Tuesday, April 29, 2014

In defense of the blockbuster, part 3: Racial and gender diversity

Here we are at some more reasons why I'll defend blockbuster movies! Without further or do, let's get started.

4) Blockbusters are more diverse than ever. (Race edition)

Okay, so I know this is a tricky issue, so I need to clarify some things before I get the ball rolling. No, I do not think representation of women and minorities in blockbuster movies right now is perfect. Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement. Yes, I understand that the percentage of both female and black directors is minuscule compared to the number of mainstream directors in Hollywood who are white men. And honestly, in response to that I say that movies, like any artform, get better when more voices and perspectives are added to it. If white men have a monopoly on blockbuster film, that restrains the creativity of the film-making industry and prevents showing the true diversity of our society. I'm all in favor of more diversity in Hollywood, because beyond just skin color, creed, sexuality, etc., diversity means difference in opinion, difference in seeing the world, and the movie-going public as a whole benefits from seeing things from other people's perspectives.

So, let's talk about race in film. Unfortunately, just like American history, Hollywood has a tainted history with race relations. Early silent films like The Birth of a Nation were essentially just racist propaganda. And when Hollywood did incorporate black actors into bigger films throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, like Gone With The Wind and Walt Disney's infamous Song of the South, it was usually in a role as a servant, slave, or stereotype. But as the country changed, so did Hollywood. The civil rights movement brought new opportunities and advancement for people of color in the movies. In 1967, the highest grossing star of the year was Sidney Poitier. In addition, black filmmakers were increasingly going outside mainstream Hollywood to produce smaller movies in specific genres, the most notable of which is the "blacksploitation" genre. The rise of black filmmaking more-or-less correlated with the rise of the blockbuster, so filmmakers not only incorporated a lot of issues and themes of those movies (the Dirty Harry sequels in particular showcased a type of vigilantism mostly seen in blackploitation films before then), but actors as well. Many of the major blockbusters of the 80s incorporated minority actors, examples being Billy Dee Williams in the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Ernie Hudson in Ghostbusters, and most noteworthy, Eddie Murphy's blockbuster streak that included Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs., Trading Places, and Coming to America.

This poster states "Eddie Murphy is the Chosen One," and in the 80s, it was pretty hard to argue with that...

So, let's talk about a major issue. The last movie to be the number 1 at the box office for any given year and was focused solely on a black protagonist was Beverly Hills Cop, which starred Eddie Murphy and came out in 1984, 30 years ago. And one could maybe make the argument that 1996's Independence Day, also the highest grossing movie of the year when it came out, features a black protagonist in the character of Capt. Stephen Hiller, played by Will Smith. But I would argue that Independence Day is more of an ensemble piece, and it's probably more accurate to say Will Smith is a co-lead along with Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman. The movie is focused on all three men, not specifically Smith's character the way Beverly Hills Cop was solely focused on Eddie Murphy's character of Axel Foley.

The truth of the matter is that startling statistic shows how far we have yet to go in terms of racial equality in mainstream American film. The election of President Barack Obama in 2008 began discussion of how America was entering a "post-racial" society, and looking at our blockbusters, that doesn't necessarily seem the case. While black actors like Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Denzel Washington have seen their star-power increase in recent years, other black actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan Freeman, Idris Elba, and Don Cheadle usually take on more supporting roles to white lead actors and actresses.

Sidenote: Idris Elba should be cast in everything. EVERY. THING!

However, there is still progress that is noteworthy and worth talking about. I started this blog by talking about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It's a good recent example of how black characters in blockbuster movies aren't being defined by their race, but by character traits and their individual arcs in the movie. As much as Ghostbusters is one of my favorite movies, the role of Winston Zeddemore, played by Ernie Hudson, did rather ring a little bit of tokenism. Winston simply does not have a whole lot to do in the movie. By the time he shows up to take the job as the fourth Ghostbuster, the three lead white characters played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and the late Harold Ramis have already established themselves and their business. They are undeniably the stars of the movie by this point. Winston is there to be a reason for the other Ghostbusters to have to explain the tools of the trade, and to show that their business is doing so well that they need a new person. But no background is given for why Winston is even qualified. Winston isn't even featured on the poster for the movie! And while he does get several good moments (in addition to the great lines "I've seen SHIT that will turn you WHITE!" and "If there is a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say," I love the moment where he talks about the biblical Judgment Day with Dan Aykroyd's character Ray Stantz), the character just isn't developed well enough. While Winston does get a little more of an expanded arc in the sequel Ghostbusters II, they still fail to give Winston an identity beyond his role at the Ghostbusters. In the sequel, he even isn't there when the three guys reunite to take down ghosts in a courthouse, and his sole source of income before the Ghostbusters reunite is reliving his past glory as a Ghostbuster at children's birthday parties, unlike Dan Aykroyd's Ray Stantz who runs an occult bookstore, Bill Murray's Peter Venkman who is a talkshow host, and Harold Ramis' Egon Spengler who is a scientist.

At least Ernie Hudson got on the poster for the second movie, so... progress...?

Or remember Reginald VelJohnson in Die Hard? Again, there simply wasn't a whole lot for him to do besides talk to John McClane. And sure, he might have gotten the last quality kill of the movie, but can you think of any defining characteristic for his character besides the fact that he was a cop and loved Twinkies...?

The filling in Twinkies is NOT made out of character development, you guys. 

In contrast, the character of Sam Wilson in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, played by Anthony Mackie, is much more developed. He's shown as a war veteran who befriends Steve Rogers/Captain America while jogging around Washington, DC one day. When Captain America finds him again, he leads a support group for veterans with PTSD, and he talks about how hard it is to adjust to life after the war. But in addition to basic character development, there are definitely things for Wilson to do. *SPOILER ALERT* He shelters both Captain America and Black Widow when they have no where else to run. His alter-ego as the Falcon allows him to do things Captain America and Black Widow can't, and the actual gear he uses is undeniably cool. He helps dismantle the Helicarriers when Captain America is busy fighting the Winter Soldier, and takes down the secondary villain of the movie, Brock Rumlow, all by himself (though a crashing Helicarrier definitely helped a little). Even little quirks the character has, like his love of the music of Marvin Gaye, come full-circle during the course of the movie.

His character ark is even more interesting if you think of Captain America 2 as a sequel to Anthony Mackie's role in The Hurt Locker.

