Traditionally, Memorial Day weekend signaled the start of the summer movie season. In a year that's already seen three mega-hit superhero movies, a creepy beach vacation horror thriller, sequels in popular animated franchises, the third entry in the best action franchise of the decade and, as of this week, two live action adaptions of Disney classics, you're not wrong to assume that most of the blockbusters have already come and gone. Retta and Kevin Smith may tell us otherwise, but we're really just a Pixar away from summer movie bingo. So what's going on? Have summer movies lost all their former meaning? Has the film industry simply given us the old surfer's dream of the endless summer due to overcrowded programming schedules and structural inefficiencies in standard distribution models? Or has the real summer entertainment moved to TV? Certainly, Marvel can't be thrilled that the next Spider-Man movie is on a collision course with season 3 of the other major property that's channeling 80's teen nostalgia (not to mention following in the wake of that other really popular Oscar-winning Spider-Man movie that was in theaters just a few months ago). Whatever's going on here and, more importantly, whether it's a good or bad trend, summer movies will always occupy a special place for anyone born after 1960, the unofficial date to have been terrorized by Jaws in theaters or home video at an appropriate age. Thankfully, the advent of streaming means we don't actually have to leave our homes to enjoy some great summer movies.
In the 2000's, Christopher Nolan surpassed Steven Spielberg as the supreme overlord of summertime entertainment largely thanks to his reimagining of the Batman series. Whether you thought it was a convoluted mashup of confusing ideologies or a brilliant synthesis of superhero storytelling with philosophical ethics, The Dark Knight undoubtedly revolutionized the concept of what a summer blockbuster could attempt (along with the rules for nominating Best Picture). The gritty realism of his comic book aesthetic has given way to the glib, color-saturated style of Marvel, but after a few more years (months? days? minutes?) of Trump, audiences may be ready for some grandiose chiaroscuro and moral ambiguity in their action franchises once again. Twenty years before Heath Ledger's Joker, Akira set the standard for dark sci-fi pop entertainment across the Pacific. Manga fans will tell you that you need to read the series to fully understand what's going on in this classic, but there's also a reason this cyberpunk dystopian story became the global ambassador of anime. The comics were actually published by Marvel in the United States, so an argument could be made that Japan is actually patient zero for the comic book adaptation pandemic.
Is it more shocking that roughly 50% of the Indiana Jones movies are now hard to watch due to casual racism and nuked refrigerators or that Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was released exactly 30 years ago this weekend? The most entertaining, if not the best, of the series, the film closed a loop that began when Spielberg settled for this archaeological adventure series instead of a James Bond movie by casting Sean Connery as the senior Henry Jones who didn't steal the family dog's name. Spielberg may not be quite the magician he used to be, but it's safe to say there would be no summer movies without his much lauded career. Every summer also needs good campfire stories, and James Wan's The Conjuring is about as chilling as they come. The "true story" source material is almost certainly bullpoop, but there's also a reason that this horror hit unexpectedly birthed a whole cinematic universe. Wan might be better at building cinematic suspense than any director of this generation, updating all the lessons of Alfred Hitchcock for modern attention spans.
If Spielberg is the father of summer movies, John Milius is the angry drunk uncle. Milius famously did his friend a favor when he wrote the U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue in Jaws. Left to his own devices, he concocted Red Dawn, the paranoid action movie propaganda masterpiece that helped catapult a generation of Brat Packers to stardom. Ironically, the massive success of the film may have hindered Milius's career in the long run. Steven Soderbergh, on the other hand, is more of the weird artistic stepchild of summer movies. Logan Lucky has the cast and the premise of a summer smash hit: James Bond, Kylo Ren and Magic Mike pulling off a heist during a NASCAR race. Yet Soderbergh's quirky combination of high octane energy, lo-fi humor and offbeat characters make this a more experimental piece of summer cinema.
Shrewd observers may have noticed a fairly masculine bias to the summer movie picks, but arguably that's a result of the industry giving male directors big budgets to tell big dick stories. Still, every now and then some clever counter-programming slips through the testosterone wall of summer action and genre releases. It probably helps when the source material is a buzzy bestseller. The Devil Wears Prada may be leaving HBO soon, but it created the template for a female-oriented summer movie, swapping out expensive designer outfits for explosions. In fact, Crazy Rich Asians pulled off a pretty similar trick last summer, though director John Chu did it without any white people in leading roles. In fact, the summer of 2018 may have revealed the cracks in the summer movie formula. Skyscraper seemed like a can't miss action hit: Die Hard on the outside of the building with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Maybe summer movies need a new kind of magic?