The summer blockbusters of the 2010s feel like an entirely different world from what we saw in the 1980s. Not only has the technology drastically changed, but social mores have opened the door to more politically overt material and fantastic fare that obscure fascistic leanings (see almost every superhero movie). The blockbuster genre doesn’t shy from being self-reflective and commenting on itself now, yet indulges in some of the laziest nostalgia bating. These movies are slicker and, as a result, exist on two extremes of a spectrum: sharp modern fantasies & transparent corporate merchandising efforts. Our first summer of a new decade is off to an extremely troubling start who knows what the future holds for big summer tentpole movies.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Matt Reeves)
Release date: July 11th, 2014
From my review: Dawn is a film about two sides, arguably justified in their anxieties, who make terrible decisions that attempt to say the ends justify the means. Now past the origin story of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we get into the meat of this series that makes it interesting, the conflict between humans and apes. The Apes, under Caesar’s leadership, have a non-aggression agreement. Caesar has established inter-tribal rules about how they will treat each other when an emphasis on doing no harm to each other. As the film goes on, this non-violence pact is tested and, depending on your reading of the film, abandoned. One theme throughout the film is Caesar’s self-reflection on his personal views. He seems assured of what he is doing at the start, and by the end, he seems profoundly resigned to going down a path that likely leads to oblivion and definitely leads to no possibility of man and ape allying.
Koba represents a very different perspective than Caesar’s. In the first film, Koba is brutalized by human scientists as part of their experimentation to develop an Alzheimer’s cure. He still bears the physical scars of their work across his body. Koba is entirely justified in hating the humans. Dreyfus, the leader of the San Francisco colony, is also justified in his hatred of the apes. His entire family was killed as a result of the Simian Flu outbreak. The greater world around him crumbled as the virus led to violence between desperate humans and their governments. Every character has a reasonable justification for their actions against others, but the film is not going to let them off that easy.
The Nice Guys (directed by Shane Black)
Release date: May 20th, 2016
From my review: The Nice Guys does a lot right. It balances being a 1980s buddy cop film set in the late 1970s, as well as being a variation on the film noir genre. There are a lot of failures in the film. Our protagonists are very flawed, as every good noir should have, and they comically fumble and deal with more serious dramatic character flaws. Healy is a man who goes to violence as his first resort and has to deal with a challenge to that way of thinking. March is more of the comic relief, but has his own guilt about the way he’s raised his daughter and how he caused his marriage to go to ruins. The balance between these two and the lynch pin of the entire film is Holly, March’s daughter played by the remarkable Angourie Rice. If this film had been made in the 1970s this is the Tatum O’Neal role.
The mystery is complex and labyrinthine, but with enough clues being delivered through dialogue that a viewer can figure things out as they go. The film does present a hyper-realized 1970s. Driving down Hollywood Boulevard we see posters for a litany of films from the era, characters read newspapers talking about the gas crisis and Los Angeles’ severe smog. In the end, not much of these elements add to up to anything life changing. The resolution of the mystery is fairly straightforward, but keeping in line with the down endings of traditional noir. What The Nice Guys does provide is a fun alternative to the more overblown CGI-fests that typically flood our movie screens this time of year. The film is an enjoyable throwback to a style of film not made often.
The Other Guys (directed by Adam McKay)
Release date: August 5th, 2010
Terry Hoitz (Mark Whalberg) is an NYPD detective who receives no respect from his coworkers. His partner, Allen Gamble (Will Ferrell), is a forensic accountant benched at a desk after accidentally shooting Derek Jeter. Everyone in the department idolizes Danson & Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson & Dwayne Johnson), the hotshot superstar detectives. However, when that duo gets permanently sidelined, Hoitz sees an opportunity to gain clout. Hoitz and Gamble start by investigating a construction permit violation by businessman Sir David Ershon (Steve Coogan) only to uncover a vast financial crime that sets them into a high octane crime story.
The Other Guys is a Trojan horse, disguising itself first as a parody of buddy cop movies but then becoming a scathing satire on the financial collapse of 2008 and its ongoing effects. Captain Mauch (Michael Keaton), their boss, holds a second job at Bed, Bath, and Beyond to make enough money to put his kid through college. The villain’s master plan involves draining cash from the NYPD pension fund. McKay tested how he could put these political threads into a wide release comedy in preparation for movies like The Big Short & Vice. The result is one of the funniest smart comedies to have come out in years.
