So, how was your summer? See any good movies? Everyone has their own take about whether 2018 delivered a great or miserable summer movie season. What we can all agree on, however, is that it was a long one. For the most part the industry considers the kickoff of blockbuster season to be the first weekend in May. Except this year, Marvel changed the rules: After initially slotting Avengers: Infinity War for May 4th, the studio pushed the film up a week, which means “summer” officially started in April. What used to be the province of the months between Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend is now something that happens any and every week on the release calendar.
No surprise, then, that it’s almost impossible to remember the start of this year’s summer-movie season. (Wanna feel old? Tully and the Overboard remake both came out May 4th, as opposed to the early Paleozoic era, which seems far more believable.) Over the last several months, we’ve endured myriad explosions, plenty of slow-motion spectacle and even the occasional great popcorn flick. But before we look ahead to awards season, let’s try to make sense out of what we’ve just gone through. Here are 10 major takeaways from Summer Movies: The 2018 Edition, including some thoughts on Tom Cruise, art-house hits, woebegone Star Wars spinoffs and whatever the hell The Meg was.
1. Documentaries ruled.
It’s far too easy to ascribe the success of nonfiction movies this summer to Trump’s ongoing war against truth and journalism — a market correction, if you will, against the rise of “fake news.” And yet, documentaries made a killing over the last few months. For the first time this century, a summer movie season included three nonfiction films that each grossed more than $10 million: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ($22.1 million), RBG ($13.8 million) and Three Identical Strangers ($10.6 million). That might seem a pittance compared to the $100-million-plus openings that are now common among the tentpoles, but considering that most calendar years are lucky to have even two documentaries reach double digits, it’s impressive that the warm-weather months produced so many hits.
It didn’t hurt that each of the three movies pinpointed a specific, large audience. Three Identical Strangers, about triplets who had been separated at birth, sported a stranger-than-fiction, crowd-pleasing tone that made it one of the season’s twistier, more emotional thrillers. As for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RBG, well, Trump may have played a part in their success. Both documentaries stood as defiant rejections of his blinkered worldview: Won’t You Be championed the simple kindness of iconic TV host Fred Rogers, while RBG paid homage to liberal hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose ascension to the Supreme Court is an inspiration to those who chafe at our current (for now) President’s misogyny and sexism. Mainstream films usually eschew divisive politics. Docs, however, profited from speaking plainly about our current moment.
2. We’re not sick of superhero movies … yet.
At some point, surely, audiences will grow tired of movies starring costumed characters with all types of crazy powers, right? Right?!? In a year that started with the titanic box office of Black Panther, 2018 gave us a summer where superhero films dominated. Marvel decided to unofficially move the warm-weather season up a week, releasing the hotly-anticipated Avengers: Infinity War on April 27th. Nearly $679 million — and $2 billion worldwide — later, Infinity War proved that comic-book movie fatigue is not quite here yet.
Three weeks after Infinity War’s arrival, another superhero movie — Deadpool 2 — arrived in theaters, grossing a hefty $318 million domestically (It was less than $50 million off of the 2016 original, which was at the time considered a sleeper smash, but still.) And for better or worse, summer wasn’t through with masked avengers. Although never in the same class as Iron Man or Captain America — and having to deal with the fact that Infinity War ended with one hell of a cliffhanger that made any subsequent Marvel standalone feel a little anticlimactic — Ant-Man and the Wasp still did solid business, collecting $209 million in the States.
The summer superheroes were so formidable than even the animated ones were boffo. The low-profile Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, based on the popular Cartoon Network series that spoofs comic-book antics, pulled in about $27.6 million in the U.S. against a tiny $10 million budget. And let’s hear it for Incredibles 2: It’s been 14 years since the first film, but the sequel grossed a mighty $595 million in the U.S. and an incredible $1.1 billion across the globe. That puts the movie on the top of the Pixar charts both at home and abroad, earning more than any Toy Story or Nemo film. So if you tried putting out a movie this summer without superheroes, seriously, what were you thinking?
3. We love the Rock. But we won’t see the Rock in just anything.
Dwayne Johnson had the biggest hit of his career this past Christmas with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ($405 million domestic, $962 million worldwide) — but 2018 thus far has demonstrated the limits of his still-sizable popularity. In March, Rampage grossed $426 million worldwide, most of that coming from foreign territories. And this summer’s Skyscraper fared even worse. To date, it’s only brought in $293 million across the globe, with foreign markets accounting for $226 million.
