The summer of our discontent: When franchise overload killed movie originality
At one point in “Suicide Squad,” one of the most commercially successful and culturally worthless movies of 2016, the Joker whispers his idea of a sweet nothing to his deranged moll, Harley Quinn: “Oh, I’m not gonna kill you. I’m just gonna hurt you really, really bad.” Those of us still emerging from an unusually dispiriting summer at the movies may have a surprisingly clear sense of what he means.
It’s true that no one will actually die from the experience of watching, say, “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (the only obituaries it prompted were for Johnny Depp’s career, and those are likely premature). But it’s also true that for the regular moviegoer, this season’s steady IV drip of sequelitis and overall multiplex mediocrity seemed to usher in a kind of slow spiritual death — one from which only a parallel diet of art-house fare and the prospect of fall Oscar-bait could offer any real hope of resurrection.
The box-office battlefield has been handily divided among a few victors, some of them (“Finding Dory,” “Captain America: Civil War”) worthier than others (“The Secret Life of Pets,” “Suicide Squad”). But it is also littered with the smoking remains of high-profile disappointments (“The BFG,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Legend of Tarzan”) and flat-out bad ideas (“Ben-Hur”).
Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto and Stephen Lang star in “Don’t Breathe.”
In between those commercial highs and lows were a few surprise champions (“Don’t Breathe,” “Lights Out,” “The Shallows”) that attested to the viability of the well-made, modestly budgeted B-thriller. Elsewhere, the studios sought to fortify their positions with trusty stalwarts (“Jason Bourne,” “Star Trek Beyond,” “X-Men: Apocalypse”) that nonetheless emerged looking a tad battle-weary, as though well aware that the glory days of their respective franchises were behind them.
I say this in full awareness that the only thing more tedious and predictable than sequels, remakes and reboots is a critic who complains about sequels, remakes and reboots. But even by the dimmest expectations of Hollywood originality, this truly was the summer of our discontent, a season when an alarmingly disproportionate number of studio offerings — whether good, bad or unspeakably ghastly — were derived from pre-existing material:
“Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Ben-Hur,” “Captain America: Civil War,” “The Conjuring 2,” “Ghostbusters,” “Ice Age: Collision Course,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Jason Bourne,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Mechanic: Resurrection,” “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “Now You See Me 2,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “The Purge: Election Year,” “Star Trek Beyond,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
It’s a long and enervating list, not because all these movies were failures or misfires; some of them (like “The Conjuring 2” and “Jason Bourne”) were actually rather good. But even the best examples seemed predicated on comforting audiences with the familiar rather than thrilling them with the new.
Watch the trailer for “Jason Bourne.”
And so there’s something fitting about the fact that the summer of 2016 so often felt like the industry’s failed attempt to deliver its own blockbuster sequel to the summer of 2015. At roughly this point last year, we were up to our ears in noteworthy studio movies, including wickedly smart, emotionally rich comedies (“Spy,” “Trainwreck”), above-average sequels (“Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation,” “Magic Mike XXL”), a major cross-demographic hit (“Straight Outta Compton”) and one of the finest feats of franchise reinvention in recent memory (“Mad Max: Fury Road”).
That summer overall emerged as the second highest-grossing on record, thanks especially to the smash success of “Jurassic World,” “Inside Out” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
On paper, the summer of 2016 looks to be even more lucrative, with a projected grand total of $4.5 billion in North American box-office receipts, narrowly beating last summer’s $4.48-billion haul. But just as commercial performance has never been synonymous with quality, so the numbers don’t entirely account for why this summer carries the stench of failure in a way that the preceding summer didn’t. Let’s go in for a closer look:
Female-driven action-comedies. Sony’s girl-powered “Ghostbusters” was a moderately amusing, low-energy diversion that you couldn’t help but root for, if only to push back against the fanboys who spent months trashing the movie sight unseen, and who later spearheaded an astonishingly vicious, still-ongoing harassment campaign against one of the movie’s stars, Leslie Jones.
