I liked The Hunger Games. A lot. I have no problem with that. But I think that it’s also a film that should be graded on a curve, the franchise/blockbuster curve to which Hollywood seems most comfortable turning everything into (they’re trying to make a Horrible Bosses 2). As such, it’s worth noting that these films – including The Dark Knight - have very noticeable flaws. Here are the top five problems with every blockbuster franchise film.
1. They are Always Too Long and Made by People with Limited Range
We’re in the era where more is more, and most event films have around two and a half hour run times. It almost makes the original Spider-Man feel short in comparison in that it’s just barely over two hours (and the first X-Men positively anemic with it’s under two hour run time). Length isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but what often happens in big event filmmaking is that there’s a sag toward the end. Usually it’s because there’s a big action scene in the middle and the film then has to ramp up again from there. What that often means is that the third act feels a bit saggy. The Dark Knight is a prime example of this, it peaks with Joker’s big plan and the final building section gets a bit tiring. And I like that movie, but still.
The directors often have their specialties. Outside of Steven Spielberg (who pooped the bed with his Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull), most filmmakers excel in certain areas and fail in others. Michael Bay does great special effects work, but his performers are usually left to their own devices. Christopher Nolan picks one action scene to concentrate on, but the rest is usually not that great (Inception has the zero gravity fight, but the stuff in the snow is borderline incomprehensible). Gary Ross is great with the actors, but when he has to deliver action it goes for the shakey cam. Et cetera. To be fair, Paul Greengrass – with his Bourne films – is one of the best.
2. In Servicing the Hardcore Fans, The Films Feel Incomplete
From the last Harry Potter movies to The Hunger Games, we’re seeing elements of the films that don’t really add to or explain the narrative that are there (or forgiven) because they’re a part of the source material. Liam Hemsworth‘s character in Games has literally nothing to do for much of the film but watch Katniss. Though it’s an interesting idea, it doesn’t pay off – at least in the film proper. He’s a sequel ringer, and that may make his role more important when the franchise is done, but in the film it feels like it’s spending too much time with a character who has nothing to do. Or – in the case of the Potter films – they don’t really explain basic storytelling elements, like how Harry Potter survives as he does in the movie. It’s somewhat spelled out in the first half of Deathly Hallows, but even though the last film is very long, that Harry can withstand a death curse is not really established in the film. That’s just bad storytelling. But in both cases the faithful don’t care, because they know.
3. There Will Be Great Actors Slumming
Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Toby Jones, Stanley Tucci, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis, John Turturro, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and many other great actors have no problem working in films like Clash of the Titans, Transformers, The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter films even if they have a couple minutes of screen time and little character development. Often this is about a big paycheck for little work, so who can blame them, but it seems they are there to give gravitas to lesser and sometimes terrible material. The problem is that they usually have nothing to do or play. They’re there to be recognizable more than deliver good performances.
4. Not Really About Much
Arguably Superhero films are about responsibility and duty, and the Potter films are about growing up and also responsibility, but there’s generally very little going on under the surface. The Dark Knight was made slightly more interesting (even if thematically it’s muddled) because it dealt with surveillance and terrorism. But suggesting that the Joker is a version of Osama Bin Laden gets the point confused. The Hunger Games at least uses modern senses of television and gladiators as Reality television, but even there, it’s hard to suggest that it’s saying too much. Watching these movies is ephemeral. And that’s fine, I don’t know if they need to deal with weighty issues, but it also makes them forgettable and age poorly, especially with their self-evident flaws.
5. They are Virtually Impossible to Kill
What if The Dark Knight Rises is a bad movie? What if the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels are terrible? It doesn’t matter. There’s virtually no doubt that The Dark Knight Rises will make $300 Million domestically. There’s no doubt the film won’t open above $100 Million dollars opening weekend. Part of that is the goodwill for that franchise, but who liked Transformers 2 (other than Armond White)? Shouldn’t Transformers 3 have taken more of a hit from the second film sucking? Though it didn’t make as much domestically as the second film (which did over $400 Million), it still made north of $350 Million domestically, and over a billion worldwide.
And if a series falters or the creative team decide to close off the series? With The Amazing Spider-Man we get the corporate answer: Reboot. And even when an audience rejects an franchise film, like they did with Superman Returns, again reboot. To be fair, sometimes this works. See: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And if they’re running out of material, why not make the source material into two parts for maximum profit? These are decisions made not because of art (which has never really been the case), but name recognition. And we as audiences keep falling for it. But now that we’ve seen the last book of Harry Potter in split into two films, we can also now see that they don’t fit together that well, and it doesn’t work as a five hour narrative.
These aren’t bad films, it’s just frustrating that they all show the same problems, which often come about from having piecemeal scripts. As we near the summer, you’re going to be seeing a lot of this.
What’s your biggest problem with Blockbusters?