The summer without Hollywood blockbusters

Since the dawn of time — by which I mean June 20, 1975, the day Jaws chomped its way into movie theaters — the Hollywood summer blockbuster has been America in a nutshell: ambitious, expensive, loud, fond of firearms and legends and heroes, quippy, a little shallow, and always, always wrapped in the stars and stripes.

Blockbusters are our calling cards, our most visible exports, our latter-day empire builders. They’re the only reliably common cultural experience we have left. With their debuts frequently timed to coincide with our biggest national holidays, they’re inextricably linked to our identity. To be American in the summer is to eat hot dogs, fry your skin in the sun, fight about baseball and politics, and go see a new movie in which humanity is under attack, stuff blows up, and somebody has to save the day.

But this summer looked different, for the first time in 45 years. You could still have a hot dog, and you might have been able to watch baseball if your team wasn’t quarantined, and you almost certainly fought about politics. But even if you were lucky enough to live near a drive-in movie theater (and own a car), there weren’t any new blockbusters on offer. They’ve all been postponed. Any American heroes you might see on a big screen are from the past, specters from a simpler time.

Crowds line up outside a movie theatre to see Jaws in 1975.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Feels fitting, honestly. From Indiana Jones to Captain America, Ellen Ripley to President Whitmore, Ethan Hunt to Batman, both the world and studio budgets have been saved every summer, in one manner or another, by lone-wolf badasses who don’t take anyone’s guff but can also deliver inspirational speeches when needed. They are the descendants of the white-hatted Western good guys, reimagined for a world where the West has been won. Blockbuster heroes respond to the call of duty, the charge to save humanity led by American authorities — or, in the event the government is in shambles, by everyday Americans.

“We can all just sit here on Earth, wait for this big rock to crash into it, kill everything and everybody we know,” Bruce Willis’s Harry Stamper says to his fellow oil drillers in Armageddon. “United States government just asked us to save the world. Anybody want to say no?”

Sure, we nodded, back in 1998. Makes sense. The US government wants some ordinary guys to go into space and save the planet. The fictional version of the government had issued a similar call two years earlier, in 1996, when Independence Day’s President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) personally led a fighter jet attack on an alien saucer. And then again in 1997, when a pair of American secret agents dressed in black — one of whom was a former NYPD officer — saved the galaxy from another extraterrestrial threat.

Not so much in 2020. The very reason Americans — and the rest of the world — couldn’t go see any new blockbusters this summer has to do with American failure. And that failure spans all levels, from the White House to average citizens, in the face of a humanity-threatening virus. As the summer of 2020 has worn on, and other economies have warily but safely reopened around the world, the US has looked less and less like a leader and more and more like an ostrich with its head buried deep beneath the dusty ground.

And so, strangely, the dearth of Hollywood blockbusters in 2020 perfectly illustrates where the US stands in the world at the end of a long, maddening summer. Because it’s a story that’s not just about a commercial product that wasn’t shipped to customers at home and abroad; it’s a story about what the American blockbuster stands for, the myths it weaves, and the place in our collective cultural consciousness it occupies.

With what might be the year’s biggest movie — Christopher Nolan’s Tenet — having just opened everywhere except America before slowly attempting to roll out here, it’s high time we examined what the blockbuster means for us, and how 2020 became the year everything changed.

1) In which Richard Wagner invents cinema

To start properly, we should go back 99 years before Jaws, to August 13, 1876. On that day Das Rheingold, the first installment in German composer Richard Wagner’s four-part cycle of operas, premiered at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Over the next four nights, the cycle — titled Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), or just the “Ring Cycle” — would be performed in full, for the first time ever.

It wasn’t the first time anyone had heard Rheingold or its sequel, Die Walküre; an impatient King Ludwig, Wagner’s patron, had insisted on “preview” performances in Munich in 1869 and 1870. In the intervening years, Wagner had begun to realize his dream of constructing a dedicated theater in which the Ring Cycle would be performed, and found the perfect site in Bayreuth, a town in Bavaria. But financial trouble delayed the construction, so it took until 1876 for the first festival in Bayreuth to begin.