Watch the trailer for “Ghostbusters.”
But having the right representational stance only gets you so far, and in “Ghostbusters” those proton packs felt more like creative straitjackets. The movie seemed particularly thin next to last summer’s Paul Feig-Melissa McCarthy collaboration, “Spy,” a considerably smarter, funnier action-comedy hybrid whose righteous gender politics were all the more trenchant for welling up naturally from the material, rather than being a high-concept selling point.
Auteur-directed war epics. A bomb at home but a massive hit overseas, Duncan Jones’ weirdly compelling misfire “Warcraft” carries echoes of so many antecedents in fantasy storytelling — “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars,” “Game of Thrones,” even “Avatar” — that the possible influence of George Miller’s “Mad Max” movies may not immediately register. But the resemblance is there nonetheless in the feverish world building, the grandiose pyrotechnic bombast, the creative use of piercings and bone-based bling. The crucial difference, of course, is that with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Miller gave us a supremely disciplined auteur triumph, while in “Warcraft,” Jones, a smart director with an insistently human touch, seemed to let his visual effects get the better of him.
Nostalgia-baiting sequels. Lost amid some of the glowing industry assessments of last summer’s “Jurassic World” was the fact that it was a thoroughly dreadful movie — joyless, cynical and quite possibly evil in the way it seemed to herald an entire wave of exploitative remember-the-’90s sequels that are doubtless headed our way. There’s some consolation in the fact that audiences largely rejected this year’s choking-on-fumes model, “Independence Day: Resurgence,” which stumbled its way into theaters as though having been revived from a two-decade coma with its heart and soul (Will Smith) surgically removed.
Superhero spectaculars. This summer wasn’t a total wash: Marvel’s appreciably well-crafted “Captain America: Civil War” was both a better Avengers movie than “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and a more engaging Ant-Man movie than “Ant-Man.” And I was fonder than most of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the latest entry in a franchise whose primary “fault” — the dizzying, dynamic interplay among a sprawling cast of characters — is in fact its greatest virtue.
Watch the trailer for “Suicide Squad.”
But then came the endless, swirling CGI craptacular that was “Suicide Squad,” an all-psychos-on-deck anti-thriller that had the dubious distinction of making “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” look like a paragon of plausible motivation and coherent mythmaking by comparison. I will leave it to more seasoned scholars of comic-book adaptation lore to determine whether David Ayer’s movie was better or worse than last summer’s widely reviled “Fantastic Four.”
But at least that thing didn’t fancy itself as anything more than slapped-together nonsense, whereas “Suicide Squad” felt so much uglier and more pernicious: The worst garbage is the kind that considers itself a subversive act.
Pixar delights. Let’s end on a bright note. Last year Pixar gave us a mind-bending animated triumph in the form of “Inside Out,” one of the studio’s most creatively inspired efforts. This year’s model, “Finding Dory,” may not be in quite the same class, but it’s a witty deep-sea delight nonetheless, a tale of familial bonding and friendship that somehow deepens into a quasi-Proustian treatise on the nature of memory. I’d actually place it a few leagues ahead of its beloved 2003 predecessor, “Finding Nemo,” not least because when it comes to their talking-fish counterparts, I’d rather swim with Ellen DeGeneres than Albert Brooks.
More cause for optimism: “Finding Dory” aside, it’s been a splendid summer for nonfranchise animation, on the evidence of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a wondrously inventive stop-motion fantasy from Laika Entertainment, and “Sausage Party,” which is easily the finest supermarket sex comedy turned stealth religious allegory ever made. The two have little in common visually, thematically or demographically, and yet each one represents a defiant outsider’s vision in an industry climate that has rarely seemed more hostile to independent thinking and creative alternatives.
Should Hollywood ever be inclined to remake “Suicide Squad” with talking hot dogs, I know I’d be first in line.
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