summer 2020

What Is a Summer Movie Anyway?

As a summer without movie theaters looks more and more likely, two critics discuss an outdated way of viewing films.

In the grip of the pandemic, is there even such a thing as a summer movie? Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photos Courtesy of Studios
In the grip of the pandemic, is there even such a thing as a summer movie? Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photos Courtesy of Studios
In the grip of the pandemic, is there even such a thing as a summer movie? Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photos Courtesy of Studios

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Memorial Day Weekend has, for decades now, kicked off a season of cinema appreciation know as the summer movie season. From Jaws to Independence Day to 2020’s Tenet, the three hottest months of the year have traditionally been the time when studios and filmmakers flood the calendar with spectacular movies — the kinds you hear about for weeks ahead of their debuts, whose residencies in theaters mark a distinct moment in the lives of the teenagers at whom they’re marketed. This Memorial Day weekend, however, feels different for reasons too obvious to continue noting. We’re on the cusp of a summer without movie theaters, marked by paralyzing uncertainty rather than a hopeful bounty of expectations. As two of Vulture’s film critics will attest, the term “summer movie” had been in flux long before a virus threatened to keep us socially distanced for the foreseeable future. But in the grip of a pandemic, they were tasked with answering: Is there such a thing as a summer movie in a summer where we can’t go to movie theaters?

Bilge Ebiri: Whenever I hear the words “summer movie season,” I start to break out in hives. Partly out of personal reasons: Until I was 20 years old or so, I spent my summers in Turkey; I’d leave the day after school ended, and I’d get back the day before it started. So I wasn’t here for the summer movie season. But I was also a film buff for much of that time, so I would get movie magazines and newspapers sent to me (invariably, weeks late) and look at reviews, articles, box office stats. The endless cycles of hype and disillusionment and occasional fulfillment were both abbreviated and exaggerated for me: I’d see this big list of big movies that were supposed to be huge hits, and before I saw any of them, I’d find out which ones were actually hits, which ones were misses, which ones critics liked, etc. Then, once I got back home in late August, I’d spend a couple of weeks trying to catch up on everything I could. (You could do that back then, because the movies stayed in theaters for a while.) I’m sure my opinions were colored by what I already knew about the movies. So for me, almost subconsciously, summer movies mean hype. Because for much of my life, I couldn’t actually see any summer movies during the summer. All I saw was the hype. And sometimes (often) the disillusionment.

Alison Willmore: Well, your perception of a summer movie can’t help but be shaped by those formative viewing experiences, right? That’s very much the case for me. I grew up in Northern California, in a stretch of the East Bay that’s all strip malls giving way to housing developments giving way to beautiful rolling hills that will someday be transformed into either strip malls or housing developments. There was a six-screen cineplex in town that featured an array of whatever the bigger offerings were each week. To see arthouse fare, you had to commit to more of a drive — which, as a kid, I rarely managed, committing myself to Hollywood Video (RIP) instead. What I saw in theaters were mostly studio releases, and they were more heavily clustered in the summer, when going to see a movie was one of the main things you could do in the suburbs.

That’s probably why, for me, the idea of a summer movie is so tied to a sense of indulgence, both coming and going. That’s the sensation that a summer movie promises, and it’s also the feeling that informed the more desultory approach I took to what I was going to watch. When you have nothing but time, you can wander into titles you might not have picked out otherwise. Which is to say, I guess, that a summer movie never needed to look good to get my attention, though it was always a relief when it turned out to be. The larger-than-life spectacle, the snacks (as the child of thrifty immigrants, I’d always sneak them in), the A/C that you mentioned — it’s all tied to theaters, which, for me, remains the essential element of a summer title.

Ebiri: How did the summer movie season idea even start, though? A/C has been in movie theaters since before the coming of sound, so it wasn’t just A/C, I don’t think. The real culprits I suspect were Jaws, Star Wars, and teenagers — the demographic that Jaws and Star Wars helped turn into the American movie theater’s core audience. But over the past couple of decades, that idea seems to have changed. I remember when The Matrix became such a big hit back in late March and early April of 1999, people said that summer was expanding into the spring. Now it arguably starts in early March — which really means that the movies take very little time off from the lucrative February dates of Valentine’s Day and President’s Day. I also remember the summer movie glut of a few years ago, when we were treated to a gigantic new release every weekend, with the end result being that movies kept vanishing after posting huge opening weekends; the overcrowding, I seem to recall, prompted other big titles to move to other times of the year, which meant that summer movies wound up opening on Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or whenever.

And then we have the phenomenon of the late-August, early-September doldrums — nobody has managed to convincingly explain to me why Labor Day is such a bad weekend for theatrical releases — which of course are now, in this current moment, also out the window since Wonder Woman 1984 was delayed to August. So, given that the summer movie season has expanded wildly and also given that we no longer have that many truly big movies opening this summer … is it time to retire the concept of the summer movie entirely?