From the start, people were wowed. The design of the festival house in Bayreuth was revolutionary. It eliminated the traditional horseshoe seating, in which the audience could see each other, in favor of seats that all faced the stage, set on a graded floor that sloped upward from the front to the back of the room, with all boxes on the back wall. This way, everyone in the audience would have an unobstructed view of the stage and see (roughly) the same thing. This seating style, called “continental seating,” was later adopted by movie theaters.

The orchestra at the Bayreuth festival house, 1882.
De Agostini via Getty Images

The Bayreuth festival house also contained a double proscenium — two arches, one framing the stage and one on the stage — as well as an orchestra pit tucked away below the stage, so the musicians would not be visible to the audience. Wagner wanted to create the feeling of a “mystic abyss” between the audience and the action onstage, uninterrupted by the sight of the orchestra, which might break the spell. He called the orchestra a “technical apparatus for bringing forth the picture.” Special effects, like clouds of steam and magic lanterns, heightened the experience.

And when Das Rheingold premiered, the room was darkened, making it clear to the audience what they were there for. One observer wrote that the experience was like looking at a “bright-colored picture in a dark frame.” For many in the audience, seeing the production was a paradigm-altering encounter with a work of art, an all-encompassing experience that demanded they focus on the music, the action, and the story. This wasn’t a social occasion or a chance to be seen: It was time to watch the show.

Wagner “created a world,” Alex Ross told me. Ross is the New Yorker’s music critic and author of the comprehensive upcoming book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, which chronicles the cultural influence of Wagner and, among other works, the Ring. “He was a great theatrical thinker — he developed this new theatrical space that changed how audiences in the 19th century related to work onstage.” In short, Ross said, Wagner created a sort of prototype for the way that cinema, which wouldn’t debut for a few more decades, would operate. The movie theater — big, bright, (eventually) loud, designed to dwarf the audience and engulf them in an experience — would be patterned, in large part, on what the Ring Cycle pioneered.

The film critic W. Stephen Bush wrote in 1911 that “Every man or woman in charge of the music of a moving picture theatre is, consciously or unconsciously, a disciple or follower of Richard Wagner.”

But when the Ring Cycle first premiered at Bayreuth, cinema was still on the distant horizon. So it was like a bomb had gone off. Now opera companies all over Europe had a new challenge and a new model for performance. The Ring Cycle is massive, very long, technically challenging for the artists, and expensive to mount; most opera companies split it in half and perform it over two years, staging Rheingold and Walküre the first year and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung the second — a franchise, with sequels, if you will. And though its story is drawn from old, old texts, its preoccupation with its earliest audiences’ political and social context was clear from the start. The legend of the Ring Cycle — of greed, foolish men, and the never-ending grasp for power — was a tale as old as time.

2) In which I watch the entire Ring Cycle on my couch, in yoga pants

In the early days of the pandemic in the US, New York’s Metropolitan Opera began streaming archived recordings of its most famous opera productions, for free. For years, the company’s filmed productions have been hits in movie theaters nationwide, playing as “events” for a few days, and it sells many of them on DVD as well. So as various cultural institutions began to open their archives to a newly homebound audience, the Met joined in, drawing from its own vast catalog.

By its second week of streaming in late March, the Met had already brought out the big guns: A 10-year-old production of the Ring Cycle, helmed by experimental director Robert LePage, which made news months before its premiere for requiring a set so heavy that the Met had to reinforce the stage with steel, lest it collapse.

Though the company rolled out the production over two seasons — Rheingold and Walküre in 2010–’11, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in 2011–’12 — the filmed version played on my TV at home over four nights, Tuesday to Friday. They started at 8 pm and ended very late, as most installments of the show run between four and five hours long. There were Rhinemaidens and Vikings, gods and dwarves, horses and sunrises. I sat on my sofa, munching snacks and drinking red wine as the cast shrieked and spun and sang in German about the glory of death and love and gold and other related matters.

I did not turn off all of the lights in my apartment. And while my TV is pretty big, it isn’t a movie screen, and it is definitely not the stage at the Met.

But the Ring still cast its spell. LePage’s staging makes use of a giant screen that rotates and displays projections of fire and water and much more; one moment at the end of Rheingold, in which the gods cross a rainbow bridge and ascend into Valhalla, took my breath away. I was entranced and enveloped by a story that felt almost primordial, as if it had emerged at the dawn of time. By the time it came to an end on Friday night, I felt as if I’d been on a long, loud, brilliant journey to the ends of the Earth and back.

