The Merits of Summer Blockbusters

Maybe it’s a carry over from the days I went to school, but summer has always been my favorite time of year. Long days. Warm sun. Green grass. Cold drinks. Baseball. The pool. Vacations. To me, all these things are part of what make these months so enjoyable.

And one more item I might add to the list? Going to see summer blockbusters on the big screen.

While the howls of protests from the serious cinephiles die down, I’ll take a moment to explain.

While Oscar contenders generally are released shortly before the end of the year, we’re all aware that summer is the time for mass marketed pictures designed to score big at the box office. And so we’re left with soulless cinematic engines designed for nothing but profit, each cramming in clichéd stories and one-dimensional characters to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Or so the thinking sometimes goes.

And doubtless that thinking is often right. But I don’t think it’s always the whole story. Along these lines, I’m reminded of a former teacher who regularly assigned his students to read a number of books and write short reviews of each. “I’m not interested in hearing about the books’ flaws,” he said. “I know they have flaws. But I want to know about their positive aspects, what we can appreciate about them.”

So yes, I could (and should?) write a post on the deficiencies of summer movies. But for now, in the above spirit, let me offer just a few short thoughts on their merits instead:

Ambiguity isn’t the only virtue.

We often celebrate films that portray complexity and ambiguity (regularly of the moral variety). And this is entirely justified. Real human beings, made in God’s image and yet seriously scarred by sin, are a decidedly complex and ambiguous lot. But while it’s often desirable to show people as they really are, there’s also something to be said in showing people as they should (and sometimes can) be: as people we want to root for, as people who oppose evil and fight for the good, as heroes. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to identify clearly who wears the black hats and who wears the white hats…and then root unapologetically for the latter.

Clichés are clichés for a reason.

This is related to the above point. The vast majority of us want to see villains defeated, those in peril rescued, the good guys to win in the end. We want to see people get through great adversity to a better situation on the other side. We want a world in which everyone can live happily ever after. I would argue this is fundamental to our nature, authored as it is by a good, just, loving, and redemptive God. And if summer blockbusters sometimes employ stock characters and well-worn plot devices in their appeal to this aspect of who we are as humans, maybe they can be forgiven. Perhaps we can say, as G. K. Chesterton asserted about the similarly popular (and criticized) “penny dreadful” novels of his day: with all their faults, “they’re on the side of life.”

You just might see incredible creative achievement.

I saw Star Wars when I was five years old. And though as a parent I now wonder if that was a good idea (Darth Vader scared me to death), I was nevertheless completely captivated. I was transported to a whole new imaginative world, one that has left an impression on me to this day. That happened because of the creative genius of a lot of people, from George Lucas right down to the people who built scale models for what where, at the time, those groundbreaking special effects.

As we like to point out each time we hold a Talking Pictures screening, God himself is not only the creator par excellence, but he also delights in what he’s made. And because we bear his image, we’re made to do the same things. That means simply enjoying exceptional creativity is a good thing. Blockbusters will often give us a chance to do just that.

Summer blockbusters provide a valuable reflection of our culture.

While I think it’s fair to say that summer movies are often meant to appeal to a very broad audience, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Given what we said above, there might just be a good reason that they appeal to a lot of people (And here I might point out: just like many people might drive a certain kind of car because, in fact, it’s actually a good car). But regardless of whether this appeal to the better or worse aspects of our nature, at the very least they tell us a great deal about what we, as a culture, regularly celebrate, value, and believe. If, along with munching our popcorn, we can maintain our ability to reflect on these things, particularly in comparison to the perspective found in the pages of the Bible, we can better see where the vision of our culture (and perhaps our own) both coincides and conflicts with God’s own.  

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