In an industry that’s becoming increasingly dependent on preexisting intellectual property rather than movie stars, Johnson has proved to be a bit of an outlier. He’ll do a Fast and Furious or a Jumanji (or a Rampage), but he’ll also topline an anonymous action film that people will check out simply because he’s in it. (And remember that I.P. isn’t always Johnson’s friend: Baywatch ended up failing to become a Jump Street-style irreverent comedy franchise.)
But the Rock increasingly seems like yet another A-lister who needs a brand-name boost to launch a massive hit. Ironically, Skyscraper is one of the few studio films that’s based on an original screenplay — though yes, it totally rips off Die Hard — only American audiences weren’t that interested. He may look like a superhero come to life. But he’s not invincible.
4. Indies found their niche.
Summer movie season has always been ripe for counterprogramming: While the brawny blockbusters battle for multiplex supremacy, a few brave, smart independent films will cultivate an audience among the art houses. In 2018, there were several success stories that demonstrated that personal projects can still thrive in a world governed by sequels.
Opening the same weekend as Avengers: Infinity War, the Rachel Weisz/Rachel McAdams romantic drama Disobedience, directed by Oscar-winner Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), delivered acting fireworks on the way to $3.5 million. Debra Granik returned with her first fiction film since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, the father-daughter drama Leave No Trace, which grossed $5.7 million. Boots Riley, the fiery frontman of the hip-hop group the Coup, unveiled his feature directorial debut Sorry to Bother You, which became the season’s most talked-about film, winding up with $16.4 million.
Meanwhile, the gold standard of indie cinema, A24, enjoyed two big hits. First Reformed garnered veteran writer-director Paul Schrader and actor Ethan Hawke some of the best reviews of their respective careers; even more remarkable, however, was the news this unsparing character study struck a chord with moviegoers, parlaying strong word of mouth to an eventual $3.4 million gross. Then later in the summer, stand-up Bo Burnham’s feature debut, Eighth Grade, landed the year’s highest per-screen-average, collecting a whopping $63,000 per screen in its first weekend. To date, the adolescent drama has grossed $11.9 million. Who says there are no signs of intelligent life at the theater?
5. Diversity proved to be good box office.
As much as Hollywood has paid respectful lip service to changing its ways — from promising to introduce more equitable hiring practices to featuring more films starring people other than white men — the hard truth is that the industry won’t shift unless there’s a healthy bottom line that accompanies this shift away from the status quo. But last year’s success of Wonder Woman went a long way to furthering the cause, and this summer only bolstered the argument.
Nothing could compare to Black Panther’s paradigm shift in February, but the strong grosses for Ocean’s 8 and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again suggested that female-driven vehicles can translate to significant box office. (And remember that the Mamma Mia! sequel had to contend with the fact that Meryl Streep was barely in it.) Even the more modestly-budgeted Book Club, featuring Oscar-winners Jane Fonda, Mary Steenburgen and Diane Keaton, hit a commercial bulls-eye.
Still, greater diversity means more than gender, of course. Sorry to Bother You and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman gave audiences two generations of outspoken political artists offering their individual takes on American racism. And while some despaired that Riley critiqued Lee’s cop drama on Twitter, it’s nonetheless a remarkable moment in Hollywood when two prominent black filmmakers can actually have movies out at the same time, creating the possibility for such a dialogue between them.
The encouraging inclusiveness shouldn’t distract from the progress Hollywood still needs to make. So let’s end on a happy note: Crazy Rich Asians, the first non-period studio film to feature an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, has been one of August’s biggest hits, once again demonstrating that there are entire untapped audiences dying to see their stories represented on the big screen.
6. Multiplex crowds want sequels — or movies starring massive sharks.
Movie consumers are creatures of habit. We like what we’re familiar with. We want to see the same heroes we’ve seen before in new adventures. Sequel-itis has overtaken Hollywood, and the sickness shows no signs of abating. But if that’s the case, how do we account for The Meg?
Based on Steve Alten’s 1997 shark-attack novel, the movie has been kicking around development hell for 20 years, with different directors and stars coming on board and then jumping ship. Eventually, though, While You Were Sleeping filmmaker Jon Turteltaub and action-maestro Jason Statham signed up. Still, there was little expectation that the movie, which reportedly cost around $150 million, would set the box office aflame on its opening weekend. (Initial projections had it running neck-and-neck with the third weekend of Mission: Impossible — Fallout.) Instead, The Meg devoured the competition, grossing an astonishing $45 million. To date, the movie’s already made $321 million worldwide.