If one looks beyond just the highest grossing movie of individuals years to the top 15, my own estimates show that over a third of the 15 highest grossing movies per year since the year 2000 feature African-American actors and actresses in lead or major supporting role. (If you're wondering about my methodology, I went to BoxOfficeMojo, and went down the top 15 movies and saw if a black actor and actress was the lead or had a major supporting role either based on a quick rundown on IMDb or my own personal knowledge. I did end up counting appearances in animated films such as Eddie Murphy in the Shrek films and Jada Pickett Smith in the Madagascar films.) The best year in recent memory was 2012, where over half the films in the top 15 films at the box office had an African American lead or major supporting role. (This included Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury in The Avengers, Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox in The Dark Knight Rises, Amandla Stenberg's Rue in The Hunger Games, Will Smith as the lead in Men in Black 3 and Jamie Foxx as the lead, among supporting turns from actors like Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, in Django Unchained.) While there is certainly progress to be made (by my estimates, even as recently as 2008, only 3 out of the 15 highest grossing movies featured black actors in a lead or supporting role), African-American actors are more visible in major blockbusters, and increasingly show a depth that perhaps was not as prominent in the blockbuster films of the 70s and 80s that goes beyond mere "tokenism."

In addition, latino actors and actresses are becoming more and more visible in blockbuster projects. The Fast and Furious franchise in particular has received attention for the number of non-white actors and actresses in the series, despite being headlined by a white actor, the late Paul Walker. In addition to the series other lead, Vin Diesel, being biracial, Latin actors and actresses like Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster and John Ortiz make the Fast and Furious movies look increasingly like the changing demographic landscape of America, despite what Fox News would have you believe.

Which is why Lou Dobbs will be the villain in the next Fast and Furious movie...

So let's return to the idea that blockbusters are no longer exclusively American, and have a broad appeal around the world. The fact of the matter is that thanks to the efforts of civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, the United States, on both the governmental and societal level, began to accommodate minorities thanks to efforts like affirmative action, the diminishing effects government discrimination against voting and civil rights, and broader societal acceptance of minorities. While racial issues still happen in America and show how far we have yet to go (the Trayvon Martin case and the racist remarks of Donald Sterling stand out as recent examples), America has progressed far better than most other Western countries in terms of acceptance of racial minorities. In Europe in particular, where leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have denounced "multiculturalism" has something that has "failed" in the countries they lead, as well as tightening restrictions on immigration from countries outside the European Union, one can get the impression that European countries are not as open and accommodating about race as their American counterparts are.

So, and I'll ask this question again when it comes to gender representation, what do the popularity of these films mean to countries outside the United States? What does it mean to countries that struggle with how best to accommodate their racial minorities to see black and Latino actors in the most easily accessible and most popular of American films, our blockbusters? The fact is a lot of countries outside the United States struggle with accommodating minorities in both government and society, and perhaps to see prominent lead roles or major supporting turns from actors who just happen to be minorities shakes their previous conceptions about integration and acceptance. The fact is, a lot of blockbusters incorporate what I would argue is one of the major American values: teamwork. People from different backgrounds, different looks, different creeds, all coming together to tackle an obstacle. Whether it's the Avengers, the Jedis, the X-Men, or a bunch of freed zoo animals, I would argue that the message we're sending out to a world that is seeing our blockbusters in increasing levels in countries both free and not free is that America is diverse, America accommodates those from different backgrounds, and Americans work together for the greater good despite their differences.

Are things perfect? No. Do we have a long way to go? Of course. But racial diversity in our mainstream blockbusters is becoming more and more prominent, showing not only the changing demographics of America, but showing to the world just what a good thing racial integration, acceptance, and relative harmony can be.

5) Blockbusters are more diverse than ever. (Gender edition)

I previously said that no film featuring a singular black protagonist had been at the top of the box office for any given year since 1984's Beverly Hills Cop. Well, for 40 years, the last film to feature a female protagonist that was the number one at the box office for a given year was 1973's The Exorcist. However, that streak came to an end when, just last year, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire became the first movie in forty years featuring a female protagonist to become the highest grossing movie of the year. Big event movies, like Alfonso Cuaron's astronaut epic Gravity and Kathryn Bigelow's tale of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, display strong women overcoming and working in perilous situations, both to massive critical acclaim and box office revenue.

Arnold Schwarzenegger WISHES he was as badass as Jessica Chastain was in that movie...

In recent years, much attention has been given to the Bechdel test, a formula developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, that asks if a film has two female characters who talk during the course of the film about something that isn't a man. As underground as Bechdel's original work was, that formula has become mainstream with entire websites devoted to analyzing which films do and do not meet the standards. This speaks to the need of providing complex female characters in mainstream films.

Since the year 2000, female characters have taken increasingly larger roles in blockbusters. A good example of this would be Keira Knightley's character Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. While the first installment had her pretty much as a damsel in distress (though she did manage to get a badass scene or two), the latter two show her sneaking on to a pirate ship, becoming a full fledged pirate captain, and eventually swordfighting several pirates and creepy-crawly Davey Jones crewmembers in order to save her shipmates.

Remember all those jokes about her bodice in the first movie? Looks like Keira is getting some revenge...

But Will!, you say. Even Princess Leia in Star Wars became increasingly badass as the trilogy went on! What makes this period of blockbuster so different than what came before?

A few things, actually. The first one is character development. The highest grossing film series of the 2000s was the Harry Potter series. One of the three child leads was Hermione Granger, played by Emma Watson, who is undeniably smarter than the two other leads, Harry Potter and Ron Weasley. She, rather than her male counterparts, is the one who constantly figures out how to defeat whatever obstacle is in their way. Hell, the entire third act of the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is orchestrated because Hermione activates her Time-Turner, not because of anything Harry or Ron does in service to the plot. As the movies progressed and the characters got older, the characters changed as well, leading to some sweet, intimate moments. While Star Wars had to resort to the infamous Princess Leia metal slave girl bikini in its last installment, Harry Potter had a simple dance between characters in the seventh installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 1, that summed up everything they were feeling. It never had to resort to making her a sexy character. It never had to resort to weakening her character to appeal to male audiences. Hermione, throughout all eight films, is a strong character that aids and adds infinitely to the story. And yes, I know a lot of the strength of the character comes from her development in the original books by J.K. Rowling. (Book purists will point to how Hermione's passion for charity to house-elves is not featured in the movies, perhaps subtracting a bit of useful character development.) But to the cynics who wish to dismiss blockbusters, it's easy to see why this:

is better example of a complex female character than this:

In addition, the Marvel Cinematic Universe features Black Widow, who gets more and more developed with each installment she's featured in. The James Bond series, once famous for its Bond girls and their characters' names like Pussy Galore and Holly Goodhead, now have characters like Naomi Harris' Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall, who can work side-by-side with the world's greatest spy. While Michelle Pfeiffer had to sex up her performance as Catwoman in Batman Returns...
Complete with a latex catsuit so tight it almost suffocated her. Seriously! 