Captain America: Civil War (Directed by Joe & Anthony Russo)
Release date: May 6th, 2016
From my review: After a long run of 9/11 scale battles, the governments of the world wish to reign in the Avengers. A plan is presented that would tie the team to the United Nations. This means they would not act unless the UN passed a resolution allowing them to do so. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) has been feeling guilt over his role in the Ultron debacle and wants to sign right away. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is hesitant to give his autonomy over so quickly. It makes sense, Steve is the product of a nation’s desire to create a human weapon. Everything goes south when Steve’s old partner turned Hydra killing machine, Bucky is implicated in a terrorist attack. The heroes choose sides, battles take place, and the film turns the superhero formula on its head by ending not in a battle through a city but in a brutal, and surprisingly emotional, battle between three heroes in Siberia.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that Spider-Man name drops Empire Strikes Back mid-way through the film. In the same way that the Empire served to disrupt and reshape the status quo of the Star Wars universe, Civil War is out to accomplish the same goal. The purpose of the Avengers is in question. The relationships of heroes that joined together under tenuous circumstances are torn apart. The film sets up many questions but doesn’t provide answers. I suspect those answers will be the next two Avengers films the Russo Brothers are set to direct.
Avengers: Infinity War (Directed by Joe & Anthony Russo)
Release date: April 23rd, 2017
From my review: Marvel also does a fantastic job of embracing its comic book roots. There is never a sense of embarrassment that this is a live-action comic book with colorfully costumed characters. The script works hard to add a touch of vast importance to the proceedings but also knows this is silly fun. Whereas, DC went so full throttle with the bleakness of Nolan’s Dark Knight in Man of Steel and Bats vs. Supes, only to awkwardly try to walk the fence in Justice League. This was the first film where James Gunn wasn’t penning the Guardians of the Galaxy, and they didn’t miss a beat, still feeling like space misfits when standing side by side with the Avengers. The way the Guardians and other characters crossed in and out of subplots with other characters rang very accurate to the style large scale company-wide comic book events read. There are typically multiple fronts in these wars and the way personalities play off of each other helps humanize what could be an overblown story.
You might wonder who Avengers: Infinity War is about with so many characters sharing the screen and I think the core of the story is Thanos and Gamora. The Avengers and the rest of the Guardians are side characters to a story about Thanos. When compared to Justice League’s Steppenwolf it is evident that Marvel has the upper hand. Instead of going with the comic book incarnation of Thanos, a sadistic worshipper of Death, we get a cosmic version of population control. There are no pompous speeches about a thirst for power or a villain hamming it up on screen. Josh Brolin adds no accents or mustache-twirling to his performance. Thanos is just someone who is blindly convinced that they are right.
Snowpiercer (Directed by Bong Joon-ho)
Release date: June 27th, 2014
After attempting to stop global warming backfires, plunging the Earth into an Ice Age, what survives of humanity now lives onboard the Snowpiercer. This is a circumnavigational train run by the reclusive magnate Wilford. Decades have passed, and now the passengers are segregated with the poorest in the very back and wealthy living in luxury at the front. Curtis (Chris Evans) is one of these poor passengers and is growing tired of the constant oppression. One day during a visit by emissaries from the front, Curtis leads a revolt and finds the guards’ guns are empty. He begins leading his crew forward on an odyssey into the truth of what is happening onboard the Snowpiercer with the hope of his people living a better life.
Snowpiecer, like The Other Guys, finds smart ways to blend action entertainment with deep themes that explore universally relevant ideas. The movie is all about the crushing structure of capitalistic societies, how they depend on a permanent underclass to lift the upper classes into obscene luxury. Bong Joon-ho’s first foray into English language filmmaking isn’t perfect, but he hits so much out of the ballpark. The production design and costumes are fantastic. The worldbuilding is immaculate, bringing in elements of our history, but firmly planting itself in a heightened version of our reality. Snowpiercer goes to dark, uncomfortable places yet still delivers a satisfying conclusion that it completely earns.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Directed by Edgar Wright)
Release date: August 13th, 2010
I’ve noticed memes lately lampooning the type of young Millennial/Zoomer guy who heralds Scott Pilgrim as his favorite movie. They make me laugh because they highlight how audiences so often misinterpret a film that doesn’t slam you over the head with an explanation of its themes. Based on graphic novels by Brian Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a Torontonian young man who plays bass in Sex Bob-omb and is dating high schooler Knives Chau. This latest girlfriend draws sharp criticism from many of the women in Scott’s life. His immaturity leads him to become infatuated with Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a recent transplant from the States. Scott’s pursuit of Ramona leads him into an epic series of battles with her Seven Evil Exes played out in the over the top style of video games and anime.
Edgar Wright is a fantastic visual comedic director, and he’s entirely at home with this material. Wright understands the difference between fan service and the clever incorporation of familiar elements. He never allows the references to popular video games to overwhelm characters’ arcs or the narrative. By the time you reach the end of the film, you understand the complexity of the women Scott wants and how he is not mature enough yet. I do have gripes with the ending because I think Knives was slighted and that it would have been better for Scott to choose to be on his own for a while. That subversion of tropes would have been ideally in line with the rest of the picture. That said, this is a visual delight with such funny dialogue and pace that never lets the audience slip into a lull.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Directed by Quentin Tarantino)
Release date: July 26th, 2019
From my review: Front and center in this picture are Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and while I usually don’t talk about the actors so much as the characters this is a movie where the actors are a critical part of how audiences will perceive the picture. These are both actors that are middle-aged and not able to play the same roles they once did when they started in Hollywood. Both men have reached a level of prestige in acting so that you wouldn’t expect to see them playing leads in farcical comedies or low budget horror. These are guys that will be placed in either Oscar bait or big-budget dramas. The characters they play in Once Upon a Time are like reflections from a parallel world where their careers didn’t follow the same trajectory. Tarantino has always had an interest in the washed-up has-been both in his scripts and in his casting. He’s credited with turning around John Travolta’s career (only for the actor to do his damndest to bury himself again), and Tarantino can’t seem to quit perennial screw-up, Michael Madsen. Tarantino idolizes old soldiers and cowboys, and this is probably his most earnest film when addressing those tropes.
