Column: What We Talk About When We Talk About Blockbusters

The Harry Potter film series, with all its ups and downs, its hormonal mood swings from film to film and director to director, its prestigious British ensemble doing their best to distract from harried pacing, had several poignant and thrilling moments. But its most resonant scene was, in this writer’s opinion, one that didn’t even appear in J.K. Rowling’s books.

It happens about one third of the way into the seventh film, the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and longtime friend Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are alone in a tent, bored and sitting on opposite sides of the space. They aren’t acknowledging each other after a hard day, when friend Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) left their company. During the day, they are on a quest to save the Wizarding World. At night, they feel more than alone. The tent fills with a thick silence; the only noise comes from a Nick Cave song playing on Hermione’s radio.

Harry approaches Hermione and offers his hand. She hesitates before grabbing it. As she stands up to face him, the music leaves its diegetic space and expands onto the soundtrack. Harry leads his friend to the middle of the tent with both hands. The viewer’s first response, assuming you have seen onscreen seductions before, is that this is a prelude to sex. This is one of the only instances where Harry and Hermione have been alone together in the series, and the sustained quiet from both characters provides a heated tension. Instead of embracing Hermione, though, Harry begins a silly, childish dance. In one second, the series had flirted with an erotic, adult sensibility. The next, it returns to the innocence that Chris Columbus captured in the first two Harry Potter films, made when the actors weren’t even teenagers.

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It’s a sweet, goofy, tender moment of companionship between two characters that, in sum, reminds us of the testament of friendship so inherent to Rowling’s books. There’s also something unnerving about a film that has so many tasks to fulfill within the space of a single feature, mostly involving moving the plot along and getting the characters to requisite beats, deciding to settle in for something nearly silent. Without any words and no computer dazzle required, the scene offers the audience some solace.

The small scene registers within the grandeur of the stories. It evokes the span of the adventures, which began when Harry and Hermione were stoic, inquisitive 11-year-olds, and reminds audiences why we have loved these characters. The moment reminds us how close they are to adulthood before returning them to a place that is familiar to us.

As a 25-year-old, I don’t fit squarely within a “quadrant.” I’m right in the middle of two of them. The terminology for a film that hits a wide audience spectrum is “four-quadrant”: male, female, older than 25 and younger than 25. A “tentpole,” which refers to a massive blockbuster hit that the other studios have little choice but to schedule around, is supposed to engage all quadrants relatively equally. Any studio executive would espouse that the dream breakdown for a film’s opening weekend would be split male/female, and over/under 25. But, what about actual 25-year-olds? I’m the mean average age of the ordinary moviegoer, as studios have outlined.

While my love and anticipation for popcorn cinema has dwindled, I am not entirely over blockbusters. I still enjoy seeing a big-budget film with a bag of popcorn and a boisterous audience. I will go see Ghostbusters (July 15) on its opening weekend, and will probably do the same with The BFG (July 1), Sausage Party (August 12) and, ok, maybe even the inescapably-hyped Suicide Squad (August 5). I will also, dutifully, head out to the theatres and engage with characters existing within franchises that have entertained me for years.

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I am, however, worried about the expectations of film fans in the generation after me, whose conception of popcorn cinema will be starkly different than mine. Today’s blockbusters aren’t as effective as they are efficient: they can work as epilogues to the previous adventures, origin stories for new characters, and teasers for the journeys that await. Almost none of the big moneymakers at the multiplexes exist as self-contained narratives. As culture columnist Mark Harris has explained, “moviegoers are effectively distracted from how infrequently their expectations are actually satisfied. Movies are no longer about the thing; they’re about the next thing.” It is hard to watch Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and ignore the efforts the filmmakers make in building anticipation for future DC Comics adaptations. (I also imagine it is hard to watch Batman V. Superman generally, as well.)

The Harry Potter books were a formative anthology for me, as a fledgling and soon-to-be voracious reader and, also, someone whose age closely mirrored those of the young characters as they came of age. I’m sure there are many that would consider the film adaptations to be as significant an experience. Amidst those moviegoers is, in all likelihood, a collection of studio executives – the ones who used the scale of the series and the immersion into loyal fan cultures as a paradigm to model long-gestating franchise films.

