The modern summer movie season started, by some reckonings, with 1989: the year in which Warner Bros. invented the tentpole movie as we now know it with Batman. The tentpole, for those unaware, is a movie, usually produced for a huge sum of money, upon which a studio banks all its hopes for a given season, leading said studio to begin a marketing blitz months in advance to make sure that hype is at a fever pitch by the time the film actually opens. I know of no instance in which such a movie’s failure was so terrible that it endangered the fiscal life of the company that produced it, but in general, nobody wants their tentpole to fail, or it takes down the whole tent with it, and then the tigers and clowns and all (your boutique films, and Oscarbait, and the like), are themselves endangered.
Accordingly, most tentpoles are resolutely safe affairs, the kind of movie that sort of appeals to everybody at the cost of truly speaking to nobody. Still, even Hollywood filmmaking can’t be wrong all of the time, and occasionally a major summer release turns out to be pretty damn good. The start of a new summer season seemed like the right time to thus publish my list of
Ten Great Summer Blockbusters Since 1989
(in Chronological Order)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (3 July, 1991)
I’ve put this film on lists like this one before, and I’ll do it again, because James Cameron, for all his bluster and arrogance, is sort of a genius at making big loud action epics that are also intensely well-crafted, and much smarter than they have any real right to be. It may have started us on the road to ubiquitous CGI, but few of the film’s successors have trumped its magnificent ability to marry state-of-the-art effects with a well-structured story populated by great archetypal characters.
Batman Returns (19 June, 1992)
‘Twas in the heart of the first and lesser comic movie boom that the world was introduced to what has since become a commonplace: the auteurist popcorn movie. Batman was a movie that was clearly directed by Tim Burton; Returns – a worse Batman story, but a better film – could only have been been directed by Burton, and it finds that oh-so-idosyncratic visual artist spending buckets of studio money in the service of what might be the lushest mise en scène he ever put on the screen.
Jurassic Park (11 June, 1993)
Papa Spielberg, the man who all but invented the blockbuster, still comes around from time to time to remind everybody how it’s done; if his first adventure in computer animated beasties is far from his best work – he’s made at least straight-up summer popcorn movies since that are indisputably better – it still finds him doing what he does better than anybody else: opening up our brains and plugging in undiluted awe. Omigod, can you believe that we can do this now? the movie screams, and 17 years later, it still leaves me slack-jawed.
Apollo 13 (30 June, 1995)
One of modern cinema’s dodiger A-list filmmakers, Ron Howard, and one of the more dubious genres, the real-life melodrama. And yet, that cheap chocolate and artificially-flavored peanut butter combine into a treat of the utmost decadence: not only Howard’s reigning masterpiece, but one of the finest non-documentary treatments of the American space program ever filmed. Thrilling, rousingly patriotic, and madly in love with the details of the machines it depicts, it’s infinitely re-watchable, even though everyone already knows exactly what happens.
Men in Black (2 July, 1997)
After shooting the Coen brothers’ loveliest film, and before plunging headlong into a Wild Wild West fueled wallow in his own mediocrity, Barry Sonnenfeld managed to knock out a few absolutely top-notch high-concept comedies, the most successful of which is this delightfully anarchic live-action cartoon about aliens and stoic G-Men, anchored by Tommy Lee Jones giving one of the most impeccably measured performances of his career, and Will Smith proving why he deserved to be a movie star. Silly, but only in the most serious way.
Spider-Man (3 May, 2002)
Two years earlier, X-Men lit the fuse; but it was Sam Raimi’s unapologetically fanboyish movie that set the modern comic trend into overdrive. And why not? It proved that there wasn’t only life in the moribund genre, there was the stuff of pure cotton-candy magnificence, and whether or not he bettered himself with the sequel, I think we can all agree that between the two films, this is about as much unadulterated fun as summer movies have been in the last ten years.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (9 July, 2003)
Speaking of unadulterated fun, here’s the only worthwhile film yet adapted from a theme park ride. Which is not the least reason why there was no expect Jerry Bruckheimer’s production of a film by Gore Verbinski was going to be coherent, let alone watchable; and while it’s undeniably bloated, the instantly-iconic Johnny Depp performance that isn’t even at the film’s center made sure that we’d all be made converts on the spot. Two degraded sequels, with another on the way, haven’t even chipped at the luster of this grandly over-the-top pop-absurdist adventure.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (10 June, 2005)
Ladies and gentlemen, this is what movie stardom looks like. There’s nothing original or compelling about Simon Kinberg’s scenario – they’re married spies! but they don’t know! – nor Doug Liman’s effective but ultimately functional direction. But just try to watch Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt spar with each other using first their guns, then their genitals, and tell me that you can’t feel the charisma rolling of the screen in hot, lusty waves. The cinema equivalent of eating a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s in one sitting.
The Bourne Ultimatum (3 August, 2007)
The high water mark of a new kind of action aesthetic; one that admittedly has as many detractors as fans. As a committed fan of Paul Greengrass’s harsh, literally nauseating camerawork and firecracker editing, let me say merely that it never ceases to warm my heart when any motion picture can do so much to violate the basic norms of cinematic vocabulary – with no small amount of sadistic glee – do it in a way that proves legitimately poetic on its own terms, and make pots and pots of money in the process.
The Dark Knight (18 July, 2008)
Say what you will (and trust that every word of it has been said already), but the heaving, operatic bleakness of Christopher Nolan’s apocalypse fantasy in superhero drag isn’t just the ultimate iteration of the “make it dark” school of storytelling, a mostly cynical attempt to capture gravitas by indulging in joylessness. The film is possessed of a magnificent decayed grandeur, a sense of the truly epic that burrows into your bones and overwhelms you. Overhyped and then some, but it is powerful in ways that virtually no other popcorn movies even imagine striving for.