Big movies have never been bigger. Advances in digital technology now make it possible to bring down whole city blocks, or flood the screen with zombies, or re-create L. Frank Baum’s Oz as immersive 3-D spectacle. These days, to go see a big-budget Hollywood film is to be enveloped in the worlds they create, be it Krypton, Asgard, or the lower reaches of outer space. And while the term “blockbuster” could, and often is, applied to any sort of big-budget, mass-marketed film, those films that promise and deliver on spectacle wear the term best.
It’s fitting, since the term was originally applied to bombs capable of blowing up city blocks, that it should stay linked to films that often turn their focus toward explosions. And that’s the other way big movies have never been bigger: Overseas box office now plays a major role in whether films succeed or fail financially, and that means that blockbusters increasingly speak in the international language of BOOM. Hence a film like Now You See Me, which features a cast with international appeal and magic tricks enhanced by CGI beyond the possibilities of logic and physics. If were made even a decade ago, it might have been a modestly budgeted heist film about magicians with a gift for sleight of hand, and it would almost certainly have been better for it. In its current form, it may not be good, but anyone who sees it will go home thinking they’ve seen something.
The worst tendency of the modern blockbuster is to treat spectacle not as something to be built toward and earned, but as an obligation. As I write this, Iron Man 3 is, and will likely remain, the highest-grossing film of the year. It deserves its success: Over the past few years, Marvel figured out how to transport the appeal of comic books to the big screen, not just on a film-by-film basis, but as part of a whole universe, delivering hugely entertaining films with a lot of personality. Iron Man 3 is no exception. Robert Downey Jr. remains a witty Tony Stark, and new-to-the-series writer-director Shane Black brought his love of snappy banter to the material. The film also took big chances, including a plot twist seemingly designed to appall those familiar with the comic book and a long section in which Stark has out-of-armor adventures with a lonely kid in Tennessee. But in the end came the required effects show, a good-guys-on-bad-guys effects assault choreographed to the last pixel that didn’t feel that different from the climax of the previous summer’s Avengers or the coming fall’s Thor: The Dark World. Marvel may have cracked the comics-to-movie code—so successfully that more and more studios will try to imitate its shared universe for years to come—but it’s also started to codify formulas of its own. In the end, everything must get blown up, or else it doesn’t feel like a blockbuster.
That’s not unique to Marvel, of course. Film after film made sure to end at the fireworks factory. Star Trek Into Darkness destroyed much of future San Francisco. Man Of Steel leveled Metropolis. Oz The Great And Powerful made the Emerald City the site of a Two Towers-like siege sequence (albeit one with some witty touches all its own). The White House went down, not once but twice. And on and on and on. Boom, boom, BOOM. It translates and it satisfies.
Though maybe not as much as it used to. As the summer ground on, the discontent became evident and the buzz dictated that the 2013 summer movie season—summer being the season most hospitable to blockbusters—wasn’t going very well. As our own Matt Singer proved through science and statistics, it wasn’t really worse than other summers, but it still felt worse. There just wasn’t that much to feel good about or that many movies showing us anything we hadn’t seen before. Even movies that earned decent reviews and connected with audiences felt somehow off. By summer’s end, Star Trek fans had turned on Star Trek Into Darkness. And try finding many with a kind word for Man Of Steel, a film now defined more by its queasy finale than any moment that preceded it.
That both films borrowed heavily from 9/11 for their climactic images might account for some of the bitter aftertaste, but given the choice, audiences often sought out grimness. There’s a case study to be written about why, of the two Die Hard-in-the-White House movies, Olympus Has Fallen succeeded and White House Down failed (relatively speaking; both handily made back their budgets after international release). The former, which arrived first, was a grim, critically reviled, technically adequate film starring the glowering block of wood known as Gerard Butler, and featured a helicopter gunning down dozens of victims on the streets of D.C. The latter got surprisingly strong reviews, featured the liveliest direction of Roland Emmerich’s largely intolerable career, starred the winning Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, and featured a scene in which Foxx’s fantasy Barack Obama fired a rocket launcher while riding around on the White House lawn. Yet it’s the former that performed well enough to inspire a sequel—London Has Fallen, coming soon to a miserable theater near you—while the latter floundered. To borrow a line from an entirely different movie, “The wrong kid died.”
Maybe it’s just that Olympus Has Fallen looked and felt more like what an action film was supposed to look like than the goofier White House Down, which found Emmerich playing with the expectations set by the sort of destruction über alles movie he helped invent with Independence Day. There were signs of change and a desire to push back against formula elsewhere, too. Michael Bay tried his hand at black comedy with Pain & Gain. Despite a lively script and cast, it didn’t really work, in part because Bay had a hard time not making a Michael Bay movie. But Bay gets points for trying. Elysium, too, had sweep, ambition, and a political conscience, even if it didn’t have quite enough story or ideas to fill out the world it made. Even if it skimped on the human element, Pacific Rim had ideas aplenty, synthesizing Guillermo Del Toro’s love for classic Japanese kaiju and mecha into an original vision. (Well, “original” might be a stretch, but Del Toro put his own distinctive stamp on some sturdy old concepts.) And though it’s well on its way to becoming a Howard The Duck-like punchline, The Lone Ranger found some passionate defenders who zoomed past the bloat to home in on the overstuffed film’s weirdness and ambition. It lumbers, but it’s also filled with spectacular setpieces, and a compellingly odd Johnny Depp performance. And though it’s not the most sophisticated critique of the politics behind the settling of the West, that’s in there too. Hopefully its financial failure won’t discourage others from taking risks.
Yet, in the end, the year’s most satisfying blockbuster films were those that understood that bigger wasn’t always better. The globe-spanning Brad Pitt-versus-the-zombie-plague film World War Z scrapped a third act that would have ended the film in a battle royale in Russia for one in which its hero had to take on a mere handful of zombies in the spooky corridors of a Welsh science station. Rather than trying to top itself, a film that had already destroyed Philadelphia and Jerusalem offered suspense rather than spectacle, a smart choice that gave it a real sense of stakes rather than another round of digital warfare.
Similarly, Marvel’s 2013 offerings stayed close to their winning characters before pushing them toward the inevitable light shows, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire stayed rooted in the problems of its protagonist and her allies. The film offers glimpses of the dystopian world that’s turned Katniss Everdeen and her fellow tributes into unwilling combatants, but the action always feels driven by their desire to stay alive, help each other, and not become as monstrous as the world that manipulated them into stardom by demanding they kill.
But the year’s best blockbuster, and one of the year’s best films, found a way to balance grandeur with intimate drama. Gravity justifiably got dinged a bit for its screenplay’s clunkier patches, but if the film—and the performances of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney—didn’t make caring about its characters’ survival its first order of business, its breakthrough effects wouldn’t have mattered. Alfonso Cuarón sent viewers into space and offered a vision of its beauty and terror that had never been seen before. But his film never forgot that for effects to register as anything but neat tricks, a movie has to make us see them through human eyes. The years to come will doubtlessly produce films that borrow from, and attempt to top, Gravity. With luck, they’ll look past the whizzing debris and the firestorms and remember the trembling wonder at the film’s heart.