Friday, December 16, 2016

Was 2016 the Worst Year for Blockbusters Ever?

2016 has not been a good year by most standards. It's been a year marked by division and tragedy, and I think it's safe to say that many people are ready for a fresh start in 2017. Plenty of people have also considered 2016 to be a weak year for movies, which is a statement that I firmly disagree with. My best of the year list is already filled with spectacular films, and I haven't even seen many of the end-of-year Oscar flicks. Delightful musicals like La La Land and Sing Street, hysterical comedies like The Nice Guys, Everybody Wants Some!!, and Popstar, gritty thrillers such as 10 Cloverfield Lane and Green Room, and dramatic masterpieces like Moonlight and Hell or High Water have all graced the silver screen in 2016, making for a diverse, terrific year of cinema. But while I find major faults in those complaining about the death of film in 2016, I completely understand that perspective if you only watched the blockbusters.

Because while there have been plenty of great movies to enjoy this year, the blockbusters have been nothing short of terrible. I'm writing this in the aftermath of watching Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which is another disappointing action film in a year filled with them. Purely from the perspective of big-budget action cinema, 2016 was a trainwreck of the highest order. It's the worst year for blockbusters since I've been blogging about movies, and I must say that I'm worried for the future of these types of films after watching the letdown that was 2016. The studios put out some slop this year, and I could not be more discouraged by what I saw on screen.

For reference as to which films I'm talking about, here's a list of all the films that I consider to be "action blockbusters." These films all grossed over $100 million (Rogue One, I'm just assuming) and would generally be categorized as studio tentpoles. Here they are:

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
The Jungle Book
Captain America: Civil War
X-Men: Apocalypse
Independence Day: Resurgence
The Legend of Tarzan
Star Trek Beyond
Jason Bourne
Suicide Squad
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

That makes for 14 movies, and out of those 14, I gave outright positive reviews to only five films- Deadpool, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, Star Trek Beyond, and Jason Bourne. That's a brutal ratio, and many of the movies that I gave negative reviews stand as some of the worst and most disappointing movies of the year. And even out of the films that I liked, only three out of five stand out as potential contenders for my end-of-year list. This was a bad year, and there's no two ways about it. So what the hell happened? Where did the studios go so horribly wrong with their 2016 output? And should we be worried for the future of blockbuster filmmaking?

Let's start with the good. For the movies that succeeded in 2016, there were some common positive threads- clearly defined stakes, necessary continuation of previous storylines, effective pacing, and likable characters. These are the four strongest ingredients for blockbusters and their respective sequels, and they're critical to the success of these films. Only one out of the five "good" 2016 action flicks really reinvented the wheel, and that was in lieu of a complicated, multi-layered story. Of course, that film was Deadpool, the R-rated burst of adrenaline that the superhero genre needed. Ryan Reynolds added loads of humor, charisma, and brutal action to a genre that was in desperate need of a jolt of life, and audiences and critics responded accordingly. There's a reason that this was one of the biggest cultural phenomenons of the year.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was another film that, despite its flaws, I thoroughly admired. It's a narrative mess, but it has a bold, striking tone, ambition to spare, and themes that feel topical and relevant. Whether you believe it paid off or not, Zack Snyder took a risk with this film. The same couldn't quite be said for Jason Bourne, the latest installment in the Matt Damon-led series. Even though I technically enjoyed this bruising, fast-paced action movie from Paul Greengrass, it is a prime example of where blockbusters are faltering these days. Simply put, it has no reason to exist, and with a story that feels totally pointless, it can come off as a cash grab. Greengrass' abundance of skill as a filmmaker makes it all worth it, but the fact that even one of my "favorite" blockbusters of 2016 comes with such reservations proves how bad of a year it was.

The two best mega-budget action movies of the year were Star Trek Beyond and Captain America: Civil War, films that told contained, engaging stories with characters that we've come to care about. The Star Trek series isn't worried about building towards a greater universe or creating a web of connected films- they just want to deliver good, old-fashioned science-fiction entertainment. Beyond is the weakest installment of the rebooted trilogy, but it's still a rollicking action film with a great cast and a terrific sense of fun. Civil War on the other hand was tasked with trying to do almost the complete opposite. This is a movie with connections to about ten different films, as well as the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. But thanks to its singular focus on the adventures of Chris Evans' Steve Rogers, it quickly became the blockbuster to beat in 2016. The action was incredible, but it always came second to the socio-political themes at hand and the endlessly fascinating story. The Russo Brothers can thank Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige for building the MCU to that point, but they did an amazing job with a massive undertaking. Marvel continues to be an example of how to make these kinds of movies.

So where did the rest of Hollywood go wrong? Well, it boils down to several reasons. For starters, there were a few films that just didn't work in the slightest. That's bound to happen in any year, and it happened in 2016. Independence Day: Resurgence still stands as the worst film of 2016, and I don't think any amount of analysis will ever sufficiently help me understand that catastrophe of a "movie." The Legend of Tarzan was another film that never clicked together, despite a few impressive elements and a surprise performance at the box office. The story tried to do too much in the span of 110 minutes, and all of the endless exposition (this was another key element of failure in 2016) caused the film to feel like a slog. And while everybody else loved it, I thought The Jungle Book was merely a visually dazzling misfire.

