Summer has come to an end once again, which means it’s time to recap the season’s most notable cinematic moments.
This is the first year that I can remember where it really felt like Summer blew right past me and didn’t say hello, and I won’t lie: It kind of bums me out.
Granted, there are a lot of reasons for that. I’ve really upped my workload this past year: The two shows here at The Escapist, recapping Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and/or old Marvel shows, this column and one about TV; plus chairing a regional film critics’ association, working on what will eventually be the final few episodes of The Game OverThinker (in its present form, at least) and planning my next book (no, we’ll not be discussing the subject now).
I’m fortunate in that I enjoy enough of my work that it doesn’t feel like a burden until I have to try and fit relationships and family matters into the small spaces between that work, suddenly realizing how few evenings I’ve allotted myself and how many deadlines I stare down on a weekly basis. I’m blessed, employment-wise, but suffice it to say I shouldn’t have been as gobsmacked as I was when I hoofed it down to the Laundromat a week ago, saw that the Halloween Spirit seasonal pop-up store had taken up customary vacant retail-space residence and realized “Holy sh**! It’s already Fall!”
But yes, Summer is over. And as a Film Critic I am bound by ancient honor and tradition to mark the space between complaining about Summer Blockbusters and complaining about middlebrow Fall Oscar Bait by looking back at the season past and seeing what, if anything, can be learned. So…
Sony Needs to Hang It Up on Spider-Man
There’s no need to rehash the fact that I didn’t like either of the Amazing Spider-Man movies. My distaste for the franchise is secondary to the more general distaste that greeted the mega-hyped sequel and the “Spider-Universe” plans its producers were hyping alongside it. While Fox and the X-Men were proving that Marvel Studios isn’t the only outfit in Hollywood capable of mining comic-book continuity porn for box-office bucks, Sony was becoming the universal punchline to the joke (that also happens to be a truism) about every studio trying to create shared-universe franchises of their own.
It’d be one thing if Amazing Spider-Man 2 had only opened to critical pans and a tepid audience response. But getting curb-stomped in only its second week by a minor R-rated fratboy comedy (after every other studio had cleared space to avoid seeing their blockbusters get overshadowed by Spidey) cast a massive pall over the studio/company’s already dismal financial year, and while Sony is still talking about spin-offs it’s also delaying the third film and facing the public-relations headache of star Andrew Garfield already distancing himself from the fallout. Most problematically of all, some are beginning to whisper that the real issue might be the one factor that no amount of recasting, savvy marketing or even recasting can fix: The audience may simply have gotten tired of Spider-Man, at least for a while.
In any other situation in any previous incarnation of the movie business, the answer to all of this would be simple: Stop making Spider-Man movies. They’re expensive, they’re turning less and less profit, they’re making the studio look bad. So sell the rights back to Marvel/Disney at whatever you can get for it (almost-certainly more than the slight profit ASM2 will eventually pull) and invest in a better business model. But this isn’t the Hollywood of even a decade ago: Sony is between the rock of Marvel/Disney feeling like it doesn’t really “need” to buy back an expensive A-lister like Peter Parker when they can hit the top of the U.S. box-office with Rocket Raccoon and the hard place of Spider-Man’s diminishing earning-power being one of the only semi-viable brands they’ve got going at the moment. Realistically, the company’s economic woes will not turn around decisively in the time it would likely take Marvel Studios to make (don’t think Spider-Man isn’t among the dozens of “hypothetical projects” they already have starter-scripts for), release and turn a tidy profit; at which point heads would roll at Sony over who “lost” that big hit to Marvel — even if it did turn out to be a smart move in the long-run.
The bottom line is, Sony needs to get out of the Spider-Man business — but it’s hard to see how they actually do it.
The “Tryout Movie” Is Dead
Once upon a time, small-time independent directors who moved up into the Hollywood system at the blockbuster level had to climb a long ladder to do so. Sam Raimi made Evil Dead with his friends, got noticed enough to lure bigger investors to more ambitious projects like Crimewave or Army of Darkness and got a chance to prove himself on mid-budget studio features like Darkman and A Simple Plan before finally being considered a safe investment for the original Spider-Man.
Today? Gareth Edwards wows critics (well, not all of us…) with the budget indie Monsters and is immediately tapped for the megabudget reboot of Godzilla. And it’s a hit. Next year we’ll get Jurassic World (aka Jurassic Park IV) from Colin Trevorrow, whose prior experience was a low-budget scifi romance/comedy Safety Not Guaranteed. Metal Gear Solid and the Tom Hiddleston-starring King Kong prequel Skull Island are both set to be helmed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, currently “best” known for the boyhood-clubhouse adventure Kings of Summer.
Maybe these will all be successful projects, but maybe one or two of them won’t. More troublingly, I can’t help but wonder if grabbing up “indie guys” right away and putting them on massive projects isn’t a way for studios to look good while also ensuring that the guys in charge of big money projects are more easily-bullied newbies rather than established players with clout. Remember: For a minute there, it seemed like a really cool thing for Marc Webb to be doing Spider-Man movies.
The “Chinese Century” in Popular Culture is Probably Real
Transformers: Age of Extinction is a movie that exists to establish a friendly relationship between its director, its producer, its studio and its corporate masters… and the Chinese film industry. It’s partially set in China, features Chinese actors and is plotted in a manner explicitly conducive to a global-minded international release — right down to the presence of villainous U.S. military/corporate characters (and seemingly on-the-ball Chinese defense administrators) despite director Michael Bay’s famous penchant for patriotism.
The result? The film is considered a minor “disappointment” at the U.S. box-office for not exceeding the take of its predecessor… but globally (and especially in China)? A colossal hit that actually crossed the billion dollar mark. Hollywood may still be the gold-standard for big-budget spectacle, but the tastes of American moviegoers is no longer the sole arbiter of what is and isn’t a success.
Woman-fronted blockbusters have always existed, but now they’re coming in the form of otherwise “mainstream” genre hits that may wear the trappings of familiar fantasy/action fare but do almost zero reaching for a male audience otherwise (male characters in Maleficent in particular are either evil or comically-extraneous, save for Diaval who’s technically not human) the assumption being that magic and mayhem are gender-neutral amusements. That’s a notable sea-change.
Marvel Is Still Apparently Unstoppable
At this point it’s actually getting a little bit absurd: To the degree that you can call Marvel Studios — a subsidiary brand of the Disney Empire operating semi-independently under its own leadership — a “studio” in the conventional sense… they are without question the best-run studio in Hollywood. They run directors ragged and crack the whip on stars, but they get the finished product out there and have thus far delivered hit after hit after hit. It’s all based on a business model adapted from their origins as a comic-book publisher that seems almost frighteningly good at picking projects that popular culture hasn’t necessarily “asked for” but immediately felt like a missing piece falling into place once they debut.
There’s no real formula anyone could point to where shifting genre-gears for Captain America from scrappy retro-WWII serial-adventure to inspirational superhero to paranoid spy-thriller would’ve made sense, but the response to Winter Soldier speaks for itself. Guardians of the Galaxy seemed like a ludicrous risk… and is now the #1 film of the year (so far). Their next trick? A sequel to the billion-grossing smash The Avengers, all-but-guaranteed to be another box-office winner.
At some point this has to stop working, at least for one film (or maybe it already has — there seems to be a consensus that Thor: The Dark World wasn’t as good as the original, though the box-office was solid) — if for no other reason that the longer it waits, the bigger deal “Marvel’s first flop!” inevitably becomes as a news item. But for now, they are on the roll that all future “new” studios will be judged by.