No matter how big our TV screens get, no matter how little patience we have for sitting in the dark with text messagers and candy-wrapper crinklers, there's still one good reason that a movie like "The Dark Knight" can make more than $400 million domestically in just three weeks: The whole point of going to the movies in the first place is to be overwhelmed, to give ourselves over to images that are bigger than we are. That's the purpose of the summer blockbuster: To movie studios, they're commerce; to us, they're a chance to escape for a few hours into another, bigger world, or at least just into air conditioning.
There's a place for big, dumb entertainment with lots of car chases and explosions, and this summer we've seen our share of mindless-fun action movies ("Wanted") and pictures based on comic books ("The Dark Knight," "Iron Man," "Hellboy II: The Golden Army"). We've also seen animation of both the ultra-prestigious and the take-the-kiddies varieties ("Wall-E," "Kung-Fu Panda") and big-budget girls-night-out pictures ("Sex and the City," "Mamma Mia"). In theory, at least, this year the assortment of big summer movies hasn't been that different from other summers in recent memory.
So why has the summer of 2008 seemed exhausting in a way previous summers haven't? The summer-movie season, which used to begin in June and would be finished by the last week of July, after the release of all the big "event" movies, now begins in early May and is beginning to creep well into August -- the movie equivalent of the endless presidential election season. This year, it kicked off with one whimper ("Speed Racer") and also with one bang ("Iron Man"). But the movies of summer 2008 seemed to become bigger, noisier, more ambitious and more expensive with each passing week. By the time "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" limped into theaters on Aug. 1, trailing lots of sand and dead skin behind it, audiences could be forgiven for feeling fatigued. The movie had a respectable opening weekend, taking in more than $40 million, but clearly "The Dark Knight," still drawing audiences after two weeks in theaters, had siphoned off some of its business.
Then again, maybe "The Mummy 3" was just too much, too late, and it points toward some bigger questions about the nature of the modern summer blockbuster: Just how much excitement can movie advertising realistically whip up? Is there a limit to how much movie hype we can take in before we say, "So what?" And when it comes to the movies themselves, how big is too big, and how much is too much -- in terms of money spent on special effects and marketing at the expense of the basics, like having a decent script and a director who knows how to tell a story visually? At what point does blockbuster movie culture become draining rather than exhilarating?
The most important element of summer-blockbuster culture isn't the selling of movies; it's the selling of anticipation, because the amount of time we might spend looking forward to a big summer movie is almost always longer than the shelf life -- in theaters, at least -- of the actual movie. In New York, where I live, the subway platforms are perpetually adorned with posters for "big" movies that came and went in a blink. Generally, the posters stick around for much longer than the movies do, often defaced and decorated with Situationist-style détournement: The line between "I can't wait to see that!" and "Who gives a rat's ass?" is razor thin, and you know that line has been crossed when bored subway riders feel compelled to scribble all over Edward Norton's face.
The studios themselves inadvertently invite blockbuster fatigue. Go to see a summer action movie, and you'll be walloped beforehand with at least three trailers -- all featuring the usual assortment of generic explosions, car chases and unshaven tough guys -- for forthcoming action movies that you're supposed to be looking forward to. These trailers all look the same (how exciting is that?), and they're usually so nonsensical and assaultive that they grind you down even before the nonsensical, assaultive movie you've paid to see has begun.
Summer blockbusters have been a staple of the movie calendar since the 1970s, and every year has its share of big hits and surprise (or even not-so-surprising) duds: Last summer "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" raked it in at the box office, and even though many die-hard fans of the "Pirates" franchise found the final installment disappointing once they saw it, the picture was so highly anticipated that its quality -- or lack thereof -- barely mattered. Blockbusters are built, and marketed, to make money, and more often than not, they do.
The two biggest hits of summer 2008 -- "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" -- are based on comic books. The third- and fourth-biggest -- "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" and "Hancock" -- are, respectively, a long-awaited entry in a popular franchise and a vehicle, albeit an unusual one, for one of Hollywood's most popular stars. It's no surprise that those movies made money, although the idea of "making money" is relative: "The Incredible Hulk," conceived as a way of making amends after Ang Lee's "Hulk" so gravely disappointed comic-book fans, had a reasonable opening weekend, making around $55 million. But less than two months after its release, who even remembers it?
Parsing the notion of the summer blockbuster hasn't always been so confusing, or so frazzling. The sheer number of big-studio movies being made and released -- it has been increasing steadily each year -- means there's always some bigger, better, newer movie to look forward to. In other words, there's so much to look forward to that almost nothing can be distinguished as anything special, and those feelings are likely to be more pronounced during summer-blockbuster season. For that, we have Steven Spielberg, the father of the summer blockbuster, to thank.
