If you came of age in the days of “Jaws” or “Top Gun” — or even, for that matter, “Independence Day” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” — you probably harbor pleasant memories of summer movies.
Part of that fondness stems from the activity itself — cooling down with sugary snacks while epic adventures unfold will cheer up the most dour kid. But what was playing out on screen was largely pleasant too.
Sure, a shark may threaten Martin Brody, or Jack Sparrow may get into a sticky duel with Hector Barbossa; heck, it took me a good month to get over Goose’s death after that whole disaster with Maverick. But at heart, the movies were enjoyable, escapist, distracting. You left the theater alight with a fun experience to bring you into the dreaded school year.
These days, summer movies don’t leave such a soft footprint. “Jason Bourne,” which last weekend had the third-highest live-action movie opening since Memorial Day, showed the U.S. government and a social-media giant spying on ordinary citizens, a shooter terrorizing a public gathering and an armored vehicle plowing through a crowd of innocents.
This weekend, “Suicide Squad” is projected to notch the biggest live-action opening since Memorial Day. It will achieve that feat by exploring a world with a terrorist threat so great the government must turn to maximum-security criminals, acts of destruction that lead to police cars being riddled with bullet holes and a U.S. military overwhelmed by dangers it can neither see nor fully understand. Once you headed to the multiplex to get a break from the real world. Now you go there and find CNN.
These events, it should be said, aren’t tragically familiar by accident. They’re meant to be tragically familiar. As “Jason Bourne” director Paul Greengrass told me, “Bourne runs through a contemporary landscape. That’s the trick. It’s not Gotham City. It’s not outer space. It’s a world that feels contemporary.”
Or as “Suicide Squad” director David Ayer told my colleague Josh Rottenberg, “I like the idea of the government running covert ops, using bad guys to do good things against other bad guys. It just seemed very close to the world we’re in today.”
This idea of a cinematic world that closely parallels the difficulties of our real one has become so de rigueur for summer films that it can seem strange to think of them in any other way. But in fact this is something of a shift, and a relatively recent one — traceable in many ways to the turning over of the “Batman”franchise to Christopher Nolan a decade ago. (OK, so before him there was Tim Burton. But he’s, you know, Tim Burton.)
Most of the directors who’d previously made summer action films were primarily entertainers — extremely gifted ones, but still entertainers. With Nolan, an independent auteur who’d tucked dark questions of self and identity into his early work (“Memento,” “Following”) the game changed. He wished to investigate (yes, even in Gotham City) more charged questions — morality, nihilism, post-9/11 ambiguities.
I like the idea of the government running covert ops, using bad guys to do good things against other bad guys. It just seemed very close to the world we’re in today.
(It’s true that the Cold War offered some real-world issues back in the day. But these threats tended to be abstract and bordered on the cartoonish; one would be hard-pressed to compare the thematic seriousness of “The Dark Knight” with “Predator” or a “Rambo” sequel.)
With Nolan’s massive summer success, other directors flowed in. Suddenly high-end filmmakers, the type who normally preoccupied themselves with serious subjects, were in charge of action heroes and comic-book villains. The idea of a split, between the real-world concerns of Oscar films and the escapism of summer movies — or, more bluntly, between the fall movies that depress us and the summer movies that divert us — began to disappear.
Certainly Ayer and Greengrass come in this Nolan mold. The former is an auteur type who previously had trafficked in urgent social relevancies such as the gritty “End of Watch.” Greengrass, meanwhile, is a documentary-trained filmmaker behind politically aware films such as “Green Zone” and “Captain Phillips.” (He and Nolan began helming major franchises about the same time, though the latter had a greater influence on Hollywood hiring practices.) Artists like these are, not surprisingly, going to infuse their summer movies with a strong dose of the real. (This, incidentally, also happened with the James Bond series, the franchise moving from froth to, under the recent hand of Sam Mendes, more weighty contemplations of a War on Terror world.)
But it would be too simplistic to lay all this on the filmmakers. The world in which we see their work has also been growing darker. There’s been a lot of talk about summer — particularly this summer — becoming a time filled with anxiety and fear thanks to events in Dallas and Nice and Orlando (not to mention the political conventions). We occupy a world of more darkness and complexity than we have in a long time.
Maybe more important, social media has become a far more efficient vehicle for delivering that complexity. Stabbings in London, terrorist attacks in France and shootings of unarmed people in the U.S. are the dominant language of these platforms. And it comes at us unremittingly, at least until a new event comes along to replace it.
In a climate where cinema exists not in opposition to social media but is actively integrated with it, trying to strip films of these associations is impossible. We decide to go to movies because of recommendations on Twitter; we emerge offering our thoughts on Facebook. And when a bombing, mass killing or other horrific event happens, we use these same media, often sandwiching our shock or our horror amid the cultural chatter. Movies remind us of the real world because the tools we use to discuss them remind us of the real world.
I don’t necessarily think this entwining is a bad thing. In fact, you could argue it’s an improvement, that in a culture of distraction leavening our entertainment with substance is a welcome development.
But cinematic parallels are a funny beast. We want our movies to mirror the everyday but, well, not so closely. “The Dark Knight Rises,” four summers ago, offered this in extremis: Nolan had made a movie about a madman terrorizing groups of innocent people. Yet after the mass shootings at a theater showing the film in Auroroa, Colo., killed 12 people, Bane’s acts felt a little too close to home.
A contemplation of substantive issues is good. But is watching a car plow into a crowd of people a week after Nice welcome? Is watching a character named Deadshot — for all his brio and his movie’s gleeful spirit — get into shootouts alongside law-enforcement a release?
None of these questions will end this weekend. “Ben-Hur,” which opens in theaters later this month, taps into global conflict in its own way. The film’s message of forgiveness is encouraging, but its undercurrent of religious violence may also be uncomfortable. Further out, how much will we continue wanting this from our summer movies? If the world stays on its current dark path, will we wish for a doubling down on seriousness? Or will we hope to go the other way, yearning for the insulated days of beach volleyball and Tom Cruise karaoke?
There is no simple answer, and each filmmaker and filmgoer will answer the question for themselves. But a few things are becoming clear. Exploring serious issues may be an outgrowth of our world. It may even be a necessary part of world. But it’s changed the summer-entertainment experience into something more fraught, less enjoyable. We’ve lost that loving feeling.