Willmore: There’s no question that, in terms of the pre-COVID movie calendar, every season had become summer. When would-be blockbusters stake out prime weekends years in advance, the idea that there’s a particular time of year in which big movies belong feels spectacularly out of date. One of the downsides of the industry’s nonstop investment in ever-larger productions and even-more-sprawling franchises has been that that feeling of off-the-clock extravagance I once associated with summer blockbusters is gone — they’re just regular movies now, offered up all year round in a way that can get numbing when you see as many new releases as we do. Of course, I’m also awfully far from being a teenager now, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a summer off. The fading of that feeling of decadence has as much to do with my own aging out of the ideal demographic as it does changes in the movie world.

Ebiri: One thing that I’ve noticed is that the idea of summer break is still so much a part of my psyche. When May rolls around, I think of things as winding down, and my body and my mind subconsciously prepare for summer — and then I have to remind myself that, Oh, right, no, I don’t get a break. Which means that not only does the summer movie become a kind of idealized, abstract concept for me, the idea of being a member of the summer movie audience becomes an aspirational one. But is there also still a collection of ideas — aesthetic or narrative — that denotes something as a summer movie? Was last December’s The Rise of Skywalker really a summer movie in disguise (especially since before Disney took over the franchise, Star Wars movies were always May movies)? Was the July-released Dunkirk secretly an impostor posing as a summer movie?

Willmore: Get Out may have come out in February, but it felt like a summer movie to me — audacious and dark and clever but also just deliriously enjoyable and made to be watched with a rapt audience. The Marvel movies, on the other hand? I can’t entirely explain this, but even though they should seem like the essence of summer, sweeping and quippy and quick with the action, they only sometimes achieve the right lightness. Maybe it’s the ungainliness of their obligations to the ongoing overall narrative or just the weight of the investment made in them by both their devoted fandom and the corporation that turns them out.

As for the titles you brought up, Bilge, I’d say that while Christopher Nolan has directed some legit summer titles, Dunkirk is a fall movie in spirit, having something more solemn on its mind despite its bursts of exhilaration. The Rise of Skywalker is wintry at heart — tailor made and placed for a squabbling family to settle on when picking a holiday outing. But I’d turn the same question to you — does the summer movie only live on a know-it-when-you-see-it sentiment these days? And how do you feel about the old and never-actually-accurate dichotomy of summer being for dumb fare and fall being reserved for the smart stuff?

Ebiri: The “dumb summer movie” concept is an interesting one. For years, I feel like summer was simply a lucrative time, so films that needed to make a lot of money would be released then. It was always a kick to me that Stanley Kubrick wanted to release his movies in the summer. The Shining? A summer movie. Full Metal Jacket? Summer movie. Eyes Wide Shut, despite the fact that it’s set during Christmas and is spiritually a sex-drenched remake of It’s a Wonderful Life? Summer movie. I guess this is the position Nolan finds himself in now as he fights to keep Tenet on the calendar. He did release one big movie in the fall a few years ago, which was Interstellar and which was seen by some as a disappointment, so maybe he thinks July brings him luck.)

But I do feel like the concept of the dumb summer movie developed over that period, so that by the time Eyes Wide Shut came out (and let’s be fair, it’s too weird a movie to have ever been a massive hit), people reacted negatively to it. I do wonder why and when summer movies became thought of as dumb movies. Was it stuff like Days of Thunder (starring Cruise and Kidman, of course), which was a release date before it was a movie? Or stuff like Independence Day, which branded itself as ID4, baking both its release date as well as its sequel-like silliness into its identity? I feel like Jaws and Star Wars, the movies that helped turn summer into a box office feeding ground, weren’t ostentatiously dumb movies. But maybe that’s hindsight talking.

Willmore: I think it has a lot to do with the idea that something that’s artistically weighty has to be work to consume — and conversely, that something that’s overtly entertaining must be stupid. And while that idea is bullshit, it has stuck around and can be traced to, say, a plague of terminally dour late-peak-TV prestige dramas that treat darkness as interchangeable with intelligence. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone calling Jaws dumb, though I have no doubt that they did, because it’s about a killer shark. I have no problem accepting that there were people who thought Star Wars was dumb. There was a wonderfully self-deprecating article I stumbled across once and have never been able to track down again in which a journalist reminisced about doing interviews for the film at the time; he was so arrogantly assured that he was wasting his day with a bunch of unknowns who’d just starred in a puerile sci-fi flop.

We’re well into an era of cinematic poptimism now, so far from that brand of blithe dismissiveness that I can actually summon a sad little smidgen of nostalgia for it. Last week, Vincent Cassel became the latest celebrity to get pilloried online for saying that superhero movies are for kids, and I thought about how often, over the years, George Lucas has said something similar about his films, which have nevertheless grown into a testy billion-dollar empire of their own (theme park land included) that definitely isn’t sustained solely by children. I personally don’t think the sentiment Cassel and Lucas expressed is a particularly damning one, especially given what we just said about the qualities we yearn for in summer moviegoing — but a lot of people do, because these movies are taken so seriously now.

