Blockbusted: The Fall of Escapism

Is the blockbuster as we know it…well, busted? Tessa Ndjonkou considers if the traditional playing grounds for box-office success is an entirely new ballgame.

Loyal to American film tradition, this year’s summer box-office was supported by long-awaited mega productions like Thor: Love and Thunder by Taika Waititi, Bullet Train by David Leitch and Top Gun: Maverick by Joseph Kosinksi, to name only a few. 

Their release sparked conflicting reactions from audiences and seemed to reveal a growing trend in Hollywood of films becoming increasingly reliant on special effects and a star-studded cast for their success instead of characterization, consistent narrative, or plot. While the movies generated over two billion dollars worldwide, they still received mixed reviews and brought forth the same confounding feelings for viewers: they were entertained but not entirely invested. 

Though the recipe for a blockbuster film is well-known , in 2022, the genre is no longer fulfilling the necessary requirements to be considered a well-rounded film by many

It is difficult to make sense of how radically opposed feelings can co-exist. Though the recipe for a blockbuster film is well-known, in 2022 the genre is no longer fulfilling the necessary requirements to be considered a well-rounded film by many. Blockbusters are usually approachable, with straightforward plots, sympathetic and archetypal characters, reasonably predictable conclusions and action providing enough escapism to be all-around enjoyable. A production increases it’s chances at being a successful blockbuster when it is backed by a major production studio like Universal Studios, has a budget starting in the hundreds of millions,  and enough finances for a gargantuan publicity campaign. (Think billboards and posters on high streets, global trailer releases, press junkets and red carpet premieres.)

Most people would be able to loosely define it, or even give you direct examples of what a blockbuster is. Of the names that are most likely to appear you would find Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, released in 1975 to critical acclaim and still regarded as the film that birthed the “blockbuster era”. Since the 1970s, Hollywood has released a plethora of blockbusters, changing film and the entertainment industry forever. While the 1990s boast movies that eventually became classics like Titanic by James Cameron, the 21st century’s releases are easily identifiable by the constantly growing scale of their productions, the increasing use of visual effects, the cost of production, the amount generated at the box-office and the increase of the frequency of new releases. Titanic grossed up to over 2.2 billion dollars in 1997 with a production cost of 200 million dollars,  but the 2019 Avengers: Endgame, directed by the Russo Brothers grossed over 2.7 billion dollars with a production value of 400 million dollars. 

The main denominator between these releases is their desire to outsmart and outdo one another

However, this summer's blockbusters seem to have missed the mark and not brought forth the comfort they once used to. 

Thor: Love and Thunder had promised to fill a Thor-shaped gap left in the MCU three years prior. Although the standards for Thor films have considerably risen following the release of Thor: Ragnarok in 2017, this fourth instalment failed to meet expectations by deferring to set characters on the courses that had been drawn for them. Come for the 1970s inspired psychedelic experience and…stay against your will for interminable exposition, distracting CGI, the introduction of a new villain (who really only is one if you squint), forced running gags, Easter Eggs and cameos. With the expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, more characters are being passed from one director to another. The result is no real ownership of a character and therefore, no real identity for this character. This is especially problematic when one director opts to give a character more depth, such as is the case with Thor Odinson whose feelings of grief and survivor's guilt were explored in Endgame only to be dismissed by a Rocky-style montage in the first three minutes of Love and Thunder. 

Like Thor: Love and Thunder, Bullet Train by David Leitch ironically does not know where it is headed. The plot was initially simple but eventually impossible to focus on next to the overwhelming amount of character backstories, approximative jokes and failed attempts at self-awareness. And while the film did have some genuinely funny moments, they were overshadowed by a headache-inducing pacing and Brad Pitt’s apparent refusal to get into character. There can be no escapism, no real immersion into diegetic space, if an actor is playing himself. Throughout the film, he acts as though he has stumbled on the set and is completely overshadowed by the charismatic performances of his co-stars Joey King, Bria Tyree Henry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Hiroyuki Sanada and Andre Koji.

To sum up, the problem with the blockbuster genre is not the genre itself but rather the rejection of change and innovation that accompanies it

Finally, let’s address the eagle in the room, the long-awaited Top-Gun: Maverick, the American Army recruitment campaign to end them all. With a hilariously ambiguous plot which involves deliberately violating international law and lawlessly invading an “enemy” country’s territory to disable a radioactive weapon, Top Gun: Maverick is one of the few movies mentioned that has the traditional elements to make a successful blockbuster. It certainly was on paper, grossing up to 1.3 billion dollars globally. 

On a more serious note, it is rather disheartening to see thinly veiled glorification of United States imperialism and interventionism be lauded as the return of contemporary cinema. Frankly, no amount of abs present in the film can distract a truly critical audience from how problematic this movie is and what its huge success in the United States reveals. In the wake of the repeal of Roe v Wade, the January 6th hearings and the tumultuous swearing in of Justice Kentaji Brown, such a film is far from welcome for some viewers. 

The main denominator between these releases is their desire to outsmart and outdo one another. 

Alternatively, the critically acclaimed A24 production Everything, Everywhere, All At Once by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert is a prime example of a film having mastered the balance between ambitious plot and visual effects while creating dialogue, real character dynamics and asking important questions. The result is an immersive and eye-opening experience. The film’s grace notes are in its major themes (intergenerational trauma and systemic oppression) and its depiction of the extraordinary of the ordinary. The multiverse, approached much differently in Marvel’s newest instalment of Spiderman, is depicted with a certain level of poetry. The archetypal roles are no longer as clear cut as they used to be : there is no villain and there is no hero. Everything, Everywhere, All At Once does not tell you what you need to know. It lets you find your own ending. Its success has prompted its re-release in select theatres in the United States and its exportation overseas. What started as an indie absurdist science-fiction movie is now a blockbuster in its own right. 

To sum up, the problem with the blockbuster genre is not the genre itself but rather the rejection of change and innovation that accompanies it. Today, the lack of diversity and variety in film are easily identifiable and reprehensible by viewers who openly challenge the validity and sovereignty of an institution  that for too long was considered untouchable.