system) stuck in a death spiral, desperately chasing larger and larger profit margins to make up for dwindling theater attendance, and so pounding any “mainstream” movie release into a soft, mushy, mass-digestible pulp — a mushy pulp that must come with strong pre-release “brand awareness.”
Yes, I’m weary of these films, and very weary of writing about them, but no, it’s not all my fault — the films are getting worse for the most part, even as they’re expertly marketed with military precision to score bigger and bigger opening weekends.
But the problem for me as a writer this summer was that I’ve said all this, over and over, in recent years. I don’t know how many more times I can pound the pulpit about all these subjects when it comes to today’s crass, commercial, and content-vacant versions of Popcorn Entertainment. About the decay of simple narrative structures in the age of video-game storytelling, about the erosion of anything that resembles character development, about the drug-addled addiction to visual CGI spectacle.
A couple summers ago, I wrote about Depp’s Lone Ranger reboot in which I pointed out that these really aren’t anything like movies anymore — they’re just “entertainment property events,” not films. Every time I sat down to write about one of this summer’s new blockbuster entertainment property events, I found myself shrugging and thinking, “Eh, just re-read the Lone Ranger piece.”
Sure, I can still break down and analyze the strengths and weaknesses and cinematic features and failings of an individual film like Avengers: The Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, or Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation (to name the summer’s three biggest action films — none of which I ended up writing about). I can do it in my sleep with one critic’s notebook tied behind my back. Which is the problem, natch: It just puts me to sleep on any sort of level of personal, writerly, critical engagement. I’m glad other talented film critics are still out there, fielding every one of these pop flies with insight and acumen, but I’m not sure I can do it anymore.
Yes, the mostly entertaining Jurassic World was a meta-commentary on the notion of blockbuster films as theme parks. Yes, the mostly entertaining Mission: Impossible is yet another example of how the exploding international film market is driving the plots and settings of these huge films.
Yes, the mostly entertaining Avengers 2 was… well, yet another testament to the unholy, unstoppable marketing and box-office power of Disney and Marvel. But I’ve said all these things before, about other, similar summer movies. Going forward, I find myself more interested in thinking about these sorts of films in groups and trends, rather than as individual efforts — most of which are, usually, eh, pretty okay for what they are, give or take a Fantastic Four here or there… and there’s no more boring piece to write or read than the “eh, pretty okay for what it is” piece.
For example, I kinda half liked all three of those big, successful, popular movies. That is to say, I had a decent time in the air-conditioned theater for the two hours-plus of their running times. But now, several months after most of their releases, I’m very hard pressed to recall much about any of their particular plot mechanisms or main characters.
(Yes, Mission: Impossible was only a month ago, but its plot is the most nonsensical and irrelevant, and its characters the most blandly undefined of the three, so it feels even with the others. Seriously, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt has been a Major Movie Character now for almost 20 years on the big screen, and I defy any of you to tell me a single Hunt character trait other than “he’s intense, runs hard, and is the best at what he does” — which is to say, “he’s Tom Cruise.”)
Quick, conjure up some of the most memorable, already insta-iconic images and action set pieces from those three films, this summer’s biggest. Then without thinking too hard (or consulting Wikipedia), try to recall the particular plot dynamics around those stunning visuals and stunt gags.
Remember when all the Avengers hurled themselves across the screen in epic slo-mo at the start of Avengers 2? Why exactly were they doing that? Or when Iron Man donned his Hulk Buster armor to punch out the Hulk? Why were they fighting? Or when Black Widow scooped up Cap’s shield off the road? Someone tell me from memory exactly why they were in the middle of that particular car chase? Or when Ultron levitated an entire Eastern European city hundreds of meters into the sky? Do you remember now, four months later, specifically what he was up to? (Har, har.)
How about Jurassic World, which admittedly had a somewhat more linear plot than the other two? (People come to see dinos, corporate greed cuts safety corners, dinos get loose and eat people.) Even I fell in love, pre-release, with that artificially iconic (heavily marketed) shot of Chris Pratt on a motorbike, leading his semi-trained Raptor Pack off on a hunt at full macho speed. But while I can give you the vague context of that scene, in my memory it doesn’t connect in any meaningful way to the film’s overall plot (what plot there was).
Or really, just about any action scene from Mission: Impossible, a mostly well-crafted action film that, to be fair, makes very little bones about the fact that it exists solely as a series of thrilling, death-defying set pieces that have little or no real narrative purpose? (And which, like Jurassic World, is willing to use and overuse a familiar soundtrack that gooses up almost Pavlovian levels of viewer excitement.) Pop quiz, hot shots: Why exactly was Hunt hanging off that plane? Or holding his breath in that goofy underwater tank? Or so awesomely racing that motorcycle along desert roads?
The answer, of course, to every one of those questions above is “Because it looked cool and was thrillingly entertaining.” Which is also going to be any remaining “fans’” of these movies answer to “Why do you like this movie?”
Oh, I’m sure some of you who loved and paid closer attention to those moves this summer than I did can answer most of those plot questions. I know I’m jaded, I know I don’t bother to try much anymore with these films. But they’re giving me no reason to not be jaded, no reason to try. I sit down, I watch the stream of magical, dazzling movie moments for over two hours, I smile semi-fondly and appreciatively, and then I leave the theater and quickly forget almost entirely about the whole experience.
When I was 10-11 years old, I spent most of 1977 obsessed with two films: Yes, Star Wars, but also, right before that, the Christmas 1976 Jeff Bridges/Jessica Lange King Kong remake from Dino DiLaurentis. (The one where at the end he climbed the World Trade Center — Kong, that is, not Dino.)