3) In which Wagner’s shadow hangs heavy over movies about aliens and dinosaurs

The Ring Cycle’s closest cinematic cousin is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, a series that came out at Christmas, not during the summer. (J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the books on which the movies are based, was explicitly answering Wagner in his tale of a golden ring of power.) The Lord of the Rings films have all the same elements, from magic and fire to sweeping centuries of history to the use of leitmotifs — little musical themes for different characters, a technique that film composers have borrowed from Wagner since film composition became a thing.

With its myth-weaving and hero’s journeys, the Ring Cycle also feels closely related to the Star Wars movies. All three of the films in the original trilogy were released in May, just before Memorial Day weekend: Star Wars (later retitled A New Hope) in 1977, The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and Return of the Jedi in 1983, six months before I was born.

When it came out in 1977, Star Wars was considered a gamble by the theaters that booked it. The template for a summer blockbuster as we’d come to know it hadn’t been established yet; the only previous true “summer blockbuster” was Jaws, which two years earlier had been a bona fide shocker of a movie.

Star Wars offered breakout roles for Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford.
Denver Post via Getty Images

Fans line up during opening weekend to see Star Wars at the Coronet Theatre in San Francisco in 1977.
Gary Fong/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

No matter. Like Jaws, Star Wars was a massive, record-breaking box office hit; what’s more, it became a cultural phenomenon. Both Jaws and Star Wars laid down rails on which future summer blockbusters could coast. They’d be thrilling movies, with adventure, excitement, eye-popping special effects, possibly some explosions. They would generate buzz with help from huge marketing budgets, instigate tons of tie-in merchandise, and, if they performed well, spawn a bunch of (frequently lousy) sequels.

Audiences would want to go to see a summer blockbuster multiple times in the theater. They’d talk about the movie with their friends and family. Catchphrases uttered by its heroes and villains would enter the general parlance. Kids would dress up like those heroes and villains for Halloween. Saturday Night Live would spoof the film.

People around the world would see these kinds of movies in their hometown cinemas. The summer blockbuster would be woven into America’s national legend, and function as an important global export of the country’s self-image: We’re rowdy, we’re scrappy, and we’re here to save the day.

Jaws, the one that started it all, was tonally very different from its modern descendants. Jaws is practically a disaster film, and not a particularly uplifting one. Tragedy strikes because people in positions of authority — the mayor and police chief — fail to save ordinary citizens from the shark that lurks in their waters.

“It’s interesting that Jaws is critical” of its characters, film critic J. Hoberman told me. Hoberman has been writing about movies since the 1970s, largely at the Village Voice, and has authored several books about the cultural milieu that birthed the blockbuster age. “Jaws has a more complicated political formation,” he explained. “The allegory is not so simplistic.” The film is less about triumphant heroes saving the day and more about barely cheating death.

Which is significant, because the blockbusters that evolved out of the Jaws approach gradually became more straightforward, predictable, and triumphalist as time wore on. For a while, the blockbuster remained uncertain as to whether defeating an enemy at great cost to human life was something to uncritically celebrate. Alien (1979) had a great hero in Ellen Ripley, but it doesn’t end with any parades or quippy morsels of wisdom from her. She defeats the enemy, breathes a sigh of relief, and puts herself and her cat in sleep stasis for the long trip home.


Sigourney Weaver in Alien, 1979.


In the 1980s, the tone of summer blockbusters began to change, a shift that lasted well into the 1990s. In a large swath of classic summer blockbusters, humanity is threatened by ghosts (Ghostbusters) or aliens (Independence Day, Men in Black) or a meteor (Armageddon) or resurrected dinosaurs (Jurassic Park) or some other force, and it’s up to the hero or heroes to stop it, which they do, while cracking jokes and performing thrilling feats of strength and ingenuity.

It wasn’t always all of humanity that was under attack — in movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the Back to the Future movies (1985, 1989, and 1990), the Batman movies (1992, 1995, and 1997), Top Gun (1986), and others, the stakes are slightly lower. But regardless of the stakes, there’s a feeling of relief and poignant joy at the end. No matter what kind of awful thing happens, someone will save the day, and life will go back to normal. You’re not supposed to exit the ice-cold theater into the summer heat feeling bummed out. You’re supposed to want to go back and experience the blockbuster’s thrills all over again.

