The summer blockbuster season begins in earnest today with the release of Spider-Man 3, which is by all accounts the most expensive movie ever made, with a budget north of $250 million. (And this from Sam Raimi, who pulled off the effects-laden The Evil Dead for $350,000.) I’m not sure what $250 million looks like on screen, but short of a scene involving a bonfire and a dumptruck full of money, I don’t think it’s possible to make a movie look that exorbitantly pricey. There’s little doubt that Spidey will enjoy a healthy opening weekend, and may even find some way to creep into the black once foreign sales, DVDs, merchandise, and other revenue streams are factored into the equation. Yet I can’t help feeling that Spider-Man 3, with its budget and bloat, may be the Heaven’s Gate of the blockbuster age, symbolizing the death of an era just as surely as Michael Cimino’s opus brought an end to the glorious, auteur-driven studio world of the ‘70s.
Box-office predictions are not my specialty—or interest, for that matter—but I’m willing to guess that Spider-Man 3 will have some trouble recouping the billion or so dollars it needs to make in order to be considered a success. For one, it’s not a particularly good movie. The great thing about the previous Spider-Man entries is that they’re blockbusters without the bloat; other $100 million-plus projects tend to wield their expensive effects like a pile-driver, but Spider-Man and its sequel were remarkably fleet of foot, and allowed for smaller character moments and bits of whimsy. The third entry seems far more burdened with its three villains, two-hour-plus running time, and general shapelessness, and critics have issued a tepid response so far. (Not to say that reviews will have much bearing over how the film performs, but critics are people, too, and I sense that many people will leave the theater feeling vaguely disappointed.) On top of that, Spider-Man 3 opens with school still in session and only has two weeks until Shrek and Pirates Of The Caribbean go for their own trifectas, which means that Spidey has 14 days to do unprecedented business.
It’s been my feeling for some time that the blockbuster is going the way of the dodo, but the industry was heartened by last summer’s record-breaking bonanza, which beat back concerns that high ticket prices and the availability and quality of other formats like DVD were driving people away from movie theaters. However, last summer was something of an anomaly, a bright season that countered a downward trend in ticket sales, and there’s no reason to believe that Hollywood has somehow figured it out. Given the size of the corporations that support the major studios—a size which demands home runs instead of a succession of small-scale singles—there’s no real danger of a $250 million movie like Spider-Man 3 leading Sony to ruin like Cleopatra threatened to do to Fox or Heaven’s Gate to United Artists. But clearly, the scale of these blockbusters has grown so immense that at some point—in the very near future, I believe—it will no longer be a sustainable business model. Just look at Evan Almighty for a sign the floods are a-comin’: Universal just dropped $175 million for a sequel to a Jim Carrey movie without Jim Carrey. Granted, Steve Carell is a big step up comedy-wise, but would you give $175 million to the director responsible for Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? (It’s also a clear violation of the 1941 rule: Throwing money at a comedy doesn’t make it funnier.)
Aside from absurd cost overruns, there’s another big reason why the blockbuster may be reaching its breaking point and it’s this: Do special effects really wow people anymore? Striking images have been and always will be persuasive, but after seeing Peter Jackson’s King Kong (a film I admire, despite its bloat), it struck me that effects themselves have reached a sort of plateau. Here was a movie with dinosaurs of all stripes doing battle with a giant, emotionally expressive CGI ape, which is really about the biggest confrontation one could imagine. The film was packed to the hilt with sequences of that scale, yet King Kong wasn’t the highest grossing movie ever made, far from it. Back when CGI was making its initial leaps forward, seeing a schlocky movie like Twister was an event, even though at the time (and certainly now), the computer effects made the tornados seem weirdly unthreatening. The effects in Spider-Man 3 are much better, of course, but I think that’s become an expectation more than an attraction. Now that CGI has made anything possible, it’s also left audiences believing that anything, no matter how spectacular, is par for the course.
So if the effects are no longer wowing us, all we’re left with is the story, which could only be a healthy development in the long run. I’d argue that effects were never the reason Spider-Man was successful in the first place; as many have noted, the effects in the first film weren’t particularly strong, especially when Spidey was slinging his way through the city like a video-game character. What made it work was that it featured a more full-bodied and relatable hero—the importance of Tobey Maguire’s casting cannot be understated—than blockbusters usually manage to produce, and the villains in the first two were unusually nuanced, with first-rate character actors Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina playing fundamentally decent men corrupted by ambition. The third entry disappoints primarily by seeming too much like other movie franchises: It’s bigger, but as a result, it also feels impersonal and overburdened, less a Sam Raimi film than a Sony film. And it’s conspicuously damaged by the rush to opening day; given a few more months in the editing room, the film might have been slimmed down into a more efficient and purposeful entertainment.
Still, even as I predict the blockbuster as we know it may be on its last legs, I’m not certain what will take its place. It’s a little like arguing over player salaries in baseball: Everyone agrees they’re out of control and can’t be sustained at their current rate of increase, and yet how do you bring them in line in a competitive marketplace? If Warner Brothers says, “Fuck it, we’re getting out of the blockbuster business,” that’s not going to stop Sony or Buena Vista from gobbling up the big ticket items, even if Warner Brothers enjoys solid profits from scaling back a bit. Maybe these studios will just have to be content with hemorrhaging money as the price for movies goes up and the audience goes down. Either that, or stop building $200 million mega-productions around scripts that ain’t worth a dime.
What do you think? Are blockbusters as we know it a dying breed? Or am I too quick to believe the sky is falling?