C'mon Hollywood: Is Hollywood dumbing down its summer blockbusters?
It was a mostly “okay” summer for movies with some memorable entries and quite a few flawed ones that didn’t quite live up to their potential. In fact, some dismissed potential altogether for pure spectacle, leaving the meat of story, thrills, and performances somewhere in the clouds. Thankfully, not every summer flick took to insulting our intelligence, but those that did took the path of easy excess, tired stereotypes, and contrived storylines, leaving many of us wondering and speculating as to why they failed to impress when they had every opportunity to do so. It's a recurring issue every summer movie season and one that continues to baffle me. Let’s look at a few examples, shall we?
The first disappointment came with THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, which gave us a threadbare villain in Electro, who hated Spider-Man because…Spider-Man, a Beavis-looking Green Goblin (seriously, guys, just go FULL Goblin or not at all) and a romance story between the two leads that deserved way more development. We ended up with a film that served as a preamble to branch-off franchises rather than the next entry in the current one. A true shame, as the action sequences were actually quite good, but when being held up by toothpicks for a story they’re downgraded substantially in the grand scheme of things.
The second letdown was GODZILLA, an otherwise kickass monster movie (well, for about 30 minutes anyway) that had characters running around the movie doing one implausible thing after another. It became tiresome thinking up reasons to justify their actions, thereby turning what should’ve been people to root for into disposable morons. It's not easy to make human characters' actions legit in the face of giant monsters, I get that, so why have them take center stage for the majority of the movie? “Let them fight,” indeed. Let them fight for another 60 minutes in the sequel and leave the humans on the sidelines. I’ll happily hit the skip button generously on my blu-ray for this one.
Then, along came TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, which I admittedly have not seen and do not intend to see until it’s on HBO in a year or so. Why? Well, let’s take a look at that 18 percent rotten score and 2 hour 37 minute running time. I already suffered through the last two sequels and don’t need a third lesson to know that it will be another headache-inducing theme park ride with fart jokes and goofball science. In addition to that, not a single person I know that’s seen it has any praise to sing with many pointing out that it’s just “more of the same.” I don’t need to walk through a minefield to know if there are bombs there and this one is plain as day.
The last big-budget summer opus that goes straight for the sensory overload without any substantial intelligence is TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. That may seem like an easy target given the characters’ origins, but as far as the turtles go they aren’t the main issue. Nope, it’s the Homo sapiens that deliver the most problems for this one, all of whom amount to one stereotype after another. April O’Neil is nothing more than a hot chick that wants to be a serious reporter and get the “big story” (My God, that trope is tired) and William Fichtner’s evil corporation bad guy is literally in it for the money. There’s no interesting twist or flaw or anything that makes these characters stand out above their paper-thin back-story; they rely on the usual devices so lazily that it’s almost baffling. Why not just cut the human filler and give us more turtles? That’s really what we all came to see, anyway, and they certainly could’ve benefitted from some more screen time.
The defense for movies like these is typically that people know what they’re getting, but that feels more like an excuse than a reason. It’s just not good enough. So, why did four big-budget summer movies (at least) come off so lame-brained? Well, one factor that continues to have an impact on the types of summer “blockbusters” we’re getting is the foreign box office, where films are making more and more money from a wider audience (TF:AOE made $821 million overseas, compared to $243 million domestic). With massive cultural differences and much being lost in translation, the easy way to the pocketbook of foreign markets is to keep it simple (i.e. explosions and CGI). That's not to insult foreign audiences, either. It's simply the way that Hollywood looks at it to "play it safe" and deliver the most "universal" story possible. The other issue is that all-encompassing PG-13 rating, which certainly means anything made for beaucoup bucks is going to go straight for the masses, rather than a targeted group.
That’s not to say that there aren’t still smart blockbusters being offered. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES were true winners, both critically and financially, but others didn’t fare so well (domestically, anyway). EDGE OF TOMORROW, SNOWPIERCER, and HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 are solid examples of great summer movies that delivered the thrills, smarts, and heart, yet they stumbled at the domestic box office. It’s difficult and frustrating to figure out when good movies struggle and bad movies succeed and certainly there are more variables involved than blaming audiences, foreign markets, bad marketing, piracy, etc. In some instances it’s a perfect storm of all those reasons that hold back a great movie from hitting its stride.
So, do a handful of films not living up to their potential mean that Hollywood is dumbing down their blockbuster films on purpose? I can’t say for sure, but it’s worth asking the question. When you look at the money and energy put into these films you certainly hope that it’s to make the best product possible, rather than the most profitable across multiple continents and age groups. We get it, you want to make money, but does it have to be at the expense of coherency, character, and integrity? I suppose it’s a common complaint, but it’s one that continues to resurface, so there’s definitely something rotten in the state of Denmark when dumb “bad blockbusters” soar and smart “good blockbusters” plummet. Here’s to hoping summer 2015 makes a stronger bid for quality. The potential is there for the taking, but I’d put my money on at least a few more disappointments to add to the growing pile.
What are your thoughts on the issue? Do you think some blockbusters are being dumbed down for mass appeal or is it simply the nature of the summer movie season? Let’s hear what you got!