Ebiri: Yeah, this is an important point. The transformation of what was once supposed to be grandiose and silly into something that is now taken supremely seriously — so that every big superhero hit must now come with a preloaded progressive political initiative and an Oscar campaign and armies of online fans ready to condemn anyone who criticizes it (or, God forbid, likes it in the wrong way) — has, in its own way, ruined the concept of the summer movie as well. Big movies can’t be dumb anymore, because their makers — the studios and the filmmakers — have succeeded in transferring their anxiety over the financial and professional stakes onto us. We can’t let the Russo Brothers and Bob Iger and Kevin Feige down, Alison! They’ve given us so much! It is imperative that we now do our part and defend them to the death and celebrate each of their box office milestones with earnest Captain America gifs! 

It does make me wonder, however: Who out there is still creating actual summer movies? (Regardless of whether they’re released in the summer or not.) The Rock seems to have managed to carve out a star identity that lends itself well to summer — it helps that he has a ridiculous physique. Even as they’ve gotten more bloated and melodramatic, the Fast & Furious movies have hung on to their sense of stupid fun. Tom Cruise, once the king of summer, has managed to crawl back into the conversation via the revitalized Mission: Impossible movies. Will Smith took the mantle from Cruise, and then he sort of also lost that mantle, but the success of Bad Boys for Life (a January release) suggests that if the right project comes along, he’ll be back. My beloved Gerard Butler has continued making a type of low-rent summer flick that feels like it might have been a big hit back in 1996. That’s a lot of dudes, of course. But maybe that’s also a summer movie thing: Lots of big dumb action movies starring big dudes (or little dudes, in the case of Cruise).

Willmore: The last Fast & Furious was dumb in all the wrong ways, but Tokyo Drift through Furious 7 are sublime summer fare, an ideal combination of bombastic action sequences and outlandishly sincere sentimentality. You know, something that they have in common with the Mission: Impossible movies and the John Wick films is that they’ve built up an internal logic that manages to be absolutely batshit but also pleasingly sturdy. That isn’t the same thing as having a planned-out universe — very little actually seems planned from installment to installment in these series beyond the expectation to go bigger each time in terms of set pieces. It instead speaks to the way their essence rests not on storytelling but on style, tone, character, and imagery. The pressure to turn out properties instead of movies has led to an emphasis on narrative, but that’s hardly the only reason we go to the movies.

We also don’t only go to the movies for dudely action, as much as I enjoy it. Horror movies can absolutely be summer movies, especially the ones that have a whole theater shrieking in agonized delight. I mentioned Get Out before, but Us is even more of a summer movie — it even takes place on vacation. So, for that matter, does Midsommar, that breakup movie by way of a hallucinatory midnight sun sojourn. Knives Out was a terrifically fizzy summer movie that only happened to premiere on the fall festival circuit, and the same was true with Hustlers — such a summer movie at heart that awards committees couldn’t seem to see their way to taking it more seriously as a contender, even though it deserved to be. Booksmart is a summer movie, and so is Logan Lucky, and the fact that neither actually performed well speaks to how much the comedy has fallen out of favor on the big screen, despite being a genre I associate with the season almost as much as action.

Which brings me to my last question, Bilge: When it’s effectively summer all year round, is there room for anything other than epic action anyway? And what’s the pandemic going to mean for all of this?

Ebiri: That’s a great question because it contains within it the extremes of our bizarre current universe: Due to all the various long-term phenomena we’ve been discussing, everything is epic action, but, through a highly specific set of circumstances, right now nothing is (because all the epic action movies, incapable of opening on 6,000 screens or whatever, moved off the schedule). Which is why — please don’t anybody read this the wrong way, even though I know some will — I’m actually kind of … excited? The biggest releases of this coming weekend — which, let me remind everyone is freaking Memorial Day weekend, which has in the past given us the likes of Pearl Harbor and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — are The Lovebirds and The Trip to Greece. Both of which are, in their own way, perfect summer movies of the old kind. The big release of June is Da 5 Bloods, a new Spike Lee joint. (I refuse to believe Artemis Fowl is a real movie.) One of the big releases of July, regardless of whether Tenet actually opens or not, is going to be a Gina Prince-Bythewood action film on Netflix starring Charlize Theron and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Obviously, the reasons for this current predicament are tragic, so it’s not necessarily a thing to celebrate. And I desperately want movie theaters back. And I desperately want big movies back, whether they’re the tacky self-important three-hour kind or the ostensibly silly but actually still tacky and still self-important and only-slightly-under-three-hour kind.

But what if, temporarily deprived of nonstop grand bloviating spectacles for a few months, we actually found our way to some more interesting films that otherwise might have gotten lost? Would that be such a bad thing?

What Is a Summer Movie Anyway?