Anne Hathaway fought along side the Caped Crusader in The Dark Knight Rises, and didn't require a psychotic breakdown to transform her the way Michelle Pfeiffer's interpretation of the character did.

While in the past, strong female protagonists in action or sci-fi genre blockbusters were exclusive to only a few franchises, most notably Aliens' Ellen Ripley and Terminator 2's transformed Sarah Connor, and even those two examples were considered pretty revolutionary, they have becoming increasingly present, so much so that we don't really take notice of movies featuring that trope anymore. The Underworld and Resident Evil series both feature strong female protagonists. Even acclaimed actresses like Angelina Jolie have thrived on the action female heroine characters in movies like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Salt, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Even the rom-com, once perceived to be the only genre women gravitated towards, has been through a revolution of its own thanks to the success of rom-coms that promote women and feature work by female screenwriters, such as The Heat, Juno, Mean Girls, and most prominent of all, Bridesmaids, which in addition to earning an Oscar nod for Best Original Screenplay for star Kristen Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo, tore down a lot of preconceived notions of women in comedy and how successful a female-led comedy could be.

Plus, it introduced a lot of us to Melissa McCarthy, who I think it is safe to say is a national treasure. 

Disney was once famous for the problematic issues it had with Disney princesses. (Like Ariel risking everything for a man in The Little Mermaid, Belle's supposed Stockholm syndrome in Beauty in the Beast, and Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White all falling in love and wondering towards marriage with love's first kiss without so much as knowing their gentlemen suitors.) Now, Disney princesses have a strength not seen in past decades. From Brave's Merida fighting for herself against the wishes of her parents, to the bonds of sisterhood, not erotic love, being that which thaws Anna and Elsa in Frozen, even Disney is adapting with the times.

Let's take time to remember that this ACTUALLY HAPPENED in a Disney movie...

For every Bella Swan in Twilight that displays unhealthy tendencies and problematic issues in regards to her obsession with men and sexuality, there's a character like Katniss Everdeen.

Oh, yes. You didn't think I wouldn't talk about this did you? The Hunger Games was a gamechanger because of its success, but also that it didn't fall into familiar pitfalls. And while even Hunger Games has to have not one, but two romantic interests for Katniss, it's progressive in other ways. She's the breadwinner for her family. She had to hone in her skills to survive. She has wits and intelligence that makes her better than her advisories in the arena. Much attention was given in the second movie, Catching Fire, to how she is a symbol of hope for a repressed people. It could even be argued (and some have already have) that the male character Peeta embodies much more of a damsel-in-distress than Katniss ever does.

Katniss survived because she was a skilled hunter. Peeta survived because he could... smear mud on his face...? [insert "smear mud on your ass" joke from Wet Hot American Summer here]

The success of The Hunger Games has led to other adaptations of YA novels featuring young female protagonists, including Beautiful Creatures, Divergent, Mortal Instruments, and The Host. While those films have had a varying degree of success, the fact is, Hollywood has stopped thinking of typical Hollywood genre movies as primarily for a male audience. The fact that film adaptations, spinoffs and reboots of female characters such as Black Widow, Lara Croft, Mystique, and potentially the biggest of them all, Wonder Woman (who, it's hard to believe, will be making her big screen appearance for the first time ever in 2016's Batman vs. Superman, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot), are gaining traction in Hollywood shows just how much things have shifted in the past few years.

Sidenote: Lyndsy Fonseca would've been an AMAZING Wonder Woman, but I still got my fingers crossed that Gia Gadot will knock it out of the park. 

The 21st century is shaping up to be an era defined by women. Thanks to the advancements of the feminist movements throughout the 20th century, women have better status than ever. In addition to leading major companies, taking a bigger role in the arts, and roles of global leadership, including the very real possibility that the United States will elect its first female president in 2016, women are changing the types of conversations we're having through female empowerment. Just as in the case of diversity, one cannot look to American blockbusters as exclusively American. Countries outside of the Western world are just now discussing issues of women's health, reproductive rights and access to birth control. Women's voices will be crucial to solving the major debates of the next century, including issues of political and civil rights, overpopulation, health, and innovation. With all this in mind, if a young girl in a country that perhaps doesn't respect the rights of women as much as the United States does sees a character like a Hermione Granger or a Katniss Everdeen, what happens? Will she be inspired? Will she see the inherit hypocrisies of her home nation treating one gender as superior? Will she want to be like those female heroes she sees on the big screen? Remember, films are cultural products, and Hollywood has made a lot of progress in recent years in showing equal, strong, complex female characters. That trend may have ramifications beyond critical acclaim, but in influence and inspiration for a new generation of young women who may not have heard the message of female empowerment in their own native lands.

Much in the same way like highlighting racial diversity in blockbuster film, there's plenty of progress left to make not just in terms of female representation in blockbusters, but behind the camera as well. Few female directors have been able to push through the cinematic glass ceiling and achieve the success and respect that their male counterparts have, for example. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream Hollywood still has the dichotomy of being a "boy's club", but as the great Cate Blanchett highlighted in her Oscar acceptance speech this year, there is a need for more female driven projects, and maybe that will motivate Hollywood to find female talent behind the camera. Regardless, in front of the camera, and to the eyes and ears of moviegoers around the world, our preconceived notions about gender norms are being challenged, actresses are taking on roles that would have been impossible just a few decades ago, and gaining mainstream acceptance around the world.

So, I know I've been hinting at it, and next time you'll see why I think this era for blockbusters might actually be the best in recent memory! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In defense of the blockbuster, part 2: The role of cultural products and the economics of film-making

Hello again! So, last time I defined what a blockbuster is and a few concessions before I made my argument. Without further or do, let’s get into the first part of my main argument about why blockbusters matter.

