With the summer movie season now officially in the books (make no mistake, when The Possession starts topping the charts, it’s over), critics have begun reflecting on the slate of films that have shaped 2012. As has become the trend since Jaws debuted in 1975, droves of filmgoers flooded their favorite cineplexes in hot anticipation of the year’s most epic offerings, known as blockbusters. Heralded as future kings of the box office years prior to their releases (often through a bevy of trailers and advertisements), these blockbusters perennially whip the film-going public into a fervor of excitement. We follow these works with bated breath in the hope that they will vividly implant themselves on our collective consciousness and help define our historical context, much in the way that pictures like Jurassic Park and the Star Wars Trilogy did for theirs.
However, while these promising spectacle-driven pictures promise an uncompromising level of action and intrigue, an inevitably high number are condemned due to their deficiencies, leading them to be labeled as the year’s biggest disappointments. Belying the hype generated from being saturated in media outlets, films like Prometheus and Speed Racer fizzle and burn out rather than electrify, leaving an aching void where high expectations once existed. The tragic truth is that disappointment, more so than pleasure, is the defining experience of the blockbuster season.
Regardless of how prevalent dissatisfaction is in our cinephilic culture, a critical examination provides a startling revelation: Not one blockbuster has ever, or will ever, be disappointing. Not Superman Returns, not the last two Matrix movies, not even Spider-Man 3. Neither the universally panned ones nor those that lose hundreds of millions of dollars. None! Now, before you pick up your pitchforks and torches, allow me to clarify and elaborate. Saying that blockbusters are not disappointing doesn’t mean that people can’t be or aren’t disappointed with them (a random polling will show how obvious this is); it simply means that they shouldn’t be.
Now, do I think that Green Lantern, Wolverine, and Terminator Salvation are quality pictures that contain within them layers of depth that have until now gone unnoticed? Good Lord, no. Almost exclusively speaking, disappointing blockbusters earn their branding by being unadulterated garbage. Be it in production value, writing, or acting, they fail to deliver moments of awe or emotional resonance to their audiences. So, before I’m misunderstood, know that I’m not disputing the quality of blundered blockbusters. I am contending with those that fail to acknowledge the many values these films offer.
1. Blockbusters Provide a Rare Social Experience
In order to accurately appraise the value of the blockbuster, we must first dispel the common misconception (or self-deception) that the primary reason we go to see blockbusters is for the movies themselves. This is pure fallacy. If this were true, franchises built on disappointments like the Star Wars prequels would collapse rather than thrive. Clearly, individuals invest much more in the summer experience than the two hours spent in the theater.
The primary allure for moviegoers is more complex, and revolves around being immersed in a cultural phenomenon. In a world where technology has opened up limitless avenues for people to selectively choose the subjects that interest them, collective experiences have become a rarity. Movies, a social phenomenon, have chiefly fallen victim to this, as the proliferation of exhibition sites like Netflix that help cater to specific tastes have shifted the conventional viewing practices towards the private realm. One of the last remnants of mass appeal, blockbusters bring people of varying backgrounds together, direct their interests towards a mutual target, and inspire communication through one of the few remaining public discourses. To be plain, few events galvanize the splintered public and help maintain a collective profile like blockbusters.
In addition to banding individuals together as a whole, blockbusters also give people a spectacle that they can look forward to, divorced from the mundaneness of their daily lives. Enduring the brutal late-winter months (both in harsh climate and in uninspired Hollywood offerings), we are rewarded with the pomp, pageantry, and abundance of the blockbuster season, as pop culture and society converge in a dizzying crescendo. Even the most ardent elitists who scoff at studios’ pandering populist agenda are rarely able to resist the blockbuster’s siren song. It provides an elaborate world to escape to, and generates a hub of activity that, regardless of success, defines the summer. Those that miss out on blockbusters often feel like they’ve Rip Van Winkled their way through the most remarkable point of the year.
Failed blockbusters serve an essential function in this system. Since people take greater joy in discussing what they hate than what they love, these films open up channels of commiseration. We find common ground with people of disparate interests in our mutual hatred of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (especially the pompadoured monkeys), which allows us to embrace our disappointment as a shared experience. The failed blockbuster, more so than its successful brethren, therefore becomes essential to the formation of our cultural identity. In this dissatisfaction, we become part of a whole that is rapidly splitting, bonded by our child-like desire to be amazed. We break from the doldrums of our lives and submit to the event effect. In this way, we enter into the closest thing to a collective religious experience.