If you look at the rest of the films on the list, there are three common threads:

1. They're trying to do too much in one movie.
2. They're setting up an extended universe instead of focusing on telling a cohesive story.
3. They have no reason to exist.

Films like X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad suffered from an excess of everything, with the exception of stakes and storytelling cohesion. Apocalypse was riding off the wave of excitement from X-Men: Days of Future Past, an engaging film that had a monumental impact on the timeline of the franchise. Even with the return of Bryan Singer and the always terrific cast, this movie managed to hit a new low for the series. Silly, incomprehensible, and worst of all, boring, Apocalypse was a fiasco of the highest order. It was rushed into production after its 2014 predecessor became a megahit, and the script suffered. The same goes for Suicide Squad, which was trying to set up a whole new cast of characters, establish a fresh tone for the DC Universe, and save the day after a set of disappointing films. It failed miserably on all three counts- reshoots were obvious, and the movie felt cobbled together in editing at the last minute. In fact, it almost feels like a stretch to call something like Suicide Squad a movie. It was just a bunch of scenes, with very little emotion or cohesion.

Ghostbusters and Doctor Strange were certainly not on the level of those two disasters, but they ran into their own problems. Beyond all of the controversy, Ghostbusters was a film with a lot riding on it. This was meant to be Sony's big movie of the year, and it was going to set up their most dependable franchise. And as an introduction, Ghostbusters was passable. But as its own movie, it was a failure on almost all fronts. Weak villain, misguided climax, familiar story beats, lack of humor- this movie was plagued by issues. The same could be said for Doctor Strange, which essentially served as an extended intro for a character who will play a role in Infinity War. Beyond the visuals, was there all that much to Doctor Strange? No, not really. Similar to Ghostbusters, the villain is weak, and the plot just never goes anywhere interesting. It looks pretty and it's passably entertaining, but nothing more than that. They both existed solely to make money and set up more movies.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was another movie that served as almost all exposition, with no payoff in sight. It was almost as if David Yates and J.K. Rowling said to the audience "Yeah, we know this isn't all that interesting, but don't worry, Johnny Depp is coming! The fun stuff will be here eventually!" It established the world well, but it was essentially just killing time until Grindelwald showed up. But even though there were certainly worse blockbusters in 2016, no film was quite as disappointing as Rogue One. Surprisingly enough, it falls into the third category- it has no reason to exist whatsoever. I'll dive in deeper in my review, but Rogue One feels like a cynical cash grab, a movie that fills in holes in the Star Wars timeline that needed no further explanation. It offers nothing beyond a few great action scenes and a couple of sly references that fans will enjoy.

So yeah, most of these movies were bad. But what's the other common thread they share?

They all made money.

I know, this isn't some kind of magical revelation. Big blockbusters with superheroes and aliens make money. That's the way that Hollywood works, and that will not change no matter how many cinephiles and film historians complain about these genres causing the steady death of cinema. But this was arguably the first year in a while where a majority of the blockbusters were straight-up terrible, while the others were crushing disappointments. If you look at years past, the same kinds of films made money, but there was one major difference- they were actually good. The vast majority of 2015 blockbusters were exceptional, and the same goes for 2014 and 2013. However, the trends that popped up in 2016 action flicks have been steadily rising for years, and this was the culmination of years of emphasis on branding, world-building, and fan service over storytelling and characters.

The scary part goes back to the monetary issue at hand. Specifically, the question has to be raised at some point- what incentive do the studios have to make these movies better? Why should DC and Warner Bros. spend years re-tooling the Justice League script until they make something that really works? Why should Lucasfilm ensure that the next Star Wars Story actually has a reason to exist? It'll make a billion dollars anyways! Why should Marvel take any risks, experiment with different origin stories, or kill off some of their lead characters? The money keeps coming. Even as people in the film world complain about how terrible these movies are, these things are still raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. Everybody regarded Suicide Squad as one of the summer's biggest catastrophes, and it still made $745 million. I don't know anybody who thinks that Transformers: The Last Knight will be good, but that thing will still make $1 billion.

These movies are becoming too big to fail. They're built up through years of branding, meticulous appeals to the core fanbase, and goodwill from more impressive films. Even if Rogue One is a letdown, you can't risk not seeing it because you'd miss out on the conversation. Studios are in danger of sinking into a perpetual creative rut with no risk of financial failure, simply because their movies will make money regardless of quality.

2016 was a deflating year from the standpoint of big-budget action movies. But I still have plenty of hope for the future. 2017 is loaded with risky, unconventional films, and I'm excited by a good deal of what I've seen from next year's offerings. I simply can't wait for Logan and Kong: Skull Island, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 looks to continue what made the original so successful, and I'm in awe of the fact that Warner Bros. allowed Christopher Nolan to play in such a massive historical sandbox for Dunkirk. But for every one of those films, there's a Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. There's potential on the release calendar, but the trends in Hollywood aren't going away. If we aren't careful, 2016 could be the beginning of the end for the modern blockbuster.

Image Credits: Coming Soon, Hollywood Reporter, IMDB, YouTube, IMDB, Coming Soon, Joblo

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