So, what happened? Statham has never had a hit this big outside of the Fast and Furious and Expendables films. Were people dying for a killer-shark movie? Did the ads touting it (somewhat inaccurately) as a cheesy, self-aware lark, a la Sharknado, dupe audiences into buying tickets? Whatever the reason, The Meg was one of the legitimate surprises of the summer — a reminder that prognosticators can’t always spot the hits coming on the horizon. Too bad the movie wasn’t any good.
7. Star Wars is no longer invincible.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the arrival of a new Star Wars movie was a major event. Those days are over: Solo was one of summer’s biggest financial disappointments, grossing merely $393 million worldwide. To be sure, that’s still a lot of money. But in the Star Wars universe, that’s bantha fodder when you’re Disney and used to watching these films gross a billion dollars across the globe.
What went wrong? Well, everything: Bad buzz, paired with Star Wars fatigue and an inability on the studio’s part to sell Alden Ehrenreich as a young Han Solo, doomed the film. In Hollywood, there are few sure things, but one of them used to be Star Wars. It is a dark time for the Rebellion — or, more accurately, the execs at Lucasfilm.
8. The earliest hints of the Oscar race emerged.
With the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals on the horizon, awards season is about to begin. But while a lot of the Oscar heavyweights have yet to be seen, a few potential Academy Award and Indie Spirit nominees arrived this summer.
Topping the list is Toni Collette, the tortured matriarch at the center of A24’s masterful horror film Hereditary, which has earned an impressive $79 million worldwide. (It’s the company’s second-biggest hit in the U.S., behind just Lady Bird.) It’s too early to say if she has a shot at a Best Actress nod, but she’s put herself into the conversation — as has Hawke for First Reformed. On the documentary side, any of the season’s three big smashes could be in play. And it’s possible BlacKkKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, Eighth Grade and Leave No Trace might make some noise, too.
Of course, we also learned this summer that the Academy is going to be doing something astoundingly stupid, rolling out a Best Popular Movie award. So, congrats, Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom: You’re now officially part of the Oscar conversation, for some reason.
9. Marvel had an incredible summer — until some old tweets resurfaced.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Marvel Studios were having an amazing year. Black Panther, Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp … who wouldn’t kill to be in the company’s position, enjoying phenomenal grosses as well as a decent amount of critical cachet?
Well, Marvel’s hot streak faced its first major challenge in July when Disney fired writer-director James Gunn, who had helmed the first two Guardians of the Galaxy movies and was preparing Vol. 3. The firing was due to a series of offensive tweets Gunn wrote between 2009 and 2012 that resurfaced after right-wing commentators organized a campaign to get him removed from the movie. Even though Gunn had apologized for the homophobic and insensitive tweets back in 2012, Disney execs decided they didn’t want the headache.
His dismissal didn’t end the controversy, though. A few days after his sacking, the Guardians of the Galaxy cast sent out a signed letter supporting the filmmaker, saying in part, “We fully support James Gunn. … We believe the theme of redemption has never been more relevant than right now.” Nonetheless, Disney opted to move forward with the Guardians sequel, which has been put on hold, without Gunn.
Putting aside ethical and moral questions for a moment, the writer-director’s firing presents Marvel with its biggest public-relations headache of the past decade. For years now, Marvel president Kevin Feige has earned a reputation as being a calm, smart, steady hand at the wheel of these blockbuster entertainments. (The previous controversies were relatively minor, including the studio’s decision to part company with director Edgar Wright during the development of Ant-Man.) Disney’s dismissal of Gunn — who is beloved among fan boys and was responsible for two popular, well-reviewed Galaxy films — means that, for the first time in a long while, Feige could be facing choppy waters ahead as he tries to manage the fallout.
10. Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible are getting better with age.
Like all movie stars, Tom Cruise is dependent on the projects he’s in. Last summer, he tried to help launch a Universal monster franchise with The Mummy. We’ll be charitable and say that thing … did not work out. But this summer, he returned with Mission: Impossible — Fallout. That worked spectacularly.
This Cruise franchise has proven to be a fascinating study of the specific ecosystem where he resides. In an age of billion-dollar blockbusters, the highest-grossing M:I, 2011’s Ghost Protocol, earned just $694 million. Fallout — which received some of the best reviews for any summer movie, big or small — is currently at $511 million, and the film hasn’t opened yet in China, which tends to be a huge market for this series. It’s possible Fallout will be his biggest hit ever.
At 56, Cruise can’t hope to enjoy the global success of a typical Marvel film. But a well-made action vehicle like Fallout is a reminder of the consistent pleasures that make summer movie season so spectacular. For the next Mission: Impossible, maybe he should consider adding a shark, though. People seem to love ’em.
This article has been updated to reflect GOTG Vol. 3 being put on hold in light of the James Gunn situation.