Twenty-four movies have topped the weekend box office charts so far in 2011. Of them:
- Five were based on comic books (Captain America, Green Lantern, Green Hornet, X-Men, Thor)
- Four were youth-oriented animated films (Rio, Hop, Rango, Cars 2)
- Four were rom-com/bromance flicks (Hangover 2, Hall Pass, Just Go With It, No Strings Attached)
- Two were film adaptations of popular children’s books (Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid)
- Two were smash-’em-up action flicks (Fast Five, Battle: LA)
- Two were horror-thrillers (Roommate, Rite)
- Two were gritty adult dramas (Unknown, Limitless)
- One was based on a series of toys (Transformers)
- One was based on a theme park ride (Pirates of the Caribbean)
- One was a monster movie featuring kids (Super 8)
Harry Potter is obviously an iconic cultural phenomenon, regardless of the quality of the individual films in the series, but beyond that one, I see maybe one great movie (Super 8) in the mix, bracketed by a lot of instantly-forgettable, unimaginative, unambitious, expensive, 3-D fluff. In recent years, this sort of mix has become pretty standard, as well-written, original, adult-oriented (not in the pornographic sense of that phrase) entertainment is squeezed out of the multiplexes by the loudest, biggest, splashiest, most derivative material possible. Last week, the internet buzzed with reports from Comic-Con, where Hollywood seems most happy to field test whatever reboots, regurgitations or repeats it has planned, pretty much guaranteeing that next year will be just as infantilized and superhero-videogame-toy-sequel based as this one was.
So when did we become a nation of eight year olds when it came to our entertainment choices? It used to be that quality grown-up movies could compete in the market with the big, loud fluff, so that Jaws and Dog Day Afternoon could both be box office boffo in the same year, or Chinatown could go toe-to-toe with The Towering Inferno and Blazing Saddles, while 2001: A Space Odyssey and Funny Girl could slug it out for top commercial honors in another year. The last time that the top box office film of the year was something other than a massive, effect-laden, franchise-based spectacle was in 1990 (Ghost), and you have to go back to a pair of Dustin Hoffman dramas (1988’s Rain Man and 1979’s Kramer vs Kramer) to get much by way of strong dialog and characterization and original story-telling for grown-ups at the top of the charts.
Don’t get me wrong: I love animation, I love strong graphic design, and I love a good, loud spectacle up on the screen — so long as those elements are deployed in the telling of riveting, well-written, original stories. But when a growing majority of big-budget screenplays are dedicated to endless childish variations of the DC versus Marvel superhero debates that I thought I’d left behind when I turned nine, or to squeezing every last dime out of stale, tired, flavorless film franchises, or to developing kid-movie characters around their potential for toy sale tie-ins, then I begin to grieve for my generation as I survey the cultural chaff in which we choose to nest.
And it is my generation that is leading this cultural retreat into the cozy womb of our childhood memories, of course, since we seem as a group to be terribly nostalgic for the ephemera of our collective youth, as manifested in Saturday morning cartoons, comic books, sitcoms, breakfast cereals and other such touchstones. I suspect this is because we were the first generation that had television as our collective babysitter, from our earliest sentient moments, since we came up in an era when economic and social changes resulted in more of us being raised in dual-earner or single-parent families than had been the norm before us. I can remember certain television commercials for toys better than I can remember actual television shows from my early years, and I suspect I’m not alone in that regard.
It’s not just in our movies either, mind you, where we show our reluctance to grow up. I remember sometime in the 1980s being struck by the fact that we seemed hell-bent on taking Hallowe’en away from the kids coming up behind us. That night used to be all about the wee ones dressing up to beg for candy, and the bigger ones having an excuse to engage in steam-releasing minor vandalism of the TP’ing, egging or shaving creaming variety. The idea of adults dressing up for Hallowe’en to go out partying seemed then, and still seems, absurd and embarrassing to me, but it’s become the norm for many folks my age and younger. As a result, Hallowe’en has replaced New Year’s Eve in my mind as the most idiotic of amateur nights, when grown-ups go out to act like ill-behaved teenagers, safe behind the security of their masks, after taking the kids to the mall for a sadly sanitized version of the trick or treat ritual. (I wasn’t the only one feeling this way in the ’80s, as the Dead Kennedys wrote a fantastic song touching on this phenomenon, called, appropriately enough, “Halloween.”) I stay home on nights like that accordingly.
What’s the solution? There isn’t one. How’s that for fatalism at its finest? I just hope that as we cling hard to the comfort of our own childhood memories, we also allow our children and their children to do the same. Perversely, however, we often seem equally fixated on getting them to grow as quickly as they can into tiny, world-weary adults.
Perhaps, then, they will share their comic books with us?