Ah, the summer movie season. A time when hundreds of millions of dollars go to theaters across the country and suited businessmen hope they earn a profit. We’ve had good ones. We’ve had not good ones. We’ve had 2016, where the big ones mostly missed the mark and the little ones were the reason to visit the theater. 2017 was different. This summer movie season offered the goods (mostly) in a variety of areas.
Throwing down the gauntlet, this summer movie season, in terms of quality, was a win almost across the board. It’s not clear what happened, but the recent movies were radically different from one another and for fans of cinematic summers, this made the season so special. We had plenty of movies with big budgets about the fate of the world, but the approaches are all different. Not because of beams of light shooting into the sky (a seminal cliche which, amazingly, only The Dark Tower indulged in) but because of the fates of more intimate worlds and the characters in them.
For examples, look no further than everyone’s favorite subject matter that is in no way controversial in film criticism: Superhero movies.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 was a psychedelic space adventure about angry people learning to accept one another. Wonder Woman was about a feminist icon shining a light in one of the darkest times in our world history. Spider-Man: Homecoming was a coming of age tale for a working class hero. These all came out within three months of one another, each with different aesthetics, goals, and styles.
Come to think of it, how many big movies this summer even had a standard “save the world” story? Volume 2 definitely has it, but it’s used to explore the idea of ego vs empathy. Wonder Woman fights for the fate of humankind, but the immediate threat is about the characters in the “War to End All Wars.” Spider-Man: Homecoming is about Peter Parker stopping an arms dealer from putting his community, friends, and family in harm’s way.
War for the Planet of the Apes feels like it should have been a war epic about the fate of the human race, only to reveal that the victor was chosen long before the movie began. What War actually gave us was a movie that goes from an Apocalypse Now story to a Great Escape. It’s the least morally gray of the series to date, but still driven by the apes founding their new world. Our world couldn’t be saved, so maybe the apes will do better. Don’t tell me creativity can’t come from blockbusters after this.
The controversial Alien: Covenant is like Ridley Scott angrily attached a facehugger to his Prometheus sequel and some cosmic horror movie questioning creation and free will burst out of it. But this is a franchise that was only about the fate of the world in proxy. The threat was always immediate with larger implications. While not intentionally, but incidentally, this summer movie season took out the
Or perhaps my favorite example: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver which is about as low stakes a movie could get for a big summer movie. A young man wants to escape a life of crime but requires earnings from a life of crime to do so. Thief meets a jukebox musical with the refined use of style and entertainment only Wright could pull off. When shit goes down, for lack of a better term, it feels monumental because the characters are so defined in their world views and personalities. A car chase in Baby Driver feels every bit as epic as Spider-Man swinging around Queens.
And we haven’t even gotten to Dunkirk yet. Christopher Nolan’s survival story is his most experimental film to date. A rousing story where direction is the star, moments are fleeting and plot is inessential. Claims of Nolan’s weak exposition are nowhere to be found here. It simply begins and ends with the larger framework of World War 2 only hinted at. What matters here are the people trapped in one of the biggest rescue operations in history. The experimental style in which Nolan approaches the material feels more at home with independent works than anything else in his filmography.
Speaking of independent movies, The Big Sick took small theaters by storm before pouring over its warm embrace into wide distribution theaters. Wide release comedies don’t have a great track record of late but The Big Sick was exactly what we needed. An honest portrayal of love and vulnerability. If anybody else wants to help me get this hashtag going #RayRomano4BestSupportingActor feel free to join me.
Audiences spoke with their wallets. We’ve been hearing for years that people are tired of regurgitated blockbusters, and with the lowest box office in 25 years even the well-received tentpoles didn’t hold strong outside of Wonder Woman. It’s a disappointment but the world is a weird place right now. Maybe the season was too crowded or maybe impending apocalyptic nightmares are keeping people away from movies. There’s just no way of knowing. I’d guess the marketing campaigns didn’t help for most of these either.
And while I know it has fans, The Mummy was dead on arrival. A product of marketing under the guise of a cinematic universe to get in on the big bucks. Nobody was falling for that. It even manages to make Tom Cruise feel lifeless. Let’s be real, Universal should have spun off a shared universe back during the Brendan Frasier Mummy days. It was right there, guys. We were all asking for it. Those of us who like fun, anyways.
And even in movies that weren’t as well received, like Transformers: The Last Knight or Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, these movies have carved out a special type of reception. Audiences know what to expect from these series now. When they’re considered “bad” we as viewers understand the shorthand. We can practically foresee the weaker elements of a post-Gore Verbinski Pirates movie now. No one is surprised by a Transformers sequel that feels like an overlong technical exercise for Michael Bay to prep for his next feature.
In the broadest sense of things, movies don’t need to be accessible. They just need to be worth talking about. Something made with passion will have longevity outside of the box office.
Love it, hate it, or some emotion in between, this summer movie season is worth remembering. Support the art that you want to see more of. As long as these movies keep winning, we will too.