Film is Far from Dead: The Blockbuster’s Health in Summer ’16

Worried about the future of film after this summer? Calm yourself: This is just business as usual.

Film is Far from Dead: The Blockbuster’s Health in Summer ’16

If you braved any major theater chain over the last few months, you’re undoubtedly aware that it was a time during which major movie studios let their audiences down—bigtime—dropping dud after dud in one of the most annually important boom periods for franchise rumpuses and colossal box office takes. If instead you chose to stay in your basement and catch up on your Netflix backlog instead, then you might’ve read an article or two about the summer release slate’s overarching badness, buttressed by the crappy movies and crappier grosses.

For the most part these articles are made up of charts and graphs, stats and dollar values. A few of them, like Wired’s sharp interrogation of the movies’ significance in modern popular culture, focus on feelings more than figures. (Could it be that unlimited access to handheld diversion, and the growing preference for analyzing a movie’s exterior controversies instead of the fucking movie, have obsolesced cinema as a platform for both substance and spectacle?) Taken individually, each piece reads merely as inquiry. Taken altogether, they make up a chorus of doomsaying—fthough the data crowns the summer of 2009, and not 2016, as the decade’s worst movie summer to date. (You think we have it bad today? Where were you for the ghastly parade of G.I. Joe, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Terminator Salvation and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? You weren’t at the movies, that’s for damn sure.)

But none of this is news. As narratives go it isn’t even totally honest, in the context of both recent film history and 2016 specifically. Haven’t we been calling time of death on film since the post-2000 creative bloom on television sparked by The Sopranos, the Prometheus of TV’s modern golden age? There’s a famous Mark Twain misquote that suits the particulars of this ongoing saga quite nicely, though in the spirit of fairness, it’s hard to blame anybody for glancing back at 2016’s summer movies in the rearview and shuddering. Will you find worse entries in film’s vast catalog of stinkers, turkeys and garbage fires? You bet. But hoo boy, from X-Men: Apocalypse to Jason Bourne, Independence Day: Resurgence to Suicide Squad, this summer’s barrage of big budget misfires sucks pretty bad, too.

Figuring out why is a fool’s errand. The movie biz has been churning out junk since forever. Is the continued proliferation of junk in the present good enough cause for alarm? Bad movies are like relatively harmless car accidents, the kinds that leave milk trucks overturned on highways. Shed some tears for all the good it’ll do. Bad movies happen—all the time. In point of fact, bad movies are a part of movie culture just as much as good movies, so a spate of bad movies inflicted upon the moviegoing populace is normal. Summer ’16’s array of artistic disasters represent nothing more than an entertainment recession, then, much as 2014 and 2015 were times of prosperity by comparison. It should go without saying that we’d all be happier with more good movies than bad movies, but when Hollywood gives you franchising lemons, make franchising lemonade.

True, no one likes a slump, but slumps give us the opportunity to appreciate hot streaks. They’re also totally natural, and beyond that they’re expected. This is true as both a general rule and as a broad explanation for what went “wrong” with the movies over the summer (“wrong” referring almost strictly to subjective matters, a’la the quality of the movies themselves, over more objective issues, as in that pesky, boring, but necessary entity called “commercial success”). What happens when every major player in the business sculpts their release calendars around mega-budget franchise flicks, both new and resuscitated, when we’ve all been at peak franchise since 2012? Mediocrity becomes the standard, and the ultimate consequences of that rush to out-franchise other franchisees is reflected by both critical and commercial responses to 2016’s summer lineup.

But that’s one side of the industry, the side where the tentpoles, blockbusters, and mainstream releases reside, and if you pay attention to that side alone then the season falls in the range of “horrible to mediocre”: The Legend of Tarzan, Warcraft, Now You See Me 2, Ben-Hur, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, War Dogs, Alice Through the Looking Glass. As always, though, the movies have a second side, and on that side we find arthouse pictures such as The Wailing, Swiss Army Man, Love & Friendship, The Lobster, Gleason, Don’t Think Twice, The Fits, Weiner, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Chevalier (many of which made Paste’s Best Movies of 2016 So Far list), plus quieter studio efforts not based on comics and toy lines, like Central Intelligence and The BFG, all leading into August’s bounty of goodness—Little Men, Pete’s Dragon, Hell or High Water, Kubo and the Two Strings, Morris from America and Southside with You.

You, an individual human being with thoughts and opinions of your very own, might not love or hate all of the films on one side of the fence or the other. But the latter selection stacks up more than favorably against the former, at least on creative grounds (i.e., the most important soil of all). The artistic gap between the visible movies, the event movies, and the smaller, off-radar movies isn’t insignificant, but it’s also populated with exceptions that prove the aforementioned standard of mediocrity: Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters and Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond. None of these are unanimously hailed as paragons of filmmaking spectacle, but they’re far from disasters. They might even be the best gauge of, and ingredients in the cure-all for, the blockbuster’s well-being.

