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Six Things Our Terrible Movie Summer Taught Us

What can we learn about the state of cinema from a megabummer summer?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

By K. Austin Collins and Sam Donsky

In 2016, Hollywood studios exist primarily to mitigate risk. Which is great, if you’re a Marvel stockholder. If you’re a moviegoer? It’s no fun at all. But Summer ’16 doesn’t have to be a lost cause — surely, there are some lessons for future moviemakers and filmgoers alike buried in the rubble of Ghostbusters and Gotham City. So here, Ringer movie buffs K. Austin Collins and Sam Donsky grab their proton packs, cross streams, and break down what we’ve learned so far this year.

Lesson no. 1: Superhero movies cost more than cash.

Sam Donsky: Everyone loves Oscar Isaac, and what’s not to love? He’s a charming, versatile, easygoing actor. He’s (an? the?) an Internet’s Boyfriend. He’s oh my god, Domhnall Gleeson’s Character, you’re the worst — like, honestly, the worst — and no one cares about your CRUSH ON A HOT ROBOT, please go finish some homework and let the adults iconically dance. And now, thanks to The Force Awakens, he’s a legitimate franchise star. Pretty much any director, in any genre, would have loved to have Oscar Isaac in their movie this summer. But if you wanted to see Oscar Isaac in any movie this summer? You had to put up with a lot of blue. And if you wanted to see Oscar Isaac in any other movie, in the year-plus before that? You had to put up with a lot of green.

Which isn’t the end of the world: The Force Awakens was good; X-Men: Apocalypse was … something; there’s no shortage of non-“steroidal Blue Man Group member with a God-complex choking fetish” Isaac coming down the pike. But even still. Isn’t it a bummer that Oscar Isaac, 37, spent more than a full year of his prime with nothing more than a Star Wars and an X-Men to his name?

Even more of a bummer is that he’s part of a trend: Five out of Jennifer Lawrence’s last eight movies have been X-Men or Hunger Games. Chris Pratt’s last words will probably be, “In a way, the galaxy [short circuits] park [short circuits] galaxy [short circuits] park is its own character.” We basically punted on Robert Downey Jr.’s 40s. It’s getting to the point where, when a franchise tanks, it’s a sort of bizzaro-cause for celebration: Sure, we all wish Fantastic Four had been better — but I don’t think anyone is losing sleep over Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller having a little extra time on their hands.

Jeremy Saulnier, director of April’s Green Room, put it best:

We tend to think of summer movies in terms of their net value: both commercially (profit as gross against budget) and critically (enjoyment as quality against expectations). But in an age when hit-making has become a game of high-stakes (and long-term) serialization, it’s probably time to start netting out a third kind of value: opportunity.

Because opportunity isn’t cheap. And it’s in the particularly bad summers, like this one, that its cost is most severe: Not only do we have to watch a dream matchup descend into 9/11 metaphor … but we go another year (maybe) without Ben Affleck’s Argo follow-up. Not only do we (and WB’s accountants) have to endure Suicide Squad … but we lose Margot Robbie’s best work since The Wolf of Wall Street (and the first good Will Smith part in years) down the collateral void. And so on. Which, again — it’s not the end of the world. But it’s a lesson worth learning: that a bad summer at the movies isn’t just a waste of time, or of money, anymore. Now it’s also a waste of talent.

Lesson no. 2: Speaking of comic book movies: The bad director battle is lost.

S.D.: It’s time to stop fighting it: Zack Snyder is unkillable and will be with us on this precious earth until this precious earth is no more. We were this close to cutting off Zack Snyder after Sucker Punch … and then the Man of Steel trailer dropped and — wow, we thought. Malick porn parody. That looks pretty cool. We were this close to cutting off Zack Snyder after Man of Steel … and then Dawn of Justice news fell from the sky and — wow, we thought. Batman v. Superman. That sounds pretty cool. We were this close to cutting off Zack Snyder after Dawn of Justice … and then Suicide Squad’s promotional campaign ramped up and — wow, we thought. Colors are dope.

And now: We’re here. Suicide Squad is yet another DC mess. We’re this close to cutting Zack Snyder off. And … nah. Look: It’s just not happening. Does it even matter why? We could talk ourselves into how promising the Comic-Con Justice League footage looks. We could consider the Wonder Woman teaser a breath of fresh air. We could — oh, god, see? We’re doing it again. We’re right back where we started: Justice League will be a bloated mess. Wonder Woman will (can I be honest: I STILL DON’T TRUST PINE) find some way to disappoint. We know this. I know this. But I just don’t care. I’m all in on Justice League. I’m all in on Wonder Woman. I can’t quit Zack Snyder.

