Thirty years ago the summer of 1982 reached heights that would never again be topped. For decades the summer movie season has been chasing that particular dragon, but no one year has ever come close.
If any summer were to challenge the fabled summer of 1982, 2012 would be the one. At least that’s what it looked like before the warm months came, and with them a series of sinking disappointments. Summer 2012 never even came close to the greatness of 1982. What should have been the culmination of a decade of superhero adaptations fizzled, while the rest of the blockbusters simply sucked.
The big winner for the summer, in the mainstream category, has to be The Avengers. A record breaking movie, The Avengers briefly gave us all hope for the summer. Director Joss Whedon summed the film up quite well: “I don't think it's a perfect movie. I don't even think it's a great movie. I think it's a great time,” and that sort of a great time is what audiences wanted from their summer movies. So they came to see The Avengers again and again, making it the third highest grossing film of all time.
Let’s be honest: as much as I like The Avengers, it sets a low bar for the rest of the summer. It’s a mess of a film, carried mostly by the actors and Whedon’s understanding of what the third act of a film like this should be. And yet no other mainstream film truly cleared that bar.
2012 was to be the summer of superheroes, and The Avengers really started that off with a bang. But that bang turned to a whimper with The Amazing Spider-Man, a film that can only be considered any good if you’re viewing it solely through a Sam Raimi-loathing lens. When it’s not a tedious do-over of stuff we’ve already seen, The Amazing Spider-Man is a silly throwback to the kinds of superhero movies Raimi helped eradicate. It ended up being one of the worst films of the summer.
And then there’s Batman. This is a sticky situation, as the fans of the franchise will brook no disagreement. The reality, though, is that The Dark Knight Rises is a tremendous letdown following The Dark Knight. Poorly plotted, inanely scripted and filled with a sense of directorial ennui, TDKR fails to bring the Dark Knight trilogy to a truly satisfying conclusion, instead offering cheap happy endings and a teaser for a future franchise. In my review I pondered whether TDKR was a bad movie, and with distance I do believe it is truly bad.
Perhaps the most crushing disappointment of the summer of 2012 is Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Early marketing revealed gorgeous imagery, and teases about the film’s content - was it or was it not a prequel to Alien? - had even the most jaded movie nerd poring over trailers and official stills looking for clues. But unfortunately the fans spent more time thinking about the movie than the filmmakers did, and Prometheus ended up totally half-baked. Like a punctured air mattress, the film slowly deflates, squandering all of Scott’s astonishing imagery.
Other films were fairly predictable turds: films like Total Recall and Battleship weren’t fooling anybody in advance (although I did have lots of hope for Battleship). Nobody with a brain bothered with That’s My Boy or Rock of Ages. Dark Shadows delivered almost exactly what the trailers promised, and it wasn’t pretty. Snow White and the Huntsman could have been cool, but instead was a drag. I skipped it, but I understand that Men In Black 3 gets a pass for being not completely fucking unwatchable, which is what everybody expected when they saw the trailers.
But there was one other movie that really hurt: Brave. Last year Pixar did some serious damage to their brand with Cars 2, a shameless cash-in movie that alienated adults in a most un-Pixar way. This year’s offering looked exciting: a new property, the first Pixar female hero, and interesting Scottish locations made us hope Brave would be the next Up or Wall-E. But instead it was just around A Bug’s Life, maybe lower. The film was plagued with production troubles, but many of the best Pixar films are, and so we took that as a good sign. When the film came out it became obvious that the animation studio had never really cracked the story, and while the film isn’t horrible it’s nowhere near what we expect from Pixar.
There were some semi-bright spots: I didn’t see Ted (I have a terrible allergy to Seth MacFarlane) but lots of people really liked it, and it was a huge hit. The Campaign was perfectly okay. Oliver Stone pulled his punches with Savages, a movie that by all rights should have been so very, very much better. The Bourne Legacy was a handjob of a movie - it’s perfectly acceptable, but definitely not what you were hoping for when you took a shower tonight. Most of the summer’s ‘best’ mainstream movies were merely serviceable.
The best big studio movie wasn’t even a big studio movie. People scoffed at the male stripper movie, but Magic Mike is not only great, it was a hit. Interestingly the film was independently financed and Warner Bros paid only about 8 million dollars to pick it up. Everybody won with Magic Mike, especially audiences - some of whom were probably seeing their first Soderbergh movie since Ocean’s 11. Also winning: Matthew McConaughey, whose career suddenly ignited again.
The very, very best movies of the summer of 2012 were the kinds of movies we don’t usually associate with the summer. Moonrise Kingdom is a delightful masterwork, a movie that coalesces the best parts of Wes Anderson’s last few films into a beautiful, funny and wonderful movie. And then there’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, which might be the best movie of 2012, period. I recently revisited the movie and it was just as powerful a second time as it was the first; I hope to get a chance to write some more thoughts about it this week.
Both Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild did well this summer, by the way. Neither came anywhere near what The Dark Knight Rises earned, but people came out to support them. They were among the few films people supported - attendance was the lowest it has been in two decades.
What does that mean? Simple: people are sick of summer movies. Hollywood has run the whole thing into the ground. If nothing changes summer will continue being a big moneymaker for the next few years, but audiences will become pickier and pickier about what they see. Once upon a time studios could do no wrong in the summer months, but this year the movies were not just artistic letdowns, they were commercial letdowns*. Audiences have had enough, and they won’t take the usual garbage for too many summers.
In the meantime, niche audiences have shown they want to go to the movies all year round; they don’t want to wait for Oscar season to see quality films. The relative successes of smaller, indie, arthouse movies this summer will embolden smaller distributors to go directly against the big boys in the future. Which is a good, hopeful sign.
* Remember this is all relative. Breaking even or just earning some profit is not the goal - studios want movies like Snow White to be smash hits, not mild successes.