Superhero films are destroying the classic ‘summer blockbuster’

I love summer blockbusters. To me, summertime is for binge eating popcorn with the AC on full, and films that take me to exotic locations with ridiculous plots. These films don’t have to be good, nor must they follow a coherent story. Just give me explosions and fast-paced action and I’m happy to welp, cheer, or shed a tear for whatever drivel is on screen. And even though I celebrate cinematic filmmaking as an art, pure and unbridled entertainment is far from lost on me.

And while I’m comfortable enough in my film-fan credentials to admit my love of summer blockbusters, many aren’t. This is a problem and I fear many have lost the point of movies being made for enjoyment regardless of their content. Whether high-brow or low, drama or romcom, movies are for entertainment – and that includes ‘terrible’ summer blockbusters.

When you approach the idea of the Summer Blockbuster it’s easy to address the topic with preconceived notions of disposable popcorn-fluff, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I mean, do you think four sequels to ageing film franchise from the 80s should be held to the same standards as Casablanca or The God Father? Of course not. Regardless of your appetite for sequels, it doesn’t change the fact that the summer blockbuster is still relevant and in the movie business today.

But a disturbing trend in knocking this valid form of filmmaking has notably been on the rise with this summer’s offerings coming under harsher scrutiny than ever before. Admittedly this summer’s blockbuster movies have been particularly weak, but in order for my sanity to hold I have to believe that we were never under the illusion that Tom Cruise’s interpretation of ‘The Mummy (1932)‘ was ever going to be seen as Oscar-worthy. It’s a far cry from Lawrence of Arabia [in bandages], but is it really as bad as the pejorative media makes it out to be?

It isn’t. But even though I believe taste is a valid concern when critiquing cinematic ventures, so too must context. In an effort to understand the form, however, we first need to explore the origins of the summer Blockbuster itself.

Credited as the first of its kind, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in June of 1975 to wild applause. Based on the widely popular novel by Peter Benchley, which had been released the year prior, Jaws was strategically placed to coincide with the height of summer vacation season. Producer David Brown admitted that the “film was deliberately delayed ’till people were in the water of summer beach resorts.”

The summer month release coupled with mass marketing helped Jaws become the highest earning film in North America in 1975 and set the stage for many of Spielberg’s summer blockbusters to follow. More importantly, however, is the fact that Jaws changed the way in which studios treated summer releases. Whereas typically big-budget movies would hold off until Autumn or Winter, Spielberg and the success of George Lucas’ small-budget sci-fi space-opera Star Wars in 1977 forced studio executives to reexamine summer movies and, by extension, our viewing habits.

What had been the exception suddenly became the rule for successful films and franchise to abide by. John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988) launched a money spinning franchise of action films that are still being made today; while Tim Burton rejuvenated the Batman series when his film was released in the summer of 1989. One-off films (at that point) like Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) and Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) saw huge financial and critical success with both films being nominated for Academy Awards with the former even winning in the category for Best Visual Effects.

This trend for summer release windows would carry on up through the 90’s and into the 00’s when the long-thought dead superhero genre resurfaced with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) once again changing what the audience expected from a summer blockbuster. With both franchise spawning critically well received sequels – although less said about their third films the better – the superhero genre would only grow in popularity with Marvel Comics looking to cash-in on the success after having rented out their more popular characters to studios like Twentieth Century Fox and Sony Pictures.

What would be their first movie under the newly created Marvel Studios banner would also be the first step in the comic book giants conquering of the summer Blockbuster itself.

On the 2nd of May (2008) Iron Man was released to a hungry comic book audience. Kicking off what was soon to become Marvel’s ‘Phase One’ in their vision of building an epic cinematic universe, the newly created studio wouldn’t stop there, instead bringing us The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2011) and Captain America (2011) in the subsequent years that followed. Soon after the introduction of what many regarded as Marvel’s B-List Superheroes, the studio doubled-down by giving us a team-up story in the form of Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble in the summer of 2013 which would not only mark the end of Marvel’s Phase One but also a new shift in marketing direction after becoming a part of the Walt Disney conglomerate.

What had started as Marvel Studios clear intention of tapping into the ‘summer market’ soon shifted focus intotwo dedicated release windows per year as the MCU headed into its Phase Two. In the year following Whedon’s Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World’s Summer and Autumn release structure would demonstrate Disney’s confidence in their newly acquired product, believing that Marvel fans would happily see two superhero films a year no-matter when they fell. The Mickey Mouse Pioneers at Disney would of course be proven right with Thor’s November 8th release window showing a healthy box office return of $139.4 Million overall and surpassing its predecessor after just 19 days of release.

 

But even though the proverbial ‘House of Mouse’ were happy in making a change, the change wouldn’t prove permanent as only two of its fifteen currently released films (as of writing) are scheduled for release later in the calendar year. Showing that even though a known commodity such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t necessarily need the Summer months to gain traction, Disney and Marvel are happy to flood the market each and every year regardless.

To say that Marvel (and DC to a certain degree) don’t have the right to a Summertime release window is, of course, absurd. What I am accreting to the Superhero Genre, however, is the quagmire in which the ‘Summer Blockbuster’ must tread as result of both the genre’s success and its failings. Speaking as a comic book fan: I recognise that the genre has spawned notable cinematic efforts that transcend the oft-thought ‘trashy’ label attached to the genre; but while Marvel’s mainstream appeal certainly strikes a chord with fans, audience expectations – or realisations – of what Superhero films represent are not one of the same.

My argument that the Superhero genre is killing the Summer Blockbuster assumes that audience expectations are stifling other forms of entertainment that do not deal with notable Marvel or DC characters. To say that I would like the Superhero Genre to disappear would be a false equivalency as I believe that I can enjoy other forms of films alongside it and appreciate them in their own right. What I see as a problem, however, is over-familiarity with the tropes that are used in the superhero genre becoming solely credited to these movies, so while other films use tactics such as the ‘Universe building’ – as seen and lamented in Cruise’s latest Summer Blockbuster – audiences and critics alike will harshly lambast the film and yet give Superhero films a pass.

Familiarity with story, themes and tropes aren’t the only problems when you flood a single market; often it falls on customers to pick and choose when it comes to what films they want to see or indeed take their children to watch. With big brands such as DC and Marvel hogging the limelight, you can’t blame a parent for taking their kid to watch the big, colourful exploits of StarLord and the gang over yet another Pixar or Dreamworks animation that may not necessarily appeal to an older demographic. The problem is however if you dig a little deeper into what Superhero films offer it’s often the same story with a different gloss of paint. Is that a bad thing if you enjoy it? No – so why should you be made to feel stupid if you enjoyed the latest Independence Day sequel even-though it was a basic retread of the original… because there were no people flying around in capes in it?

When it comes to choosing the next film you see at the cinema, personal preference will always win the day and determine whether or not you deem the movie worthy of your time. It’s not my place to tell anyone how they should enjoy a film. I only hope that we can come to an understanding that not all movies are trying to be the next The Godfather or – in the case of Superhero films – Dark Knight Rises.

It’s fine to just enjoy a simple piece of filmmaking for what it is: Dumb, loud and fun.