Summer is almost here, and you know what that means. The weather is warm, the parks are crowded, and the multiplex is filled with superheroes, action stars, explosions and mass destruction. The summer blockbuster season has fully descended upon us.
The best summer blockbusters can instill a genuine sense of awe in the audience. Seeing Tom Cruise clinging to the side of a plane or Captain America take out legions of bad guys ignites our imagination and reminds us why we love the movies in the first place.
Unfortunately, blockbuster season also breeds repetition. Movie studios are almost exclusively guided by what has been successful in the past, and that leads to safe, and sometimes lazy filmmaking. More so than any other time of year, studios are juggling insanely large amounts of money, and they want to do everything in their power to make sure they see a return on that cash. This means that certain trends appear. These trends can become tiresome at best — and toxic at worst. We’ve seen enough huge money-making spectacles to feel confident in calling these trends out, and requesting that they be retired as soon as possible. Here are 12 Blockbuster Trends We’re Tired Of.
There are several beats that every story must hit in order to create a satisfying narrative. We need an introduction to the characters, we need conflict, we need rising action, and most of all, we need a conclusion. Threads must be tied up in a way that resolves character arcs and eliminates the conflict. The bad guy is pushed off a building. The shark gets blown up. The hero rides off into the sunset.
The problem with definitive conclusions is that they make it a lot harder to pry that door back open for future adventures. That means no sequels (or forced ones), and that means no more money for the studio. So studios have started to combat this problem by just not having conclusions to their films. One of the biggest offenders of this crime is Marvel Studios, whose Cinematic Universe more closely resembles a television show than a film series. Rather than resolving with any sense of finality, every film just kind of stops after about two hours. There are some big explosions, but no important characters die, mysteries are left open, and easter eggs for future films are laid. This certainly guarantees that people will continue to line up for their films, but how long can audiences go without experiencing any sense of closure? A catharsis comes with the conclusion of a story, and blockbusters have begun denying this catharsis again and again in favor of future box office revenue.
11. Cities Being Destroyed
We may hopefully be nearing the end of this trend, if Captain America: Civil War and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice are any indication. Both of these films directly addressed the criticism audiences have been leveling at blockbusters for some time; namely, we don’t want to see our “heroes” destroy any more cities. A staggering amount of summer movies from the past ten years have concluded with entire CGI cities being decimated onscreen. After time, seeing these computer generated buildings explode loses any sense of stakes for the audience. We have no context for the destruction, so we have no real concern over the outcome. Additionally, we can’t celebrate with the supposed heroes afterwards, because our thoughts are with the millions of nameless, innocent civilians who we have to imagine lost their homes and/or lives during the climactic battle.
Of course, there’s a time and a place for destruction-porn. We’ll probably all going to be pretty disappointed if Washington D.C. is still in pristine condition at the end of Independence Day: Resurgence. But does a quirky, character based superhero film like Guardians of the Galaxy really need to end with a giant spaceship leveling a coastal city? As we said, this trend thankfully appears to be on its way out. Civil War ended with a simple, hand-to-hand fist fight that was grounded in an emotional truth. Let’s see more of that, and less collapsing skyscrapers.
10. Overreliance on CGI
It’s become almost cliche at this point to decry the overabundance of CGI in Hollywood. And no one here is saying we should throw all CGI out the window and go back to stop-motion dinosaurs and double exposure (although hey, that would be kind of neat.) What we ask instead is that filmmakers put some thought and imagination into their effects, rather than relying on a computer to do all the work for them.
Mad Max: Fury Road famously used a brilliant combination of practical effects, stunt people, and CGI enhancements to bring its explosive action to life. This resulted in a movie that has real weight, and that will undoubtedly age better than, say, Speed Racer. It’s only when CGI is used as a crutch that it begins to feel lazy. The best movie effects have always relied on audience imagination as much as the available technology. This is why movies like Jurassic Park, The Empire Strikes Back, and Jaws still captivate viewers. Even when the seams begin to show in the effects, the wit and imagination provided by the filmmakers imbue the creations with a timeless sense of life. So please, modern filmmakers, look to the past. Use CGI out of necessity, not out of laziness.
9. Lack of Diversity
Lack of diversity is not just a blockbuster problem. It is a Hollywood problem. As exemplified by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy last year, Hollywood is severely behind the times when it comes to equal representation on screen. Every genre of film should be bearing this issue in mind, but blockbusters carry a certain responsibility as they are the most visible products to come out of Hollywood.
