2013 Blockbuster Roundup

When the best film of the year is an impressionistic montage of large robots punching large monsters, you know it’s been a bad year for movies.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved Pacific Rim (see our review here). Unlike the other big movies of the year, it was light-hearted, energetic, and fun. It didn’t take itself so seriously that it dragged down the movie with dour angst. If I want that, I’ll go watch Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness. But it was also a movie that was fundamentally about large robots punching large monsters. Its depth was, shall we say, limited.

This was the year of exploding cityscapes. We saw a starship crash into San Francisco, zombies overrun Tel Aviv, Superman lay waste to central New York Metropolis, robots and monsters lay waste to Hong Kong, all kinds of destruction flare around the White House (twice), and loud trains go boom in the Wild West. Apocalyptic mayhem has never looked so good. 

Nor has it ever been so shallow. Normally, complaining about the shallowness of summer blockbusters is a little bit like complaining that the sun is too yellow, the Pope too Catholic, or Congress too corrupt. It’s just in the nature of these things to be what they are. You can’t expect summer blockbusters to really mean anything.

Except that when you compare 2013 blockbusters to those of yesteryear, they come up even more shallow than usual. Note that we haven’t had a single major release this year that has earned over 90 percent at RottenTomatoes, nor a single one that has cracked the IMDB Top 250. That’s unusual.

Consider just the record since 2000. And I’m only looking at big, expensive, summer releases, not the prestige movies released during awards season late in the year.

  • 2000: Gladiator, which won Best Picture and sits at number 60 on IMDB’s list.
  • 2001: Monster’s Inc. (210).
  • 2003: Finding Nemo (163) and Pirates of the Caribbean (216).
  • 2005: Batman Begins (105) and Sin City (146).
  • 2007: The Bourne Ultimatum (189) and Ratatouille (233).
  • 2008: The Dark Knight (6) and WALL-e (62)
  • 2009: Star Trek (227), District 9 (230), and UP (114).
  • 2010: Inception (14), Toy Story 3 (64), How To Train Your Dragon (166), and Shutter Island (232)
  • 2011: Harry Potter 8 (222), and Warrior (153).
  • 2012: The Avengers (161) and The Dark Knight Rises (54).

These aren’t the best movies of the past decade, nor do I agree with all their IMDB rankings. But they do show that it isn’t impossible for a large, expensive, summer movie to also win deserved critical praise—and even to have something meaningful to say.

By contrast, this year’s summer movies, even when judged by the low standards of mainstream Hollywood summer movies, are more shallow, inane, bombastic, and vulgar than usual.

I loved watching Wolverine fight ninjas—but the film has a stupendously trite romance and a junior-high plot (see our review here).

Man of Steel was the best Superman movie made since the original—but Superman is supposed to make you feel inspired, not exhausted and shell-shocked (see our reviews here and here).

I grew up watching Star Trek, and Into Darkness is the the best-looking, fastest-paced, loudest Trek ever. It also failed to actually trek anywhere, discover anything, or even once gesture at a feeling of awe or mystery at the universe—the things that made Trek what it is (see our reviews here and here).

World War Z? Hard to feel victory with the good guys when the world pretty much ended in the first 20 minutes of the movie (see our review here).

Iron Man 3 was an improvement over its predecessor, but that’s a low bar. Two hours of mild entertainment, nothing more (see our review here).

Elysium: preachy, condescending, simplistic, and loud (see our review here).

Lone Ranger? I won’t even dignify it with an insult (see our review here).

Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University were both funny, winsome family entertainment, but the former was little more than a string of (often brilliant) gags, and the second felt just a hair tired and worn out (see our reviews here and here).

That is why, at the end of this sad, sad summer, the best turns out to be a movie that doesn’t pretend to be more than it is.

A movie whose joys are those of a five-year-old playing with his action figures and dinosaurs.

A movie about large robots punching large monsters.

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