A mere 15 years ago, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone, for my American readership) reached the big screen and handily dismantled the opening day and opening weekend records. (There may be some significance in the timing: it was a good-versus-evil fantasy adventure in the shadow of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.) The brand eventually marked some soon-to-be familiar trends: expansive cinematic universes that go beyond the threshold of a trilogy; extending the final installment to earn around double the coin for a single story; frequency of releases (Warner Bros. churned out 8 Potter films in under 10 years). Despite a few dips in admissions from their predecessors, the Harry Potter films maintained a strong consistency in their popularity from 2001 to 2011.

But despite the extra-textual trends the film set, when it came to the book-to-screen transition, not all of the magic was there. With such dense and beloved material meant to find a way onscreen, the adaptations were often either stilted, faithfully re-creating less urgent or important sections of the books, or rushed, keeping the budding spirit of the series intact despite some haphazard plotting developments that likely alienated those unfamiliar with Rowling’s books.

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It may seem odd for a blog devoted to contemporary cinema culture to spend so much room expanding on studio financial incentives. But, to speak of cinema culture today is, truly, to speak of potential blockbusters: films often “too big to fail” and too broad to falter in catering to the whims of an easygoing audience of those under 25. By the end of this month, nearly half of the North American box office intake for the year will have comprised from the ticket sales of just seven films. (Five of those seven, stunningly, are Disney releases.) Back in 2001, when Harry Potter was the highest-grossing film of the year, only six of the 25 biggest successes, box office-wise, were sequels. Right now, in 2016, 16 of the top 25 films of the year so far are follow-ups.

Today’s blockbusters aren’t all a sorry bunch, but they are not as much feats of inspiration and visual imagination as they are works of efficiency and managing expectations. Big films today put less of an emphasis on the hero’s journey than the process of fitting the journeys of many heroes on a screen at once. The result is an omelet of narrative chaos: you’re expected to know as much about the stories that came beforehand and then are forced to become aligned with characters whose epilogues will be stand-alone features.

Yet, there is this incessant obligation among millions of moviegoers, myself included, to keep tabs on continually sprouting franchises. I was overjoyed and moved when watching Finding Nemo in 2003, so there is the duty to return to the same seas with Finding Dory, even as the Pixar formula becomes even more pronounced. (The less said about the abysmal The Good Dinosaur, the better.) I was a giddy nine-year-old when I saw the first X-Men film, directed by Bryan Singer, despite my minimal knowledge of the Marvel comic book universe. There is still enough investment in these characters to make me buy a ticket for the eighth film in the franchise. (A franchise that, I would argue, doesn’t contain a single truly awesome installment.)

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Personally, the need to remain invested in the efforts of franchises has less to do with my nostalgic interest in stories and characters, and more due to the creative presences that participate in these ventures. It’s hard to say no to an X-Men sequel starring one of my favourite actors, Oscar Isaac, as the villain. It’s hard to say no to a Captain America sequel from the same team that worked on The Winter Soldier, which could be the only great film to ever come from Marvel Studios. It’s hard to refuse a ticket to The Jungle Book, when the voice cast includes the scintillating talents of Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o and Christopher Walken.

And, it’s not that all big-budget fiestas are soulless and empty. There are moments of grace and intimacy within this year’s blockbusters too. One of the best scenes of any film in 2016 involves Michael Fassbender’s Magneto as he grapples with a serious familial loss before deciding to unleash his mutant powers on a group of police officers. The sequence has a raw emotional texturing, plenty of atmosphere and some dark ideas about the use and abuse of power. It works thrillingly, although less effectively when surrounded by a flurry of other stories fighting for space within a 144-minute running time. The best supporting fixture in an ensemble vehicle is still in desperate need of a tale all his own.

Another favourite moment: the sharp cut from CGI chaos to Hope Davis sitting at a piano at the start of Captain America: Civil War, which is later revealed to be part of a fateful family memory for conflicted tech genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Throughout their adventure, directors Joe and Anthony Russo sharply shift between scenes of razzle-dazzle and emotional quiet. One would call it a creative choice, but with so much story ground for the film to cover, perhaps these disruptions are just the work of a hasty team of editors.

We should expect the average blockbuster to actually bust blocks, promising to dazzle us with movie magic and illusions of grandeur. But visceral excitement fades quickly, while an emotional capacity resonates. There is little to make us expect that studio temperaments toward elongating franchises will change over the next 10 years. But, would it be too much to ask for a few more silly, solemn dances when the storms of computer-generated extravaganza have dissipated?

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