Batman Begins, Again: The State of the Blockbuster

18 June, 2005

I went to see Batman Begins yesterday with Cary and Will in the midst of a long day -- right between helping Chris, Lindsay, and Amy move into their new house, and a long shift closing the shop. After the movie, we got into an interesting conversation about blockbusters.

All three of us walked out of the movie thinking it was "pretty good" and feeling a sweeping sense of delight (relief?) totally out of proportion to the movie's quality. Our hopes have gotten so low for these kind of high rent summer 'event' movies that seeing one that plain doesn't suck exceeds expectations. The Daredevils, Electras, and Catwomen have really done a number on us.

I started reminiscing for the days when summer blockbusters seemed fresh, even exciting, or at least yielded even the most occasional surprise or variation in the formula. We tried to make a list of 'interesting' or 'mold-breaking' blockbusters and we got as far as putting Jurassic Park, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Blair Witch Project up as candidates before diverting into a discussion about the definition of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Now, with some more reflection, I think I can make a stab at explaining what's caused this case of Blockbuster Fatigue of which our perverse over-enjoyment of Batman Begins seems to be symptomatic. I think it may have been The Trilogies. Star Wars: Episode I, with its almost endless avalanche of hype came out in 1999 and the Sith are still in the final throes of acheiving their Revenge as I write this, six years later. In those six years, the three Star Wars movies and the three Lord of the Rings movies earned a total of almost 5.2 billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales (with people still tearing Sith stubs at this very moment), putting all six movies in the top 25 all-time money earners (Episode 3's gross, not yet on that list since it's still going strong, is here) and accounting for almost five percent of total US domestic ticket sales during that period.

Basically, the story is that Star Wars and Lord of the Rings have sucked up all of the oxygen in the blockbuster stratosphere for the last six years leaving the aesthetics of these movies exactly where they were before The Trilogies appeared, only more atrophied, barely breathing. The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter aside (both are slightly choppy seas on the far edge of The Trilogies' sunami), Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are what scientists call a 'non-repeating phenomenon', which means something extraordinary and unexplainable that we're unlikely to see again.

When you subtract The Trilogies from the equation, the evolution of the Blockbuster Industrial Complex makes a lot more sense. In the late nineties, it had found the Comic Book movie as a kind of stable platform and formula on which blockbusters could be based and made sustainable (through sequels and slight variations on successful formulae), rationalizing what had, up to that point been the frightening purview of a small number of 800 pound industry gorillas (Stephen Spielberg and James Cameron) and incomprehensible grass roots media trends (The Blair Witch Project). Hollywood -- being, after all, a bank -- looks for predictability. It breaks new ground (or watches someone else do it) and then rapidly moves with formulae and franchises to protect it and monetize its every available inch. In the process it wears ideas out of their freshness. Formulas become cliches. Franchises get stale. Something new comes along.

We have, after all, since Jurassic Park (as good a point as any to mark the beginning of the contemporary blockbuster), had five Batman movies, two X-Men movies, two Spiderman movies, the Matrices, two Daredevil-related movies, the Hulk, and countless more forgetable others (including at least three Blades). We're right now on the verge of The Fantastic Four and Superman, the father of them all. This formula is stale. Even the best of these movies (like Batman Begins) are so bloodless that they feel more like actual zombies or vampires than any creature from their own genre. And some of them (Daredevil, Electra, Catwoman) have begun to fail at the box office, even with big name stars.

It's just that because of The Trilogies no one noticed that this blockbuster formula had shriveled up and died and it was time for a new one. Ticket sales were beyond strong (remember, this period we're talking about is the highest grossing one in the history of movies), the movies were relatively well received critically (at least LoTR was), and seemed full of variety (Wagner in space or in New Zeland or Mutants). Now that they're gone, though, it feels like we've been watching the same mediocre cardboard cutout comic book movie over and over for ten years. Look even at the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman movies. They seem like edgy art films, character studies compared to this new edition, which is amongst the best of this recent batch. Anyway, here's hoping that it doesn't take Hollywood too long to unlearn the lesson of the last five years and that we start seeing new kinds of blockbusters, rather than ever-more anemic versions of existing ones, soon.

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