2. Blockbusters are a Target for Change
Failure is a greater teaching tool than success. By that, I don’t mean to support the hackneyed view that bad movies are somehow necessary to prove how successful good films are (isn’t that what we have our regular lives for?). I’m arguing that filmic failures help shape the blockbusters that succeed them. The progression from one summer season to the next operates as an ongoing system of escalation (like a cinematic Space Race), wherein filmmakers dedicate themselves to providing audiences more innovative and astounding pictures than the year prior. Each season lays a fresh coat of paint over the previous one, thereby establishing a new standard for spectacles.
Out of the broken husk of one failed blockbuster rise a slew of new and improved models. Although it may not seem like it sometimes, these films help Hollywood constantly appraise and refine the identity of their hottest season. The deficiencies of Batman and Robin and Spider-Man 3 (which included tired and formulaic executions) inspired divergent efforts like the Dark Knight Trilogy and The Amazing Spider-Man respectively, which in turn will set the tempo for future seasons.
In such a way, failed blockbusters are instrumental to Hollywood’s process of self-improvement. While hard to believe, films like Van Helsing do as much, if not more, to shape the face of the modern blockbuster season as movies like The Avengers. They provide cautionary tales that motivate filmmakers to stay ambitious, continue improving, and defy complacency in order to produce movie magic. In addition, these films serve a central role for viewers by defining not just of what they like, but also what they don’t (as was the case with many ’80s revivalists, who discovered that the return of properties like Tron and Indiana Jones was less satisfying than expected).
3. Blockbusters Offer a Well of Creative Inspiration
Blockbusters, even failed ones, invite audiences to become authors of their own stories, which many of us don’t even realize. Through the impactful trailers and slowly leaking information, viewers are presented with an incomplete outline of a film which they put together in their heads, akin to assembling a puzzle whose pieces appear gradually. The anticipatory media releases and promotions have the effect of steeping their films in mystery. When watching trailers, we make sense of the abstract collection of images by filling in the blanks of what is left out with our own ideas. By employing this creative mental mortar, we essentially make our own version of the film.
This is what I did when I was a boy. In 1999, at the height of my Star Wars obsession, I entered into one of the most exciting periods of my childhood in the few months preceding the release of The Phantom Menace. After the sensational trailer was released, I began collecting every magazine with the merest mention of the impending blockbuster, as I was sustained by bits of information. The process of interpretation and visualization, I found, opened avenues of creativity. I kept a journal detailing what I thought the story might be and how events would progress, and played them out in countless iterations with my action figures. Thus, even when the film flopped, I was not disappointed, because through anticipation I had the definitive version of The Phantom Menace, the one of my own making.
We have these experiences constantly. From the moment we hear of the film being announced, we begin formulating ways in which the potential might become reality. Yet, despite this, after a film is released, we allow it to become the concrete text, and thereby abandon our own early interpretations. We dump out the water that we had played in joyously. We forget the process, and look entirely at the product, and let the final cut overshadow the enjoyment we took in anticipating its arrival.
Have we have strayed too far from our childlike sense of awe? As adults, we are discouraged from tapping into our creativities and imaginations, and become beholden to others to shape our personal sense of interest. Perhaps we should look to children, who often have far fewer reservations about the films they see and become less jaded by disappointment. This is not because, as many have callously suggested, kids care entirely about spectacle and not quality. It is because kids engage with films in a different way, one that is custom to them. They focus on what they like and disregard what they don’t. They dwell in the universe established by the films, even failed ones, and view the movie as a chapter in a grander tale rather than the definitive text. If we followed their example, maybe we wouldn’t regard the failure, and loss of our precious 10 dollars, as such a tragedy.
With so much invested in the films we see, it’s no surprise that we feel hurt when films we look forward to leave us cold and dissatisfied. As a reaction, we point the finger and condemn whoever we feel culpable (Cinema in general? The studios? The filmmakers? God forbid, the audience?). But, perhaps it would be more therapeutic to emphasize the positives of the failed blockbuster. They shape our interests, lay a foundation of improvement, involve us in a phenomenon, and give us something to look forward to with members of our own society. In this way, these works become indispensable parts of us. For these pictures (excuse the tired aphorism), the journey is as important as the destination. It’s as much about getting ready for the film as it is seeing it. All said, I think it’s much better to have anticipated and been dismayed than to have never anticipated at all.