From the very early images of Disney’s new Lone Ranger movie, it was clear it was destined to be a disaster.
Gilbert Cruz, writing for Vulture, recently posted a great article covering why Lone Ranger represents everything that is wrong with the “blockbuster” genre. Cruz’s article nails all of the “structural” problems (too long, heavy reliance on “franchise”, etc), but is missing two key things from the audience point of view.
In 2011, this could be called the Friends with Benefits / No Strings Attached problem. In 2012, this could be called the Mirror Mirror / Snow White and the Huntsman problem. In 2013, this could be called this White House Down / Olympus Has Fallen problem. Audiences are just sick of seeing the same movie over and over. This summer it seems particularly bad. Even through the reviews of White House Down have not been terrible, no one went to see it. They have already been to several terrible throw-away action movies out this summer. Why would audiences waste their time going back for a third? This does not bode well for Pacific Rim, which is going to be awesome .
We can also add “cost” and “gimmick” to that. I personally cannot see a 3D movie without getting a day-killing migraine. I am also not interested in paying $14 per ticket, plus parking, to sit in an uncomfortable seat only to listen to teens or 60 year old ladies talk through the whole movie.
Long Form Story Telling
As we have emerged from the most recent golden age of television, audiences have become more used to, and more accepting of, long form story telling. We have come to expect stories and characters develop over time. NCIS works so well because it balances long form story telling and self contained episodes. You can pick up a random episode on USA watch it and get a whole story. Regular viewers are rewarded because they have a greater knowledge of the characters’ context and the broader story.
Marvel/Disney have done a good job of this with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Like NCIS, each movie stands on its own. The quality of an individual movie may vary . But together, the whole of its parts tells a more rewarding story. Another Captain America and Thor movie coming out in the near future will be a real test to see if Marvel and Disney can continue to pull this off.
In order to tell a complete story, movies have become long and bloated. We have to empathize with a hero and despise the villain from first moment of the film. With that model, there is no room for nuance. Instead, filmmakers must rely on worn out tropes or repetitive story telling.
Fixing the Problem
This is the part of the essay where I should propose a solution or a counter example. I believe Pacific Rim and Elysium may break the mode. Guillermo del Toro and Neill Blomkamp both have a long history of making successful action movies that defy genre. The issue is, of course, that Pacific Rim, based on the trailer, looks real dumb. I am with a lot of nerds who have been waiting a lifetime for a live action giant mecha movie. Elysium looks like a clone of the Tom-Cruise-scifi-slut-shames-his-ex-wives movie Oblivion.
Whatever critics say about Pacific Rim, it is doomed to fail. Three tent poll blockbusters have already flopped. Make it four if you count the most recent Die Hard movie. I don’t know if there is a way to fix this problem. The momentum behind the franchise rehash is driving forward at full force. There is no way to get away from sanitized violence and the coveted PG–13 rating as long as 14 year olds from suburban Atlanta still buy tickets.