For years, summertime studio movie releases have been churned out from by-the-numbers scripts with the depth of a thimble. Transformers didn’t transform from movie to movie. Films that promised fast and furious thrills followed ever flatter story lines. In their never-ending quest to cash in on blockbusters, the studios used a cautious strategy for playing a high-stakes game, producing a wearying sense of predictability and diminished entertainment returns.
But of late, fresh, sophisticated and original films are appearing. Hollywood’s warm weather output still tends to favor frivolous popcorn films, but innovative, original and strange movies have become important elements of the release schedule. In a break from the recent past, the summer of 2017 has seen a diverse and successful crop of surprises. Now even superhero movies are recognizing that they are more attention-grabbing if they are also something else.
With its combination of innocence and chivalry, “Wonder Woman,” the first studio action spectacle boasting a female lead (Gal Gadot) and director (Patty Jenkins), is the season’s big winner. Ticket sales have outpaced Sam Raimi’s huge 2002 hit “Spider-Man,” making it the year’s second-best grosser in North America, following the live action remake of “Beauty and the Beast.” Casting off that blockbuster’s moral goodness for badass mode, Charlize Theron’s gender-busting role as a convincingly deadly spy in the intensely violent “Atomic Blonde” has scored well enough to spark talk of a sequel — and to drive another nail in the coffin of the old assumption that female-led action films can’t work.
With its vortex of three intersecting timelines charting parallel battles, the thunderous epic “Dunkirk” renders World War II with the fatalism and pathos of the ages. It is the sort of consequential non-franchise film usually released during the fall awards season. The antiwar saga, surely a top-tier Oscar candidate, adds another boost to the impressive career-long run of director Christopher Nolan. Light on heroism but harrowing in its portrayal of pitiable soldiers trapped like bull’s-eye targets in brutal combat, it covers rare ground for a war film. It offers no villainous Germans, no names for most of the characters and no personalizing focus on the individual behavioral quirks of every man in the regiment. Without the historic and corny technique of character delineation, it places viewers in the chaotic thick of battle and allows them to draw their own morals. It’s not your father’s war movie, nor his father’s, either.
“Detroit,” a grim history lesson on police brutality during the city’s 1967 riots, grows into an indictment of contemporary police-community conflict. Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow added fresh layers of meaning to a story of official misconduct that remains sadly relevant year after year.
“Baby Driver,” a tire-smoking crime getaway musical comedy, also topped the charts early in its release. So did fresh takes on familiar properties such as “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
Widely praised by die-hard fans and demanding critics alike, these films avoided the cookie-cutter safe choices that have pushed unadventurous studio films to a collective sense of superhero and sequel fatigue.
That audience burnout fed a box office downturn for half a decade. Money rained on the film industry in 2013, thanks to summer releases including “Iron Man 3,” “Despicable Me 2,” “Fast and Furious 6” and the Godzilla-inspired “Pacific Rim.” It was all downhill from there. Until this year’s refreshed summer slate, studios were committed to a worrisome agenda: Each new summer of big films was more of the same, but louder.
That strategy produced crop after crop of underperforming films based on franchises or seemingly presold material. And, despite the exceptions noted above, it continued this year. The sixth ”Alien” and the fifth iteration of both the “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” films slid far below the earnings of earlier successes. Efforts to resurrect the “Mummy” featuring Tom Cruise in his fourth decade as an action star and to turn “Baywatch” into a screen sensation starring the omnipresent Dwayne Johnson cratered on takeoff. Both movies tried to turn material that was already camp into ironic semi-comedies. Audiences didn’t buy it.
We could have seen that discontent coming as viewers embraced more carefully crafted oddities. Giving horror a fresh measure of satirical, racial and social relevance, the small-scale February release “Get Out” was a runaway success. It has earned more than a quarter of a billion dollars to date, making it by far the most successful film with an R rating. In March, “Logan” inventively turned Marvel’s Wolverine superhero series into a complex family film and western.
That sort of loud and clear creative voice made enthusiastic followers for modest indie films, too. “The Big Sick” is a joyously entertaining romantic comedy about the difficulty of an immigrant Pakistani to connect with Chicago’s comedy circuit and a native grad student his family would never welcome into their lives. There is a similar edge of darkness in “Dean,” a winning story about a young illustrator trying to re-enter the dating market while coping with the emotional aftermath of his beloved mother’s death. And in the witty “Colossal,” Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis played heavy drinkers on the East Coast absurdly connected to giant monsters rampaging around Korea. None of them is even close to being a standard-issue comedy.
Summer film viewing favors the young, which might explain why these films have exceeded expectations. Younger viewers feel at home with diverse casts. While “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is focused on Peter Parker, he’s apparently the sole Caucasian student in his elite science high school. And his villainous opponents are equally interracial. Thanks to such touches, this year’s summer films are having a championship season.