Not very long into the pandemic, a collective tremor of dread passed through the movie industry: Was this the beginning of the end?
It wasn’t the first time Hollywood had been roiled by a crisis mentality. The most obvious precursor was the rise of television in the late ’40s and ’50s, which resulted in movies turning themselves into over-the-top widescreen spectacles — a frantic race to be big, bigger, biggest. But I think it’s fair to say that for much of 2020 and 2021, the fear about what was going to happen to movies was nothing less than existential. Would they survive? Would movie theaters, those seductive mass cocoons that ruled for a century, now dwindle and die, their marquees standing as relics of a lost civilization, like something out of a zombie film? Would audience enthusiasm for movies wither on the vine? Not because it had disappeared, but because it had evolved toward a new mode of entertainment consumption, a revolution called streaming — even if that was, in effect, just a glorified form of television, which meant that we should now probably rename ourselves the United Couch Potatoes of America.
That’s what the film world looked like not too long ago.
What a difference some dinosaurs, some minions, some flying saucers, the ghost of Elvis Presley, a metaverse overseen by the Marvel icon Doctor Strange, a metaverse overseen by the born-again indie icon Michelle Yeoh, and the ultimate God-do-we-miss-the-’80s Tom Cruise nostalgic rouser can make. In case you didn’t get the memo, and in case there were any lingering doubts (during most of the pandemic, Hollywood has been defined by lingering doubts), the movies are back, baby. They’re here, in your face, on your screens, with audiences that can’t wait to see them. They’re here to stay, and for the same reason that they’ve been here for 100 years. They complete us.
That’s the grand message of the summer movie season of 2022. It’s one that can, and will, resonate going forward. But it’s vital to register how much that message exists on two levels.
The first is all about the numbers, which are unambiguous. Films that the industry had its hopes pinned on wound up living up to expectations and, in some cases, exceeding them. The phenomenon of “Top Gun: Maverick” is the most stupendous example, since even Tom Cruise movies don’t perform like this one. But the extraordinary success of “Maverick” ($674 million domestic and counting) bespoke something: a vast hunger in the audience for an experience that’s at once kinetic and emotional, contempo and classical, CGI-based and star-driven. It’s been said that we now live in a post-movie-star world — and that Tom Cruise may, in effect, be The Last Movie Star. If that’s the case, what a tragedy! What a reckless squandering of the thing that movies are! They’re about gazing up at incandescent people — and I mean up there, on the big screen, where they’re literally larger-than-life.
The resounding success of “Elvis” told another version of that story. Baz Luhrmann’s film was a testament to how deeply Elvis Presley still pulsates in our culture — but it was also about how a signature filmmaker, by elevating Elvis’s story into a bespangled myth of erotic showbiz spectacle, turned a rock biopic into an immersive and undeniable event. Even as someone who had divided feelings about “Elvis” (I was mixed on its portrait of the young Elvis as a one-man earthquake but enraptured by its final third), I said, from the moment I emerged from watching it, “This is the definition of a must-see movie.” It was thrilling that moviegoers felt the same way.
They also felt that way about “Jurassic World Dominion,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” and two mega-budget Marvel movies (“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and “Thor: Love and Thunder”), and though the collective enthusiasm for spectacles like these feels far more standard, it shouldn’t dampen our appreciation of the significance of those humongous hits. What they all testify to is that the essential blockbuster motor of the movie industry is now revved and humming.
This isn’t merely about the numbers. The movies that will define the industry-is-born-again spirit of the summer of 2022 — “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Elvis,” the Marvel hits (with a spring comic-book carryover from “The Batman”), “Nope,” “The Black Phone,” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” — are, in different ways, movies that engage the primal preeminence of what it has always meant, and still means, to go out to the movies.
Imagine if any of those films had been streaming only. Would “Maverick” have provided the thrilling popcorn catharsis it did? Would it have felt like Elvis Presley was rising up to re-enter the culture again? Would “Nope,” Jordan Peele’s teasingly idiosyncratic extraterrestrial creature feature, have become the most hotly dissected and debated movie of the summer?
And, of course, there’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the revolutionary indie smash by co-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, which turned into a singular phenomenon, generating a box-office tally of $70 million as it became A24’s biggest hit — but more than that, as it became an indie landmark with a snake-eating-its-tail convoluted confectionary allure that recalls the early work of Charlie Kaufman (notably “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”). EEAAO was a testament to the never-say-die adventurousness of audiences in a world of expanding (if not exploding) media. But could it have happened that way at home? Not on your life. The triumphant message of the 2022 movie summer is that now it won’t have to.