1) Blockbusters are more popular than ever, reaching an unprecedented global audience

We think of blockbuster films as a typically American business, and perhaps rightfully so. The Hollywood sign, the major studios, most of the big film actors, and most other images and ideas we associate with mainstream Hollywood and blockbuster entertainment are unquestionably American. Our politicians often talk about America’s role of spreading democracy abroad, and our economists often talk about the role of an ever-expanding free market. But what about cultural products? Most people learn about the world through art, in whatever way that presents itself, whether it be painting, literature, architecture, music, and most vital to this particular argument, film. While America’s economic impact has taken a beating because of the Great Recession, and our role as the world’s sole superpower is in limbo thanks to a diminishing reputation abroad and the rise of China as a world player, one cannot doubt that the one part that America is reaching and maintaining a truly global audience is in the cultural products we as country produce, which includes our movies.

I, for one, welcome our new overlords!

First off, let’s start with the popularity of blockbusters here at home. For most of film history, a film was in theaters, and if it was a hit, it stayed around for months or even years on end. Popular movies got rereleases which made them even more money, but other than that, there were not a lot of ways for an individual movie to make a lot of money. In the 1980s, the home video market exploded, meaning that not only did films have a “first life” in the theaters and multiplexes, but an afterlife on home video, whether it be reruns on cable networks, VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, and now internet streaming devices like Netflix and iTunes. For the first time in film history, a film’s success is not determinant on how much money it made on its original release, because films could continue making money years, even decades after their original theatrical release.

Let's pour one out for all our homies at Blockbuster...

But individual blockbusters are making more money as well. In the 80s, maybe half a dozen movies could expect to make more than $100 million domestically. In the 90s, it was about double that, were 12 or so movies could expect to go over that milestone. In 2013, 35 individual films grossed over $100 million at the domestic box office. And while back in the day, a total domestic gross above $200 million or $300 million was only for a few certified cultural phenomenon films (Ghostbusters, Batman, Jurassic Park, The Lion King, Titanic, etc.), now at least 10 films a year can count themselves as a mega-blockbuster, making amounts of money at the box office that would have been considered unprecedented just decades ago.

I’ll get into how this changes the business model of Hollywood, but the fact that individual films can make this much shows how the game has changed since Jaws first threatened the shores of Amity Island, or when Star Wars first introduced us to a galaxy far, far away.

Thank God we never saw those two have a crossover...

But let’s talk about the bigger picture: American films have never made so much money in overseas markets, and have never been present in as many overseas markets as they are now. The fact that these films are no longer exclusive to the United States, and serve as cultural ambassadors of American society could have big social and political ramifications for our increasingly smaller, more globalized world. While there were definitely films that succeeded overseas (Disney animated films in particular had an amazing second life in overseas markets), never before have American films been shown in so many different countries, making so much money. The fact that communist China, once seen as a foe during the height of the Cold War, now shows 20 American films a year, and has movies like Avatar, Transformers, Titanic, Iron Man 3, The Avengers, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and Kung Fu Panda as some of its highest grossing movies of all time, beating out movies made in China for Chinese audiences, says something about the power of our blockbusters. There's a good chance that if he were alive today, Mao Zedong would be upset at the perceived influence of American entertainment onto Chinese culture...

Which is why he'll be the villain in the next Iron Man movie...

China is just the figurative tip of the iceberg. American films have exploded in places like India, Russia, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The reason the latest installments of the Die Hard and Mission Impossible franchises took place in Moscow was probably because Russians are increasingly watching the American films that they were cut off from during the era of the Soviet Union. The reasons movies like The Incredible Hulk and Fast Five took place in Rio de Janeiro is because Brazil has also become a major consumer of American blockbusters. And while I won't get on too much of a political soapbox (that's for another blog entry), the fact is that films do serve as cultural ambassadors. They can even serve, in some cases, as reinforcement of our values. American blockbusters often feature premises involving the triumph of good over evil, teamwork, compromise, and other democratic ideals that all can be messages that the people of these countries aren't necessarily getting from their governments. In addition, American blockbusters show a diversity (which I'll get into next time) seldom seen in a lot of the countries these movies play in. Any discussion of foreign relations has to include cultural products to some extent, and as far as I can tell, America is winning the battle for cultural dominance. 

Here's Ronald Reagan on the back of a velociraptor carrying an American flag. 'Murica. 

Now, my friends at Cracked.com will argue that big movies are intentionally dumbed down for foreign audiences because you don't have to speak a particular language to appreciate an explosion. And while it isn't a bad argument, it doesn't explain the fact that some smaller movies do end up doing better overseas, particularly in Europe where there is more of an emphasis on film as art. 

The fact is, with a business that is doing this well (there were many articles during the 2008 recession about how the movies and the business of Hollywood were “recession-proof”), and films that are becoming enormously popular not just in the United States, or by extension, the Western world, by truly around the globe, one cannot and should not easily dismiss the power of these blockbusters. Movies are the most popular of the mass arts at this point, and the most popular of those movies, the blockbusters, cannot be ignored or simply dismissed as “insidious cultural text” or “soulless product.” They deserve to be analyzed as much, if not more, than the movies academics and film aficionados embrace, simply because of their enormous popularity! Speaking of which…

2) The popularity of blockbusters says something about how we are feeling as a society, what interests us, etc.

There is a popular quote that states “A film’s popularity is not necessarily indicative of its quality.” And yes, sure, that’s a valid point. There have been plenty of bad movies that have succeeded at the box office, and many more good films that have struggled to find a massive audience. But one cannot dismiss the popularity of a film, or any piece of art for that matter, entirely. Popular art becomes popular for a reason. There's a reason Leonardo da Vinci's  Mona Lisa is the most widely recognized painting in the world, there's a reason Shakespeare is lifted up as the greatest playwright of all time, and there's a reason people flocked to see The Avengers instead of the latest Wes Anderson flick. 

Is it because, ironically, the Wes Anderson movie looked more like a comic book than The Avengers did...?

It's easy to dismiss blockbusters. Very, very, very easy to dismiss them. They're loud. They're not particularly artful. A lot of them either have convoluted, overly-complicated plots or make no sense. But as Roger Ebert once said, "Film criticism is important because films are important. Films are important because they are the art-form of the 20th century. They are the most serious of the mass arts. They effect the way people think and feel and behave. They can be both a good influence on a society and a negative influence. To the degree that they glorify mindlessness and short attentions spans, I think they are bad. To the degree that they encourage empathy with people not like ourselves, and encourage us to think about life and issues, they can be good. They can also, of course, be purely entertaining, and there's nothing wrong with that."

