Let’s Talk About A Bad Summer At The Movies

Even before August, a consensus started to form among those of us who go to the movies for a living: This summer kind of sucked. Below, Keith Phipps and Mike Ryan try to figure why this summer movie season seems so much worse than others.

Keith: I’d love for this to be a heated, contentious discussion in which one of us argues this summer has been terrible and the other argues the opposite. But that would be disingenuous. You’re already on record saying this summer movie season has been a letdown for an America in desperate need for escapism. I love big summer movies, but I’ll confess to not loving the big summer movies I’ve seen this year and avoiding others (or at least putting them in the Wait For Home Video pile) because they didn’t look like they’re worth the trouble (and expense) of a big night out.

So here’s a feeble case for what I’ve seen and liked this summer: Star Trek Beyond is pretty good. The Nice Guys is great fun. Central Intelligence is pretty entertaining. Popstar is really funny. Finding Dory has its charms, even if it’s second-tier Pixar, at best, in my books. Ghostbusters is okay. The BFG got a bad rap and I hope kids (and everyone else) catches up with it later. Arthouse-wise, I adore Love & Friendship. The Neon Demon is creepily compelling. The Fits is still making its way around the country, and it’s pretty great. And I know there are movies I still need to catch, like The Shallows and Swiss Army Man, that a lot of people I respect like. Plus, just this month has brought Hell or High Water and Kubo and the Two Strings, both of which I love. And I’m looking forward to seeing Pete’s Dragon this weekend.

And looking at that, it doesn’t seem that feeble. So maybe this summer wasn’t that bad after all. Mike, tell me why I’m wrong.

Mike: Hey, you forgot Captain America: Civil War! That’s a good movie, too. And, you are correct, Pete’s Dragon is wonderful. But you’re wrong because you live in Chicago. And because I live in New York. A good portion of those movies aren’t readily accessible by most human beings living in these United States of America. Only seven of those movies you mentioned had a wide release. And you know, back in, say, 1983, seven good wide release movies for a summer would be doing pretty well! Unfortunately, in 2016, we also have Alice Through the Looking Glass, X-Men: Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Warcraft, Independence Day: Resurgence... You know what? I’m going to stop. I can’t do this to myself again listing all these movies.

My point is, we are spoiled. We have access to the best movies and the best theaters under (because of early screenings for our jobs) the best conditions. We forget that driving down to the local suburban cineplex on a Friday night to fight the crowds, then fight fellow movie goers who are talking and/or on their phone does not make a pleasant experience. It’s not really that much fun to go to the movies anymore, especially when 60 percent of what’s being offered to most people is a bad product. I mean, is it that surprising box office this summer took a hit? I think this might be part of where this weird disconnect between critics and the consumer is coming from.

Keith: Point taken, though I will say that one of my most unpleasant experiences of recent years was at an arthouse when a customer offered an obscene suggestion as to what I could do with (to?) myself because I asked him to maybe stop talking all through Ex Machina.

Nonetheless, I’m trying to figure out why this summer feels so much less inspired than the one we had just a year ago. The temptation is to say it might be a matter of so many films being sequels, but then last summer brought us Mad Max: Fury Road, an instant classic; and Jurassic World, a film I think you like more than I do, but I’ll begrudgingly admit to its dumb charms; and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, which is also pretty terrific. It also brought more than its fair share of duds and disappointments like Fantastic Four and Tomorrowland, a heartbreakingly forgettable film from a director who should have taken that concept to the stars.

Really, this summer is much in the mold of last summer — lots of sequels and adaptations of pre-existing properties, few original concepts. But the lows feel much lower. And the highs seem to only go so high. Star Trek Beyond isn’t Rogue Nation. Ghostbusters isn’t Spy. And there are fewer intriguing outliers. I know nobody saw Magic Mike XXL in the theaters, but it’s a lot of fun and I think viewers are starting to catch up with it. I’m hoping that will happen to Ricki and the Flash, an underrated movie hampered by terrible marketing. There’s an absence of neat thrillers like The Gift, too.

So, in short, Summer 2016 is just Summer 2015, but not as good. Or am I missing something?

