Summer 2011 is winding down, at least as far as the movies are concerned. In times like these, it’s fun to look back not only on the summer that was, but also the summer that was supposed to be – i.e. the way film bloggers, culture watchers and other pundits expected things to play out back when the whole slate was still theoretical.
Old Logic: The “nerd boom” is over. It was cute for a while, but mainstream audiences don’t actually care about mind-bending sci fi/fantasy premises, costumed superheroes and other assorted weirdness. Iron Man was a fluke, The Dark Knight only works because 90% of the high-concept stuff is drained out of it, and with most of Summer 2011’s genre offerings lacking big stars or well-known properties, audiences will finally tire of relentless unreality. One sufficiently huge bomb and the whole trend will be done with.
New Logic: Apparently not. Features built around relative comic book obscurities like Thor, Captain America and a fourth tier roster of X-Men all made money, and just last weekend a movie about an armed uprising of intelligent apes opened to a $50 million take and Oscar buzz for its motion-captured chimpanzee lead. There was a pretty huge bomb, too, in the form of Green Lantern, but it didn’t seem to hurt anyone but itself.
Old Logic: Johnny Depp is such a good actor with such an impressive career pedigree that no amount of “paycheck parts” in embarrassingly awful big studio productions can tarnish that sterling reputation.
New Logic: Yes, they can.
Old Logic: Ryan Reynolds is the next major male superstar. Women think he’s gorgeous, men think he’s cool, everyone agrees he’s funny. He seems to have a lot of range and is supposedly a pretty decent guy to boot. The sky’s the limit.
New Logic: Everyone still seems to like Ryan Reynolds, and so long as he stays in shape he certainly won’t be hurting for magazine cover presence. But as a box office draw? Not so much. The two big success stories of the summer were superheroes and R-rated comedies, and he had a headlining role in one of each (Green Lantern and The Change-Up, respectively) … both of which failed. Spectacularly. Now, to be sure, people have come back from worse – George Clooney became an A-list star (and Oscar winner) after surviving Batman & Robin – but Reynolds’ “brand” has taken a major beating.
Old Logic: 3D and Michael Bay are both blights on the movie business, so putting them together is the end of all things.
New Logic: The bloom definitely seems to be off the 3D rose, but – heaven help us – Transformers: Dark of The Moon offers some alarmingly conclusive proof that using the technology actually improved Michael Bay’s technique. Granted, it may be as simple as the added (literal) baggage of a 3D rig being the equivalent of strapping a giant cinder block to the camera forcing Bay to dial back his worst excesses – and it certainly didn’t help his screenwriters any – but an improvement is an improvement.
Old Logic: “Nerdstalgia” – AKA films grounded in referencing or recreating films, properties and styles especially beloved by 70s/80s-spawned movie geeks – is done for. Tron: Legacy was a hit, but not the mega-smash Disney expected, and Scott Pilgrim took a box office beating. Revisiting Indiana Jones maybe wasn’t the best idea, either. The folks who run high-traffic “movie geek” news sites tend to be thirty-something cinephiles with a soft spot for memories of their own pre-adolescence, and their dominance of the online film news cycle “fooled” studios into thinking there was more money in this sort of thing than there ultimately was.
New Logic: Not so fast. For good or ill, “Nerdstalgia” came back with a vengeance in 2011. Transformers – a franchise that exists exclusively because of how popular a cartoon spinoff of a toy line was in the mid-80s – continues to rake in the dough. So did The Smurfs, another franchise with a similar history. JJ Abrams scored a surprise moneymaker with Super 8, little more than a feature-length love letter to the ubiquitous mid-80s output of Steven Spielberg. The trend also extends beyond the 80s, too: X-Men: First Class ditched its predecessor’s millennial slickness for 1960s James Bond glitz, while Captain America placed a WWII-era hero in what could easily have been a WWII-era movie. Heck, one of the biggest critical and box office surprises turned out to be a prequel to Planet of The Apes. Incidentally, just greenlit this past week? A reboot of Short Circuit. No, really.
Old Logic: R-rated comedy is a bad investment. Adults prefer on-demand and Redbox to movie theaters, kids can’t get in and 20somethings would rather get their raunchy laughs in bite-sized form on the interwebs.
New Logic: Whoa! This could not have been a less correct appraisal. Issues of quality aside, R-rated comedy was the racket to be in this year. Hangover II Bridesmaids and Bad Teacher all cleared $100 million, with Horrible Bosses well on the way to join them. Those are the kind of numbers most modern movies don’t see without having been based on a comic book, and given how little comedies generally cost to make, these were all hugely profitable ventures.
Old Logic: Female comedians cannot “open” a movie, and speaking of R-rated comedies the reason they don’t make money is that women don’t like them.
New Logic: Bridesmaids, a female-centric R-rated comedy starring a team of non-household-name actresses marketed with an almost confrontational “we dare you to watch women be gross and silly!” posture is a hit. A huge hit. In fact, it’s now the biggest moneymaker of the Judd Apatow-related run of risqué comedies, pushing Kristen Wiig to the brink of A-list almost overnight and turning Melissa McCarthy into the breakout star of the summer.
Old Logic: Movies are not comic books, and as such, Marvel Studios’ attempt to run their slate of movies in the manner of a comic-book publisher – film-to-film continuity, universe building and an anything goes approach to genre mixing – isn’t going to work. Films need to be stand-alone works; mainstream audiences are not ready to accept fantasy, science fiction and “real” characters living in the same universe, etc. Furthermore, the awkward second act of Iron Man 2 demonstrates that The Avengers isn’t precisely worth that level of buildup. Nerds love continuity, nobody else cares, time for this stuff to go back in its corner.
Oh, and Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens is a surefire smash with a killer teaser trailer. It will be a massive hit and a black-eye to Marvel – whose continuity minded shenanigans during Iron Man 2 are alleged to have put him off the sticking with the franchise – when it outperforms the two questionable Avengers lead-ins.
New Logic: Well, the jury is still out on The Avengers, but the success of Captain America and Thor – both of which serve as prequels to one another and are densely packed with universe building Marvel mythology – along with the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the Avengers teaser by non-geek moviegoers likely becoming aware of it for the first time, seems to indicate that the experiment is working out fairly well. For my part, I think some of this has to do with the way media consumption has changed over the last few years. The notion of individual films serving as episodes of a greater inter-connected narrative is a lot easier to conceive in an era where the theater-to-retail window is shrinking to nothingness and any “details” can be instantly Googled.
Meanwhile, Cowboys kinda ate it.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.