Ebert said it right. There's not something wrong with pure entertainment. If we were all watching existential black-and-white French films all the time, we would go crazy! Yes, film is art, and film can speak the most profound questions of humanity, life, the existence of a higher power, our role in the world, etc. But there is nothing to be ashamed about in turning your brain off once in a while. Now, obviously there's a difference between turning it off to a well made action blockbuster film like Die Hard versus turning it off to a Michael Bay movie. And I'm not saying blockbuster movies shouldn't strive for quality. But not all art can be, nor should it be considered "high art." Trashy novels have been around since the dawn of literature, but you don't see English majors seething with anger over Danielle Steele the way film aficionados do over a Roland Emmerich movie. Either you can take it for what it is at face value or choose not to see it, thereby ignoring it, but getting really angry about certain blockbusters like some people do just seems counterproductive. 

This coming from the guy who will give an hour-long rant about how this movie sucked if he's prompted. But let's not get ahead of ourselves...

Even blockbusters can carry some pretty profound messages about the times we live in with them. While film snobs are quick to dismiss something like The Hunger Games, I ask myself, what does the success of this movie mean? Are we, as a collective society, scared of governmental collapse, and a dystopian system taking its place? Do we identify with protagonists forced into a battle they have no control over by a Big-Brother-esque government? Is the message about violence and the negative effect it has resonating? A cynic would tell you, "It's based on a popular book, appeals to young girls, and features special effects and young beautiful stars. End of story." But that, again, is a very easy argument. It's saying that certain movies have more value than others. But how do we attribute value? Popularity? Critical consensus? Public opinion? Awards won? Influence on other films?  Part of examining an individual film means taking it at its whole picture, which includes things like popularity, influence, and public opinion. Look, I like the Criterion Collection alright. (For those that are unfamiliar, Criterion is a DVD company that releases rare, foreign, independent, and other smaller, influential films on home video.) It's a great way for important but lesser known films to be available to the masses. But people who bow before the alter of Criterion have a misconstrued idea about value, because they believe that popularity of a film ultimately does not really mean a whole lot, when the popularity of a film actually says quite a bit! 


There's a reason certain films catch on and become popular. They speak to the times in which they were made. They do something innovative or groundbreaking. They tell an old story in a new way. Even our obsession with the superhero movie genre says something about where we as a society are right now, and like Hunger Games, raises interesting questions. Are we in need of a savior who exists on a higher moral plane than the rest of us? Is that related to Christian ministry and iconography? Do we like superhero movies because they highlight the accomplishments of an individual over that of a team or group working together? Is there a difference between men who become superheros through their personal wealth, like Tony Stark/Iron Man or Bruce Wayne/Batman, and those who develop their talents because of fate or the way they were born, like Spider-Man or Superman, and if so, why? 

Are these the heroes of the proletariat, and Batman and Iron Man are both 1-percenters...?

Popular things, even when they're bad, are popular for a reason. So rather than standing on an ivory tower and bemoaning it all, embrace that popularity. Analyze it. Question it. The Mr. Plinkett review of Titanic had this to say:

"Most people... don't like to be challenged intellectually or emotionally. They like the familiar, and gravitate towards that feel safe and non-confrontational. Whether it's emotional familiarity, vicarious fantasy romance, simple adventure and excitement, sci-fi action and danger, or cheap thrills and laughs, these are movies, and this is what people love about them. The ability to vicariously transport yourself into a fantasy world, away from your boring day-job... But it isn't just emotion and escapism. The success of movies often comes in their simplicity. If you want your movie to make money, you have to aim for average." 

Joseph Campbell would tell you that we've been telling each other the same stories since the dawn of time, across different cultures and historical periods. Human beings in general gravitate towards the familiar, told perhaps in different ways. Familiar and simple, sure, but that's just the beginning of the story. What makes a story, and ultimately, what makes a movie work is more than the sum of its parts. Popularity is a big chunk of that. Films, like all other art-forms, can be used as a time capsule of sorts to show what people gravitated towards during a particular era in history. And sure, maybe we don't want future generations judging us on bad movies like Transformers or 2012, but the fact that these films struck a chord does say something about us, don't ya think? They can't be easily dismissed, nor should they be. They say something about the way live now, what worries us, what excites us, and that in turn can be used in all sorts of ways by current cultural analysts and future historians. 

3) Blockbusters are more important than ever to the business model of Hollywood, and the success of a big tentpole movie can fund many smaller films

In 1967, one of my favorite movies, The Graduate, became a surprise hit. Adjusted for inflation, The Graduate is the 21st highest grossing movie of all time according to Box Office Mojo. That was the way Hollywood worked for a while: if a film did great, that was great, and meant more money for the studio, which in turn could fund future movies. If a film bombed, well, better suck it up, and wait for another movie down the line to recoup those loses. Now, there were obvious bigger event films (as I mentioned before, Gone with the Wind and Cleopatra could be called early blockbusters, but also films like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur) that were expected to do better, and generally, with the exception of Cleopatra, they earned their money back and then some. But when a small movie that was an independent film project even by 1967’s standards like The Graduate becomes not only a hit, but a certified cultural phenomenon, it could alter an entire company’s business model, create record profits and more opportunities at passion projects for the studio, etc.

"Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce... America"

That isn't the case anymore. Blockbusters are more crucial to the business of Hollywood, but I’d argue that isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you have seen a smaller, more intimate drama, or historical epic, or risky comedy financed by a major studio, chances are that film was at least partially made with profits from blockbuster movies.

Now, there is some risk involved in investing so much in this particular business model. Steven Spielberg in particular made waves last summer for predicting an “implosion” if 5 or 6 blockbusters suddenly bombed, and to be fair, it is something studios have to consider and prepare for. Especially in 2013 which such potential summer blockbusters such as After Earth and The Long Ranger actually bombed, failing to recoup their budgets and resulting in heavy losses for the studios, certain attention and credence must be given to this idea. As with any business model, if overconfidence is put into a model that’s risky, there’s a chance it could collapse.

So it might not be smart to bet your entire studio on a poorly-advised knockoff of Avatar, for example...

