Destroy All Monsters: The Human Race Can't Handle Its Imminent Demise, And Other Things I Learned From The Summer of 2014

Matt Brown, Columnist

Spoiler warning for several 2014 summer movies.

Grosses were down, year-over-year, in the summer of 2014 at the domestic box office. Even the solid hits of the frame -- Maleficent with a sleeper breakaway; Guardians of the Galaxy, at the very tail end of the season, with a bases-clear home run -- weren't the kind of mega-grossers that have ruled the past half-dozen summer seasons at the movies.

There was no Avengers or Dark Knight, which admittedly don't happen very often; nor was there an Iron Man 3 or Despicable Me 2, which is the kind of thing we've been more reasonably able to expect at least once or twice per summer. There wasn't -- and this is astonishing -- a single film that crossed $300M at the domestic box office, and there hasn't been all year. That hasn't happened since 2001.

(Of the films still in competition, Guardians is likeliest to come close, though I expect it will stall out in the $270-$280M range. This will still make it 2014's highest grosser to date.)

The summer of 2014 was all lean middle -- a fair few blockbusters solidly nestled in the low-to-mid $200M category, but nothing beyond that. There was also, it should be noted, nothing from a pop cultural perspective that really reached out and defined the summer, with the possible exception of the Awesome Mix Vol. 1. Whatever the zeitgeist was in the American popular consciousness this year, it's yet to have been grabbed by a movie.

Part of this might simply be the passing of an era. I've been maintaining all year that the majority of the zeitgeist-grabbing has been taking place on television; and, longer than that, I've been saying that movies as we know them now are on their way out.

More pedestrian explanations are also valid: last summer, though profitable, was a pretty piss-poor summer at the movies, in terms of the content living up to the audience's expectations. Perennially a year behind, the audiences might just have said "screw it" this year when faced with another brace of similar, lunk-headed blockbuster-makers.

I think it's even simpler than this: completing an arc into unearned self-importance that The Dark Knight kicked off six years ago, most of the blockbusters at the movies this summer were, to put it kindly, unbelievably depressing.

The major running theme of the year? The earth, and its dominant species (us), is doomed.

This worked just fine for one of last year's sleeper hits, World War Z, because it was, for the most part, the only movie in the season that augured ill for our planetary ability to handle our shit -- and yet still ended, unspectacularly if effectively, on a note of permissible hope.

There was something sickly, though, about the base assumptions of a lot of movies this summer. The assumption was this: civilization's downfall is not merely likely, but inevitable. It has happened or it will happen, because we are simply past the point of being able to do anything to stop it.

(This, the most recent data suggests, is scarcely a child's lifetime away from being true, at least on an ecological level. So, kudos to the movies for bullying up to the pulpit and dealing with the attendant realities, I guess?)

Godzilla was a masterpiece of quietly, almost subliminally, demonstrating human-scale unimportance in the face of god-scale planetary catastrophes. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes suggested that with the ability to form an ideology comes, inevitably, a fall into chaos and war. Snowpiercer laid out the entirety of the human race on a very fast train, and showed, car by car, how the ecosystem of our society is permanently dependent on a weighted balance between the oppressors and the oppressed.

These were the "fun" movies of our summer??

Even the films with substantially less on their minds were glum to the point of funereal. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 broke Gwen Stacy's neck (and Peter Parker's heart), and How To Train Your Dragon 2 turned cuddly dragon Toothless into a hypnotized killer at the expense of the hero's father's life. Maleficent dramatized, absurdly effectively for a Disney film, a fairy-tale date rape -- and made a fortune for it.

(That, I'd argue, also makes Maleficent one of the season's few aesthetic successes as well as being a financial one. There were only a handful of vivid, unforgettable images in cinema this summer. Ellar Coltrane aging in fast-forward in Boyhood was one. Angelina Jolie, crying over her stolen wings and everything they meant, was certainly another.)

Even a couple of blockbusters with unarguably happy endings -- Edge of Tomorrow and X-Men: Days of Future Past- - laid those endings on... what? A complete temporal rewrite of how things have gone 'til now, as though it were inconceivable to move forward and rebuild from this point, because the raw materials are simply too flawed. The only solution, in both cases, was a do-over.

It isn't movies grappling with weighty(er) themes that concerns me; I don't mind a little meat on my blockbuster. But there's a tone of futility in many of these examples that seems out of step with another one of cinema's most basic values: the escape.

Escapism for escapism's sake isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I'd argue it's still a valid and important part of a healthy annual relationship with films. In simpler terms, once in a while, in order to really love going to the movies, we need a movie to make us feel in no uncertain terms that shit is awesome and getting awesomer.

This, of course, is why Guardians of the Galaxy sailed clear away at the very end of the summer; it wasn't just a terrific movie in its own right, but it returned to baser, and more humble, blockbuster aspirations. It made its audience feel fucking great, and did so without sacrificing its own internal logic or sense of self.