Mike: I think this is accurate. (I really do wish we were arguing more.) Captain America: Civil War is the only great blockbuster, but it feels sooooooo long ago now. And it’s great in the superhero movie sense, but it’s not something that’s going to be nominated for Best Picture like Fury Road was. I am mixed on Jurassic World: I think of it as a serviceable summer movie. This summer, it would be a highlight. That’s how sad this summer is.

Here’s a thought: The “good” summer blockbusters are moving closer to the holidays. We have a Star Wars movie, a sort of Harry Potter movie, and Doctor Strange coming later this year. (I realize that half the previous Potter films were released in the fall.) There’s so much noise in the summer now, maybe the smart move is to just move to December?

Keith: Civil War does seem like a long time ago, doesn’t it? The Force Awakens might have started a move toward the holidays as a better time for blockbusters, and maybe a time for better blockbusters, those with more of a prestige sheen. But if the blockbusters that have half a brain in their heads and a sense of style move to December, where does that leave the summer season? My worry is that it will look a lot like 2016, a lot of obligatory sequels that have a week to justify their existence then slip away. It’ll be a string of Now You Seem Me 2s and its equivalent stretching out toward infinity.

I’ll posit another possibility as to why this summer feels so long and torturous: Some of the bad movies are really bad. And some of the bad ones shouldn’t have been bad. That kind of disappointment can color a whole summer.

Let me take you back to the summer of 2001. I remember thinking of that as a particularly awful year for summer movies. (In retrospect, that seems kind of crazy: Sure, it had Pearl Harbor, Evolution, and Swordfish, but it also had Moulin Rouge! and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the latter one of my favorite films of this century. Still, I remember thinking that no matter how bad it got, the summer would end with Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, two great tastes that had to go great together. In fact, they did not.

Suicide Squad is the Planet of the Apes of 2016, a big blockbuster from a name director that promised a fresh take on a familiar world and spectacularly failed to deliver. I’ve seen some grumbling that critics have piled on the film too much and I’m sympathetic to a point. I’ll see worse movies this year, I’m sure, and Suicide Squad has some redeeming qualities. But it’s not good. And it’s bad in several different ways at once. Distressingly bad. And yet, it’s a hit that maybe lowered the bar about what even constitutes a movie these days, it’s so patched together.

In other words, are we doomed?

Mike: Yeah, probably. I’m always a pessimist though. And the thing is, we are just talking about summer mainstream movies. I still have a lot of hope for the fall season. Heck, I’ve already seen The Birth of a Nation and Manchester by the Sea, so I know we have a lot to look forward to already. But, yeah, until I see improvement, all I can assume is that we are doomed. And the thing is, these movies have no cultural cache. I mean, Suicide Squad had some cultural legs, but only to debate how bad it is. When I first started doing this job, we could still write about the movie that just came out for a few days after and people would still care. Those days are gone. By the Friday some of these movies come out, they are already off the map.

A year ago (almost to the day) I interviewed Christopher McQuarrie in support of the aforementioned Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. He was talking about the challenges of marketing a movie then and said, “If people are talking about your movie on social media the weekend that it opens and telling each other to see the movie, you’re already fucked.” Meaning, that ship has sailed. And he’s right. The movies with legs had legs long before they ever opened. Suicide Squad had amazing marketing. It was on the cover of magazines a year ago! Which, yes, led to a harder fall. But at least we are still talking about it post-release. All of these movies seem so disposable. Even the disposable movies from, say, 30 years ago, like The Karate Kid, could stick around. Nothing sticks now. And I think the studios know that and just try to get the quick opening weekend money, with these mainstream summer movies, and move on. It really doesn’t matter if the movie is good or not anymore. And that’s our problem. Like, literally our problem.

Keith: I’ll try to take a slightly more optimistic approach and suggest it’s been this way for a while, this kind of opening-weekend-or-bust approach. And the era in which it’s been the norm has produced its share of great, big movies. This year, however, they’ve been in short supply. So maybe it’s bad luck: The same system that’s creating these movies has also given us movies we’ve loved. We’ve just rolled a lot of snake eyes in 2016. And, hey, look at all the movies we have to look forward to next summer: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, that’ll be fun. War of the Planet of the Apes, I’ve enjoyed that series a lot. Wonder Woman had an amazing trailer. Um… Cars 3. Okay. A Flatliners remake, sure. Emojimovie: Express Yourself. That’s a joke, right? Right?

Mike: We’re doomed.