And what’s more, more often than not, the heroes of these movies are not particularly fancy people. There’s a big divide between the cops, soldiers, fighter pilots, and drillers who save the day in many blockbusters and the suave martini-swilling British James Bond, or the highly trained martial artists who make their way over from Asia. The consummate blockbuster hero is a pretty normal guy who just worked hard, has a lot of specialized knowhow, and probably carries a sizable gun. He’s us, in other words; he’s real America.

“You cannot lose with that — making people feel good about themselves,” Hoberman told me. “We’re number one! Ultimately it’s a business, and that’s good business. It would not be good business to make [the bloody 1969 revisionist Western] The Wild Bunch now.”

Of course, not every major, buzzy summer release fits the mold. Anomalies slip through. In 1999, for instance, two dark horse horror films — M. Night Shyamalan’s surprise hit The Sixth Sense and the low-budget Blair Witch Project — covered themselves in glory without the marketing machine that drove an Independence Day. In 2003, Pixar started releasing its films almost exclusively in the summer, beginning with Finding Nemo, and found wild success. And plenty of movies have become hits in the other blockbuster window, near the December holidays.

But there’s something distinctive about a movie concocted, packaged, and sold by Hollywood for air-conditioned summer consumption, accompanied by popcorn and a jumbo Coke. Some massive problem must be solved by our maverick protagonist, a distinctly American type who follows the rules when the rules work for him — the blockbuster hero is almost always a him — but disregards them when he knows better.

Even Star Wars, set in a galaxy far, far away, had that unmistakable quality in the roguish Han Solo. And he was played by Harrison Ford, who would later play one of the most American summer blockbuster heroes imaginable: Indiana Jones, who swung into theaters in the summer of 1981.

Notably, there’s a touch of Siegfried — strapping young man, legendary hero, and (not accidentally) German nationalist icon in the 19th and 20th centuries — in all of them.

4) In which blockbusters must be as silly as the Ring Cycle to work

If Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the forerunner of contemporary cinema as an experience, it’s also got all of the elements of a summer blockbuster, the most important of which, to my mind, is pretty simple: It’s very goofy.

I mean, don’t tell Wagner I said that. I think he found it much more serious and thrilling. But right from the start, it’s quite ludicrous, in the best possible way. In the very first scene, Rhinemaidens — singing high-pitched gibberish — coyly tease Alberich the dwarf, who gets mad and steals the gold they guard. Whoever makes that gold into a ring can rule the world (hello, Tolkien). Alberich uses it to enslave the rest of the dwarves.

Meanwhile, the gods sing and cavort, argue and fight. Wotan, the ruler of the gods, is a chronic cheater who promised the giants who built his castle that they could have his sister-in-law as payment, and hasn’t quite figured out how to get out of the agreement. Many, many things happen. There’s inadvertent incest (hello, Star Wars), twice, and a lot of broken promises.

By the third installment, we meet Siegfried, a strapping young hero in the Germanic mold who is also kind of a whiny and petulant large adult son. The whole thing ends with an apocalypse: The Rhine overflows its banks, the ring is returned to the river, and the gods are consumed by flames.

The Ring Cycle takes itself very seriously. But it is, to put it lightly, pretty ridiculous stuff. And it is exhilarating.

A blockbuster also has to take itself very seriously, so that we understand the stakes; for the story to work, we do have to believe, at least fleetingly, that these aliens or dinosaurs or ghosts or whatever are truly a threat.

But it’s just as important that we recognize how utterly wacky the whole thing is, because that recognition lets us disengage slightly from what’s happening onscreen. We can enter the fantasy without needing to buy the idea that there really are aliens or Death Stars or whatever outside the theater walls, waiting to take us down. In the summer, blockbusters serve up escapism at its finest. Threat, but always by proxy. Thrills, but never realistic ones.