Perhaps truly escapist movies like this are irresponsible in a world where shit is largely not awesome, and definitely not getting awesomer. The last few weeks certainly have me thinking about that. But the inability to even conceive of something better has its own problematic outcomes. As the nearest depressed person will affirm for you, an overwhelming sense of futility has never inspired anyone to do anything; or at least, nothing good.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.

Around the Internet:
  • Sonny Hooper

    Pundits keep harping on the fact that there's been no billion-dollar blockbuster, no Avengers or Dark Knight to define the summer, no film to even break $300 million domestic. But there have been more films crossing the $50-million and $100-million and $150-million mark, meaning that instead of one or two films sucking up all the box office, it's been spread around a bit more, which is actually a good thing.

  • Fifty million is actually not at all a good mark these days once you factor in the exhibitor's take and the P&A spend and a very good number of films are still significant losers at one hundred million box office. The important number isn't who crossed what at the box office, it's how many films are actually profitable because those are the films that producers will try to replicate in the future.

  • Sonny Hooper

    True, it's not which film crossed which arbitrary blockbuster line (which Matt tries to make out to be in his opening)' although this is not really relevant to my point, which was that more films have earned 50 or 100 or 150 million than before, which is a good thing. Not having a billion-dollar Avengers-type success means the money gets spread around, that even the unprofitable films are not as unprofitable as previous summer slates. And to your second point, having the money spread around means more variety of profitable films to be replicated and imitated.

  • Not necessarily the case. You could just as easily have a whole bunch that lost money, just marginally less than they otherwise may have. Until someone runs those numbers you're making a leap.

  • aleksandarWH7 .

    OK, I think that everyone who reads twitch knows that this "destroy-all-monsters" thing is very often pretentious and overblown article made by attention whores, that consist mostly of bias and authors imaginations - which is not always bad thing, it could even be only reason why it's worth reading.

    Name of the article was interesting and intriguing but article was kinda more statistic report, I expected slightly more. And yes there is indeed reason to be pessimistic, Transformers earned billion and Guardians is considered fun movie.

    Anyway this post reminded me on quote by Zizek : "So the paradox is, that it's much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism." Good place to start this discussion.

  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    Good golly jeebus, would you all quit pretending that GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is some run-away smash!!! It's been seen by the same group that saw all the previous Marvel movies that didn't have Iron Man in them. No less, but certainly no more. It's nothing a huge cross-section of the population --- even kids --- is talking about any more, less than three weeks later.

    Blockbusters just do not have the multi-demographic appeal they used to. That's all there is to it.

  • Todd Harrington

    I think you're a "little" off -- they have multi-demographic appeal, but you're right in that they do not capture the same percentages that they did even fifteen years ago from the various quadrants.

    Young boys have been largely absent from cinemas this year.

    The upper boxes -- over 25 yo -- were a higher percentage of GOTG than any previous Marvel film (I believe -- AVENGERS may have been close) and a lot of others saw similar shifts in percentage (I think GODZILLA was one) which is good and bad for the respective studios.

    The good news is tent-poles drew in people they didn't (totally) aim for; the bad news is that their chosen "core" was less of a factor than they marketed for.

    As for is GUARDIANS a hit? It's a legitimate big hit (I agree that it's a "smash" only against the low-ish expectations of the collective Hollywood brain-trust). It will clear a half-billion world-wide and has created demand for the upcoming GOTG cartoon on Disney XD as well as the various merchandise streams that Disney/Marvel want to exploit.

    Not bad for a talking tree and some roadkill...

  • Less Lee Moore

    I missed this column! Did you write a comparison about the worthless humans in Godzilla and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes? Because I want to read that.

  • Lol. No, not yet. I had something drafted called "Godzilla, Apes, And Post-Human-Race Filmmaking" ... maybe someday.

  • The fascinating thing to me about this summer is that by and large most of the films have been quite well-received critically. There are a couple of exceptions, but just about all the ones you cite in this article got solid reviews - a lot higher percentage than I think is normal for summer blockbuster fare. Yet the box office is disappointing for everything. You watch both things more closely than I do - would you agree that critical response is higher than normal for lower-than-usual box office performance? Do you think maybe the box office is more level than usual, as well? Like there are no runaway hits, but maybe there are fewer outright flops as well?

    It's been an interesting summer to watch from the sidelines, I'll say that.

  • Oh, absolutely the critical response is higher than normal. Moreoever, I'd argue the movies themselves are better than normal. The majority of the movies I went to see this summer fulfilled what I felt was their value proposition, at least in terms of their marketing. This is why I bring up the "the audience is always a year behind" thing - last summer was such a parade of disappointments that I wonder if people need to be coaxed back into the blockbuster mood.

    We'll see what the final year-over-year tally looks like in a few weeks. Certainly there were a fair number of movies in the $200Ms, domestically, which might flatten out the overall take and bring it in line with 2013. But a year with nothing crashing the $300M barrier (let alone $400M), for the first time in thirteen years? That seems like a bad sign to me.

    The only thing I don't bring up in the article at all is the worldwide focus. It's harder to get into questions of what the pop cultural zeitgeist looks like from a global perspective, because I live in Toronto and my visibility only goes so far. I'd love to hear what Twitch's worldwide contributors think about all this. In terms of global box office, 2014 is doing just fine - TRANS4MERS has already broken a billion, and MALEFICENT and X-MEN are both standing at three-quarters of a billion.