However, for the time being, I think the fact that faith is put in several big-budget projects to help fund smaller projects works fine. The reason so many auteurs have been able to develop passion projects (Darren Aronofsky’s Noah stands out as a recent example) is because of this system. In the 1970s, Hollywood put a lot of faith in auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Sydney Lumet, Roman Polanski, and Michael Cimino, which resulted in some of the most memorable, acclaimed and popular movies of the era, movies we still hold up like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Exorcist, American Graffiti, Three Days of the Condor, Network, Chinatown and The Deer Hunter, respectively. However, it was Michael Cimino, director of The Deer Hunter, who pushed Hollywood to its limits to make his passion project, Heaven’s Gate. Heaven’s Gate was a notorious bomb that made only $3 million of its estimated $44 million budget. The failure of Heaven’s Gate put a hold on auteur-driven project for some time, and perhaps rightfully so. Despite all the great movies that could’ve been made, Hollywood was rightfully spooked, and the failure of the film proved that even with high-concept and high-budget, the general public just wasn’t interested in some of the more auteur-driven projects.

That post-Heaven’s Gate skepticism seems to have been vanquished in our modern day blockbuster fever. As mentioned before, today many more acclaimed and admired directors have been able to develop passion projects. In addition to Darren Aronofksy’s Noah, there’s been Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, Zack Synder’s Watchmen, James Cameron’s Avatar, Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 and Elysium, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception, all of which could equally be called “blockbusters” and “passion projects” that were met with large amounts of ticket sales and critical acclaim, and which are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to auteur-driven blockbusters of the past 5 or so years. Even writer/director Quentin Tarantino, the man who helped reinvigorate the indie film movement in the 90s with the groundbreaking success of Pulp Fiction, and his last two projects Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, are more auteur-driven films that led to great results at the box office and massive critical acclaim. They have been able to develop these projects in part because studios make more money from bigger tentpole films, which is then funneled into funding some of these projects. Not just big budget passion projects, but smaller independent film projects as well. At this point, most of the big studios have smaller “independent” studios as subsidiaries that try to focus on smaller films.  Does that justify the entire system? Do we have to tolerate Transformers: Dark of the Moon knowing that it could help to fund something like The Social Network or 12 Years a Slave? I couldn’t give you that answer, and I’m not sure anyone one else could, either.

Except maybe this guy. Rest in peace, Roger. We miss you.

But perhaps it does say something when directors are given bigger budgets and more creative control that wasn’t necessarily the case in past decades.  

"But Will! Didn't you just concede that there's less director control in blockbuster films in this first part of this blog series!?!" 

Right you are, observant anonymous imaginary reader! Like I said, studios do hold all the power, so while there are more bigger-budger, auteur-driven passion projects now than there were post-Heaven's Gate, what I was saying was that who and what still gets funding at the discretion of the studio. I don't doubt for a second that people like James Cameron, Chris Nolan, Alfonso Cuaron, etc. have OTHER passion projects that didn't get the greenlight because they aren't marketable to mass audiences, are smaller or more intimate movies, or just didn't click right with whoever is in charge of the studio. Studios were more likely to take risks in decades past, but nowadays, occasionally they trust a filmmaker or an idea enough to gamble big. 

"So, wait, James... you're telling us it's about blue people in a magical fantasy realm whose main nemesis is an evil human... and it's NOT a Smurfs movie...?"

So, yes, pandering, loud, overstimulating, and yes, even occasionally crappy as they may be, Hollywood is a business. It needs to make profits, and truth be told, a lot of what is lifted up as quality film can't ever be profitable. Much like how the Medicis of Italy financed the Renaissance with their massive fortunes, Hollywood too funds smaller films using profits from their bigger tentpole pictures. Some studios are better about this than others (Warner Bros. and Fox seem to like to take risks and develop smaller projects, while Disney in particular is about bottom line profit, and is more risk-averse). And yes, as with any system, too much confidence should not be put into it in case it collapses. Perhaps the "implosion" Spielberg predicted isn't too far off. Maybe it's inevitable. But for the time being, the system works, and I would argue, it works pretty well.

"Now, Will, you've criticized blockbusters quite a bit in this part of argument. You've called them loud and overstimulating. You talked about their pandering nature to overseas markets. You brought up Michael Bay quite a bit. Aren't you going to get around to actually DEFENDING some of these movies!?!?"

Right you are, observant anonymous imaginary reader!! I've talked a lot about film as cultural commodity, and the economics of Hollywood. But next time, I'll get into two big strives Hollywood blockbusters have made that definitely would not have been the case in decades past: diversity and quality. Not only are blockbusters more widely seen or more crucial to a particular business model, they just might be better than ever...? I'll talk about that and more next time! Stay tuned! 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

In defense of the blockbuster, part 1: Defining what a “blockbuster” is and pre-argument concessions

This Friday sees the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, and the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I can honestly say that I have not been this excited for a movie in a while. It’s getting great reviews, and there are teasers that this will have wide repercussions not just for our beloved Captain America, but for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the one that contains not just Captain America, but Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and the rest of the Avengers) as a whole. Captain America is an example of an event movie, no doubt, but the kind that has only emerged in the past decade or so: the superhero event movie.
You can't see this poster and not have this song in your head... (WARNING: song contains many, many expletives)

This year is the 10th anniversary of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, a movie I would argue was a watershed moment in terms of how superheroes were treated in cinema. It was an event movie because it was the follow-up to the first Spider-Man film, which had become a massive success. But, then it gave the audience so much more than what they were expecting, which has sort of become the norm in big superheroic sequels these days. (Think about how the twist about the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 switched it up, or the destructive climax of Man of Steel threw everyone off a little.)
However, the kid in Iron Man 3 wasn't a twist. It was just stupid.

Truth be told, I saw Spider-Man 2 when I was 13, and thought it was amazing because it had Spider-Man in it, and that was it. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve looked back on the film to see why it worked, and why it struck a chord not just with my 13-year-old self, but with millions of other people. Spider-Man 2 featured Peter Parker/Spider-Man dealing with his great responsibility as Spider-Man, all the while preventing a new threat from a menacing new villain. It featured state of the art visual effects (the train chase scene holds up even today) grounded by a very interesting story.

I don't really have a point in showing this picture except for the hilarious expression on Tobey Maguire's face...

If the first Spider-Man movie, which is fine in its own right, was a story about how Peter Parker became Spider-Man, the second one is about the age old question: “Now what?” It dealt with those issues far more than even the most revered previous superhero movies, most notably Superman II, ever had. Had any superhero movie before, or any since Spider-Man 2, had a scene where the superhero bemoans his financial troubles? The success of Spider-Man 2 not just at the box-office but in its innovative story set the precedent for intriguing superhero movies that inspired later hits like Iron Man, and most obviously, The Dark Knight.