And no, this is not an issue that will be solved by randomly dropping actors and actresses of color into the big blockbusters. We’re not interested in tokenism. We just want summer movie experiences that accurately reflect the diversity we see in real life. Not everyone is a handsome, white, 30-something heterosexual, so why does nearly every blockbuster protagonist look like this? Cinema is all about presenting experiences that audiences couldn’t have on their own. By casting ethnically diverse actors in leading roles, Hollywood can expose audiences to experiences they might not have been aware of. We can expand our awareness to other cultures and experiences. While there are a few non-white starring blockbusters on the horizon, we’ve got a long way to go before we see truly equal representation on screen.
8. Generic Villains
Besides the Joker, can you name any villain from a blockbuster from the past ten years? For some baffling reason, villains seem to have become a forgettable footnote when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking. Looking at the villains in the MCU, they’re all either interchangeable, smarmy businessmen (Jeff Bridges in Iron Man, Corey Stoll in Ant-Man, etc.) or generically evil dark space creatures (Christopher Eccleston in Thor: The Dark World, Lee Pace in Guardians of the Galaxy). Notably, the only villain who doesn’t fall into either of those categories is the undisputably most interesting villain in the MCU, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.
We just can’t wrap our heads around this. Marvel clearly cares deeply about it’s heroes. With each film they develop the Avengers further and add more texture and nuance to these iconic figures. Yet they seem unable to show the same level of attention to the villains who provide the conflict and so will ultimately drive the narrative.They cast talented actors in the villainous roles, and then waste them by having them deliver mind-numbing, generic exposition, and failing to explore their psychology anywhere beyond “I want power” or “I want revenge.” Classic blockbusters have found their villains just as fascinating, if not more so, than their heroes. More Hans Gruber, less Dark Elves, please.
7. Women as Eye Candy/Romantic Interests
Next time you see a blockbuster, take note of any new female characters that are introduced. See if they can make it the entire movie without taking off their clothes, or becoming a love interest to one of the leading men. The results will most likely disappoint you.
As with the diversity problem mentioned above, the lack of complex female characters in mainstream cinema has been an ongoing conversation for some time.It’s an outdated trend and it needs to stop. Studios are bafflingly still nervous about releasing female-led blockbusters. We hear inane claims that women won’t be as relatable to the male audience and that toy sales will drop. Anyone who has seen the Alien films or watched Fury Road last year knows this is nonsense. Audiences can identify with any character who is well written. It’s ridiculous that in 2016 a female-led Ghostbusters reboot can cause such controversy (before the terrible trailers starting dropping), or that a supervillain in Iron Man 3 would be changed from female to male to sell more toys. The majority of audiences respond to quality first and foremost. We just want movies to be good. We want to see ourselves in the heroes, and for 51% of the population, that happens all too infrequently.
6. Character Death Fake-outs
A theme we keep returning to in this list is the idea of weightlessness. Recent blockbusters, as fun as they can be, seem to lack any sense of real stakes. With so much emphasis on sequels and shared universes, no filmmaker would ever dare kill off a major character. And on the rare occasion when they do, we get one of the most frustrating and insulting trends on this list: the character death fake-out.
There was a lot of conversation swirling around Batman V. Superman when it was released, but almost none of that conversation focused on the fact that, SPOILER, Superman dies in the end. The Man of Steel is killed in a Superman movie? This should have been devastating. It should have been shocking. But it wasn’t. No one cared, because we knew that some deus ex machina is going to bring him back within the next two years. Even the movie couldn’t commit fully to its own fake-out, showing us a hint of his returning power in the final shot. So what was the point? Why kill him off just to immediately bring him back?
In the world of blockbusters, death is as fleeting as a head cold. No major franchise will risk killing off a main character and stalling a money-making franchise. So we as the audience slowly come to realize that none of the characters onscreen are ever in any real danger, meaning there’s never any real tension. Consciously or not, we start to lose interest. The way to fix this is not by insulting our emotional intelligence and pretending our hero is dead. Blockbusters should treat death with the weight it deserves.
5. Dark, Gritty, Realistic Blockbusters
People love to complain that modern blockbusters are too dark. But the fact is, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a dark tone for an action movie. The problem arises when a movie is dark for darkness’ sake. Christopher Nolan didn’t set out to make a dark, gritty version of Batman. He set out to explore what a character like Batman would look like in the real world. It turns out, the tale of a crime-fighting, revenge-fueled vigilante has some pretty dark themes if told realistically, and these themes were perfectly suited to the Caped Crusader.
Same thing goes with the Daniel Craig Bond films. Those movies are more committed to realism than their predecessors, so, understandably, a story of international espionage would occasionally involve death, torture, and tragedy. The darkness arises organically from the subject matter.