Until the mid-1970s, it was customary for big Hollywood pictures to get a platform release: In other words, they'd open first in big-city theaters, spreading to smaller cities, suburbs and towns in subsequent weeks. That meant movies could stick around in the public's consciousness -- and in theaters -- for months. Spielberg's "Jaws" opened, on June 20, 1975, in 400 theaters nationwide, which was at the time essentially a wide release. It did open wider, into some 600 theaters, a month later, but that's beside the point -- it had already opened in many of the suburban shopping mall cinemas that would ordinarily have had to wait their turn. "Jaws" made a record-breaking $7 million in its opening weekend, and after that, it became opening-weekend business that mattered, a standard that's even more pronounced today, with so many movies churning through theaters week in, week out.
The studio that released "Jaws," Universal, didn't have particularly high hopes for it: It was based on a bestselling novel, but it was still essentially a monster movie -- in other words, not a particularly classy enterprise. But it did such massive business that it became the picture to beat, and to emulate. Today, opening-weekend grosses mean everything, and it's rare for a picture to keep the No. 1 slot at the box office two weekends in a row (or four, as "The Dark Knight" has done). We live in a perpetual "All About Eve"-style cycle: Every Friday there's a younger, hungrier starlet ready to take the place of last week's tired, faded favorite.
By today's standards the success of "Jaws," if not the movie itself, seems almost quaint. A giant summer hit that's smart, suspenseful and character driven, with a story that holds together? We should be so lucky. Actually, one of the most intriguing and pleasurable pictures to be released this summer is, as "Jaws" was, based on a book by a bestselling American novelist (Harlan Coben), but the movie was made in France: Guillaume Canet's "Tell No One" is the kind of sturdy, sophisticated pop thriller that, with some exceptions (the "Bourne" movies, for example), Hollywood has forgotten how to make -- and God help anyone who does make one, because who'd know how to market the damn thing?
I just realized I used the words "sophisticated" and "pop" in the same sentence: That so rarely happens these days, particularly in summertime, but I still believe, stubbornly, that the notion of sophisticated pop entertainment doesn't have to be headed for extinction. Fans of "The Dark Knight" -- I'm not one of them -- would argue that that movie fits the bill. For me, Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," an entertainment with some poetry in its soul, comes closer. Jon Favreau's "Iron Man," a nicely crafted picture with a great actor, Robert Downey Jr., at its center, offers hope for the future, too: Blockbusters don't necessarily have to be big and stupid. And they can be, as "Iron Man" is, essentially dramas that revolve around a few characters.
One of the lessons of summer 2008 is that it's possible for studios to spend a lot of money and still turn out a good picture: "Big" doesn't necessarily have to mean "excessive." Of course, that's not going to change our moviegoing reality much, at least not over the next few summers. There will always be duds like "The Mummy 3," big, lavish, empty pictures designed to fool audiences into thinking they're seeing something special, when what they're really getting are costly but unmemorable special effects. (The effects in "Hellboy II," by comparison, certainly weren't cheap, but they're so imaginative that they represent money well spent.)
The upshot of the summer of 2008 is that Hollywood will be scrambling to make more movies "like" "The Dark Knight," although it's hard to know exactly what that might mean. We can guess that it means more movies based on comic books, which is hardly a surprise development. Even if "The Dark Knight" supposedly proves some appetite for "darker, edgier" comic-book movies, the particulars of wedging those qualities into a movie are still pretty nebulous.
I think that people who love "The Dark Knight" would say that the picture works largely because of what the director, Christopher Nolan, brings to it and doesn't represent any particular formula that can be easily replicated. We should remember that when "Titanic" became such a huge success, plenty of people feared that all subsequent Hollywood movies would try to top it in scale. The reality is that few people were crazy (or stupid) enough to try. Will young people be pouring into film schools, hoping to be the next Christopher Nolan? Maybe -- but I suspect "The Dark Knight" will inspire more budding video-game designers than it will filmmakers.
The only thing we know for sure is that the blockbusters of next summer, and the next, will be flashy, expensive and aggressively marketed. But the ideal summer blockbuster -- the one with great characters, an arresting visual style and brilliant storytelling, the one with the mysterious power to draw millions of people into an actual movie theater -- will always be rare and elusive. Because the minute you try to bottle and reproduce the formula, let alone sell it, you've already diluted some of the magic.