The love of pop culture is tumutulous and unpredictable, full of sudden letdowns and unepected thrills. And sometimes, it's easy to get pessimistic. But just when you think you're burning out on TV, movies and comics, they can surprise you. And this summer has done quite a bit to restore my faith in pop culture.
Last summer, around this time, I was feeling kind of pessimistic. The Lone Ranger had just come out, and it felt like the last straw of kind of a depressing season. There were a slew of movies that wreaked death and destruction, and seemed uninterested in telling any kind of coherent story. Last year's big tentpoles felt not just mediocre, but as if they were going through the motions. When Pacific Rim arrived, it felt like a tonic — because the wholesale destruction seemed to be in the service of a story, and it was fun.
I definitely wasn't alone in feeling that way. I remember seeing a slew of essays about the numbing effect of that summer's movie slate. One top reviewer even wrote that they'd given Star Trek Into Darkness a good review and Pacific Rim a bad review, but that if Pacific Rim had come out in May and STID had come out in July, they suspected those ratings would probably have been reversed. (I can't remember who wrote this, and Google News isn't helping.)
A lot of last summer's films left me feeling just bone-weary. Even Iron Man 3, which was probably my favorite, was both super-dark and had a third act that came out of nowhere. Meanwhile, last summer's big TV event was Under The Dome, which I actually had high hoeps for. To complete the round-up of "work for hire" pop culture, I remember being kind of underwhelmed by DC Comics' Trinity War and what I saw of Marvel's Age of Ultron crossover.
This year, actual enjoyment.
So I tried not to get my hopes up too much for this summer — and I've been pleasantly surprised.
This year's big summer movies have been a blast, especially if you count April's Captain America sequel. Pretty much all of the movies I've seen this summer have been at least fun to watch. Some of the big movie releases have been better than others, but at least they were all kind of interesting and seemed to be trying to serve up interesting storytelling, and memorable visuals and action.
Even the most flawed tentpole films, like Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Maleficent, have felt like they were about something and were interesting to look at. Neither of those films is going to wind up being my favorite movie of the year, but they had characters, who changed over the course of the movie, and visuals that have stuck in my mind.
As for Transformers 4, it's definitely in line with the other two Transformers sequels — but at least it makes an effort to establish a new set of characters, arguably making it more interesting than the last two Shia movies. It's definitely the closest I've come this summer to walking out of the theater in a bad mood, something that happened a lot last year.
This summer's films have felt flawed in more interesting ways than last summer's — like, they've been trying to do some weird shit with famous characters. Godzilla seemed like a strong effort to make the big G a force to be reckoned with again, and the Mutos were an interesting adversary. The new X-Men movie made some gutsy choices, including sidelining Wolverine for a lot of the climax.
This summer's big visuals have seemed a bit more in the service of the story, rather than just gratuitously thrown in to create a big "trailer moment." In fact, the "trailer moments" have been character moments rather than just something smashing into something else — Godzilla was sold on the basis of Bryan Cranston, X-Men was sold with Patrick Stewart meeting James McAvoy, ASM2's trailers emphasized Andrew Garfield's chemistry with Emma Stone.
And I'm pretty sure the new Planet of the Apes movie and Guardians of the Galaxy are both going to rock my world.
As for television, Under the Dome is still Under the Dome — but there's been a lot of entertaining crazy lately, from Penny Dreadful to Salem to Dominion to True Blood's final outing. If you wanted to see angels having funeral orgies or witches suckling toads on their third nipples, this summer has had you covered. Plus The Last Ship is as dumb as mulch, but as fun as a waterslide. And there's still The Strain to come.
And Future's End may be DC's attempt at doing Days of Future Past, but I like the idea of Batman Beyond coming back in time, and I've enjoyed bits of the first few issues. And I've heard good things about Original Sin, plus Marvel has been ramping up for Guardians of the Galaxy by publishing a lot of Guardians-related material.
But mostly, I've been enjoying this summer's slate of movies way more than last summer's — even the weak ones haven't made me feel exhausted or annoyed. Too bad this is kind of a horrible summer, box-office wise.
Two metrics: box office and 3-D sales
Actually, there are two conflicting metrics. On the one hand, this has been a slow summer for overall box-office. On the other, audiences are coming back to 3D movies.
This past July 4 weekend was a disaster because the only new movies were Tammy, Earth to Echo and Deliver Us From Evil, and they all underperformed. But also, a lot of the summer's big movies lacked legs domestically — they did great in their opening weekends, but didn't sustain the momentum. None of 2014's big movies have broken $1 billion worldwide, and they're stuck in the mid-$200 million range domestically. This summer's box office is down 20 percent from last summer's.
The good news, meanwhile, is that the 3D slump has bottomed out. After Avatar made all the money in the world, audiences flocked to see movies like Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans in 3D, and those films became huge hits largely on the strength of the 3D visuals. Since then, the 3D boom has petered out — in 2013, it hit bottom, with only around 30 percent of audiences opting to see movies in 3D. And now, in 2014, 3D movies have bounced back — either because Gravity looked so cool in 3D, or because film-makers are talking up how they use 3D in their films.
This is subjective, of course — but I've felt as though this year's crop of movies, in addition to having more memorable and less samey visuals, have looked a bit more interesting in 3D. Part of that may be the fact they're increasingly geared towards IMAX 3D, rather than vanilla 3D. Transformers: Age of Extinction was the first movie to be filmed with IMAX 3D cameras, and a few other movies this summer seemed more IMAX-conscious. Audiences may just be coming back to 3D because the trailers promise more of a lively contrast between foreground and background. (Or maybe I'm just searching for facts to support a gut feeling.)
In any case, the percentage of 3D ticket sales is encouraging, but not if it's a high percentage of a low number. So I'm sure the movie industry is looking at this summer and wishing it had been more like last summer — and next summer will definitely be higher in the bigger franchises, including Avengers 2 and Jurassic World.
Anyway, for whatever reason, this summer's movies have been making me happy, or at least keeping me alive — but whatever I've liked about them hasn't been appealing to wide enough audiences, especially stateside. Oh well.