Summer Movies: What Happened to Happy?

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

I love dark, complex movies.  I’m a big fan of cable TV anti heroes.  I think hiring Bryan Singer, the director of that clever little drama The Usual Suspects to direct the big budget superhero movie The X-Men was a masterstroke, and popcorn movies have been the better for it since then.

And yet.

While I’ll always love The Dark Knight trilogy and all the other descendants of the mutants, two movies this year have made me quite mad (and sad) by going super-dark (death of a main character) in what was otherwise a very fun, pretty light ‘good time’.

‘Good times’ used to be what summer movies were all about.  They were somewhat brainless (as a whole) and their characters usually lacking, but the whole idea was to pull yourself out of the heat for a couple of hours (that’s two, modern directors, just 120 minutes please) munch of some fun snacks, watch things blow up, and generally not think too hard.  To me the quintessential summer movies were the back-to-back years of Will Smith — Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997).  Fun, sweet, and giving you no reason in the world to cry.  Oh, Mad Men it was not, but then, Mad Men hadn’t been invented yet.

Then in 2000 The X-Men came along.  Along with The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The X-Men helped swing the pendulum back toward quality, director-driven action and adventure movies, like those of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and away from the increasingly dumbed-down cops-running-with-guns-towards-aliens cinema of the late 80s and 90s.

The other things these two early 2000s film ushered in was a massive resurgence in fantasy.  Aliens had been big, but now anything under the sun was possible, from frying someone with a lightening bolt to using one ring to rule them all.  And in the hands of a new generation of indie film artiste, these movies (largely) were the best of both worlds — big beautiful spectacle with a surprisingly satisfying, very human center.

Now though, I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung too far.  Directors are now pushing the ‘realism’  of life into summer movies not just by having flawed characters and complex situations, but by actually, actively seeking to make their audiences sad and possibility heartbroken.  There’s a great piece of writing advice (I wish I could remember who said it) that goes — ‘You can tell the reader the world is good or that the world is bad, but not that the world is shit.’  To me, this means you can look at the mud or the stars, and you can show corruption and death and sorrow, but within an ethos, within a frame.  The feeling should be that even if this character’s life has gone terribly wrong, somewhere out there, someone is still having a good life.

The ‘Life is shit’ mentality sort of shows that all always comes to naught, good deeds are always rewarded with unjust desserts, and everything we love always dies.  And I feel these happy, popcorn movies, are starting to be more about pain and loss than about fun and adventure.  I’m all for dark dramas that leave you spent and shaking, wiping tears from your eyes.

Requiem For a Dream — don’t go into this one expecting a lot of laughs

But with movies that are sold (in their advertising) as fun, light, or family-friendly, I don’t expect to need to use my popcorn bucket to catch my tears.  Exceptions are when an entire movie hinges on a death, say The Lion King, though that film’s message is certainly not ‘Life is shit’.  The Dark Knight movies were sold as adult tales and everything in their aesthetic told us that death and loss could be part of the package.  Now, they weren’t ‘feel-good’ movies, but never promised they would be.

Perhaps to me that’s the greater sin — not the sadness and death, but the unexpected nature of it.  In both of the movies that disappointed me this year, I had thought earlier in the films ‘This is the best movie ever! (or at least for the year).”  They were funny, light-hearted, clever, romantic, and exciting — and then they both did unforgivable things.  The ‘Life is shit’ option.  Oh, sometimes life is shit, people die, and there isn’t always a happy ending (at least for a while).  But isn’t that more of an exploration for a drama to cover?

The thing is, these disappointments weren’t just good movies, they were potentially great movies.  And for some people, they are great still.  But for me and a lot of others, we won’t be able to enjoy them as fully as we’d hoped.  When Diane Disney, Walt’s little daughter saw Bambi for the first time, she was upset by the death of Bambi’s mother.  Walt told her that was just what happened in the story.  “No Daddy,” she said, “You could have made her live.”

In the end, great power does come with great responsibility.  Dark storytelling brings a level of reality to fantastical summer fare and summer films return the favor by bringing popularity and high stakes to human drama.  But for this writer, I just keep thinking ‘You could have made them live’.

The Prisoner of Azkaban — dark done right. Thanks Alfonso Cuarón!

 

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2 thoughts on “Summer Movies: What Happened to Happy?

  1. There are still plenty of mindless blockbusters for you, if that’s what you enjoy. The epitome of this type of entertainment are the Transformers films, and we even had The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Godzilla this year. Last summer we had Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Fast & Furious 6, The Wolverine plus more for films where you can shut your brain off and clap along to explosions like a child does on the Fourth of July.

    As for mentioning the Lord of the Rings films, yes those were regarded as fantasy films but were also executed to perfection, receiving dozens of Oscar nominations and awards. That’s why those films were released every year in December, right in the middle of awards season, not summer time.

    I’m not exactly sure what films you’re talking about from this summer that is full of darkness and showing how life is shit, but there are films every year like that. I do agree with you that possibly the landscape of cinema is changing to a darker tone overall, and yes that might be because of the great success of Nolan’s Batman trilogy. But we’ll always have the Pixar and Dreamworks animations every summer, plus the number of other colorful super-hero films. There is plenty to make everyone happy every year.

    • I don’t really equate happy with mindless, but I agree with you that some children’s films, like those of Pixar, Laika, and Studio Ghibli, really delve into dark subjects but still show the light on the other side.
      Thanks for your comment!

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