This is the least violent Tarantino film, though when the shit hits the fan in the third act, he most definitely steps on the gas. There’s a sense of contemplation in the work now which has never been this prevalent. The director has a deep love of this period of cinema and peppers the work with film and television both real and fictional. Once Upon a Time takes place in the same cinematic universe of Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill, a fantasy universe where two-fisted heroes are real, but most people are just trying to get by day to day. This isn’t the Hollywood of our reality but the one from Tarantino’s nostalgia where Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen and Sharon Tate are all friends and party together. In this world, the likes Manson and his family are cartoonish buffoons who can’t succeed because evil never wins. It’s why in the film’s final crane shot, looking out over a surprisingly peaceful Cielo Drive you can’t help but feel a catch in your throat at how nice it would be if life were more like the movies.
Mad Max: Fury Road (Directed George Miller)
Release date: May 7th, 2015
Max (Tom Hardy) has been traveling the wastelands of post-Apocalypse Australia; he’s seen so many horrible things. He gets captured by the War Boys in the film’s opening and brought to the mountain citadel of their leader Immortan Joe. Max has his blood slowly drained to help dope the War Boys, bumping up their clarity in battle. Meanwhile, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Joe’s lieutenants, is taking her War Rig to load up on gasoline and ammunition at nearby settlements but goes off course. Joe learns Furiosa has helped his five breeding slaves escape and sends his war party out to retrieve them. Max is drug along as a blood bag for Nux (Nicholas Hoult) and breaks free, joining up with Furiosa to help her, and himself get out of this situation.
There is no action film experience of the 2010s as intense and rewarding as Fury Road. I remember sitting in the theater during my first viewing and being wholly exhilarated by the rapid speed of the narrative from the opening frames. George Miller proved he hadn’t lost a step in the two decades that had passed since Beyond Thunderdome, the last Mad Max film. Computer effects are used appropriately here so that they never dominate the story, but help heighten the thrills and dangers. The production design is out of this world, with Miller giving us some of the wildest, grotesque villains to date in the Mad Max series. Alongside Immortan Joe are figures like The People Eater, The Bullet Farmer, Corpus Colossus, and more. As in all Mad Max films, Max himself is merely the means to help us enter another terrifying corner of a blasted planet.
Hereditary/Midsommar (Directed by Ari Aster)
Release dates: June 8th, 2018 & July 3rd, 2019
In the summer, horror films are a long ongoing tradition going back to the very first summer blockbuster, Jaws. Ari Aster pulled off a two-year feat by giving us the best horror films of both 2018 and 2019 as summer blockbusters. Hereditary uses domestic tensions to elucidate its horrors while Midsommar examines the terrors that can come with gaslighting and the ensuing mental breakdown. Aster has a wicked sense of humor that he uses to diffuse how harrowing his stories can become, but he never uses that to undermine the moments where the audience needs to descend into their own personal hell. I think of moments, like the finale in the attic from Hereditary and the cliff diving scene of Hereditary, wherein both Aster makes his audience confront the horror.
From my Hereditary review: The power of Hereditary is not in some shocking reveal in the plot, but in the outrageous outbursts between family members, particularly Annie and Peter. The film is primarily about the relationship between this mother and son, with the doomed and damned relationship between the late matriarch and her son, Charles looming in the murky shadows. Toni Collette plays Annie and once again reminds us of her power as an actor. She finds that unbalanced place of a mother who has fears about the mental illness that may be present in her family tree. Her youngest, Charlie (played by the astonishingly good Milly Shapiro) is a withdrawn child prone to tinkering with constructed people, made of scraps of things she finds. In many ways, Charlie is a reflection of Annie. They are both devoted to their art and Annie worries about what Charlie will miss by being so embedded in the internal world.
From my Midsommar review: Ari Aster proves doubters wrong with his sophomore feature, a return to familiar themes of family and grief centered around pagan ritual. In contrast to the dark, emotionally volatile tone of Hereditary, Midsommar presents itself with a bright yet neutral atmosphere. Aster manages to tackle romantic relationships and their conflicts with the same sure hand he brought to examining the bleak inner workings of dysfunctional families. There’s a sense of hypnosis as we journey into the world of this film, a warm uncertainty, feeling doubts about treading further only to be nudged forward by a deceptively friendly hand. Before you know it, we are too far along to turn back and can only grimace at the horrors played out before our eyes.