Destroy All Monsters: 2013 And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Summer
The English language suffered its latest indignity last week, when Google's definition of "literal" was amended to include "not literal." This is the sort of thing that can only happen in North America, where it seems more and more that no one has any idea where the boundary between the real and the imaginary exists anyway - so why not use the word "literally" to emphasize that something is "literally but not literally literally" true?
As such, I might forgive Jim Carrey the whole Kick-Ass 2 thing if he stood up right now and said "This movie is literally too violent for me to stand behind as an actor." We could spend our time trying to work out which "literally" Carrey was using in context, rather than being dragged once again into the seemingly indestructible 20th century rallying cry that holds that media violence is a direct, permanent driver for real-world violence.
We'll never know if Carrey's presence on the Kick-Ass 2 promotional tour would have moved the needle on the film's profoundly underwhelming reception. Kick-Ass 2 (read Eric's review here) opened in fourth place over the weekend, stumbling behind not just The Butler but holdovers Elysium and We're The Millers. It was also well behind the opening weekend tally of Kick-Ass. The first film made all its money on home video, so maybe Kick-Ass 2 will, too; but in the meantime, this dull, muddled sequel is the shining example of a movie nobody wanted, and a weirdly fitting conclusion to the 2013 summer season as a whole. Scuttled to the tail end of a profoundly shoddy summer at the Hollywood multiplexes from its original opening date in June, and painfully fantasy-violent while having no idea what it's trying to say, Kick-Ass 2 is exactly the sort of death rattle the summer of 2013 deserves.
Every summer, or at least most of the ones for which I've been alive, sees someone pronounce the nadir of blockbuster filmmaking. I guess this year, it's my turn. What an unbelievable parade of mediocrity we've been subjected to since May 1.
To many, the assembly line of sequels and other tentpoles that Hollywood gifts us with between May and August is meaningless fast food whose ultimate quality is of little concern, but even by those standards, 2013 left a sour taste in my mouth that hasn't been there before. Beyond Lucas and Spielberg's now-infamous assertion that the whole mega-budget train is about to crash anyway, the state of the industry this summer suggests something about the state of the whole that is unpleasant and unwelcome.
Let's look at some of the key aspects of the summer of 2013:
1. It was male.
It has been noted in a lot of places, including here on Twitch, but one would be hard-pressed to recall a season with less time spent per capita on talking female characters than the summer of 2013. The Heat and Mako Mori don't do much to amend a summer where, of all things, Iron Man 3 was one of the few major releases to pass the Bechdel test. (The argument to create a Mako Mori test, written up here, is worth reading for a lot of reasons, not just the hows and the whys of Hollywood's insistence upon continuing to flunk the Bechdel test.)
The good news is, if you wanted to know how red-blooded American male alphas respond to a crisis, 2013 was your year - Tony Stark, Jay Gatsby, James T. Kirk, Dominic Toretto, Superman, Wolverine, the Wolf Pack, the Lone Ranger, Brad Pitt in World War Z, Will Smith in After Earth and whatsisface in Pacific Rim all capably outshone whatever apocalyptic oppressors thundered down upon them. Hey, one of them was even a black guy, and another was Hispanic, which for this town ain't the usual level of bad. 2013 was a dick-swinging summer of the highest order, absent of course of any actual, visible swinging dicks. Fans of upper-body male nudity, though, had a treat or three.
But anyone hoping for a continuation of 2012's weirdly epic run of strong female leads in significant Hollywood genre films - Katniss Everdeen, Lisbeth Salander, Merida, the Snow Whites, Ellie Shaw, Black Widow, Gina Carano in Haywire and Anne Hathaway at the Oscar podium - left theatres disappointed. Arguing for equal representation is one thing, but how about some sound economic thinking? The studios have rarely put their money so decisively on one colour on the roulette wheel and bet the house.
I don't believe that movies with women in them = women going to the movies. I do, however, believe that variety on the whole appeals to a broader variety of people than the lack of same. With box office down as much as 19% from last year, this may be a bet that the studios are losing.
2. It was violent.
Whether aspect #2 should be directly ascribed to aspect #1 is another question, but between the end-of-the-world-ish smashings-up of San Francisco and Metropolis in Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel, and the actual end-of-the-world-ing of World War Z, 2013 was a year of much fighting. Hey, even my pick for the best movie of the season (Pacific Rim) is just a series of dressed-up MMA matches between mechanical or biological titans; and we also got the Fast pack on the world's longest runway, all three train crashes of The Lone Ranger (not including the box office performance), and Tony Stark ordering a drone strike on himself. The world of fantasy beat-downs went well past the pornographic and thereby cycled back round to the masturbatory.
The question that was asked all summer - and deserves to be asked again, in the context of Jim Carrey's abandonment of Kick-Ass 2 - is around the consequences of violence, both within the films and without. Man of Steel and Into Darkness were criticized for exploiting 9/11-style imagery around personal conflicts between the heroes and villains, where the hero showed minimal concern for the collateral damage; Carrey backed out of publicizing his movie because, in the wake of America's horrifically bloody 2012, he was rethinking the connection between movie violence and real violence.
Comments like Carrey's espouse a tendency for North American culture to take fantasy more literally than it's designed to be taken, eschewing a responsibility to the surrounding context of fantasy images while flogging the century-old bogeyman that insists that media violence directly begets literal violence. In this, at least, movies like Fast 6, Pacific Rim or Man of Steel get off easy; their violence is distasteful because it is so hyperbolic. But because it is so hyperbolic, no one is likely to suggest that it is influencing anyone to commit real-world evil.
A lower-budget exploitation flick like Kick-Ass 2 is easier prey because one can glumly insist upon a connection between its ultraviolent teenagers and real-life ultraviolent teenagers, all while ignoring the fact that a good fantasy movie (like Kick-Ass, not so much Kick-Ass 2) uses its imagery (violence, in this case) as metaphor, not an instruction manual. But so it goes. In a season in which no one cared much anyway, Jim Carrey got off easier than he deserved and very, very cheap.
3. There's a ceiling.
Half a dozen animated films competed in the season; half of them flopped, while two of them were top-five closers for the summer. A wide swath of boy-fueled violent movies, as listed above, crested week by week for two months; half of them came in under expectations, or flat-out bombed.
While there were winners at the box office this summer - Iron Man 3, The Great Gatsby, World War Z, and Fast 6 are the big victors, regardless of their place in the top ten - there were just as many uncomfortable, industry-defining bombs (After Earth, White House Down, The Lone Ranger, everything starring Ryan Reynolds, and the domestic gross on Pacific Rim). Summer 2013 came in loaded with freight and unintentionally provided a credible argument that you can't just keep heaping the same flavour of slop on the audience's plate, week after week, and expect them to eat as much as you need to in order to make the tentpoles tent their poles. There's a ceiling on how much money is out there to be spent, and absent a cultural event like The Hunger Games, The Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, the audience will just wait for next year.
Like any good capitalist enterprise of the modern age, though, Hollywood is less and less interested in keeping its existing customers as it is in finding new ones; and having kicked open the door to China and the largest moviegoing audience in the world, half the "bombs" came away successful anyway, and the field for mega-budget success only got wider. I'm sure no one in Hollywood has noticed that once they've completely colonized the world market, they'll run out of planet - that's way more distance-thinking than capitalism generally allows for - but for now, the train keeps rumbling along.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.