Summer of 2014

By Jared Young

Mailed on August 21, 2014

Just a few weeks, now, until the kids are once again back at school and the temperature begins its creeping descent. Talk will soon turn to awards season and which movies will be lauded or snubbed. The summer always passes too quickly; this summer in particular. Many are lamenting your record-setting drop in profits. But might it be better to judge your place in history by the quality of your blockbusters rather than the quantity of cash dollars they raked in?

At first glance, you look the same as the summers that came before. At the top of the heap is yet another critically-derided Transformers movie that is notable only for being "bigger, harder, faster, and louder than anything that came before it" (and perhaps, too, as a sass-talking robotic straw man for every argument about the moral and artistic decay of big-budget filmmaking). Transformers: Age of Extinction is a modern beast: not just a four-quadrant flick, but one built for an international audience (or more specifically, China). And we all know what happens when you try to please all of the people all of the time, right?

But after that, the list gets interesting.

The end of the superhero blockbuster seems prophesied every season, but you proved that it may be stronger than ever. Particularly for Marvel Studios and its ingenious decades-long strategy. Of your top five highest-grossing flicks, there are three Marvel superhero movies. And two of them are actually good. While The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a "spatial and narrative mess", and proved - creatively, at least - that the dark and gritty reboot isn't universally accepted, you also gave us X-Men: Days of Future Past, which offered "a fresh sense of what a superhero movie can be" and Guardians of the Galaxy (your biggest surprise hit) which hasn't just smashed box office records, but earned the affection of many critics, thanks to (or maybe despite) "enough bang-bang zap-zap action to fill whatever quota these films must meet."

But what about your more ambitious films? Or, more importantly: were there any ambitious films? It seems in recent years that the summer season is a time to lower one's intellectual expectations. Many complain that Hollywood seems incapable, anymore, of producing the kind of thoughtful adult films that are able to find large audience. Blame the international market, blame changing distribution models, blame the kids with their smartphones and Snapchats and Tinders--but whoever you blame, this lack of aesthetic maturity has been a common complaint for decades. Should we take it as a positive sign, then, that you gave us a film that had "moral grey areas that make it compelling" and also grossed over $200 Million in the U.S. alone? Or was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes an outlier? Does it merely prove how low our expectations have fallen when it comes to absorbing a little bit of fibrous allegory with our sugary summer diet?

But all those films are adaptations or sequels or mash-ups of multiple sequels. Even the other top-grosser - Disney's Maleficent - is a rebooted reimagined (and, if nothing else, "mercifully short") reinvention of an existing character. Did you give us anything original to ponder over? The relative success of small films like Obvious Child and Boyhood are proof that you did (is there a more unlikely summer hit than an experimental art-house flick from one of the most respected indie directors of the era?).

But the real question I wanted to ask you, Summer of 2014, is why no one is talking about Snowpiercer? It's more than just "a singular effort on a one-way track to thriller-ville"--it's an example of what the summer blockbuster could - and should _- be: outrageous, inventive, intelligent, affecting. _Guardians of the Galaxy is proof of how far a marketing dollar can go to promoting an unknown quantity. I can't help but imagine what you would have been like if the studio that produced Bong Joon-ho's sci-fi thriller hadn't so badly bungled its release. Maybe then, despite your precipitous drop in ticket sales, we could be calling you the best summer in memory.



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