What Makes a Darn Good Summer Movie?


Every studio strives to produce the movie declared “The Movie of the Summer,” but even the “losers” in this category rake in piles of dough. Though hot summer weather invites active outdoor activities, there are many sweaty days that demand some time in a dark, air-conditioned room losing yourself in an adventure not your own.

Typically, a summer blockbuster is easy to spot, even when taken out of the context of their release date. They are mostly mindless action-adventure films with a liberal dose of comedy and a sprinkle of romance. Beyond independent films that take advantage of the whimsical outdoorsiness of summer to promote hipster films like The Kings of Summer, The Way Way Back, and Much Ado About Nothing, summer is not a season for Oscar bait or plodding, soulful dramas. Summer is all about indulgence — in vacations, ice cream, and terrible off-season reality shows — and the film industry preys on this trend.

So what makes a good summer movie? Let’s look at this year’s crop of successful and well-reviewed films. The summer season officially started off with Iron Man 3 and was soon followed by another fantasy sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness. Man of Steel allowed the DC fanboys something to drool over (or rip to shreds). Rounding out the category of otherworldly romps are the upcoming R.I.P.D., about dead cops who fight other dead people so they don’t take over the world or something equally preposterous, and The Lone Ranger, a fresh take on an iconic character that dates back to a 1930s radio show.

Six months after the Mayan Apocalypse failed to destroy the earth, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies are still very popular. The sub-genres of these films vary widely from the comedic This is the End to the horrifying World War Z or The Purge. Besides their common genre and bafflingly similar title fonts, After Earth, Oblivion, and Elysium have plots that are impossible to distinguish between in simple movie synopses. And don’t forget the crucial inclusion of a big star to each of these films; this is the season that veterans of the action-adventure genre like Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Pitt, Jamie Foxx, and Vin Diesel make their diamond-encrusted toilet seat money.

The audience for a summer blockbuster is often varied—and film studios cater to this notion. It is widely believed that a man will not so much as step into a movie theater unless a film promises at least three large explosions and seven toppled buildings. Men like things to go “boom,” and women like endings sealed with a kiss, right?

And since, according to movie producer Lynda Obst, “The movie marketers believe that women go to guys’ movies if they’re good, but guys won’t go to women’s movies ever,” most summer blockbusters contain more “booms” than kisses. Action-heavy movies still appeal to the female demographic through the use of dreamy leads including Chris Pine, Henry Cavill, Ryan Reynolds, and Armie Hammer. Children are lured in by the glossy graphics and bright colors of computer animated films like Turbo and Monsters University, as well as the pure candy-like rush of seeing their favorite comic book characters come to life in the more mature Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel.

A good summer movie has a likable movie star — say, Will Smith or Channing Tatum or Brad Pitt — slinging around a gun and muttering one-liners before foiling the all-too-simple plot of the enemy. You can expect shots of mass exodus from the city being attacked, as well as extreme close-ups of the star’s face as he watches his world crumble around him. There will be at least one gravity-defying leap from a building, car, train, or helicopter. Just because they’re predictable doesn’t mean they’re bad; movies like Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness have been well received by critics and audiences alike.

While fall and winter stress both the emotional power and the seriousness of films through dark, chilly dramas seeking gold statues, summer celebrates the indulgent frivolity and spectacle of the cinema that dates back to the earliest days of black and white silent movies.

Those who complain about this year’s crop of sequels and duds must remember that pandering to the audience’s most simple desires is not a new marketing technique; Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire starred in ten movies together because people delighted so much in their pairing. Plots for movie musicals — the pinnacle of the popcorn movie back in the 1940s during Hollywood’s golden years — were recycled and similar and produced by the dozens each year.

While we are in an age of bloated blockbuster budgets, sequels, threequels, and remakes, we must keep in mind that just because summer popcorn films are prolific does not mean the well-crafted movie is a dying art. I will not proclaim the film industry dead until After Earth 7: This Time It’s Personal wins the Oscar for “Best Picture.”