2013: The Summer of the No-Impact Blockbuster

Over at Slate, David Haglund muses on the relative Internet silence over the announcement of Avatar sequels. “People took to Twitter mostly to share the news that they didn’t care about the news,” Haglund reports. “The critic Ali Arikan went so far as to request an essay about how Avatar, ‘the most successful film in history, has left nary a blip on pop-culture.’ His request was retweeted 144 times and many others seconded his basic claim.” Haglund’s explanation is that a lot of people went to see Avatar because it was 3D. And since 3D isn’t replicable on a home small screen, the movie isn’t rewatchable and therefore memorizable. Not, Haglund admits, that there was much of anything worth memorizing.

I hated Avatar, from the tail sex to the pseudo-ecology woo to the spectacle of James Cameron accepting his ill-deserved Golden Globe in his stupid made up peace language. So I don’t want to dwell on it. But the thing is, the phenomenon it represents — a giant blockbuster that has little to no impact on the culture — has been something of a running theme this summer.

Remember Man of Steel, Oz the Great and PowerfulStar Trek: Into DarknessIron Man 3Fast and Furious 6World War Z? No? Because those are the highest-grossing movies of the year so far — they weren’t flops like The Lone Ranger — and yet their blockbuster status hasn’t brought them the kind of broad meme-appeal that something like The Hunger Games, or Up, or even the first Star Trek reboot enjoyed. Sure, some of them, Iron Man 3 in particular, will continue to live on because they have powerful merchandising lines. But it’s hard to picture kids of the future having memorized lines from those films the way, every once in a while, when I’m annoyed, my mind will default to Skywalker whining, “But I was going to go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters!

Let me be clear that I understand this whole meme economy works independently of any financial considerations involved. I don’t know if this is good economics or not; I simply don’t have a rich enough appreciation of the profit and loss sheets on blockbusters to offer an opinion. But the fact is, I find all of this a little sad. It used to be that blockbusters still touched deep emotional chords in the culture. No longer.

My own explanation for some of that is that increasingly Hollywood is behind the times in terms of what interests people in popular culture. As the channels for production and delivery have multiplied, and viewers overwhelmed by choice have been staying in their niche, a lot of pop culture’s appeal has gotten tied up with identity politics in a way Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand yet. As I wrote earlier today, fan-fiction, which is one way today to gauge the emotional dedication of your average fandom, is deeply tied to identity politics. And it’s just for this reason: pop culture explaining and defining who you are. It’s why Buffy fans often feel very strongly about Willow or Star Wars fans have a particular affection for Han Solo. As a colleague put it, fandom is the most literal version of identity politics there is in culture: it’s all about which character’s struggle you most identify with.

But instead of going for emotional arcs that snag people’s hearts in this way, of late Hollywood goes instead for property damage and glitz. And let me be clear: I love property damage in a popcorn movie. In fact, when I am moved to see the blockbusters because I need to shut my brain off for a few hours, I usually do an internal ranking on the order of, “How much shit is likely to be blown up in this film?” before choosing the lucky winner. I am the world’s only admirer of Terminator 3 on this basis; there were a lot of truly excellent truck explosions in it. But the thing is, I use it a bit like an opiate: excellent for creating a haze when I need to relax, but the experience is instantly forgotten.

I’m not saying that any of the prior blockbusters are perfectly executed cinema, things that we’d like to put in the time capsule along with Hemingway and the Cronut. But the thing is: they seemed at least nominally interested in being the kind of art that mattered to people, even if the appeal was on a baser level than the highest art. If only the suits in Hollywood had that minimal qualification in mind when greenlighting projects.