The summer of 2016 has come to a close and with it ends one of the most disappointing blockbuster film seasons in a very long time. From movies that radically split public opinion to would-be summer hits that made audiences stay away from the theaters in droves, 2016 has been filled with disastrous big budgeted action spectacles. It’s clear that both audiences and critics alike were worn down with blockbuster fatigue as the summer wore on, with quite a few high budget films failing to perform as studios expected.
But it’s not just box office returns that were a clear indication of audience disappointment. There seems to be less and less of a tolerance for big dumb spectacle at the theaters these days. And while that doesn’t necessarily mean that audiences are always seeking out critically acclaimed independent films, it does mean that many more are simply staying away from the newest blockbuster film.
Maybe movie studios got overconfident in the power of pre-established properties and nostalgia? After all, 2015’s Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens rode those factors to record-breaking results. Or maybe this was all just terrible coincidence of countless in-process problematic films finally coming out at the same time? In any case, name recognition before film quality led to some serious stinkers. Let’s find out what made 2016’s films into what they are and what it could mean for the future.
The Faults of 2016 Blockbuster Films
Let’s run down the many botched blockbusters of 2016, each with their own unique faults but all playing into similar weaknesses to form a trend for the year in film.
Alice Through the Looking Glass – A follow-up to Tim Burton’s megahit that no one was interested in, not even fans of the tepid original. No one saw this. Those that did remain silent for lack of good things to say.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Bloated due to frantic franchise building and a dark tone that sat wrong with many people, BvS split audiences into so-called “fans” and “haters.” The result was shaky ground for future DC films and a disappointing box office return.
Ben-Hur – A very unnecessary remake with a costly budget, a studio that knew it was doomed, and a general lack of marketing, resulting in a massive bomb. Why would anyone think a Ben-Hur remake would be a success?
Ghostbusters – An unnecessary reboot that didn’t connect with audiences, not even counting the countless people who threw bigoted criticism at the film before release. Now, a supposedly assured sequel is in doubt.
The Huntsman: Winter’s War – The sequel no one asked for, telling a convoluted continuation of the Snow White action remix starring supporting characters and non-Thor Chris Hemsworth for a franchise best known for its star/director affair.
Independence Day: Resurgence – A belated sequel that looked to capture nostalgia like Jurassic World, but failed to capture interest or a positive reaction. Don’t count on this film getting another sequel, no matter how much it tried to set it up.
Jason Bourne – Fairly commercially successful, but seen by most as a belated disappointment that failed to live up to the original trilogy. Jason Bourne tried to restore the franchise after The Bourne Legacy, but it came up lacking.
The Legend of Tarzan – A fairly forgettable if competently made retelling of the Tarzan story, dozens of Tarzan movies across the decades have caused audiences to no longer be interested in the man-ape’s adventures.
Now You See Me 2 – No. Just no.
Suicide Squad – Behind the scenes drama, massive reshoots, and a shaky foundation set by DC’s last two films resulted in another divisive film for audiences, with a stronger negative view of the film than BvS. All that drama didn’t result in more interest in Suicide Squad, just more wary viewers.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows – The Michael Bay-produced first film may have been a moderate success, but Bay fatigue and mild backlash to the overproduced, soulless nature of the original made even die hard TMNT fans (i.e. me) stay away from this sequel, even if it was seen as an improvement.
Warcraft – It may have done well in China, making it the most successful video game adaptation ever, but this huge budget CGI fest was unseen by casual audiences and scorned by most.
X-Men: Apocalypse – The result of diminishing returns for the bland X-Men franchise and the opposite of what made Deadpool connect with audiences. Apocalypse may have already squandered the good will created by Days of Future Past.
Zoolander 2 – Comedy sequels are always difficult. Comedy sequels more than a decade after the original are even harder. The chances of success here were slim, but poor reviews and general malaise toward the Zoolander sequel cause incredibly poor returns. Even fans of the original will just stick with the original.
There are certain elements that connect all of these blighted blockbusters in 2016. These include heavy focus on franchisement before audiences are asking for it, attempting to cash in on established names when the original film wasn’t even a huge hit, and putting name recognition before quality filmmaking. Audiences are getting smarter and paying more attention to reviews before deciding to see a film. As such, quality is impacting performance to a greater degree than ever. Which is a very good thing. Not paying to see crap means that studios will be incentivized to make better products for the big screen.
Of course, franchises can still exist, but they’ll need to be built upon high quality films, not just a cinematic universe or name recognition. And films can still be created based on pre-established intellectual property, so long as they make something good out of it. Take The Lego Movie for example. A movie based on a child’s toy with no existing storylines. It had every right to be a disaster. But the minds behind it turned it into something uniquely creative and successful both critically and financially. There is hope.
The Few Big Successes of 2016
There are, of course, films that are exceptions to this rule. Big studio tentpole films that have been widely loved by critics and audiences alike include Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War, Zootopia, and Finding Dory, to name a few. However, many of these are exceptions that prove the rule.
Deadpool was the result of a small group of filmmakers pursuing a passion project and bringing an uncompromised vision to theaters thanks to a small budget and Fox Studios paying more attention to the big budget dud that was X-Men: Apocalypse. The film was able to keep its tone of voice, hard R rating, and off-kilter comedy because the stakes were so low. In return, audiences responded incredibly well and made it one of the most profitable films of the year.
Captain America: Civil War was the one franchise-centric film that succeeded critically this year, with both critics and audiences responding extremely positively. Thank the Marvel Studios brand for having proved itself time and time again over the years and the franchise’s focus on creating and focusing on characters that people love. The worst Marvel Studios films (such as Age of Ultron and Thor: The Dark World) have all been focused the most on setting up future movies and ignoring the most interesting characters. Civil War managed to alter the franchise as a whole while still telling a compelling, character-centric story.
Finding Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book, and Star Trek Beyond all found great feedback while working in a larger studio system thanks to filmmakers who were passionate about their stories. And they all had great box office returns to varying degrees because positive word of mouth enhanced their mainstream appeal.
This is not to say that there have not been plenty of great small movies already released this year. For example, films like Green Room, The Witch, and Midnight Special have all struck a chord with audiences and critics, even if they weren’t massive box office successes. Hopefully, the rest of 2016 can bring more high quality small films to theaters, which is all but assured with the typical Oscars season release schedule coming up soon.
The Final Months of 2016 in Movies
There are still a few would-be blockbusters scheduled before the end of 2016. These include Star Wars: Rogue One, The Magnificent Seven, Doctor Strange, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. However, several of these share some familiar and troubling production details with many of the worst films of the year so far.
Specifically, Rogue One has been dogged by rumors of massive reshoots mandated by the studio, specifically to alter the tone of the movie. That sounds very much like Suicide Squad, which suffered from an incongruous story and wildly flailing tone after studio-mandated reshoots. Does that mean the film is destined to fall victim to similar issues? Not necessarily, but it’s when audiences pay attention to such details that studios are held accountable for delivering a quality product to the masses.
And what about 2017? After all, franchisement means that every summer movie season is built upon the last. Next year will see movies including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Kong: Skull Island, Transformers: The Last Knight, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Alien: Covenant, Dunkirk, and many more released. Some more original than others. Some with less baggage tied to past problematic films than others. In truth, Hollywood only learns from box office returns, and even then the lessons are often misinterpreted. But if audiences can speak with their wallets more than ever, 2016’s film failures can be a turning point, rather than a grim harbinger of things to come.