  • Kurt

    Matt Brown said 'value proposition' -- time for everyone to take a drink.

  • Pronounced it properly, too

  • Forkboy Von Forkboy

    There's another factor at work on top of what you mention: we're all friggin' broke.

  • Thing is tight economic times have always had the OPPOSITE effect on box office, historically speaking. Every major recession stretching back to the Great Depression has been accompanied by a significant rise in box office as people want to be distracted from reality. Which means either the movies on offer now are just out of step with what people what to be distracted by, or North America as a culture has simply found other distractions we like better. I know my 13 year old son and his friends see FAR less movies than I did at his age, despite being enormous self professed geeks.

  • Todd Harrington

    You're definitely in the Hollywood-mainstream with that first read, Todd, but (and I have argued this for a few years with friends now) I think that in this case, it is a mistake to look to past performance and relationships and infer too much from that.

    To use the US as an example, the last ten years have seen two factors in regards to US theater rental: ticket sales have declined; ticket price increases -- while arguably mild -- have outpaced both the rate of inflation and, more importantly (imo), wage growth.

    Wage growth has been basically stagnant in the United States as a whole since 1981. That's over 30 years where everything got more expensive and a working family's ability to pay for it has -- in effect -- regressed, making the gap between disposable income and cost of goods much more disproportionate at THIS time than at those times in the past.

    My feeling is that the entertainment industry -- film, music, comic books, etc -- doesn't view their product as susceptible to price elasticity.

    "Three hours in Middle Earth for $10? A bargain!"

    "Harley Quinn breaks up with the Joker (again)? Well worth $3.99!"

    Except, it isn't. Not with the combination of more entertainment options that are at least perceived as "free" -- cable TV at one's house or that of a friend; piracy in myriad forms; the internet (forgot - duh!).

    To me, the pricing approach is creating what they call in retail a "death spiral" -- less monies from fewer ticket sales so raise the ticket price which begets fewer ticket sales and so on.

    I was actually going to write a piece on this, so I e-mailed with Prashob Menon after he had some stuff in Media reDEF and he talked about how while prices have increased 35% since 2003 (note that's starting pre-crash), ticket sales have only increased 18% and per-capita ticket purchase has DECREASED by 20%.

    If I were an exhibitor or a distributor, I would want to focus on that last number -- the per-capita -- and revisit the pricing schema to drive velocity. Even at a decreased ticket price point, more tickets is more awareness for ancillary revenue streams which should positively impact future marketing spends and, on the exhibition side, more bodies is more 600% margin sodas.

    But everyone tells me I'm crazy, so, like, whatevs...

  • benu

    Ding Ding.

    What's really fascinating about all this are the various viewpoints, and points made, and they are all just as valid, because that's how big of a landscape we're traversing here.

    The cinema can still hold a lot of sway over people if conditions are right.

    Two examples I take from people I know are this: A friend's daughter is going to see the first episode of Doctor Who Season 8 in the theater, at a premium ticket price, just because it is more of an event to see it in the cinema than at home. She did this for the 50th anniversary special as well.

    My sister, who has not seen any of the Marvel CU films (X-Men doesn't count here), watched the trailer for GOTG and said she'd be willing to see it in the theater, because the characters looked appealing and charismatic and because "it doesn't appear to be taking itself too seriously".

  • Todd Harrington

    That whole Fathom Events chain is SUPER interesting to me and, I think, could be even more of a factor in (and to) the future of theatrical exhibition than IMAX or 3D:

    We've seen the migration of large-format DOWN: movies being played on computers, tablets, phones (soon, watches).

    Now we get to see the migration of small-format UP: television shows (and live events) creating event-viewing in cinemas. It should be a GREAT way to indoctrinate younger viewers into what I believe is the joy of watching in the largest of formats, theatrical, and create a lot of synergies for the media companies which tend to have both TV and theatrical in their grasp.

    The only concern I have is, as mentioned above, the pricing issues: businesses of all types, not just Hollywood, tend to focus at all phases on bottom-line margin issues (in this case, how much can they make from a "premium event" screening) instead of focusing on top-line sales (how MANY of these tickets can we sell).

    But I'm optimistic for the survival of cinema as a format.

  • benu

    The pricing is the real trick, but only if all parties keep looking at it as such.

    But yep, cinema as a format, will survive.

    13 years ago in my very first ever college class, the professor said "cinema will someday soon be like how Opera is. It'll be around, people will go. It will be an event."

    Let's just hope it won't be as expensive as opera.

  • Kurt

    Well, people just pirate stuff now. Or watch netflix. And absolutely yes, there are way more entertainment options that preclude going to the cinema than even as short a time ago as 1985.

  • Less Lee Moore

    Good point.

  • Fair enough. I used to get almost all my movie tickets on reward points but I've recently been patronising a different chain, and I'm suddenly all too familiar with the $60 movie date night.

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