2017: The Year Summer Movies Got Good Again
All right, so The Dark Tower wasn’t the epic fantasy we were hoping for. And, yeah, multiplexes around the country are also showing stuff like Wish Upon and The Emoji Movie. But this is August. When it comes to movies, August is the new January, and the first three months of this summer were as fun as any in recent memory. 2016 was the worst summer for big movies since the turn of the century. In 2017, summer movies made a comeback.
Again, that doesn’t mean that the season wasn’t without a few creative flops. Some would-be cinematic universes got off to very rocky starts. We’re more likely to see the Lady of the Lake rise from Dozmary Pool than another film set in the world of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. And the only thing worse than the fifth Transformers movie was the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
But even a good movie season has its share of duds. Summer 2017 had more than its share of winners. After 2016’s historically bad summer (which featured titles like Alice Through the Looking Glass, Independence Day: Resurgence, and The Legend of Tarzan — maybe they should stop putting the word “legend” in titles?), this year rebounded in a major way. As this graph shows, even with King Arthur, Pirates, and Transformers all earning less than 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, this summer was still among the best of the last 10 years for movies with $100+ million budgets.
This graph builds off a similar one I made last year to find out whether my feeling that 2016 was the worst summer in movie history was grounded in facts or simply anecdotal. What I found was that the Rotten Tomatoes scores of all the wide releases of a summer tend to hover around the same average. The overall average last year wasn’t that different from any other. What fluctuates, and sometimes wildly, is the quality of the big-budget movies. And since summer at the multiplex is synonymous with size, that’s where the sensation that a summer is “good” or “bad” comes from.
One big reason for the major upswing this year: All of this summer’s comic-book movies delivered. Last year, viewers had to contend with the mess that was Suicide Squad and Oscar Isaac llllleeeeeearrnnnniiiiinnng in X-Men: Apocalypse. All three of 2017’s superhero films were popular with critics and audiences. Both of Marvel’s offerings — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming — were colorful, satisfying entertainments, and Wonder Woman, with its bold female hero, wound up garnering more attention and praise than any movie of its kind since the first Avengers.
The creative limitations of tentpole filmmaking remain a drag on many directors. Luckily for us, 2017 saw movies from two of the filmmakers who’ve accrued enough clout to make the movies they want to make. Christopher Nolan cashed in his cache on Dunkirk, an unusual and intense war film. And Ridley Scott continued to subvert his Alien franchise in increasingly bizarre ways with Alien: Covenant, which offered the remarkable sight of Michael Fassbender playing a robot seducing another robot played by Michael Fassbender.
There were interesting things going on in smaller summer movies too. The last couple months gave us wide releases as varied as It Comes at Night, Atomic Blonde, and Girls Trip. If you live in a big city, you’ve also got, or are about to get access to films like A Ghost Story, The Beguiled, The Little Hours, Brigsby Bear, The Trip to Spain, Ingrid Goes West, and Detroit. If you have Netflix, you can watch Okja, which is as good as anything released in theaters this year. Last summer at this time, when people would ask me “What’s the best thing you’ve seen lately?” I would smile awkwardly and change the subject. This year, I’ve got five different movies I can recommend, depending on who I’m talking to and what they want to see.
A year ago at this time things looked mighty grim for the future of cinema, with many websites (including this one) wringing their hands, and a few even predicting the imminent death of movies. Television was the future, movies were the past! This year you could write almost the exact opposite thinkpiece. Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks aside, the summer has belonged to movies, from Baby Driver to The Big Sick. And after this brief August lull, there’s a ton of incredible movies on the horizon for the rest of 2017 as well.
That’s not to say 2018 is guaranteed to be as good or better than 2017 (although with a lineup that includes Ocean’s 8, The Incredibles 2, Mission Impossible 6, and Avengers: Infinity War, there’s reason to be excited, assuming you like sequels). The wider point to take from this is to try to take the long view of these things and not overreact to a couple of bad months of movies. (I know, it’s hard not to overreact on the the internet. Overreacting is what the internet does.) Last summer was crummy; this summer was an improvement. Next summer could be either, or both at different times. But there will be movies.