That’s a necessary service—and we’ll pause a moment here in case you fell out of your chair after reading that line. But it’s true! You need a healthy blockbuster culture to maintain a healthy movie biz, though in deference to the apocalyptic murmurings of the great Mark Harris and similarly cautionary prognostications made by both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the emphasis here should be placed on “healthy.” By now it should go without saying that the summer’s tentpole offerings show that the blockbuster is in bad shape, which is why Captain America: Civil War, Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters are so important. You can’t, after all, fix a problem when you can’t figure out what the hell the problem is in the first place. (Or, as the case may be, the problems.)

Everything good about this trio is everything good we can still find in the mold of the modern blockbuster, and everything bad is, well, fill in the blank. Beneath the “good” column: Superb casting; scripts that allow the movie’s leads to interact profitably with one another, either through banter or action; and a wholesale rejection of super-self-seriousness as entertainment. Beneath the “bad” column: Bloat on micro and macro levels alike; exorbitant production costs; and a preference for the conventional (with the caveat that “bloat” and “costs” have become part of blockbusting convention). If Ghostbusters and Star Trek Beyond were green lit with reduced price tags, we’d be calling them successes—modest successes but successes nonetheless—instead of bombs, and we’d be looking forward to their series’ respective futures instead of still wondering if they even have one.

Then we have Captain America: Civil War, though no one’s at all worried about Marvel’s chances going forward. Marvel can’t be stopped. They can’t even be matched, if the dreckitude of Warner Bros.’ and DC’s combined efforts to keep apace with them is any indication. But Marvel movies can be monotonous, because if every Marvel movie is an event movie, then no Marvel movie is. They can also be overlong and overstuffed, thus proving that too much of a bunch of good things is exquisitely exhausting. Marvel has come to operate on the notion that more is more—that adding fistfuls of movie stars to the Marvel roster with every passing project while finding excuses to have them cross over their standalone barriers to crack wise or crack bones with movie stars from neighboring titles—is an essential part of what makes these movies work. They’re half-right: We watch these movies for chemistry and character. We don’t watch them because we have nothing better to do. Eventually, most of us would like to leave the theater.

So what are we to make of all this? Maybe chalk up the summer of ’16 to “business as usual” with a side of “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” It’s true that this summer’s blockbusters, the cornerstone of every studio’s foundation, mostly underperformed in ticket sales and in critical reaction, though as far as executives and producers are concerned, the former matters most: Critic reviews can impact a film’s success, and they always have, and they always will, but if Suicide Squad made gobs of money (and it did, as long as you put more emphasis on global tallies than domestic), does Kevin Tsujihara give a shit that a high percentage of professional critics loathed it? Probably not, and for that matter neither do the people who saw it who got what they wanted out of it. (Blockbusting is in the eye of the beholder, and isn’t that the real spirit of the moviegoing experience?) Tsujihara and his studio chairman brethren will continue to do what they do, dissecting graphs and trends to discern what audiences want in their amusements, even though that practice is arguably the root cause of the summer’s failings.

Again: Business as usual. When sequels are financially successful, the industry revolves around making sequels. If comic book films make bank, the industry mobilizes to output more comic book films. Sequelization and comic book films are the reason every studio in town wants a shared universe, and thus we get Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (admittedly not a summer movie) and Suicide Squad within six months of each other. This is an inevitability, and inevitability can be depressing, especially since the last couple summers or so have generously gifted us with films like Lucy, Edge of Tomorrow and, most of all, Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that managed to tap into the zeitgeist, win piles of awards, and teach us what a blockbuster can be all without cracking a single graphic novel. (It might be a fourth entry in a franchise, but c’mon: We all know it isn’t a franchise film the way that Captain America: Civil War is a franchise film.)

Maybe that’s why 2016’s movie summer has been such a drag. We had it good in 2014 and 2015. The summers of both years were flush with loaves and fishes. 2016, by contrast, is all floods and plagues. It’s also a turning point for the blockbuster and an opportunity for the studio system to consider its approach to franchising, reevaluate its priorities, and answer fundamental questions about sustainability. (Is banking on frontloaded weekend openings really the best way to guarantee profits on fan properties?) Which isn’t to say that the studio system will suddenly become self-reflective, just that, if those charts and graphs have anything to say, it’ll be that the studio will re-evaluate their approach anyway, because the Summer of 2016 is evidence that what they’re doing isn’t really working anymore. As it goes: This too shall pass. Give it time. It won’t be long before the industry starts working overtime to ape George Miller.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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