Summer of 2016 hasn’t been a great time for the blockbuster. If it wasn’t animated, most of the big-budget movies that studios usually rely on to make their fortunes for the year flopped. Here are some of the reasons why
Money doesn’t fix everything
This was the summer where movies with large budgets couldn’t hide the faults of the script. Usually, there’s at least one movie with a huge special effects budget that does huge box office numbers, despite being having an almost nightmarishly bad plot and/or script.
The original Independence Day was kind of that magical point where most of us knew it wasn’t a good movie, but we were sold on it based on the promise of seeing a bunch of famous landmarks explode. But, somehow, the sequel didn’t manage to capture that same magic.
Star Trek Beyond was half-good, but all the writer and director turnovers and the rush to make the 50th anniversary couldn’t be fixed by good-looking effects. Warcraft and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had large budgets but failed to get much box office momentum. And X-Men: Apocalypse came very close to ending the world and it was hard to care.
Another feature was that a lot of these movies had release dates set in stone before they even had scripts. All the money in the world can’t really fix having to rush through the process that figures out the plot. X-Men: Apocalypse had its release date announced before Days of Future Past had even come out. Announcing a release date before a movie’s been developed is a tactic that is finally catching up to studios—it makes news if they move them and always looks like the film is faltering. If they waited, these movies could maybe have a little bit more wiggle room.
The big-budget spectacle movie is definitely not dead, but it’s also not a surefire path to success.
Of this summer’s big releases, almost all of them were either remakes or sequels. This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. The problem is that when everything is a remake or sequel, you have to deliver big to make yours stand apart—and none of these movies, save Captain America: Civil War, did.
Nothing this year got even close to the highs of Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie with almost no script and a reboot/sequel to a series that had its last installment 30 years before. It proved that time isn’t necessarily a barrier to quality in franchises. And yet, Independence Day: Resurgence didn’t learn from it. Ghostbusters did manage to create a whole world that looked like, but wasn’t identical to, the original. And it looked good, but it also floundered.
Alice Through the Looking Glass, X-Men: Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond, Pete’s Dragon, Independence Day: Resurgence—it was just exhausting to go to the theater and see a sequel or a remake every single week. Especially ones with middling-to-bad reviews.
This has been a problem in these kinds of movies for a while, but no one managed to make their villains really work this summer. X-Men: Apocalypse was named for its villain, and it still fell flat. The biggest problem with Ghostbusters wasn’t the team of women—who were great—but the underdeveloped bad guy. Star Trek Beyond had villain it spent too little time developing with a twist that it gave away in commercials.
A lot of the time it came down to villains with very complicated plans and no character development. Even Captain America: Civil War, the best of a bad lot, ran into this problem. Zemo’s plan was complicated in a way that was clearly done to get the plot devices the writers wanted—Bucky blamed for a bombing, the death of T’Challa’s father, etc. When his motivations were revealed, they were fine, but they still didn’t adequately explain why his plan needed to be so complicated.
X-Men: Apocalypse had Apocalypse up to his usual comic tricks, but fell down hard on the characterization of the Four Horsemen. And since the climax hinged on them switching sides, that was a huge problem. I still can’t tell you anything about Angel or Psylocke in the movie universe—they barely even spoke.
Ironically, Suicide Squad almost had one of the year’s best villains, in that the Enchantress’ plan was basically “I used to be a goddess and now the world has treated me bad so I will destroy you.” She was basically a catalyst to a bunch of other things that should have been more interesting, but weren’t.
Almost every release this summer suffered from some kind of weird hype problem—either too much or too little.
Suicide Squad wasn’t a great movie, but it might have passed through this summer tagged as “fun but mediocre” instead of “two hours of death” but for the hype. Hell, it might even have been reviewed well if they hadn’t started trying to remake it so late in the game. The reaction to the first trailer was the best Warner Bros. had seen for a DC movie in a long time, and it reportedly went into overdrive to make Suicide Squad into a movie that would “save” that universe. And there was no way it could live up to that.
There was also no way all the stories about what the cast and director got up to on the set helped. On the one hand, it made everyone aware of the movie. On the other hand, it definitely overshadowed the actual movie. And Jared Leto pulled so much focus with his antics that his relatively brief appearances in the film disappointed many viewers.
Ghostbusters had a similar problem. Between the “controversy” (“controversy” in this case being a synonym for “idiots on the internet kicking up shit and pretending it’s not because they’re sexist”) and the not-very-good first trailer, it stumbled hard coming out of the gate. And while not perfect, it’s another movie which had its identity completely overshadowed.
Then there were movies like Pete’s Dragon, Alice Through the Looking Glass, and The BFG, movies which should have all registered a lot more on the public consciousness than they did. The BFG was Steven Spielberg adapting a story from a classic children’s book, it should have been a slam dunk. And yet, the fact that it was a Spielberg movie was barely mentioned in the marketing. Technically, Alice Through the Looking Glass was Alan Rickman’s last film, and no one paid attention to that one either. A furry dragon wasn’t enough to get Pete’s Dragon any eyeballs.
Star Trek Beyond came out in the year of Star Trek’s 50 anniversary, and it still seemed to be buried by Paramount. And, hey, does anyone remember that there was a second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie this summer? No?
Why animated movies succeeded where the others failed
Maybe it’s because it was a less crowded field. Maybe it was because animated movies need such a long production schedule that they have the time to work out all these kinks. Maybe it’s having an unusual gimmick. Whatever the reason, Finding Dory, The Secret Lives of Pets, and (god help us) Sausage Party were the only bona fide hits of the summer.
Something has to give in the formula studios are using for its summer blockbusters. More time, cheaper budgets, better scripts, original ideas—something. Anything. Otherwise, they’re going to continue to disappoint.