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!



“You Can’t Get Firefly by Rebooting Bonanza.”

My sister Sarah said the above quote and I thought it was so true.

We live in a swirling media storm of sequels, re-boots, re-imaginings, prequels, adaptations, updates, and spin-offs.  Our summer movie slates are full of sequels and three-quells and our fall movie schedules are full of play and book adaptations.  The new season of TV brings spin-offs of popular shows and a new take on 1820’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

First off, the pros: there is a lot to be said for stories and characters so popular that they last year after year and the demand is still there.  Arthur Conan Doyle famously tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes but Holmes was so popular that he was brought back and continues to this day in a series of blockbuster movies and two (!) TV shows.  The world is better for his continued presence.

And if you love a book series like Harry Potter then of course it’s fun to see it brought to life as a movie.  And lot of my favorite movies are from older material, from Pride & Prejudice to The Avengers.

But what you are getting is a predefined quantity, be it for good or ill.  A beloved book series should come across largely unchanged as a movie, and a ‘re-invention’ of a ‘50s TV series may lose the charm without gaining anything new.

Honestly, most of my favorite movies and shows are originals.  There has been much made of the ‘non-success’ of some of this summer’s original movies like Pacific Rim and After Earth, but the failure of sequels and spin-offs is more insidious and harder to point out.

Sequels often make a little more money and get a little more coverage but they are broken just as often — that speaks to bad writing, which crosses all borders.  Even good takes though, have one powerful missing ingredient — the power to make us see something we’re never seen before.

I just finished watching season one of Girls and I’m sure it draws on many old shows but it was very exciting as a viewer to have no idea where it was going.  Most every convention was turned on its head brilliantly by the end of the season and Lana Dunham’s fresh voice kept me tuning in.

Which brings me to the final point, in the end it’s not about where a premise originated from, it’s about how fresh those ideas and the voice telling them is.  Imagine in your mind an actual story-teller, up on a stage, his voice hoarse and worn-out as he treads over the story he’s told to this same group a hundred times.  Now imagine a ‘fresh voice’ speaking up out of the crowd, then walking up to the stage and telling the same stories of love and lose, of hope and heartbreak that mankind has been telling since the dawn of time — but this time the story feels different, the characters arrest you, and the plot zigged right when you thought it would zag.   It was truly like nothing you’d even seen before.

All that and they juggled baby geese.