As the 21st century kicked off, the action- and comedy-driven summer blockbusters of the 1980s and ’90s often gave way to pure fantasy, as in the Harry Potter series, and pure goofiness, as in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, an entire franchise based on a ride that already existed in Disney’s theme parks. Neither of those franchises exported the American patriotism that summer blockbusters had showcased for so long. But hints of the future appeared, too — not least because, in the wake of 9/11, we were looking for a hero. First, there was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (in 2002, 2004, and 2007). Then the first two installments in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins in 2005 and The Dark Knight in 2008) expanded our vision of what a superhero film could do.

Fans waiting in line at the Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 film release party on July 14, 2011, in New York City.
Rob Kim/Getty Images

And six weeks before The Dark Knight’s US premiere, in May 2008, a little movie called Iron Man hit theaters, birthing a cinematic universe that would grow up to swallow the summer blockbuster season whole. It’s not that other movies weren’t coming out. Pixar still turned out reliable summer hits, and franchises from Indiana Jones to Mission: Impossible still made bank at the box office.

But there’s no doubting what dominated the summer in the 2010s: movies about superheroes, based on comic books that had been written decades earlier, often to exalt and uphold American values. Twin poles held up the tent where the rest of the Avengers assembled. There was the heroic Captain America, a fighter for truth and justice in skintight stars and stripes. And there was Tony Stark, a slick playboy who was richer than God, who embodied everything about American industry, ingenuity, and capitalism, and who flew around in a hollow robot suit that bore a distinct resemblance, if only in functionality, to Inspector Gadget.

It’s okay to admit that superheroes, on the whole, are a little silly. As it built out the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel, and sometimes its nemesis DC, leaned into that knowledge in the same way its blockbuster predecessors had for decades: with quippy heroes and silly jokes, goofy bits and funny callbacks. The studio didn’t want you to take its movies too seriously.

And yet you had to take them seriously; the investment of time, money, and story- and character-tracking involved in keeping up with the tale, stretched over more than a decade, required more than casual alignment. Sometimes the Marvel blockbusters dared to buck the triumphalist trend of their ancestors from the ’80s and ’90s; occasionally they ended on a bit of a downer. But when Avengers: Infinity War concluded with half the Earth’s inhabitants turned to dust, the downbeat note was tempered by the absolute certainty that in the end, in the final installment, all would be set right. And true to summer blockbuster form, Endgame wasted no time getting its groove back.

5) In which legends create fantasies and realities

In spinning the yarn of the Ring, Wagner drew on Norse mythology, but he also sought to tell a tale that would resonate with his 19th-century German audience. “What he did with myth was modernize it and dramatize it for contemporary audiences,” Ross told me. “He modernized it not in terms of putting everything in contemporary garb and contemporary stories; he treated them on their own terms. Below the surface it’s obvious how he is adapting these old stories to modern concerns and themes.”

Ross noted some parallels: “Alberic, the Chief of the Dwarves, is an industrialist. Woton is an older-school aristocrat who is trying to keep up with the times and perpetuate his power. The sword and ring are technologies that allow someone to wield power. Wagner is using myth to comment on contemporary life.” Later, writing his own answer to Wagner in the shadow of two world wars, Tolkien would transform the Germanic myth into a distinctly English one, imagining a power-hungry evil that threatened the pastoral life of hobbits as well as the fate of the world.

What Wagner had done, later generations would continue to do, both in staging the epic and in borrowing its music, images, and story for other purposes. And his influence went beyond a mimicking of his style. “This hugely problematic figure, extraordinarily original and powerful artist, is almost the object lesson in how art can become swept up in horrendous politics, and how art can exhibit its creator’s flaws,” Ross said.

Most people associate Wagner and the Ring Cycle, in some measure, with Adolf Hitler and Nazism; that’s because, as Ross points out in his book, Hitler’s cultural and political regime borrowed heavily from Wagnerian mythology to create its own iconography. “In Germany, it was seen as this allegory, how the pure German hero was going to defeat these insidious elements all around,” said Ross. Though Wagner never said the dwarves were caricatures of Jews, that came to be the prevailing interpretation.

And Siegfried, the hero, became so tied to Nazism that when American Nazis opened a camp on Long Island in the 1930s, they named it “Camp Siegfried.”

The power of myth — big stories that tell us our origins, that give us a sense of who we are as a people — is what drives art. And it’s no coincidence that they’re a great way to engender a nationalistic sense of belonging, if that’s what you’re after. By nature, myths elide details and rely on archetypes. They convert history into legend. They suck you into their story and ask you to identify with it. Myths rely on emotions more than logic, serving up feelings rather than principles, guidelines, or rational arguments.

