Strange but true: The piggyback ride was a recurring gesture of friendship in movies this summer. And not just in some playful “hop on your buddy’s back on the way back from class” kind of way either. There was nothing casual about the way Michelle Yeoh determinedly climbed up on Harry Shum Jr.’s shoulders in the last act of Everything Everywhere All at Once and rode him like a horse toward the animal-control vehicle driving off with his raccoon partner. When he faltered, she nudged her way between his knees and lifted him up to power walk him to the procyonid’s rescue.
N. T. Rama Rao Jr. pulled a brawnier variation of the same move in the Indian period epic RRR, breaking Ram Charan out of colonial British prison and not just carrying his injured bestie but fighting past soldiers with him as though the two had temporarily formed a revolutionary Voltron. Top Gun: Maverick even closed out its beach-football game with a piggyback, demonstrating that its aviators had finally bonded when Miles Teller hoisted up Lewis Pullman, shaking a ball triumphantly overhead in the fading light of the day. What’s the use of understated indications of goodwill, really, when you can just heave your buddy onto your shoulders and give them some literal support?
Hell, what’s the use of subtlety at all? This summer had no time for it. Bombast was the mode of the season — from Tom Cruise’s gloriously indulgent fighter-pilot sequel to Baz Luhrmann taking on Elvis in a doubling up of excess that should have caused audience members to keel over in their seats like Presley on the toilet. During the worst of the pandemic, it felt like COVID might have put the final nail in the coffin of the theatrical experience. It was bad enough that streaming had convenience and subscription pricing on its side, adding “risk of death” to the communal side of movie watching really seemed like the end. And yet, this summer, despite a pandemic-diminished slate of offerings, cineplexes lurched improbably and unevenly back to life, fueled by audiences who turned out to be very ready to watch things together on the big screen again — provided those things were big (in wonder, runtime, and spirit) themselves.
Top Gun: Maverick was supposed to come out in 2019 but was held up for three years when its producers adamantly refused to sell the rights to eager streaming services. As it turned out, they were correct to wait. After kicking the summer off in May by reuniting the world with Navy hotshot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, then returning him to active combat duty in a series of events so dreamlike that they might as well have taken place in his head, Top Gun: Maverick became a massive hit that’s still climbing its way up the all-time charts. With superhero movies retaining a vice-like grip on what remains of the box office, the success of Cruise’s flyboy follow-up was inexplicably gratifying — proof of his singular allure, maybe, but also that audiences still have it in them to appreciate over-the-top spectacle of all stripes.
And there was an elegiac majesty to Top Gun: Maverick’s total lack of restraint — both in terms of visuals and narrative. The aircraft were real, the actors’ mugs stretched from genuine g-forces as off-camera pilots flew them up to film the aerial scenes, and the rest of the movie felt like it was set at magic hour, as though the whole hermetic San Diego base had been dipped in bronzer. The story was ridiculous. Maverick not only reunited with an old flame, said goodbye to a former rival, repaired his relationship with his surrogate son, and saved the day, he was affirmed again and again as irreplaceable — the only man (played by the only movie star) for the job. Top Gun: Maverick is Hollywood product through and through, and yet it felt like a retort to the unignorable calculations of cinematic universes and extended franchises. There’s a genuine decadence to it, a sense of liberation to its shameless nostalgia and batshit heroics, that’s irresistible.
That same feeling bubbles up in RRR, which is decidedly not a Hollywood product but outdoes Hollywood in just about every way. The most expensive Indian film made to date, the Telugu-language RRR crossed over to non-diaspora audiences when it was rereleased in U.S. theaters in June and became a word-of-mouth, in-person phenomenon despite being available (in a Hindi dub) on Netflix. A work of historical fiction that imagined two real revolutionaries, Komaram Bheem (Rama Rao) and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Charan), meeting and become friends in the 1920s, RRR is ludicrously overstuffed entertainment jumping effortlessly between eye-popping action set pieces, comedic romance, melodrama, gleeful nationalist goading, and, of course, a joyous musical number. It’s not a superhero movie, but it’s hard not to compare it to Marvel and find Marvel wanting in imagination, especially when its characters perform Herculean feats like throwing a jaguar at a British soldier or picking up a motorcycle and using it as a weapon. As with Top Gun: Maverick, there’s a purity to both how earnestly RRR aims to please and the wide, demographically unfettered ways it tries to reach that goal.
This summer’s offerings may have been limited, but its most interesting hits were marked by a sense of the movies remembering how much they could offer and taking advantage of the open screens to build word of mouth. Luhrmann’s Elvis (released in June) and Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once (rereleased in July) are very different movies that share a “throw everything at the wall” grandeur that helped fuel them to become unexpected smashes. Elvis wallowed happily in select details of its subject’s life while skipping over others — zooming in close on the lines of Austin Butler-as-Elvis’s body, eyes, lips, and hips during a formative performance, then gleefully consigning Presley’s long years as an actor to a montage, because Luhrmann couldn’t be bothered with that part. Dizzyingly full of ideas, some of which fly by too quickly to be grasped on first viewing, Everything Everywhere All at Once took the language of a comic-book tale, with its multiverse shenanigans and archvillain bent on destruction, and used it to explore the mundane but very real worries of a frazzled Chinese immigrant and her relationships with her increasingly estranged family.
The overindulgence of these movies is key to their appeal — the way they run with their creators’ every impulse, turning family dramas and musical biographies into spectacles unconcerned with seeding the way for future installments or doing anything more than giving it their all. Was this maximalism a sign of movies making a comeback after two years in small-screen purgatory? Or was it one last flameout in the same way a star expands to become a red giant before it dies? By August, the big studios had essentially run out of movies to release, while smaller ones continue to struggle to get an audience amid all the noise. But Bullet Train (a starry action flick from Atomic Blonde’s David Leitch) and Three Thousand Years of Longing (an unabashedly orientalist fantasy from George Miller) did bookend the month, and despite their respective extravagance — one a convoluted orgy of frenetic violence and the other drunk on its own rich imagery — neither caught on quite the same way as the successes that preceded them.
They were jam-packed but in ways that made you feel the approach of a coming headache — that sure sign of having overdone it. If it felt in many ways like movies rediscovered their capacity for excess this summer and audiences rewarded them for it, the season came to the end, as it so often does, with a sense of a need to settle down, straighten out, and prepare for the seriousness of fall.