When it comes to Hollywood’s summer blockbusters, most of the press, including critics, is a little bit schizophrenic. From early May until the middle of August, the red carpet gets rolled out, each week, for one or two or three mega-budgeted releases that are aiming to be summer smashes, and though much of the media fanfare is noise and hype and advertising, there’s a lot of sincere enthusiasm mixed in there, too. Why wouldn’t there be? Summer movies, when they’re good, are a special form of entertainment — there’s nothing else like them, really — and reviewers aren’t shy when it comes to giving them a hearty thumbs up. Sure, certain films get more or less universally trashed, whether it’s the Transformers movies of the Hangover sequels or The Lone Ranger. But those tend to be the exceptions. If you read reviews of summer movies from week to week, you’d hardly come away thinking that the critics are snobs.
Except for one significant thing: On some level, critics don’t take summer movies — or their own praise of them — very seriously. And that’s because even when the films are good, and even when they’re hugely successful, they aren’t perceived as taking themselves fundamentally seriously. (That’s why even the best ones end up getting forgotten at awards time.) We have a lot of locked-in tropes in our heads about blockbuster culture, and those tropes tend to add up to something like this:
Summer movies may be fun, but at heart they’re machines designed to make money. They are products, franchises, elaborately engineered diversions. They follow market-tested formulas and rely not on the hallowed craft of screenwriting but on robotized story beats and action and CGI. They are entertainment, not art.
Personally, I’ve brought that attitude into plenty of reviews I’ve written of summer movies. Yet this summer, I began to notice something: A lot of the films I was seeing — Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, This Is the End, Monsters University, 2 Guns — weren’t just “good summer movies” that succeeded in doing what they set out to do. They were good movies, period, because in their unabashedly commercial and mainstream way, they were aiming high. Respecting the audience’s intelligence. Telling organic and original stories in bold, surprising ways. And doing it with a level of honest flair that wasn’t just entertaining but — yes — artful. In short, the whole notion of the summer as a season of fun but essentially trivial over-the-top 3-D fanboy roller-coaster rides was, in a sense, now doing a disservice to the ambition and achievement of a number of the most prominent of those films. Here’s a roundup of some of the trends I’ve spotted, the movies I’ve loved (and, in several key cases, will be seriously considering for my 10 Best list), and the reasons for why thinking of the summer as the anti-season of quality may now be outmoded thinking.
What’s the secret of a top-flight superhero movie? As Iron Man 3 reveals, stop thinking in terms of origin stories. The comic-book genre has always spawned sequels, but in recent years it’s been stuck in a shallow repetitive mode of reboots, remakes, and rehashes. That’s because when it comes to creating a superhero narrative, Hollywood only really trusts the origin story. With obvious rare exceptions (e.g., The Dark Knight), it hasn’t truly figured out how to do anything else. (Most of the adventures that come afterward are just filling space.) That’s why series reboots are now such an epidemic: They’re a natural extension of origin-story addiction. I mean, really, what’s next — another, better stab at Green Lantern? (We swear, we’ll get it right this time!) A reboot of Man of Steel — that is, a reboot of the reboot of the reboot? Even most of the X-Men sequels that aren’t about Wolverine feel, at heart, like origin stories; with each new film, the series seems like it’s starting over. What’s missing is that great, deep-dish middle-installment feeling that, to me, is the immersive essence of what great comic books are about. The beauty of Iron Man 3, apart from the crackling, fast-talk finesse of Shane Black’s writing and directing, is that it strands Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in the hinterlands with nothing but his wits and a wrecked suit of Iron Man armor. We have almost no idea where the story is heading, but we do know that it’s rooted in Downey/Stark’s revved anxiety, which gives every scene a fresh jolt of consequence. So do the special effects, which Black orchestrates with symphonic verve, allowing them to serve the movie without taking it over. That Ben Kingsley’s Bin Laden-meets-Ming the Merciless villain turns out to be a puppet is an explosively funny twist that just adds to the timely satire of a free world tilting at malevolent forces it can’t see. Iron Man 3 is original without being origin-y, and the great fun of the movie is that it’s a blockbuster that always has something at stake.