I've defended the cinematic legacy of Spider-Man 2, so let's all just forget that this ever happened... 

It’s fun and interesting to look back at films like Spider-Man 2 now that we’re somewhat removed from them, and see not only how they were a product of their own times, but had a wide-ranging influence that affects us even today. However, a certain cynicism has entered mainstream thought in regards to how we treat, look at, and respond to big blockbuster movies. Most critics and film aficionados point to 1975’s Jaws or 1977’s Star Wars as the movies that got the ball rolling on the modern blockbuster movement. (Personally, I think 1973’s The Exorcist could be considered the first modern blockbuster, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

This is the second time I've used this image in a blog I've written. You're welcome. 

Today, blockbuster still means what it always meant: a movie that rakes in a lot of money at the box office. However, the connotation has changed. When people talk about blockbusters now, they tend to be talking about particular movies that have incredible budgets (usually over $100 million in today’s money), big stars, are based on a pre-existing property, be it another movie (either as sequel or remake), book, comic book, TV show, etc., and have massive marketing campaigns which incorporates corporate “synergy”, meaning in addition to the movie, there are tie-in products such as clothing, novelizations, video games, etc.

They've gone from duking it out at the box office to duking it out in the cereal aisle...

Now, let’s get one thing straight. These movies, in one form or another, have always been around from pretty much the invention of cinema. Gone with the Wind, widely considered one of the best and most important American movies ever made, arguably had several of those factors. (It had a huge budget, especially for Great Depression-rattled 1939, big stars such as Clark Gable, and it was based on a widely read source material, the original book by Margaret Mitchell.) Same with 1963’s Cleopatra, which was actually considered a flop for failing to recoup its budget. It is only post-1970s that people became more aware of the rationale for making these kinds of movies: money. As box-office results started to become public, the public began to realize what a big investment these movies could be, and how mind-blowing the returns on such an investment could be.

"Why yes, Star Wars: Episode X- The Rise of Jar-Jar DOES sound like a good idea!"

However, this modern cynicism takes root in a variety of ways, so much so that even your everyday filmgoer seems overwhelmed and overstimulated. I recently read David Sirota’s Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now--Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything. (If you’re thinking about reading it, don’t. It’s the sort of book I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. For the reasons why, click here.) In it, Sirota claims that Hollywood and the US military were working hand-in-hand in the 1980s to produce and promote pro-America, pro-military movies like Top Gun and the Rambo film series to promote the “military-industrial complex.”

I'm pretty sure Top Gun was promoting something else...

While the US armed forces have no doubt collaborated with filmmakers in the past and in the present, I doubt the problems were as rampant and egregious as he makes out it to be. Just last week, I attended a lecture where a film professor said that big blockbusters are “insidious cultural texts” that can be problematic and promote a certain political and social agenda if we allow them to seep in. (This professor also claimed that Lord of the Rings, a movie series made by a New Zealander, based on a series of books written by an Englishman in the 1950s, was SOMEHOW about 9/11, despite the fact that the films were shot before the attacks happened, so… there’s that too, apparently.) Even an innocent link to the trailer for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie posted to my Facebook wall was greeted with more disdain than interest, primarily because of the involvement of producer Michael Bay.

"I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced..."

However, it was the online movie review show Half in the Bag that I think articulated a lot of the thoughts film academics and aficionados have about blockbusters these days. The hosts of the show, Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman, are the guys behind the Mr. Plinkett reviews of the Star Wars prequels (AKA my favorite Internet videos ever), and show a certain disdain for a lot of modern blockbusters despite their interest in the sci-fi and cult movie genres. Here’s a transcript of their ending of the most recent review:

Jay: I was looking at the movies coming out over the next few months. This is a dismal time for movies. All the big movies. I was just flipping through [upcoming] months, and I feel like I’ve seen this already. Transformers 4? I can’t even to muster the energy to want to go see that to make fun of it.

Mike: We’ve said this before. It just feels like soulless product.

Jay: With The Grand Budapest Hotel, [it feels] like a movie made by people, as opposed to something made by robot or a committee. The bigger movies, especially the ones that are coming out this year, everything feels so calculated.

Mike: Maybe movies are going to turn into when they don’t screen movies for critics? They’re going to stop showing trailers for movies.

All criticisms aside, everybody should check these dudes out at redlettermedia.com

The review then devolves into an unfunny “what-if-movies-were-just-white-noise?” diatribe that you can check out if you want on the video review here. However, I think their points, as ridiculous and hyperbolic as they may be, resonate with a lot of people. There is the perspective that there is much more “soulless product” to quote Mike Stoklasa, or “insidious cultural text” to quote the professor, today than there was in 1963, when Cleopatra cost so much and then failed to regain its budget.

But is that truly the case? Are our blockbusters only meant to grab a quick buck? Are they soulless byproducts of a disposable era?

Make way for more copies of The Last Airbender on DVD!!

My answer is a resounding “no.” And I’ll get into why that is next time. But for now, I’d like to make a few concessions before I make my argument.

1) Blockbusters are less creative than they were in past decades

Most of my friends know that I think the pinnacle of Western Civilization was the 1980s. I love the music of the era, the culture of the era, and perhaps most importantly, the movies of the era. Some of my favorite Hollywood products came out during this era, and they came from a diverse plethora of genre, directors, screenwriters, and content. The comedies were innovative while never losing that broad appeal and silliness (Beverly Hills Cop, Airplane!). Sci-fi and comedy came together to craft some of the most popular and endearing films of the decade, including two of my personal favorites, Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Teen films treated teens as mature, and were never condescending or talked down to their audience (Risky Business, The Breakfast Club). 

If it was made today: "A brain... an athlete... a basket case... a princess... and a criminal...OMG!!!!1!!!1! we r like all da same!!! #detention #lifelessons"

The sci-fi was thoughtful and state-of-the-art (The TerminatorRobocop). Sequels took risks and put their characters in dangerous and intriguing new situations (The Empire Strikes BackAliensStar Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and most drastically of all, The Road Warrior).

Can Lord Humongous from The Road Warrior be considered the father of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises...? They do share an affinity for metal facial masks and microphones...

Even kids movies had a burst of creativity much different (and much darker) than our pop-culture-reference dropping CGI-animated and sensory-overload products of today (Labyrinth, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Black Cauldron, TRON).

