This Summer at the Movies
The range of quality has been… varied. The season kicked off in late April (which is when Hollywood summer begins) with Avengers: Age of Ultron, which I’ve already forgotten and you probably have, too. Following on from that in May was Mad Max: Fury Road, which few people believe me when I say it’s not only one of the best films of the year, but probably the best action film of the last decade. It’s relentless, insane and even its trailer was more exciting than the majority of studio output. The practical effects, incredible stunt-work and lucid action choreography made it a breathless experience. Relief only arrived with the credits, and it was amazing. (NB: a couple of scenes may be a little too grim for some tastes. It’s pretty violent and bleak, although it makes sense within its context).
This was followed by its polar opposite, Disney’s Tomorrowland, an attempt at imagining a utopian, not dystopian future. Its critical reception was mixed, most people seeing it as a little bland and toothless. I loved it, as I particularly admired that it was very self-consciously trying something different and being very overtly positive about human endeavour (more on that in a bit). Jurassic World turned up, made obscene amounts of money and left critics divided over whether it was a triumphant return or an unmitigated disaster (it’s probably somewhere in between).
Ant-Man was another Marvel film, in that it was competent. I became grateful for competency, however, when Fantastic Four rolled around, which was anything but. It’s honestly amazing how boring that film is. Like, really, really boring – and even people who love superhero films agree. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is a lot of fun, and much the same as the last couple of films in that franchise, with big stunts and Tom Cruise – who gets a lot of unnecessary negativity surrounding him – being charming and committed to entertainment. The action sequences are tense and overblown, and the whole things whips along at a steady pace. I didn’t see Terminator: Genisys because, really, who can be bothered?
Most of these films are, to some extent, about men fixing problems they are partially responsible for creating. Ant-Man, Ultron, and Jurassic World are all about people trying to stop something evil that they, themselves, have created (a powerful suit in a bad guy’s hands, an AI robot gone rogue and an intelligent dinosaur respectively). Tomorrowland takes a slightly different view, in that all of humanity is responsible for the world falling apart, and it’s also their responsibility to save it. All of these films have the same problem I had with Interstellar last year, in that humans are so optimistic about our ability to save ourselves from the mess that we’ve made. To an extent that’s true – Tomorrowland heavy-handedly points out that we have enough food for the whole world to eat, and enough money for everyone to have shelter. The resources are there, it just needs someone to use them correctly. It’s a more nuanced position than the superheroes and dinosaur hunters suggest, which requires ultra-strong, flying humans to do all the saving.
What the world-saving supermen (not women) never seem to take into account, however, is human nature itself. I liked Tomorrowland’s emphasis on ingenuity, but Marvel’s beefcakes, Tom Cruise and Chris Pratt fight and save, often without any cost. The mess they make never implicates them as bad guys with any serious, it’s just there to set them up for superheroics. They save the world from a vague and often boring threat, with only the faintest excuse for drama before everyone is slapping each others’ backs and congratulating each other over a cool effects shot. None of them properly contemplate human nature, which admittedly might not be what you want from a superhero film, but is important when asking the question: who can save the world?
Which is what makes Mad Max a different deal altogether. The world isn’t being saved; five women are, and Max isn’t even the one saving them, he just ends up helping out the woman who is. At first glance, it’s pessimistic about the state of the world: the rich use resources to lord power over the poor; bodies become commodities; the primary forms of currency are oil, water and bullets. What a horrible future that must be… Max, however, has to learn humanity as the film goes on, and this happens with the audience barely noticing it until the end. He moves from being a literal object – a portable blood bank for one of the soldiers – to a man who puts other people’s interests ahead of his own, and it all happens with the lead character barely speaking a word. This arc exists purely in the actions of the lead character, actions which actually come with a cost, where you feel the weight of his choices. Sure, it’s still a bonkers action film, but the journey is most definitely metaphorical, too.
Mad Max achieves what few other blockbusters do in that it manages to create real investment in the characters, show the best and worst of humanity and still manages to be insanely entertaining. Sacrifice is increasingly being watered down in blockbuster cinema, where the characters you expect to survive, do. Every ‘death’ in a Marvel film is later revealed to be false, and that character is still happy to keep the franchise wheels rolling. Fighting comes without a cost, it’s more important to see these ripped übermenschen tearing up a city for stakes so high, there is no way they could lose. Ultron played with the formula a little bit, to give it some credit, by placing a lot of emphasis on actually saving people, unlike Man of Steel which saw a city razed to the ground.
All of this high-stakes, low investment blockbuster film-making works, to an extent. Most of them are entertaining, slickly made films that are always diverting the first time you watch them. Still, Mad Max shows that big, loud action cinema can be all of that, but offer something else beyond the same old narrative of superhumans saving the day at the last minute. It actually speaks of something deeper about human nature, looking realistically at our best and worst capabilities and asking difficult questions at the same time.