Star Trek Into Darkness proves that J.J. Abrams really is the right director to recharge Star Wars. I’m all for a pop adventure that inspires violently different reactions, so on some level it was gratifying that a great many viewers loved the intricate and emotional second installment of the Star Trek-as-young-guns franchise and an equal number of viewers felt betrayed by it. Maybe you simply have to be one of those people, like me, who couldn’t really care less about the storied mythology of Khan, and whether this ancient strand of Khan-ology perfectly attaches itself to that strand, to enjoy what a supremely deceptive and fascinating villain Benedict Cumberbatch created. I loved the way he used his boyish English finishing-school ingenuousness as a mask. That said, the glory of Into Darkness — what made it, to me, an even stronger film than 2009′s Star Trek, and I dug that one — is that the interplay between the members of the USS Enterprise crew has become a rich dramatic comedy. It’s a space-age version of the office as work family, thick and fast with conflict and loyalty and rivalry; it makes this a Star Trek film that could have been directed by the Howard Hawks of Only Angels Have Wings. Chris Pine’s Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock, a hothead-meets-coolhead team of yin-and-yang brothers, seem destined to fight each other as much as they love each other, and with any luck that will keep on happening. I saw Into Darkness before the announcement that Abrams would oversee the new Star Wars series, yet as I watched the film, I periodically flashed back to Star Wars. I was reminded of how George Lucas kept the nattering drama of droids, Jedi Knights, and evil in shiny black metal in perfect balanced counterpoint with the intergalactic thrill-ride effects. That’s what Abrams does here: He creates a spectacle in which even the most eye-popping moments — the Enterprise rising up out of the sea, Kirk freefalling through asteroids — awe us on a human scale. Into Darkness proves that Abrams has it in him to make the first Stars Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back that doesn’t just look and move and dazzle like a Star Wars film but genuinely feels like one.
The new summer movies aren’t dumbed down — they’re smartened up. Bummed out by the grimly technocratic, new-but-not-novel-enough Man of Steel (hey, I never said every summer movie was good), I got a yen to watch Superman II again, a film I hadn’t seen since it came out, in 1981, but one that I remembered really liking. It held up — sort of. It was still a catchy and exciting movie, one that, in its puckish and fairly unserious way, got every bit as “dark” as Man of Steel. (At the end, Superman kills Zod without a twinge.) But my God — that cheeseball early-’80s big-budget storytelling! It worked, sort of, like the comics used to in the pre-graphic novel era, but it was also patchy and remedial and, at moments, so borderline nonsensical that you could watch it using about a quarter of your brain. Whereas Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, or a twist-laden corruption thriller like 2 Guns — a movie that takes off from The Big Sleep as much as it does from Lethal Weapon — are all films that perch you on the edge of your brain. The information flies at the audience, making it look like these films have absorbed some of the headier aspects of serial storytelling on television. They’re examples of how the new popcorn has become smartfood.
The summer’s most uproarious comedy was also the summer’s most original movie. A comedy doesn’t have to do anything else as long as it makes you laugh, and chortle for chortle, This Is the End was totally, laugh-your-ass-off hilarious. But this comic collision of wisecracking Hollywood actors and the end of the world was also an ingenious, maybe even visionary film: By letting Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and half a dozen other movies stars not only portray and satirize themselves but create the fantasy that they were truly being themselves, it toyed with celebrity, “reality,” and our inside fascination with the film industry, opening the door to a new kind of movie — a farce of the reality-TV era, where comedy, just like life as we know it, has become a hall of mirrors.
Making zombies matter again, World War Z proved that “trouble on the set” can be creative. Even a lot of the people who liked World War Z still viewed this tumultuous zombie apocalypse through a lens of bad buzz: There had been so much reporting about the clashes on the set, the reshoots, the hauling in of Damon Lindelof to rewrite the last act that a lot of the press couldn’t see the movie for the seams and stitching. Viewed apart from the buzz, though, World War Z turned out to be the rare cohesive and exciting big-scale horror film, not to mention the first movie in eons (and yes, I’m including 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead revamp) to make a zombie attack mean something. In this case, it means that our deep economic turmoil has knocked the world out of balance — that the center is no longer holding. World War Z doesn’t get bogged down in zombie arcana or fetishistic gore. And that’s because the movie, with its globe-trotting structure, its indelible images of seething undead hordes scaling walls in Jerusalem, is a real movie before it’s a zombie movie. The Lindelof section, set in a WHO facility that becomes a mazelike setting for suspense, is, as it turns out, the highlight of the film — a sequence that Hitchcock would have saluted, right up to the shivery climactic moment of Brad Pitt going eyeball to eyeball with a zombie that only Pitt would be fearless enough to be convinced won’t touch him.