Compare those examples to something like the recent Fantastic Four reboot. That’s a case where darkness was awkwardly grafted onto a fairly light-hearted, buoyant adventure story. Same goes for Zack Snyder’s Superman films. There’s nothing inherently gritty about a good-hearted, world-saving alien, so the darkness in those movies feels forced. Even something like the later Harry Potter films can handle darkness in a way that feels honest, by following the natural evolution of the story and the aging characters. So Hollywood, we don’t need to see an abrupt end to all dark and gritty blockbusters. We just want to see the story dictate the tone of the film, not the other way around.
4. Characters Who are “The One”
As budgets and technology have advanced, we’ve seen the scope of blockbusters grow and grow. Hollywood used to be satisfied with three men on a boat fighting a shark, or one man in a skyscraper fighting terrorists. Lately though, it feels like any tentpole summer event film needs to be a preordained, epic battle for the survival of the universe. Protagonists can no longer be an “everyman.” More and more, protagonists must be “The One.” They are the lone hero who has been prophesied to fight the evil and restore balance to the universe.
Sometimes these epic fantasies are fun. But we also want to see small-scale, simplistic blockbusters now and again. Many people cite The Fellowship of the Ring as their favorite film in the trilogy, as it was the most small-scale, intimate, character driven movie in the franchise. The first Matrix is far superior to the sequels, as it was a simple story of one man fighting evil, not the grandiose space battle the series became.
More than anything, we want variety in our storytelling. So when every major blockbuster starts following the same beats (hero learns he is The Chosen One, hero trains, hero saves universe from evil forces), we grow bored.
3. Marketing Campaigns Spoiling Entire Films
Before Batman V. Superman was released, posters plastered everywhere carried the tagline “Who Will Win?” The funny thing was, we already knew the answer to that question. The trailers themselves had spoiled it for us. By the time the second trailer was released, everyone knew Batman and Superman teamed up by the end of the film to fight Doomsday. Oh, and we knew Wonder Woman joined in too.
Was the prospect of two iconic superheroes fighting each other not enough? Why did we have to see all three acts revealed in the trailers? There’s a great moment in Civil War (that we’re about to spoil, so the uninitiated should skip this paragraph) where Ant-Man activates a new feature on his suit, growing as tall as a skyscraper during a battle sequence. It’s a fun moment and a genuine surprise in the film, and it easily could have been included in the trailers. But it wasn’t, and so audiences got to experience a moment of genuine delight.
Those moments should be less rare. The most effective trailers tease us with a few tantalizing images, then coyly reserve the true surprises for the film itself. The Force Awakens was a great example of this. We live in a world that is oversaturated with marketing, but occasionally, big budget films can withhold their secrets until their release day, and we appreciate it.
2. Splitting the Final Chapter into Parts
Blame The Deathly Hallows. At the time, it sounded like a reasonable solution. The final chapter in the Harry Potter series was very hefty, so to do the story justice, the final installment would be split into two parts. But soon studios realized that by splitting books into parts, they could make double the money they would have originally.
Soon, an unfortunate trend emerged where every final chapter, particularly in young adult based movies, must be split into two parts, regardless of the length of the source material. Twilight and Hunger Games succumbed to this awful trend, robbing their final chapters of any sense of urgency or closure (in the first half). Then, the most egregious example of unnecessary splitting came with The Hobbit films. The shortest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Ring novels was changed from an already outrageous two-part film into three painfully slow, insanely overstuffed, storyline-meandering CGI-fests. Sadly, the shadow of the film we could have had was barely visible in the final product. Maybe someday a fan will edit the Hobbit trilogy into the tight, 120 minute adventure film it was supposed to be. Until then, here’s hoping this greedy studio trend will cease.
1. Subplots That Only Serve to Set Up Sequels
There’s nothing wrong with laying the groundwork for future films in a big-budget, summer blockbuster. Much of the joy of the Marvel movies is spotting the various easter eggs and clues as to what future installments will hold. What drives us crazy is when the plot is brought to a grinding halt in order to introduce story elements that won’t even be relevant for years to come. Marvel films are hit or miss when it comes to this. When the groundwork is set up in an organic way, it can result in uproarious applause. But when future plot elements are awkwardly shoehorned into an already overstuffed plot, we begin to get weary. Superhero origin stories already must pack a lot of exposition into a short running time. It’s self-sabotaging to subtract from that already precious runtime to shamelessly shill future products.
Batman V. Superman performed maybe the most heinous act of flagrant self-promotion with its endlessly mocked “Youtube” scene, where the rising action is pulled to a screeching halt so that Wonder Woman can take ten minutes to literally watch teaser trailers for all of DC’s upcoming films. The scene is so obtrusive and pandering, it inspires groans from the audience rather than the applause such character reveals should receive. Self promotion is fine, but we’d appreciate at least a little subtlety.
What are some of your least favorite blockbuster trends? Let us know in the comments below!