Pleasure in the Rubble: Why the Summer's Last, Smallest Blockbuster Was Its Best

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Simon Pegg in The World's End.
Simon Pegg in The World's End. Photo by Laurie Sparham – © 2013 - Focus Features

Pleasure in the Rubble: Why the Summer's Last, Smallest Blockbuster Was Its Best

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We'll always have Iron Man, they must be telling each other in Hollywood.

As summer wanes, the hulking corpses of would-be blockbusters litter the home-video distribution channels like fallen Kaiju from Guillermo Del Toro's giant-'bots-vs.-giant-beasts movie Pacific Rim, the most enjoyable of 2013's many urban-renewing summer blockbusters. In Del Toro's oddly sanguine vision of the apocalypse, skyscraper-size monsters rise from the sea to menace coastal cities with such Orange Alert regularity that, once defeated, their skeletons become architectural landmarks as puny humans rebuild around their trellis-like bones.

It's the kind of adaptation the movie business knows well. Pacific Rim cost about $190 million to make; despite favorable notices, it's recouped barely more than half that in U.S. ticket sales. But it's doing fine in China. An "original"--that is, not a sequel, not a remake, not based on an established property--set largely in Hong Kong, the movie features a racially mixed cast, none of them more famous than Idris Elba, and takes pains to establish its monster-fighting force as a proud coalition of the not-just-American willing. Like the more lucrative, less imaginative Fast & Furious 6, Pacific Rim makes a selling point of its heterogeneity.

The end-of-summer apportioning of blame is itself a deeply ensconced cliché: Kids today! Every Labor Day we tally up the bombs, say we're mad as hell and and we're not going to take it anymore, and then promptly pre-order tickets for for the next round of would-be blockbusters arriving in November. If you're inclined to see this summer as a new nadir of quality, you can find plenty of support. (Business-wise, 2013 was the highest-grossing American movie summer on record.) There were more Hindenburgs than usual: After Earth, R.I.P.D., The Lone Ranger. Hits like Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z should've been geek treasures; both were both resoundingly … OK. The former ended with an onscreen dedication to post–9/11 veterans, an odd bit of punctuation for a summer blockbuster, one that actually elicited a groan from the audience when I saw the movie.

I'll admit that what the industry calls "pre-awareness" is what got me out to see those pictures--I've liked Star Trek since I was a kid, and I was a fan of Max Brooks's 2006 novel World War Z, a document with which the movie shares a title and almost nothing else. (Even the film's fast-swarming 28 Days Later-style zombies deviated from the classic George Romero shuffling zombies from the book.) Ballooning cost, of course, is what makes studios afraid to gamble on original concepts and characters: I looked at BoxOfficeMojo's lists of the 10 highest-grossing films in the U.S. in 2013, 2003, 1993, and 1983. In 1983, when Return of the Jedi was the year's biggest hit, six of the top 10 were originals. In 1993, four. In 2003, three. This year (as of Labor Day weekend), only two originals cracked the top 10, The Croods and The Heat.

Meanwhile, action movies with the qualities audiences say they want--non-3D depictions of original characters--floundered. We're in a creative desert indeed when a discussion of "original" properties includes the year's second Die Hard-in-the-Oval Office movie, White House Down, and Elysium, which felt like a reprise of writer/director Neil Blomkamp's cheaper and better District 9 from four years ago.

In her book Sleepless in Hollywood, published in June, producer Lynda Obst explained how the evaporation of DVD sales revenue from studio balance sheets in the last half-decade --on account of piracy, the ascendance of less profitable streaming services, sun spots, etc.--has made Hollywood increasingly reliant on overseas audiences, especially those in China, which will overtake the U.S. as the world's largest movie market by the end of the decade.

The tendency for studios to pile more and more of their eggs into fewer and fewer baskets has been building for a generation, but the new primacy of overseas audiences has accelerated this trend to a point where even Steven Spielberg, arguably the man who invented the blockbuster, now says Hollywood has a "blockbuster problem." Even though director and screenwriter Shane Black's salty dialogue was big part of why I enjoyed Iron Man 3--the year's biggest hit, with $1.2 billion in global box office, about a third of that from U.S. ticket sales--the movie apparently plays just as well in Cantonese.

So does Man of Steel. Here at home, the controversial Superman reboot grossed $290 million--a little less than than the first Iron Man earned in 2008, the same year that The Dark Knight sold $533 million in tickets. That's clearly the atmospheric layer Warner Bros. had hoped to breach when they hired writer David Goyer and producer Christopher Nolan, two-thirds of the brain trust responsible for the Dark Knight trilogy, to rough up Superman. Is it any wonder Warner Bros. has lit up the Bat-Signal for Man of Steel's rush-ordered 2015 sequel? They must be thinking they left a lot of money on the table this time around.

It is fairly astonishing that Superman, the ur-superhero, got roundly out-earned by Iron Man, a character no one who doesn't read comic books had ever heard of six years ago. How did that happen? Man of Steel--a film I liked overall, while hating the 20-minute destruction derby at the end, wherein Superman seems oblivious to the fact that he must be allowing thousands of people to die with every skyscraper that gets toppled--was rightly criticized for that genocidal finale, and for (spoiler) allowing Superman to kill, and for lacking the Christopher Reeve/Margot Kidder lightness (as well as the Ned Beatty falling-off-ladders-while-tuba-music-plays tackiness) of Richard Donner's beloved 1978 precursor. But it would be as false for Superman to crack wise as it was for him to crack General Zod's neck. Man of Steel's violence struck me almost as an overreaction to the prior Superman movie, Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns--a curiously mournful, gentle sequel to the 1978 and '80 Donner Superman pictures, with a body count of zero. Zack Snyder's Man of Steel felt determined, first and foremost, not to be that.

Whatever the next Superman movie is called--Man of Tomorrow would be my choice; 2 Man 2 Steel: Turn Off the Dark Knight seems more likely--it'll be sharing a school vacation with Joss Whedon's Avengers follow-up and J.J. Abrams's Star Wars. They'll all make money, presumably, no matter what they cost. They'll probably even be pretty good: Whether or not Whedon or Abrams are auteurs, they're certainly proven they know how to please messageboard-posting geeks and and civilian filmgoers at the same time. There's another thing Abrams and Whedon have in common, something you can't say of Del Toro or James Cameron or Peter Jackson: They come from television.

My favorite movie this summer was a late entry, The World's End, the "Cornetto trilogy" capper from co-writer–director Edgar Wright and co-writer–star Simon Pegg. Like its forebears, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the movie uses a fun genre-parody platform to deliver a genuine thematic payload. As a metaphor for blockbuster season, it feels almost inevitable: For one thing, it's about putting away childish things and embracing maturity. But its plot particulars resonate, too. Pegg and his old school chums march from one lookalike corporate-owned pub to the next, determined to believe there's something fresh about this iteration of the experience, until at last they reach the titular watering hole, and perhaps enlightenment.

The World's End withholds its supernatural/otherworldly elements until fairly late--there's a pivotal scene (spoiled, alas by its TV ad campaign) that changes the nature of the film in an instant, like when Janet Leigh gets stabbed in Psycho. That curious pacing gives the balance of the picture spiky electricity; a sense that nothing is safe and anything could happen. The movie only cost $20 million--the upper price range, Wright has said, in which idiosyncrasy is possible. In reminding us that we all have to grow up, the movie inadvertently reminded Hollywood of something, too: They're gonna need a smaller boat.

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