The summer is where good filmmakers now go to be reborn. This trend, whose founding-father moment was probably Tim Burton’s decision to direct Batman (1989), has been coming on strong for nearly 10 years, going back to the summer of 2004, when Alfonso Cuarón followed Y Tu Mamá También by directing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Paul Greengrass made the spectacular leap from the somber vérité depths of Bloody Sunday to the propulsive virtuosity of The Bourne Supremacy. But just as movie actors who might once have shunned television as slumming now go back and forth between the two mediums without a thought in that direction (these days, it can be the movies that look like slumming), it’s amazing to consider all the high-end filmmakers who are now only too eager to pour themselves into a blockbuster mold, not just because it’s a good career move but because it gets their juices flowing. I would argue that there’s more artistry to Marc Forster’s direction of World War Z than there is to anything in his genteel Finding Neverland or messy-preachy Monster’s Ball. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) used his moody, downbeat skill to turn The Wolverine into a film noir with claws, and though it doesn’t exactly count as a prestige filmmaker going commercial, Shane Black, in Iron Man 3, did something just as striking: After a career of connect-the-quips action screenwriting (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout) that won him more fame than respect, he used the comic-book genre to reinvent himself as a high-end filmmaker. Sam Mendes, signing on for a second Bond feature, has officially given his heart to that series (and you’d better believe they’re “summer movies,” though now released in the late fall). And while Guillermo del Toro, in Pacific Rim, may have showed more nostalgia for giant Japanese monsters than he did narrative finesse, the staggering scale of his ambition was undeniable: He was trying, at least, to turn schlock into something bold and beautiful.
Who says that movie stars don’t matter — that it’s now all about the “concept”? This summer, they mattered a lot. Brad Pitt’s cool intensity gave World War Z its center of gravity. Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 3 continued to do what actors playing superheros are supposed to do but only rarely bring off: make those characters just as idiosyncratic as we are. In The Heat, Melissa McCarthy proved once again that she’s a comic force, a one-woman tornado of hectoring hilarity. Leonardo DiCaprio was Gatsby (and who else could have been?). Vin Diesel, his bullet-headed look as iconic as the grill on a 1967 Chevy Camaro, continues to give the Fast & Furious series its little bit of gruff, badass soul. This Is the End was about its movie stars. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is an X-Man with an X factor of demon charisma, and Matt Damon in Elysium blends aging Boy Scout decency with cold vengeance in a way that he’s made his own. As for Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg in 2 Guns, they turn the movie-star ritual of nonchalant buddy banter into an original riff on how fearless you have to be to take on what the U.S. government has become. Imagine any of these movies without their stars, and you’re talking the blockbuster equivalent of an empty shell.
The Lone Ranger, a grinding tentpole bore, was the exception that proved the rule. It was way too long, with too much massively overscaled headache-inducing action and violence, a plot that ambled and digressed, and a general air of “wholesome” theme-park bumptiousness. In other words, it was the essence of empty blockbuster filmmaking. Nothing in it mattered, least of all Johnny Depp as a poker-faced Native American hood ornament atop the ungainly contraption-ness of it all. Yet here’s the thing: It was one of the only summer movies like that. And it was punished at the box office by audiences, who basically said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Their rejection of The Lone Ranger and everything it stands for is nothing if not encouraging, and can count as one more reinforcement of the best trend of the year: outstandingly good summer movies.
So do you agree with me that summer blockbusters, in a lot of cases, are now extraordinarily good? Made with intelligence and inspiration? What were the ones this summer that, for you, really stood out?