It’s been a summer. From alien invasions, to giant lizards and fusion bombs, once again we’ve been awash with CGI extravaganzas. The summer blockbuster has become an entrenched institution of the movie studios; from its benevolent Spielbergian beginnings to the modern super-hero movie and world annihilation every couple of weeks, they are the movies you have to see. But what is it about these films that are supposed to captivate a worldwide audience, what intrinsic property do they have to better breach the gap across the masses? If Fellini’s 8 ½ was released now and advertised as much as Transformers, would all the same people go see it? And, in this facetious scenario, would 8 ½ still be the darling of critics? That is probably a question for another day, but does worldwide appeal necessarily equal a good movie and do we even care?
There have been highs and lows of the crop so far this year, I walked out of The Amazing Spider-Man horrified and disappointed by how awful I thought it was. The predominantly positive reviews have tempered my opinion slightly, partly due to the realisation that I was holding this new Spidey to a higher standard, which I hadn’t done with comparable films. Yet this doesn’t discount my problems with the film – the bad writing, bad characterisation and bad CGI all feel like what happens when you make the first draft of a script rather than taking the time to write something great. (And then there is that suspect use of a Coldplay song). Some of these problems can be applied to almost all other blockbusters from recent years, but I didn’t walk out of those thinking they were awful – although I might have if I’d been to see Battleship or any Michael Bay movie, but then that’d be my own fault for paying to watch those movies. Maybe it’s because Marvel cultivates a fun sense to their movies and the new Spider-Man has a darker, more serious tone, bringing more serious critique upon itself. But the realisation of how our bias and expectations can affect our views on a movie so radically still surprised me. How many times have you heard opinions based around ‘I was pleasantly surprised’ or ‘Not as good as I expected’? What we think before we even see the movie can define our opinion of it as much as watching the movie itself. I love Spider-Man, I love the comic books, so where the majority of people went in with low expectations, positive reviews conspired to raise my hopes and expectations of artistic merit rather than just a fun movie.
This is the problem: we don’t judge a blockbuster by the same standards of other movies. We accept their moments of cheesy comedy, weak characterisation and generic plot lines. We’ve become conditioned to accept this all because they have no substance, they’re junk food; we know they’re bad for us but we don’t care. Asking for anything more would be like judging the culinary worth of a pot noodle – they’re relatively tasty and we just want something which requires no effort. We’ve conditioned ourselves before we even see a blockbuster, so we don’t judge it. We hold them to a lower standard, and the biggest problem is we don’t even notice it any more.
It’s not that they’re bad per se, just mediocre, and we are rewarding mediocrity by flocking to see them. These movies are hugely successful, so we’re vindicating lazy movie-making, we’re skewing the concept of what is a good movie to the point where the movie industry is becoming polarised between the blockbuster and Oscar bait. The ‘Majors’, the six movie studio mob families with a stranglehold on the industry, must have an almost sociopathic view of the general public – churning out movies without any thought of quality, believing that throwing a hundred million dollars at advertising is enough to get people out to watch anything. They are going to go where the easy money is, using their extensive (but still not unlimited) funds on more blockbusters. This limits their subsidiaries, normally in charge of finding something original and outside of the tepid norm, with reduced funding. If you stop and think about how Green Lantern or John Carter can make over two hundred million dollars and still be deemed a commercial and critical failure, it shows that this is an absurd way not just of making movies, but of running a business. Yet they’re constantly expanding the usual summer region with so many movies vying for their place that it’s spanning from as early as March to as late as October, which is soon followed by the Christmas holiday blockbusters. The concept of the ‘Summer Blockbuster’ itself is an antiquated notion.
But then there is Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. The films are ambitious, smart and most of all, passionate. Christopher Nolan understands Bruce Wayne; he is a character who puts to shame all other superhero and blockbuster protagonists. They’re not the greatest movies ever made, no matter what IMDB’s rankings might say, and they depend on genre clichés as much as any other blockbuster. But they are proof that big budget movies do not necessarily mean thoughtless, trite affairs where dialogue and characters are just set up between the fight/chase/sex scenes – with some talent put into the writing they can be worthwhile viewing and prove that artistic merit and blockbusters are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Railing against big budget films is not a new idea and I’ve tried my best to not sound like a pretentious art-house arsehole because blockbusters are good for the industry – any film that actually gets people out to cinemas that desperately need money to simply stay open is a good thing, although maybe we should head to an independent cinema once in a while. It’s when blockbusters overshadow all other films that they become a problem. There needs to be a balance, but in this economic climate nobody wants to spend money and then not like the movie, so we close off a part of our brain and decide only to see the movie that everyone is talking about because we know we will like it, no matter what. But how would you respond if, for example, you finally decide to go to that restaurant everyone has been talking about? You make plans for the evening, maybe with that special guy or girl you’ve been seeing, you get dressed up, drive all the way there – but then you get ushered to your seats, sit down in the moody low-lit room, nervously anticipating the meal you’ve heard such good things about, only to be served a pot noodle?