It hasn't been a great year for blockbusters.
Aside from a few shining examples, the movie industry as a whole has taken a hit this year, with far too many subpar movies failing to meet audience expectations and leaving many disappointed. Thinkpieces aplenty have been written in an attempt to diagnose what's wrong with Hollywood and how to fix it. There have been others lamenting the oversaturation of tentpole movies, arguing that the industry would be better off if it just scrapped its reliance on them completely. I, however, come not to bury blockbusters, but to praise them (10 points to Gryffindor if you paid attention in English class and got that allusion).
The movie industry may be in a slump at the moment, but the criticism, as criticism so often does, has come from a place of love. In this case, it's love for an industry that has seemed to have lost its way as of late, at least to those of us lucky enough to have grown up on a steady diet of the original Star Wars trilogy and Spielberg's genius and the magic of the '80s, even the initial modern wave of superhero movies.
It's not blockbusters that are broken; it's the system that is. Movies in and of themselves are still amazing pieces of storytelling, a unique art form that is unlike anything else, both in what they are and how we experience them: together. Movies are, by their very nature, communal, and this is never more true than with blockbusters. There is no experience quite like being in a theater full of people simultaneously laughing and cheering when the protagonist saves the day or mourning together when they fall. For a run time of an hour and a half to three hours, we all experience the same thing as one, and our emotions are heightened by the responses of the strangers around us.
But they also impact us on a personal level; their magic still works even if we watch alone. There have been a host of studies conducted on the impact of movies upon us, both physically and emotionally. Because they impact us on a personal level, they can be therapeutic, triggering physiological responses with in us depending upon what we watch, everything from a release of adrenaline to lowered blood pressure.
The beloved, late critic and champion of movies Roger Ebert thought that movies had the power to make us more empathetic and to connect us with our fellow human being. "The purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people,” the 2014 documentary Life Itself captured him saying, “And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears." And he's not wrong. Science has proven that storytelling has always made us compassionate, and the particularly immersive medium of movies works on multiple levels. Movies can, quite literally, make us better people.
A good movie, one in which we connect with the characters, can pull us out of ourselves, whether that be out of a funk or out of our own narrow worldview. It might transport us halfway across the world to understand, if not all of it, then a small slice of life we'd otherwise never experience. In watching the stories of fictional characters unfold on screen, we relate and empathize, and in doing so, these strangers become friends. Their problems become our problems, their stories ours, and in doing so, it helps us untangle a few more of the knots in our own, everyday lives — or at least, set them down for a few moments. If watching one doesn't help us solve it, then at the very least, an escapist movie gives us permission to lay down our load for a few hours. When you walk into a theater, all it asks is that we leave our troubles at the ticket booth and enter with an open mind. It will do its best to take care of the rest.
A great popcorn movie has the power to move mountains within us, to uplift, to inspire. Say what you'd like about the current glut of comic book movies; perhaps you think they're silly and are counting the days until the long-predicted bursting of the superhero bubble. But for every person that cheers the downfall of the tentpole, there are five others (or ten, or twenty) who do nothing but watch in amazed, breathless joy as Spider-Man swings around Manhattan to save the day or Captain America sticks by his friend in his time of need, as Superman fights for the very people who turned on him or Jean Grey faces her fears and does the impossible. The stories by which these messages are conveyed may be flawed, but the lessons themselves are not. Responsibility. Loyalty. Hope. Bravery. These things matter. They'll always matter, despite what cynics say.
Blockbusters will always matter, too.