Studio Fatigue: What Summer Blockbusters Should Have Learned From The Dark Knight

I’ve been thinking over the summer films that have hit cinemas so far and have only been disappointed with the rundown (except for Star Trek, that wasn’t too bad):

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
crap, but expected to be

Terminator Salvation
disappointingly crappy

Public Enemies
Though a non-mega budget/hyped film, this one suffered due to a lack of supporting story elements that would actually make you care about the character and the type of technical issues you’d expect from a student film, not a 100 million dollar feature starring Johnny Depp.

So I got to thinking about the major issues with the Summer Blockbuster Genre that has emerged, and how The Dark Knight managed to be one without being shit. Maybe Hollywood will keep these things in mind for next summer.

The Script
By all accounts, what carries The Dark Knight, is the script. Batman Begins did a great job of setting up characters the audience could care about for further development in a sequel.  By the time we get to The Dark Knight, there is action throughout, but it does not carry the film. The weight is found in the Joker’s monologues or the final scenes between Gordon, Two Face, and Batman.

However, if you look to X-Men Origins: Wolverine or Terminator Salvation, interactions between characters are mere setups for another action scene. Without the spectacle of violence there isn’t much to care for and no interaction with the audience. A large part of this problem is with scope.

Both of the aforementioned titles come from franchises built years ago (or in the case of Terminator, decades). What drew people into the story in the first place was a concisely crafted film that connected with a character or a small group of characters. With each sequel, both story and budget are inflated to meet some audience expectation. Several major franchises have followed this pattern in recent years: The Matrix, Terminator, X-Men, Batman etc.

It’s possible to successfully expand in scope, but it has to be gradual. Otherwise you get the Matrix sequels or Wolverine, which only seemed to care about bigger fight scenes and introducing new characters for spin-offs, not for specific purposes relevant to the story (see also Venom’s rushed intro in Spider Man 3.

If Terminator Salvation, for example, had only followed Marcus Wright, having John Connor show up towards the end, and not even bothered with Kyle Reese, the film would have held together better. Now, I choose Marcus because he was the one character that seemed best developed due to the amount of time we spend with him (scope, again). However, since Marcus gets (SPOILER ALERT) whacked at the end, you could do the same with John Connor: JUST follow him. The schizophrenic jumps gave us little time to care about anyone.

A film like Wolverine holds the baggage of being pulled from comics, another beast entirely; some comic series are spread out over hundreds of issues, with multiple writers and companies swapping the film rights with no restrictions. Due to the plethora of history to mine from, studios become unfocused in their efforts to capture a story on celluloid. When the film hits cinemas, the stories are over packed with new villains or favorite heroes, presumably because studios fear audiences’ ire if “so and so” isn’t in the story. Ironically enough, this worry pushes viewers away.

In contrast, by maintaining the focus of the film within a narrow narrative scope and the type of run time that allows for character development, The Dark Knight made us care about the story instead of longing for the next piece of action.

The Crew
The best thing that any Summer Blockbuster could have on its side is a director outside of the Hollywood System. I stress system because Hollywood films are meant to be churned out like Chinese goods from Walmart. This type of mass production film process doesn’t always help a film: studio executives are hired to make the company make money, not to present what has the most artistic integrity.

Due to the flaws of this system, it comes as no surprise that if you look around you’ll see a lot of talent cultivated instead by indie films of awesomeness: Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan.

Why are the indie guys the ones you want? The first thing you need is a good script; only then can you get the second ingredient, passion; and only these guys have it. Receiving little to no pay, they grit their teeth and get through the difficult, lean, process of filmmaking due to a passion for the source material. Do you think Michael Bay would have made Transfomers 2 without the 75 million dollar payday, plus 8% on the merchandise? Hell no, and that’s why you need the indie guys: people who don’t look at filmmaking as just a job. That’s what made The Dark Knight so damn good and kept it from coming under the control of studio executives. Combine directorial passion with a great ensemble of actors, and The Dark Knight stands apart from the rest of the summer fare.

Special Effects
The Dark Knight is the first major Hollywood film to be produced with a minimalist stance towards CGI, using practical effects in its stead. That semi flipping ass over end? Done for real. Batman whipping around in the Batpod? Done (mostly) for real.

