The tentpole movie. There are several of them each year, the movies that the studios and independent production companies rely on to keep them financially afloat for another year. These movies often have vastly inflated budgets, are merchandised and advertised and promoted until you can’t move without seeing said movies everywhere, and have such an overwhelming presence across all media platforms that you’d have to be The Who’s Tommy not to be aware of them. They have A-list stars, an over-reliance on CGI, and fanbases that pretty much guarantee massive box office returns in at least the first two weeks of release before word of mouth gets round and those same returns start to slow down alarmingly.
2016 has already seen a number of these tentpole movies arrive on our screens. Here’s how well they’ve fared so far at the international box office (all figures thanks to the good folks at boxofficemojo.com):
Captain America: Civil War – $1,150,973,683; The Jungle Book – $936,752,718; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – $872,662,631; Finding Dory – $721,945,629; X-Men: Apocalypse – $533,873,226; Warcraft – $432,178,995; Independence Day: Resurgence – $337,785,022; Alice Through the Looking Glass – $276,749,249; Now You See Me 2 – $267,240,841; The Secret Life of Pets – $254,338,384; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows – $231,142,932; The Legend of Tarzan – $193,971,594; Allegiant – $179,240,249; The BFG – $64,479,045.
Obviously, some of these movies have only recently been released, so the likes of The Secret Life of Pets should see their box office take increase in the coming weeks. But what’s noticeable about the majority of these movies is how well they’ve been received by both audiences and critics. Most have been lambasted for not trying hard enough, for valuing spectacle over plot or story, for repeating the mistakes of earlier outings, or for being just plain dumb (hello Independence Day: Resurgence). This blogger hasn’t seen all these movies – yet – but has seen and heard enough to know that this year isn’t a banner year for tentpole movies, just as 2015 wasn’t, and 2014 wasn’t, and so on and so on. It’s hard to remember a year when the majority of the much-anticipated blockbuster movies didn’t disappoint in one way or another.
The inevitable question is, why? Why do the big Hollywood studios, and the well established independent production companies, make such disappointing movies year after year? Is it the box office returns luring them into a false sense of competency? Are these movies being rushed into production ahead of being ready, just so they can open on a specific date? Are corners being cut once a movie is in production, a) to mitigate against unforeseen expenses, or b) to ensure that target release date is met no matter what? Or, in short, is anyone paying any attention?
Whatever the reason, and it’s likely it’s an intangible one, each year we’re subjected to the latest hype for the latest movie that – so we’re informed – we simply absolutely positively must go and see. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a perfect case in point. The movie had a budget of $250 million. And yet, as horrifying as that figure is, it’s likely that the advertising and promotional budget for the movie will have exceeded it. It’s a good job that the movie made as much as it did at the box office, and will reap further dividends in the home video market, because otherwise we’d be calling it a flop both critically and financially. And yet the simplest, most compelling piece of promotional work that Warner Bros. ever did – and all they really needed to do – was to reveal the image of the Batman and Superman logos conjoined into one. Just that one image alone ensured the movie would be seen around the globe by millions, and would rake in a huge sum of money (but not quite the billion dollars-plus that Warner Bros.were probably hoping for).
But for all the hype and all the advertising and the various ways that Batman and Superman were shoved in our faces in the run up to the movie’s release, once it was out there and people could see it, we all learned that the promise inherent in all the advertising wasn’t upheld. It didn’t live up to the hype. And it was the first big movie out of the gate; how would all the other tentpole movies fare if they couldn’t get it right with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? The answer? Not so well. The Jungle Book was visually stunning but lacked narrative drive and a Mowgli you could care about. Finding Dory again looks great but lacks invention and imagination. X-Men: Apocalypse was muddled, uninspired, and never felt sure of the story it was trying to tell. Warcraft is stilted and of limited appeal to anyone unfamiliar with the video game it’s based on. Independence Day: Resurgence is a plodding, credibility-free slice of nonsense that makes you wonder if anyone really cared about it during its production. Alice Through the Looking Glass is a soulless affair that seems to have had every last ounce of originality squeezed out of it before production began. Now You See Me 2 struggles to be something more than a string of flashy setpieces connected by a specious plot that thinks it’s being really clever. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is a better movie than its predecessor, but that’s like saying being deaf is better than being blind. Allegiant was a shadow of the previous Divergent movies, and not just because its makers ramped down on the budget. The Legend of Tarzan took a page out of African colonial history and trivialised both the past and itself in the process. And The BFG, perhaps one of the most anticipated movies of the year because it reteamed Steven Spielberg and the late Melissa Mathison, failed to strike a chord with critics and audiences because, like Mowgli, you’re unable to identify with the central character (or any of the other characters, come to that).
The rest of 2016 doesn’t look as if we’ll fare any better. Ice Age: Collision Course will do well but after four previous movies and a plot summary on IMDb that relates how the characters join up to “fend off(!)” a meteor strike, expect it to fizzle out at the box office after a few weeks. Star Trek: Beyond looks as if it has abandoned the original series’ promise to “boldly go where no man has gone before” in its efforts to reassure audiences that it’s business as usual. Suicide Squad is expected to do well at the box office but as it’s from Warner Bros., and the trailers are practically screaming “triumph of style over substance”, any success may well be short-lived unless the makers have really looked at the excesses and narrative disasters in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and gone the other way (unlikely though). Ben-Hur is currently so far under the radar that it might as well be going straight to video or on demand. The Magnificent Seven has a great cast but seems to have forsworn the original’s bandits-terrorise-Mexican-villagers scenario in favour of a Silverado/Open Range retread. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children might be just the fillip that Tim Burton’s career needs right now but there’s a required depth to Ransom Riggs’ story that doesn’t seem to be present from the trailers released so far. And Assassin’s Creed, despite the involvement of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and their Macbeth director Justin Kurzel, will need to have much more of a coherent storyline than pretty much any other video game adaptation to be anywhere near successful.
This leaves Marvel’s introduction of Doctor Strange, J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Disney’s Moana, and something called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to restore our faith in the studios and production companies that spend billions each year in trying to get us to like their movies. Count them, just four movies. But while we pin our collective hopes on a small handful of movies, what will inevitably happen is that 2016 will pass into history as another average – or even below average – year for the blockbuster movie, and 2017 will take its place with an all-new batch of tentpole blockbuster movies that we’ll all flock to see, and which will in all likelihood disappoint us just as much as this year’s movies did. Will we, or the studios, ever learn? Probably not. And if that’s too pessimistic a note to end on, then consider this: unless audiences break the cycle by passing up on seeing these movies in cinemas, then the studios et al have no reason to make their movies any better, or devote their attention away from doing just enough to get millions of bums on seats in the first fortnight of a movie’s release. It’s a vicious circle, and one that shows no sign of being broken any time soon.