For a long time, Westerns were the greatest of Hollywood myths, and they “used to just be ubiquitous,” Hoberman pointed out. “If you think of a television as an appliance, you’d just turn it on and a Western would be there.” But the genre started to die out midcentury, and the experimental, countercultural movies of the late 1960s and early ’70s, like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, pushed against the mythology of the Western and its do-good John Wayne-style hero.

“For a while, there was actually a period when movies were, relatively speaking, downbeat,” Hoberman explained. “They were about antiheroes. And so, a lot of the movies in the 1980s are a return — to what was perceived of as ‘normal’ — after the bummer of the late ’60s and the ’70s.”

Tom Cruise in Top Gun, 1986.
Paramount Pictures/IMDB

Hoberman ties that return to the broader cultural reaction against the “bummer,” personified best in the election of Ronald Reagan. The president of the 1980s, in addition to his career playing mostly good guys in Hollywood and on TV, had worked in the film production unit of the Army Air Force. Under him, militaristic movies became more acceptable again, Hoberman says: “Once you had Rambo and Top Gun, that just became another aspect of summer fun.”

The Hollywood blockbuster hero is embedded in a type of movie that doesn’t just tell a story; it envelops you in the story. It pulls on your senses with bright lights and loud noises, the kind of enhanced reality that entranced Rheingold’s first audiences. It makes you feel as if you are in the action, on a thrilling mission to save the day. You, whoever you are, whether or not you’re American, are drawn into its legend. You are part of the myth. If only for a couple of hours, you believe it.

6) In which Hollywood scrambles to stay on top of the blockbuster heap

If you’ve been a faithful consumer of Hollywood summer blockbusters in the past few years (or just someone professionally obligated to see them), you might have noticed a subtle shift. They were still led by American heroes, of course. But they were downplaying the traditional American maverick a bit.

As early as 2010, Hollywood studios were making noticeable changes in their fare to lure international audiences into the theater. The Wall Street Journal noted that global ticket sales had ballooned — once just a footnote to studio executives, they’d grown to comprise nearly 68 percent of the $32 billion global film market, a 10 percent rise over the same statistics in 2000. Trends like a boom in multiplexes in Europe and increased IMAX screens across Asia helped account for rise.

Yet it was also true that as filmmakers, technology, and funding had become more abundant and sophisticated in countries around the world, local film industries had grown to challenge Hollywood’s hegemony. One way to keep audiences outside the US buying tickets was through casting: Put big stars from several markets in your movie, and people will show up to see it. Marquee names weren’t enough to ward off the threat, however; by the end of 2019, ticket sales in China were breaking records, but the share of those receipts that went to Hollywood shrank.

Still, the change was noticeable, especially outside the MCU behemoth. In 2018, Skyscraper (that movie where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s main enemy is a burning tower) opened two weeks earlier in China than in the US, and featured global stars like Singaporean actor Chin Han and Chinese legend Tzi Ma. That same year, The Meg — which seemed almost to signal a perfectly symmetrical end of American summer blockbuster domination in its vapid, giant-shark-driven plot — also heavily focused on an international cast, with actors including Bingbing Li, Masi Oka, Winston Chao, and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson. Films such as these featured jokes about the American characters’ bad Chinese pronunciation, making space for an international audience to join in on the fun.

Ultimately, they still followed the blockbuster formula; the big, flashy action stars (like The Rock or The Meg’s Jason Statham) fit the maverick mold perfectly. But the nationalism was noticeably dialed down. And downward trends at the summer box office — with flops like the X-Men film Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International, which should have been franchise-driven hits — made me wonder, by the end of 2019, what the future of summer blockbusters might look like. Would they be more attuned to a worldwide audience, less stuck to the traditional mythology? Would Hollywood, long the progenitor of a distinctly American breed of legend-weaving, find itself doing something different in the years ahead?

At the time, it was exciting to imagine that the Hollywood summer blockbuster might be on the verge of another reinvention, since I felt as if its formula, like the Western before it, had metastasized, gotten tied up in its own trappings. But I never could have predicted what was coming.

