And how will the summer box office impact our culture?
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When it comes to Hollywood, the late William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.”
That axiom is proved true again this summer when sure-fire hits have TANKED and studio heads are again clutching their pearls, as they did when talkies came in, Wall Street tanked, TV appeared, streaming arrived, and finally COVID-19 closed all the movie theaters.
Those cinemas that survived have limped from franchise to franchise, though even the formerly foolproof superhero hit has proved no sure thing, as the failures of The Flash and the latest Indy Jones film (Indiana Jones and the Hip Replacement Surgery?) have demonstrated.
Pundits are wondering what political message this sends. Presumably if the film had proved a hit, people would be crowing that President Joe Biden is the same age as Harrison Ford (80). But now that it’s bombed, critics are squawking that Biden is as old as the creaky Indiana Jones — though Ford has managed to look like a decent rendition of his earlier self.
The first Indy outing, Raiders of the Lost Ark, was released in 1981 when Biden had already been in the Senate for eight years. And Biden does look more like an old grandpa than Ford does, despite being four months his junior.
But age isn’t the only message discernible from Indy’s ignoble fizzle. Perhaps going back to the well one time too often is a trenchant memo to take from the film’s rambunctious and unrequested return. If so, this should be aimed at Donald Trump, whose third bid for the White House comes in the wake of already losing the presidency, House, and Senate over three election cycles (not to mention never winning the popular vote).
Mission Impossible (Number Seven, Part One) appears to have ducked failure and is holding its own at the box office, starring its Peter Pan protagonist Tom Cruise, whose age (61) cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety.
Cruise has somehow managed to mold his face into some kind of young “Tom Cruise” mask, showing what millions can buy to produce a slightly off-kilter version of one’s younger self. If Cruise was born looking 22, he’s managed an admirable replica of himself at that age for the last 40 years, and, as the superhuman field agent Ethan Hunt, he’s repeating those stunts that we’ve seen him perform again and again: driving a motorcycle helmetless off a cliff; engaged in a fistfight atop a train barreling towards a tunnel; hanging by his left hand off the top of a building, etc.
Audiences wanted to see Indy do all the things they’ve seen him do before, too, and yet were introduced to a retired Indy, lounging in a recliner, watching TV in his underwear. Later scenes show him de-aged in flashbacks to the 1940s, but the crowd still got finicky.
What message will Washington take from Mission Impossible’s success? Who is the Ethan Hunt of politics?
That was a joke, of course: There obviously isn’t one, and it’s been a long time since we felt we had a candidate who could double as a secret agent — perhaps someone along the lines of John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is an ersatz Kennedy if there ever was one — a vaccine skeptic, cryptocurrency pusher, and promoter of outlandish conspiracies.
There’s no movie on the tawdry mess that is our current state of politics, which is probably why we are stuck with such escapist fare, encouraged to flee the harsh reality of our increasingly wobbly world (and isn’t it ever thus?).
Barbie, in which pink is poured into the frame like syrup, is the next widely anticipated release, and its overriding color threatens to further recalibrate the meaning of the tint.
A couple of generations ago the color was shorthand for communist infiltration, as when in 1950 an ambitious candidate named Richard Nixon described his opponent, Democratic Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, as “pink right down to her underwear.” Everyone knew what he meant, and it helped him unseat her and launch his ignoble and corrupt career.
But only seven years later in the Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face, Kay Thompson as a Vogue-like editor was urging everyone to “think pink!” in a riotous scene of fashion excess that instantly depoliticized the color.
And a few years after that the Pink Panther films ushered in a new reference for the tinge (a bumbling private eye) as well as introducing us all to a curiously hued cartoon big cat.
Popular culture can blunt political reality or ridicule it, as M*A*S*H did in 1970, set in a military hospital camp during the Korean War though clearly referencing the then-current Vietnam conflict.
All the President’s Men (1976) wrote the obituary of the Nixon administration two years after the denouement of the Watergate crisis (spoiler alert: Nixon resigned), making heroes of newspaper reporters over national politicians.
Releasing the same day as Barbie will be Oppenheimer, director Christopher Nolan’s latest somber, self-important blockbuster, with Irish actor Cillian Murphy playing the famous American nuclear scientist and English actor Emily Blunt as his American wife.
Why this story now? (And why can’t Americans play Americans?) Is Nolan disappointed that with all our concern about climate change we’re not worrying enough about nuclear annihilation? The trailer looks as serious and humorless as a public service announcement about venereal disease (which may have been a problem at Los Alamos, but I don’t remember reading about it).
I’m not sure how the story of the development of the atom bomb can be categorized as summer escapist fun, but then Nolan has always given us big-budget puzzlers (Inception, Interstellar, Tenet) that leave us wildly impressed or scratching our heads (my noggin tends to itch).
Will the summer movies this year reflect our cultural reality, impact our political discourse, or just allow us to escape the flooding, wildfires, and heat waves for a couple of hours? We’ll know by September — as long as the multiplex itself hasn’t caught fire or been submerged underwater.
(Don’t forget to buy popcorn; it’s the only way the movie theaters make their money.)
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.