And at this point, I think the lesson is: It’s time to accept that. It’s time to accept that some people were meant to be loved; some people were meant to be liked; and some people were meant to … just sort of … stick around. Here’s to Zack Snyder, our beautiful cockroach, our once and future Director of Stuff. He can’t be trusted. I trust him. He is the Summer Movie Lesson we’ll never learn.

Lesson no. 3: We are still marketing sheep.

K. Austin Collins: Will you remember Finding Dory for being yet another Pixar hit? Or will you remember it for its pleasures: the beautifully detailed images, the punny humor, the loving pace of its emotional ending? What about Pete’s Dragon? Another Disney movie — a very good one! — but it hasn’t gotten much audience support. Will its supposed failure matter to you or your kids when you discover it in a year or more, at home, and fall in love belatedly? Will your kids say, “Only flops watch flops!!!” and watch superelite moneymakers like The Angry Birds Movie instead? What does Ghostbusters’ prerelease fanboy drama have to do with whether or not Kate McKinnon’s joyous, spunky performance is Nobel Peace Prize–worthy?

It seems that once we all decided summer movie season was shit, we — critics and audiences, alike — gave ourselves up to the waves of the market, coasting along on news of which movies were up or down, in or out. That’s partially studios’ fault, I guess, for getting lost in their own publicity smoke screens, for convincing themselves that wasted efforts like Ben-Hur will make money. But it’s also our fault for playing along: for making up our minds about movies based on everything but the experience and substance of the movies themselves. Hollywood output is shitty, but our pop culture discourse doesn’t have to be.

Lesson no. 4: Forget what the internet told you — all-female comedies are gold.

S.D.: While Ghostbusters’ status as a failure to be learned from may be up for debate, at least we can agree on one “lesson” to take off the table: All-female comedies don’t make money. This should have been well past obvious to begin with: Bridesmaids grossed almost $300 million worldwide off of a $32 million budget. The Heat grossed almost $230 million off of a $43 million budget. Also: no shit. But in a summer marred by the awful opinions of a few, it’s some relief — and yeah: no small satisfaction — to have an immediate reminder on hand of just how awful those opinions actually were.

I’m talking, of course, about Bad Moms: which has rode Christina Applegate (a top-10 swearword-sayer of her generation), Mila Kunis (trying her best), and Kathryn Hahn (a towering genius holding the future of American cinema in the crook of her elbow like a newborn child) straight to [checks map; argues with you about directions; agrees to go your way but secretly hopes it’s wrong] Profit City. Bad Moms has grossed $107 million worldwide (and rising), off of a budget I couldn’t buy a good plane with. (I have expensive taste in planes.) It’s pretty weird, extremely funny, and better than you’ve heard.

And it’s also this summer’s most instructive success. Because if there’s a lesson to be learned at all from this Ghostbusters mess, it’s that, well — there isn’t a lesson: Ghostbusters might not get a sequel … but Bridesmaids eventually will. The Heat almost certainly will. And Bad Moms definitely, definitely [Christina Applegate voice] definitely fucking will.

Lesson no. 5: “Summer movie” can mean more.

K.A.C.: In a so-called “summer movie,” you’re approximately — I don’t want to exaggerate, this is a conservative guess — 900 times more likely to see New York City, or wherever, get blown up. And that’s fun! Very summer-y. School’s out, even if we’re not in school: We don’t want to think, we don’t want homework, we want Captain America saving America and Blake Lively fending off shark bites. Oscar season starts soon, and we’ll have to put up with Eddie Redmayne again. As I said, we need our rest.

That doesn’t explain why the success of the summer movie season seems only to hinge on big-budget, big-deal movies. It shouldn’t, at least when we have movies like the documentary Weiner, which has more delicious drama and intrigue than many of the year’s fictional fantasies, or Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, which is miles funnier than this year’s try-hard action comedies. In the fall, we notice or ignore smaller movies based on their Oscar contention. But in the summer, we don’t really have that excuse. We ignore the good smaller movies out of fear they won’t scratch that itch for big thrills.

I get it, but when those big thrills offer so little of what’s promised, and the smaller films offer what’s promised and then some, why not shake it up?

Lesson no. 6: Especially because summer movie season doesn’t actually exist.

S.D.: Below are 2016’s Top 10 movies, as of this week, measured by worldwide gross.

1. Captain America: Civil War

2. Zootopia

3. The Jungle Book

4. Finding Dory

5. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

6. Deadpool

7. The Secret Life of Pets

8. Suicide Squad

9. The Mermaid (Mei ren yu)

10. X-Men: Apocalypse

What does bold denote? I’m glad you asked.

The movies in bold were released during the summer. Which means that summer movie season is now a year-round event. When you’re in line for Star Wars on a 73-degree December day, don’t say we didn’t warn you.