Why does this matter? Because stunts or environments artificially created are just as much of a character as the leading gal/guy. We all saw how the Star Wars prequels turned out, and yes, some of it could have been script issues. However, throwing your actors on a giant green screen and expecting ace performances doesn’t help the picture either.

Actors need to interact with something real and so does the audience. We’re more inspired by real sets and stunts than something whipped up on a computer. In the real world there are obstacles to be overcome, and when a film is able to overcome these restraints (money, time, gravity), that’s when you’ve really got the audience’s attention (hence the moniker “Movie Magic”). CGI should be like makeup: you shouldn’t be able to tell that it’s there.

Unfortunately for Wolverine and Terminator Salvation, blemishes were very apparent in silly background shots or CGI work that seemed incomplete. In some areas it was just lazy filmmaking: in one scene between John Connor and Barnes (Common) it was obviously shot in the day, then converted into night using a filter from Final Cut.

These are simple things that could have been done using practical effects (aka, shoot the damn scene at night). However, because they relied so much on the post-production computer work, they just make the film look cheap, alienating the audience when we’re supposed to be engrossed with the film. The Dark Knight on the other hand, escapes these tropes and keep the audience further engaged and grounded via a heavy use of real sets, stunts, and effects.

In Closing
In the end, the biggest reason The Dark Knight is the best Summer Blockbuster is because it managed to get the support of a major Hollywood studio, yet escaped the usual cliche one-liners and plot points. It’s hard to recall another mega budget film that killed off the female lead, was full of political allusions, contained social commentary, and let the bad guy win.

The film is daring in presenting audiences with the good, the bad, and the grays in between. Almost every hero movie shows us our protagonist tempted by the dark side, only to come back to the light. In The Dark Knight we see the hero torture a mob boss for information. When’s the last time we saw a major Hollywood produced hero with ambiguity like that?

Yes, maybe I’ve seen too many independent films to ever enjoy a summer movie again. However, maybe if the studios worked on their stories they would watch their profits balloon over a full year, as with the The Dark Knight, instead of settling for a two week cash grab, followed by dumping the unwanted pregnancy in the five dollar DVD bin at Walmart.

5 responses to “Studio Fatigue: What Summer Blockbusters Should Have Learned From The Dark Knight

  1. Great analysis. You really tapped into the paradox of the Hollywood system. They, like all patrons of yore, attempt to manufacture creativity. When great films are made by true artists, the system tries to follow that standard, in order to continue making great things, as it doesnt have a soul of its own. The system can never create, it can only mimic. And thereien lies the rub: the public loves originality, and so long as that originality is marketed well, it will succeed at the box office. But the system fits in into a tried and true structure which voids everything that was good about it.

    But again, great essay.

  2. Pingback: Ten You Missed « The Moving Image

  3. Overall I tend to agree with your analysis. It’s wide-reaching and persuasive.

    However, I cannot overstate my contrary opinion, as concerns The Matrix sequels. I can’t see any reasonable grounds for claiming that their scripts or characters (let alone overall plot) are lacking in any real way, let alone to the absolutely abysmal degree of garbage like Wolverine and Spider-man 3.

    I don’t think the spectacle of the Matrix sequels provide us a convincing objective measure to criticize the films as being somehow shallow or hollow or overblown. I do, however, think that the spectacle of them, combined with their density and refusal to confine themselves to whatever first-film-box viewers wanted them to stay in, has prevented many a viewer from enjoying and appreciating them fully.

    Anyway. Concerning the end of Terminator 4, I was appalled and disgusted. I’ve not been do terribly disappointed in the ending of a sequel since….Alien 4.

    • I guess when comparing the sequels to “Spider Man 3” and “Wolverine” it isn’t as bad, but I felt it was rushed: going from the first “Matrix” which comprised of a handful of central characters to this HUGE expansion to the universe and the people within hurt the series. It wasn’t able to develop characters and story as well as the original.

      I didn’t hate it, but the central thing that kept my interest in the first one was lost in the sequels (in my humble opinion).

  4. Erm, that’s supposed to be “….so terribly disappointed…”

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