With District 9 a bona fide hit and GI Joe amazing all by not crashing and burning, the summer movie season of 2009 has ended just as it began: Surprising a lot of people. What lessons can we learn?
Nature Abhors A Superhero Vacuum (But Apparently Abhors Wolverine Even More)
After last year's crunch of The Dark Knight, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Hancock (and you could arguably throw in Speed Racer in there, as well), this summer was remarkably clear of superheroes, if you ignore X-Men Origins: Wolverine (as most who've seen X-Men Origins: Wolverine are probably prone to do). But, even as Hollywood collectively recovered from last year's superpowered orgy and looked around the nostalgiascape to see if there were alternatives, we couldn't help but notice that some of the movies this summer seemed like superhero movies anyway. GI Joe, with your battlesuits and superhero team dynamic, we're looking at you.
It didn't hurt that Joe, like Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen and Star Trek, had clearly defined good guys and bad guys, as well as larger than life stakes and days to be saved - oh, and action set pieces during which the day-saving takes place. Yes, none of these films featured people with actual superpowers (aside from Spock's mind-melding, but come on), but in almost every other respect, they were superhero movies... and all the more successful for it.
Moral Ambiguity Isn't What We're Looking For, After All?
And what of Wolverine? Or pre-summer release Watchmen, for that matter...? Why weren't they Dark Knight-style colossuses (colossi?), striding across the box office landscape? Possibly for the same reason that Terminator Salvation disappointed: Because they were ill-considered, non-sensical pieces of filmmaking that considered style more important than substa - No, wait, I mean, "because neither offered any comfort to the viewer" (Okay, maybe a little of the former, too). Yes, Wolverine "won" at the end of his movie, but it was a shitty victory that still made him look like an easy dupe who'd been used and abused by The Powers That Be. Watchmen's (and, for that matter, Terminator Salvation's) victory was even more ambiguous. And maybe, Dark Knight aside - and who's to say that that movie won't continue to seem more and more like a fluke in terms of hyper-popularity as time goes on - that's just not what audiences are looking for from their blockbusters?
We Don't Need No Stinkin' Reviews
GI Joe wasn't screened for mainstream critics ahead of its release - which, considering the harshness of some of the reviews, seems like a sensible plan - and had a more successful opening than most expected. In interviews, Joe director Stephen Sommers cited the success of the badly-reviewed Transformers 2 as the reason why some movies don't need reviews any more:
I don't think the mainstream critics are relevant here, they have criticized themselves into irrelevancy. `Transformers 2' got the worst reviews in the last decade, and it is the biggest hit of the year. More people will see that than any other movie. On my movie, it became so clear to us. Why not make those reviewers pay their $15 like everyone else?
There is no way that the people behind other blockbuster movies - especially the ones that know that they're unlikely to get good reviews - aren't going to look at this and consider doing the same thing. It's not that critics have "criticized themselves into irrelevancy," but that studios are finally realizing that mass audiences have never, really, cared that much about them.
(Re)Birth Of The Alternative Mainstream
That said, what are we to make of critical darlings District 9, Cold Souls and Moon? Clearly, the great reviews mattered here - although, in D9's case, possibly not as much as Peter Jackson's name and an advertising campaign that's been going on for more than a year - drawing attention to smaller films that may otherwise have slipped through the cracks. Some are using these movies as a case for SF cinema "rediscover[ing] its brains, heart and soul," and there's definitely an argument to be made there... but there's an equally strong one to be made, I think, for these movies to be used as evidence for the need for SF cinema to be used as a vehicle for new voices wanting to exercise their imaginations and engage audiences before they get ground down by industry politics and pretention. It's not that big a step from Being John Malkovich to the rest of Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze's movie careers, after all.
By the end of this summer movie season, it feels as if cinema has fragmented: There are the critic-proof (and unnecessarily-reviewed) blockbusters that fit into our nostalgic take on what stories should be, with good guys and bad guys and evil losing in the end, there are the intellectual, playful, indie darlings, and then there're movies that try and straddle the two and fail at the box office (Although, as ever, "failure" is a moving target; Watchmen must have easily made its money back by now, and if not, will do so with the "Ultimate Edition" DVD at the end of the year). Maybe next year, Jon Favreau's Iron Man 2 will shake things up a little. Here's hoping.