7) In which a pandemic destroys the myth, and we wonder what comes next

There weren’t any blockbusters this summer. For the first time in a long time, there wasn’t an American hero to watch on a big screen. No fighter pilot presidents, no cops and soldiers, no scrappy secret agents, no superheroes. Across America, with a few exceptions, most big screens stayed dark. The movies we watched, we mostly watched at home. Or we watched them from our cars, at drive-in theaters — spending an evening with heroes from other eras, in a moviegoing format we’d nearly abandoned.

One weekend in June 2020, the highest-grossing film in America was Jurassic Park. Two weeks later, it was Ghostbusters. A week after that, The Empire Strikes Back.

By August, nearly half the world’s cinemas were open, 90 percent of those outside the US. Internationally, most cinemas were making their money from local films, rather than Hollywood blockbusters. Hollywood studios had postponed most tentpole releases into 2021, creating a domino effect. If they couldn’t open in the US, most executives decided, they wouldn’t open anywhere.

But the longer the Covid-19 pandemic wears on — due to a combination of poor public messaging, refusal to comply with widely established best practices, a push to reopen economies prematurely, and failures of leadership at the highest levels — the more the global theater industry is hungry for movies.

While movie theaters in the US remain closed, they have slowly begun to reopen in China. Here, moviegoers socially distance in Dalian, Liaoning province, on August 17.
Yang Yi/China News Service via Getty Images

So now Mulan is coming out on Disney’s proprietary streaming service, Disney+, but will also open in theaters in territories — notably, China — where the streamer doesn’t exist. And Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, from one of the few auteurs who can still draw an audience for an original film with little to no hint of what it’s about, finally opened abroad on August 26, and is slated to start a slow American rollout one a week later, in places where theaters are open.

If those two releases go well, and if the coronavirus rears its head as schools open in the fall and people start spending more time indoors, then it seems quite possible the American audience’s dominance in Hollywood may weaken. The industry may turn on its head.

The irony is too much. The mythology spun by the blockbusters — that scrappy, ingenious Americans will be the ones to save us from meteors and aliens and whatever else might threaten humanity — has been badly shaken. The wealthy, supposedly independent US is the tail, not the head, of an epoch-making catastrophe.

There’s no rapid change on the horizon. “They’ll keep making these movies in Hollywood until they go broke,” Hoberman told me. “It’s still the best way they know to make money.”

“It’s very hard for me to imagine any other national film industry being able to produce consistently successful international blockbusters,” he continued. “In China, the industry is just too nationalistic, too insular. They can’t do it. And as insular as Americans may be, it’s part of Hollywood DNA that the movies are for everyone.”

But as Ross pointed out, a change might have been a long time coming, because of what happens when legends are co-opted to propel nationalism and patriotism to the forefront of a culture. “We can look back at what happened with German patriotic exploitation of Wagner and apply that lesson to American popular culture,” he said. “We can think about how these stories are not simply innocent, but have political ramifications, and sometimes rather dark political ramifications.”

“We’ve been coasting for a long time on images of American good guys fighting the Nazis, with Wagner playing in the background,” he continued. “But since 1945, American influence on the world stage has not always been for the good. It’s such a comforting story to come back to, but the lease may be running out on the myth of American purity and heroic goodness.” (Indeed, if the massive worldwide success of 2018’s Black Panther — a February release that challenged the usual narrative peddled by superhero films — is any indication, that reassessment is already happening.)

August closed in America with plenty of indies and international imports and streaming-only releases on offer, but no new Hollywood blockbusters. At the end of a summer where we glimpsed a vision of a future that could be decidedly not America-first in its entertainment choices, a summer where the most audacious cinematic experience I had was watching a 17-hour opera on my TV in my PJs, I am hopeful about the future. A shake-up in Hollywood has never been a bad thing, and the spirit that birthed the blockbusters — of showy, expensive, unselfconscious spectacles — has not always yielded the best fruit.

But everything feels uncertain. This summer broke our myths. This essay is not going to end with triumph. Our struggle with the pandemic won’t either, whatever myths leaders try to weave. We are, at best, two guys at the end of Jaws, holding on to floating barrels, paddling back to the island. We’re Ripley and the cat, trying to push the alien out of the airlock so we can sleep till we reach home.

We can only hope there won’t be a sequel.

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