Hollywood is dumb. It has been dumb for a while now. Studio executives are signing off on bigger movie budgets, only to become so paranoid of buyer’s remorse that they wrest greater portions of creative control from the creatives who, you know, created the movie, in their belief that executives, infinitely wise in networking up the career ladder (and not much else), have the measure of what Americans want to see. And, truthfully, they sort of have a point.
The Summer box office has been steadily growing since 1993, when Jurassic Park suddenly made Generation X as weirdly into dinosaurs as their toddler millennial children. 1993 was the first year the Summer box office topped $2 billion and it hasn’t dropped below since. Last Summer, 2015, the 4th Jurassic Park movie, Jurassic World, topped the box office in the 2nd highest grossing Summer of all time. 2016, however, isn’t even sniffing the same success.
The fact that two movies from the same franchise bookend one of the most accelerated growth periods of the film industry isn’t really a coincidence. They perfectly represent Hollywood’s recognition of, and catering to, its most loyal fanbase. Superheroes, wizards, Jedi, and aliens have dominated the Summer release schedule because Hollywood knows that the most avid moviegoers are the escapist, imaginative, scientific, proverbial American “nerds.”
But 2016 may mark the beginning of a new revolution. Critics and fans are further apart in their tastes than ever, as Hollywood has become obsessed with sequels, reboots, and adaptations. While the masses generally like movies more than critics, this Summer the industry is still looking at a 22% drop from last season. The industry soars when its comic book, sci-fi, and fantasy flicks succeed. This year they didn’t, and there may be a few reasons why.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Domestic Box Office: $81M
Rotten Tomatoes: 38% Critics’, 53% Audienc Score
Sure, $81 million sounds nice. But for a movie that cost $135 million to make, plus a whole bunch more to market, this was a gross (pun very intended) failure. Really, TMNT 2 is the perfect snapshot of why the Summer market is struggling. Awful name, (TMNT: OOTS, are you kidding me!?!?) Michael Bay producing, a budget designed exclusively for action and effects, and it’s a bad sequel to a bad reboot of bad adaptations of a beloved comic series. The best one-liner of the entire saga came from a critic: “Forget cowabunga, this is cowadunga.” And with the over-the-top, painfully cheesy, dang-near-constant trailer blitz trying to peg the sequel to a movie that already alienated its built-in nostalgia audience as perfect family fun, the studio succeeded only in pushing people further away. Paramount marketers, take note. But at least it wasn’t…
Domestic Box Office: $47M
Rotten Tomatoes: 28% Critics’, 77% Audience Score
Warcraft is an interesting breed. Based on a video game franchise, apparently a standalone film, and starring virtually no real A-list talent, this was one of the biggest–and most interesting–risks of the Summer. It failed massively in the US. In China, it was a big enough hit to turn an overall profit for Universal. Panned for its unoriginal plot and poor acting performances, Warcraft couldn’t power through the poor reviews (like the following movie) to make any money in the US. To an uneducated viewer, the movie looks like an overtly stylized, computer-generated Lord of the Rings. Although the studio hired a respected independent writer-director in Duncan Jones, they put a premium on the latter part of that hyphenate. Then they marketed exclusively to fans of the video game, plodding out a story that they knew, while revealing trailers that, really, looked exactly like the video game. It was the worst of both worlds–isolating an audience that didn’t play the game but likes fantasy, while lazily retelling a story already told in the video game. Still, there are many more video game movies on the way. Heck, maybe yours will be a movie someday, too.
Domestic Box Office: $147M
Rotten Tomatoes: 26% Critics’, 71% Audience Score
The most egregious critical failure of the Summer, Suicide Squad, released bombastic, high-energy teasers and trailers, coiffed with Jared Leto’s once intriguing, now painfully stupid, Die Antwoord ripped off Joker giggling like an infantilist caught in the cookie jar, for over a year. Yet they built enough intrigue that, even when the first round of brutal reviews came in, DC fans still handed over their money, hoping the critics were wrong about this one. And, actually, maybe they were. Suicide Squad has been received generally positively by fans, with one even starting a petition to “Don’t listen to film criticism,” whatever that means. Despite the poor reviews, the fans still came out, and it seems like the movie did just enough to keep the DC Cinematic Universe alive. This is a curious thing, considering how popular Warcraft was with the fans who did see it. With Warcraft’s massive splash in China, it’ll be curious to see how video game franchises are marketed and released in coming seasons compared to the more American-favored comic book franchises.
Regardless, with all of their complaints about the shoddy action sequences and poor editing, maybe the critics would have been happier if David Ayer had just used this bad boy.
Captain America: Civil War
Domestic Box Office: $407M
Rotten Tomatoes: 90% Critics’, 90% Audience Score
Marvel, it seems, can do no wrong. And therein lies the most interesting clue to the future. Packed with A-list talent, an addition to a massive, and still growing Universe, (I can’t believe I’ve said “Universe” twice to describe movie franchises) yet still producing no real consequences for any of its main characters, Captain America: Civil War represents both the peaks and pitfalls of the modern Summer movie. It’s action-packed, escapist but familiar, and perhaps most importantly, it never gets too heavy.
Heavy is the buzzword here. Big Hollywood movies are more scared than ever to deliver discomforting, consequential action. Your heroes on the silver screen will almost certainly never die, just as they never will (for real die) in their source material. By tying themselves so intricately to a web of source materials, production companies, creators, and so on and so forth, studios are taking the risk out of the industry. While Captain America: Civil War was able to provide a compelling, exciting story that thrilled critics and fans alike, the years-out approach to creating these movies inspires massive amounts of fan speculation. Whether fans are right or wrong, there’s no winning here. Either they “knew it all along,” or they’re disappointed. This summer has shown us the first sign of what I’ll call the “Comic Con Fatigue,” and it may only be getting worse from here. Only time will tell. In the meantime, though, you can always just America your summer.