It’s not quite May, but I have officially begun my search for the perfect popcorn movie. That’s what we call the big box-office bruisers that swagger through our summers because expectations are strangely both high — and low. A quick fix of fun and a one-liner to co-opt — “I’ll be back...” — if we’re lucky. A dismal Saturday night if we’re not.
The creative heights these films set out to climb may be different than the dramatic and emotional peaks scaled by more serious fare in the fall. But it is not enough to just flex a few muscles or rest on special effects. Whether it’s another round with old familiar Spidey or a newly imagined Hercules, these flicks are supposed to go for popcorn greatness.
What qualifies as a popcorn movie? Any film whose primary mission is to entertain (any thinking, crying or reflecting is just an add-on). Do they open only in the summer? No, they can land in theaters from January to December, but they must have popcorn soul. Here are a few of the mandatory ingredients, the butter and salt necessary to make ordinary popcorn unforgettable.
Delicious characters: Whether superheroes, sci-fi thrillers or horror chillers, on some level even the best fantasy and froth needs to make us care. Who wasn’t rooting for Sigourney Weaver’s sweat-soaked Ripley fighting an other-worldly creature in 1979’s “Alien” or touched by that tentative other alien in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” in ’82? On the other hand, when “Van Helsing” stormed through Transylvania in 2004 trying to take down all manner of monsters including the Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein’s freak, I just wanted it to be over — everyone was irritating. In 2012 “Magic Mike” revealed so much more than Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum’s impressive six-packs, while 1995’s “Showgirls” proved that getting naked is never enough.
A villain worth buying: For heroes to be super, they need to have an adversary with an interesting criminal mind; the more complex, the more compelling. Ones that stay with you long after the house lights come up, like the late Heath Ledger’s terribly tortured Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight” or Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter, so delectably chilling in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” Perhaps no one did it better than a terrifying Jack Nicholson in 1980’s “The Shining,” although the steel jaws in “Jaws” did keep a great many people out of the ocean in summer ’75. It’s why I can’t wait to see Angelina Jolie in “Maleficent.”
The right actor in the right role: The very funny Ryan Reynolds was so out of his element in green tights and goggles in 2011’s “Green Lantern” it was laughable for all the wrong reasons. The black bondage wear didn’t suit Halle Berry in 2004’s “Catwoman” any better than the cape did George Clooney in 1997’s “Batman & Robin.” On the flip side, Christian Bale fit “The Dark Knight” to a T, while Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto were spot-on as a next-generation Kirk and Spock in 2009’s “Star Trek.” It is never about the clothes, of course. But if the characters are a bad fit, the tights don’t help.
Effects that make my day: Movies are inherently a visual medium, and the big screen gives filmmakers a big canvas. But to take my breath away it takes a special effect. In recent times, few have succeeded better than James Cameron’s “Avatar” in 2009 with its Pandora paradise and its beautiful beings, although the outer space of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” came close. It seems each summer brings at least one standout, like the liquid silver of 1999’s “Matrix” or the shape-shifting alien soldier in “Predator.” Less awe-inspiring, to say the least, was 2010’s “Piranha 3D,” followed in 2012 by “Piranha 3DD,” which as the titles suggest were as much the breasts above the water as beasties below.
Make me laugh until I cry: Every summer needs a strong comedy streak. But it’s a thin line between funny and factitious. While there was a certain charm to “Ted’s” (2012) foul-mouthed stuffed bear working out his issues with his best friend played by Mark Wahlberg, the chain-smoking in 1986’s “Howard the Duck,” waddling through Cleveland, was nothing but a very long, very bad joke. “Airplane’s” silliness soared in 1980, “Soul Plane’s” attempt to parody the parody in 2004 dived. The heights reached by the seminal rock ‘n’ roll spoof in 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap” hit rock bottom with 2009’s cavemen in “Year One.” Maybe Seth MacFarlane, who worked such magic with “Ted,” will do it again this summer with “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”
Surprise me: One summer craving at the top of my list is for something, anything fresh. It can take any number of forms, I’m not picky; like the way 1996’s “Scream” mixed that first funny/frightening cocktail or Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow hoodwinking his way into our hearts in 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” And that trio of badly behaving boys we were introduced to in 2009’s “The Hangover” would not have carried the summer without an unforgettable cameo by Mike Tyson, or his tiger, or that chicken, or that tooth. Which is why the completely unsurprising “The Hangover Part II” and the completely annoying “The Hangover Part III” gave bad sequels a bad name. Meanwhile, the all-time classic surprise may be 1999’s “The Sixth Sense” — I really did not see that coming.
Do I want a second helping: It is rare in movies, but some do improve over the years. Francis Ford Coppola upped the stakes brilliantly in 1974’s “The Godfather: Part II,” which if anything improved on a classic. After the pure invention of director George Lucas’ 1977 “Star Wars,” the next chapter, 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” directed by Irvin Kershner, was a stunner. More “Wars” followed, some better than others, but none have surpassed “Empire.” Just this spring, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” proved it could sharpen its storytelling. Hopefully it’s a summer trend, since there are so many in the queue, including “Spider-Man 2,” “22 Jump Street,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Planes: Fire & Rescue,” “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “The Expendables 3,” to name a few.
Don’t disappoint me: Sometimes a movie’s title will be such a good tease, it makes the let’s-see list right away. The test is whether you come out satisfied or feeling like you were taken, as opposed to “Taken.” Take 2006’s “Snakes on a Plane.” Please. The idea sounded so promising, the reality turned out to be nothing but snakes on a plane, no interesting slithering, just a boring wait for the next snake to drop. Among the summer’s contenders: “Nothing Bad Can Happen,” which of course means something bad will; “Let’s Be Cops,” which suggests good mayhem might be in the offing; and “Two Night Stand,” either a laugh riot or a case of someone not learning from their mistakes, that would be me I’m talking about. Like most moviegoers, I don’t forgive a bait-and-switch. I expect even silly movies to deliver on their promises.
Now pass me the popcorn please.