Yes, one of those films went on to become the most culturally ubiquitous fantasy phenomenon of a generation. (Until that snot-nosed upstart Harry Potter came along.) The other, not so much.
But for a time, I really and truly loved that King Kong movie — I collected every one of its Topps trading cards, I listened to the LP soundtrack on repeat, I replayed over and over all my favorite scenes in my head, I did countless drawings of a goofily disproportioned giant ape battling giant snakes and Army helicopters — all of which turned out to just be warm up for my complete and total Star Wars immersion half a year later.
But the point is, I get it if you’re sitting there reading this, thinking, “But I really, really love these new films.” Kong was not, is not a good movie, but I treasured it, poured over it, I made it my own in my head. I know there are people out there who feel the same way about Avengers 2 and Jurassic World — I see the blogs and Tumblr pages filled with gifs and drawings of their favorite scenes and lines of dialogue and fan fic about the characters — other than the more advanced media technology, not one bit different from my beloved images on my Kong and Star Wars trading cards.
Aside from the fact I’m now 38 years older, the big difference today is that movies like Avengers, Jurassic, and M:I feel like they’ve eliminated the “middle man” — that is, the actual “functional cinema” part. They feel constructed entirely of trading card or gif moments, those raw materials of “bits” or “gags” or “cool visuals” strung together in as loose or prosaic fashion as possible to make something that for two-plus hours vaguely resembles a “film” in name only.
There’s no core to them, no heart, no sense of authorship. (Again, another critique I feel I’ve been writing over and over for years, even decades.) Given how they work so hard to satisfy on their non-stop surfaces, I suspect both Avengers 2 and Jurassic World are films their die-hard fans love, but eventually come to find they don’t really like.
The Avengers and its little brother The Man of the Ants feel especially constructed out of a series of those fun or exciting character, humor, or action moments. In fact, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe of feature films, alongside the companion TV series, is feeling increasingly like one big serialized soap opera. The films don’t feel like “features,” they feel like episodes, each one carrying through on the plot points, characters, and themes of its predecessor while perpetually setting up — usually through those now-famous post-credits scenes — the Next Big MCU Film.
I’ve been saying for years now that the Marvel films have become director-proof — a point fairly well proven this summer by Payton Reed’s direction of a perfectly likable, nice, pointless Ant-Man movie. (Which is no knock on Reed, whose Down With Love I get a fizzy kick from.) These Marvel film productions now run mostly on their own, on a perfected, well-oiled factory assembly line. Sort of like Iron Man’s army of empty, remote-controlled Iron Man suits. And if Disney has its way — and it usually does — the factory conveyor belt will continue forever and ever.
And present-day younger viewers don’t notice or mind because, raised on video games and the Internet (and watching movies from filmmakers often raised on the same) this is what they’ve come to expect from their big movies, it’s how they consume and process them — as often disjointed bits and moments. I know how Grumpy Old Man that sounds — that damn Internet! Those kids and their video games! But I’m trying my best to examine this as a cultural shift — I just keep failing at the whole “non-judgy” part.
Which brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road, one of the few summer action films I did write about this summer, and the only new one I flat out loved. Because it felt like it was made by a grown-up — in fact, a 70-year-old grown up — who understands how film and cinematic storytelling is supposed to work to enthrall, entertain, and create meaning. I can tell you the plot of Fury Road, and yes, it’s a pretty simple one. (“We have to drive here, now we have to go back there.”)
But also Fury Road is rated “R.” On seeing it earlier this summer, that baffled and annoyed me, as there really isn’t anything in the film to garner an R rating. But in hindsight, deserved or not, that R rating may have saved Miller’s film. (And this, I suspect, is why he didn’t fight it.) At some point the studio looked at the new R-rated Mad Max film and sighed, “Well, it can only make X amount at the box office with that rating. Let’s let it be.” Had Mad Max been rated PG-13, as its content would seem to merit, my guess is the studio would have picked and badgered it into a million nonsensical disjointed little pieces as they worked day and night to figure out how best to cram it full of elements that better “potentialize” it for teenagers.
In the end, I know the equation that drives most of these non-Max films, on both side of the theater seats. Those aforementioned super fans aside, most summer movie goers don’t care how cohesively a film is constructed, whether the narrative makes sense, or the characters are multi-dimensional. They don’t care how well the moments and set pieces are integrated into a larger storytelling effort. They want just one thing: For all those “fun” “exciting” “thrilling” moments we’ve been talking about to keep them sufficiently entertained for two or more hours in the air conditioning.
That doesn’t mean every bit has to work perfectly, but in the end, the average viewer wants to feel that whatever aggregate entertainment the movie served up, however choppily or stupidly, with or without any sort of cinematic artistry, was enough to keep them from getting bored in the theater for the amount of time they had to sit there. That it was “worth it” as entertainment. Studios know this and construct most of their films accordingly.
I get it. I understand the reasons behind that system. I understand why lots of people are perfectly happy to watch and love these movies. But maybe I’m finally, fully realizing I’m not 11 years old anymore. I just know I’m having a very hard time anymore caring much about the big dumb “entertaining” movies that system is producing. I think Summer really is over.
(Oh wait… when does that new Star Wars movie come out? Winter? Okay, we’re good, then…)
About the author
Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.
For More Information
- Our Burning Skull: The Dark, Brutal Ritual of Mad Max: Fury Road.
- Tomorrowland: If You Don’t Like This Movie, You’ll Kill Our Future.
- Kingsman: a mirror too disturbing for critics.
- “Inside Out”: fun for kids & disturbing fun for adults.