Today, there is less creativity, but as I’ll argue later, not all hope is lost. There is a lot of emphasis on name recognition, meaning that we get sequel upon sequel, remake upon remake. However, what has become most apparent is that Hollywood has become pretty risk-averse. One of my favorite kids movies (and a general guilty pleasure of mine) is Labyrinth, Jim Henson’s fantasy film starring and featuring music by David Bowie. I like it because it’s very creative, the design of the creatures and the world is brilliant, and the songs are catchy and memorable. But Labyrinth can also be pretty dark. The premise involves the kidnapping of a baby by a dark lord played by Bowie, and involves images such as a giant tunneling machine and a dark hole the main character falls down full of hands that come to life and talk. 

Isn't this image scary enough, people!?!?

These are images that would be scary for young viewers, but the film still works, and works rather well. A dark movie for children like Labyrinth could NEVER be made today. It would have to be much kid-friendlier, and probably CGI-animated to distinguish itself firmly as a product for children.

Remakes and sequels have become the norm, and digging the past to find something with name and brand recognition seems to be the only driving force behind getting a lot of these movies made. Sometimes it’s self-aware enough to stand out on its own (the film 21 Jump Street comes to mind). Creative ideas aren’t given the traction they once did in Hollywood, and even if they do, they will not get impressive casts or budgets unless they come from a proven director.

2) There is less director control in films, today they are mostly studio products

One of my heroes of 80s and 90s cinema is the great Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven is the genius behind Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers. (He also directed Showgirls, unfortunately…) Part of the reasons the films work is that there is a deep level of social and movie satire that he incorporates into the films. (Robocop is a dystopian satire that rivals Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, filled with the “I’d buy that for a dollar” telecast straight out of Idiocracy. Total Recall has the whole “is it or is it not a dream” dynamic of course, but also a level of action movie satire thanks to the casting, and very self-aware performance, of its lead star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Starship Troopers essentially has the viewer rooting for violence and it incorporates a lot of Nazi imagery to show that the characters and their government aren’t firmly on the side of good.)

"It would not be difficult, Mein Fuhrer!"- Neil Patrick Harris

The films ultimately succeeded because of Verhoeven. No one would think to associate a robotic police officer with images of Jesus Christ walking on water, but Verhoeven did.

Blessed are the Robocops, for they shall dish out the Lord's justice!

He took risks in terms of elevating his material far beyond just the territory of “blockbuster schlock,” and that’s why the material still works even today.

However, while there are a few directors that are exceptions to this (which I’ll get into later), the studios have more control in crafting blockbusters then they used to. Kevin Feige, the spiritual godfather in charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has a long term vision of where the Marvel brand will go, and seems to only hire screenwriters and directors that can take that vision and go with it. (I will admit, however, that Feige is much better at picking and choosing talent behind the camera than most mega-producers nowadays.) This is contrast to the older systems that were in place where a director could scope out material without the grand vision of a mega-producer like Feige. Take Jurassic Park. It was optioned by Steven Spielberg from the book by Michael Crichton, and only became the watershed film in the history of CGI we know and love today during production. (The film was originally supposed to feature models and stop-motion dinosaurs.) 

Not sure that would've worked....

Jurassic Park was not a film made by a committee, it was a project Spielberg developed on his own that the studio had faith in because of Spielberg’s proven track record and the intriguing story of the material. That’s not the case today. Directors and producers don’t have the freedom to approach studios about big, blockbuster material not based on an established franchise or material that they once did.

3) They frequently appeal to the lowest common denominator, which is different than in the past

There have always been stupid movies. One needs to look no further than old reruns of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to see that old B-movies of the 40s and 50s have far more ridiculous plots, performances, and dialogue than any Michael Bay movie. But that’s the thing. They were B-movies, made on shoestring budgets and never meant to be anything more than brainless entertainment for a Saturday matinee.

Now, that’s changed. There isn’t really a market for B-movies anymore. And Hollywood has calculated that by appealing to as much of society as possible, they’re more likely to make money. So, we get Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a sequel to a movie that was okay enough in a “turn-off-your-brain” sort of way. But, between a robot’s giant metal testicles dangling off the pyramids of Giza....

Future generations shall judge us on this scene...

...and the racist back-and-forth between two Autobot robots named Mudflap and Skids...

Yup. These guys...

... that you realize that these unfunny “jokes” were not put in to forward the story, but to appeal to the lowest common denominator audience. Hollywood doesn’t want to tell an intriguing story the way it once did. It’s about appealing to peoples’ worst tendencies. The frank and honest discussions movies like The Breakfast Club had about teenage sexuality has been replaced by the raunchy American Pie series, or Jonah Hill’s character’s obsession with drawing phalluses in the movie Superbad.


The women of the Star Trek universe, who were so strong and independent when the show first aired in the 1960s, now have to strip in front of Captain Kirk because that makes it sexier for the prime 18-24 year-old male demographic. (A demographic I acknowledge I fall into.)  

THIS character is supposed to be one of the smartest scientists in the Star Trek universe who eventually creates life from nothingness, and her relationship with Captain Kirk in the original movies is supposed to be both complicated and tainted....
During the show's run in 1960s, THIS character not only shared the first interracial kiss in television history, but was so progressive that she was praised by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for having an equal role to the white characters on the starship Enterprise....

Sequels like The Road Warrior and the second and third Indiana Jones movies felt comfortable moving the protagonists into setting we as an audience had never seen before, and interacting with characters we’ve never met, but they’ve been replaced with “let’s get the gang back together” sequels like the Ocean’s series, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and most obvious, The Hangover series.

There have always been movies that appeal to the lowest common denominator. But the art of “something for everybody” seems to have been perfected by Hollywood in recent years so that in some cases, even the most intelligent of the wide-appeal blockbusters have a few dumb moments of awkward comedy, slapstick, etc. As much as I liked the new X-Men: First Class movie, it was brought down by the constant repetition of the film’s main message: “Mutant and proud.” Hollywood expects that some people will not understand the message if it isn’t hammered in a bunch of times during the length of a film, so hammer away they do.

However, as I’ll get into next time, there is plenty of reason for hope. If anything, audiences are getting smarter at distinguishing something worthwhile in the midst of very bland, very corporatized movies. The “lowest-common-denominator” shtick is dying, and in its place is arising a blockbuster renaissance unseen since the 1980s…

Wanna find out why or how this is? Well, I guess you better stay tuned…