July is over, Cowboys & Aliens was a huge disappointment, and August looks, for the most part, pretty dismal, as most Augusts do. So is the summer a dud? Based on the general grumbling I have heard, it seems like it. Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 have earned over $300 million, and The Hangover Part II, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Fast Five have all broken $200 million. Thor and Cars 2 are close behind. And Harry Potter, Bridesmaids, X-Men: First Class, and Kung Fu Panda 2 have all scored above 80% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Those are good figures, but what about the immeasurable stuff? How much did people actually want to see these movies? How excited were people? How surprised were people? My guess is: not much. All of these movies are sequels, and none of them surpassed their originals. Fast Five is the one exception, and it was an improvement simply by being joyously stupid as opposed to annoyingly stupid. Of course Thor is not a sequel, but it might as well be, sandwiched in-between a series of other superhero movies, all of them leading up to the big Avengers movie next year. Thor was fine, but it lacked the slick personality of Iron Man or the kinetic soap opera anguish of Spider-Man.
Super 8 was the summer's one "original" blockbuster, but it was steeped in the 1980s, deliberately paying tribute to kids' adventure movies like E.T.,Explorers, and The Goonies. It looked good, but it had a certain distance, or remove, since it was constantly checking itself against its predecessors. It never charged ahead. Bridesmaids was an original hit, and it's good, but it second-guessed itself and stuffed in slapstick and diarrhea jokes to sell to male audiences.
The second-tier theaters were much more exciting this summer. Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life was a high point, and amazingly enough, it seemed to catch on in its small way. Early reviews seemed to contain more warnings than praise, as if today's audiences couldn't possibly be expected to comprehend something so densely, gorgeously poetic. But the buzz was strong, box office was brisk, and audiences and critics genuinely seemed to appreciate it. Likewise, Woody Allen has returned to form with Midnight in Paris; most people agree that it's not his best, but it's certainly his biggest hit to date, and it's an absolute pleasure to watch.
Other arthouse gems included Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins, Errol Morris' Tabloid, Michael Winterbottom'sThe Trip, Mike Mills' Beginners, and James Marsh's Project Nim. But I don't know... maybe it's just me, but I tend not to count these smaller movies as summer movies. They're not really geared for the carefree months between school years, or the lazy weather. It's the same as when The Hurt Locker orUnforgiven opened during the summer months; they were great movies, but not specifically meant for a good time or an escape.
Jaws (1975) was the original summer movie: a pure, vicarious thrill ride that happened to be set during the summer on the beach. Star Wars (1977) followed, a perfect exercise in total escapism. But for me, the summer benchmark is Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a summation of every adventure movie ever made, exotic, rousing, funny, warm, and completely satisfying. An otherwise dull summer can be saved by a single, great summer movie; in 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit stomped all the competition. And in 1994, nothing else quite lived to the simple genius of Speed. Those movies were enough to carry me through the entire season.
Great summer movies are surprising, and inspire genuine enthusiasm. Which is not to say that sequels are disqualified. I remember being totally blown away by Aliens in the summer of 1986, a roller-coaster ride that was completely different from its moody predecessor; and Spider-Man 2 was a sheer masterpiece in the summer of 2004, and easily the most heartbreaking of all superhero movies.
Which brings me to 2008. Now that was a GREAT movie summer, with nonstop surprises and thrills. Let's start with a little movie called The Dark Knight, a brilliant, brutal film noir that practically set new standards of filmmaking, and featured Heath Ledger's unforgettable, ferocious, intelligent Joker. Then there was with Iron Man, a metallic, slick superhero movie that upgraded a "B" level hero to the "A" list with Robert Downey Jr.'s hilarious, organic performance. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford returned to Indiana Jones with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; it made tons of money and received good reviews, but the buzz quickly turned sour. I maintain that this has nothing to do with the movie itself, but simply a counter-reaction to the hype. (The movie itself is goofy fun.)
I'll continue: there was Pixar's WALL*E, which elevated the art of animation to a new plateau. There was Guillermo Del Toro's underrated Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which had a visual scheme even more powerful that Del Toro's previous Pan's Labyrinth. There was Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, an endlessly clever, hilarious spoof on Hollywood, acting, war films, and everything else nearby. If anyone needed further proof of Robert Downey Jr.'s genius, it was here. There was Pineapple Express, an unexpectedly uproarious pothead comedy, as well as Step Brothers, The Incredible Hulk, and Speed Racer. This was the most fun I'd had in one summer in years.
The second best movie summer has to be 1998, which, by some wonderful coincidence, featured a slew of strangely intelligent non-sequels, like:Bulworth, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Out of Sight, Saving Private Ryan, Small Soldiers, and The Truman Show. For fun, there was also The Mask of Zorro, There's Something About Mary, Blade, The X-Files, and Ever After.
But the most legendary summer -- which I secretly believe that movie executives still talk about in hushed whispers -- is 1989. In that summer, everything just lined up perfectly. The summer started off right with a new Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Then there was a brief stumble with some bad sequels: Ghostbusters II and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. (Although fans still love to talk and laugh about the latter.) But then came Tim Burton's Batman, which at the time had an effect not unlike The Dark Knight. Lethal Weapon 2 was an unexpectedly tough and ballsy sequel.
Then came future cult classic Weekend at Bernie's and a new James Bond movie, License to Kill. Then a romantic comedy hit, When Harry Met Sally. Then, in August, we had James Cameron's amazing The Abyss. We even got new Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street sequels! To make it complete, we have to throw in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, which was a small release, of course, but very specifically designed to be a summer movie, taking place in the summer heat.
That was a great summer to talk about movies, and I think that's what's really missing here, in 2011. There are plenty of big movies, and big money and good reviews, but very little to actually talk about. The key to this summer's movie is obligation. People felt obligated to see this summer's movies, rather than excited to see them. And after the obligatory tickets are bought and the obligatory movies are watched, people just want to talk about something else.