Is the Summer Blockbuster Dead?

It’s been the worst summer at the box office in years, and no man in tights or robot-fighting action hero has been able to save it. Do audiences still care about things that go boom?

Paramount Pictures/Photofest

For all of the expected explosions on screen this summer—bigger and louder than ever—the biggest kaboom has been the implosion at the box office.

We’re just past the halfway point, but it’s looking like this is going to be the worst summer at the box office Hollywood has weathered in a long time. Receipts are down 20 percent from last year, and the July 4 weekend was commercially catastrophic. Blockbuster after blockbuster—The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, Transformers: The Age of Extinction—has seen tepid reviews and a lack of sustained audience enthusiasm translate to a severe drop in their box office grosses after opening with strong debut weekends.

The conventional wisdom was that the promise of air conditioning, jumbo-sized popcorn, and about $200 million of special effects would be enough to trick audiences into flocking to the cineplex en masse. But with critics thrashing this summer’s slate of CGI’d monsters, robots, and superheroes, and audiences turning a cold shoulder to them, too—all the while bolstering a crop of well-reviewed critical darlings to better-than-expected box office hauls—is it time to pronounce the summer blockbuster dead?

At the very least, the fickle and discerning moviegoer is getting a vibrant diagnosis: healthier than ever.

To be clear, we’re not overhyping the dire state of this summer. The miserable tallies over the recent July 4 weekend were more eye-popping than anything Transformers put on screen. Receipts for the holiday frame were down 45 percent from last year, making it the worst July 4 weekend since 1999. (When you take inflation into account, it’s the worst since 1987.)

Two films—Deliver Us from Evil and Earth to Echo—opened in more than 3,000 theaters and somehow still grossed less than $10 million each. No film ever accomplished—though to call that an “accomplishment” is cruel—such a feat; these two films did it in a holiday weekend. Even Transformer: Age of Extinction, which won the July 4 weekend and was closing in on $200 million heading into this past weekend, is trailing the last Transformers film by 24 percent.

Now let's take a quick survey of the blockbusters that have underwhelmed this summer at the box office.

There was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, whose $90 million opening frame in May is decidedly less impressive when it’s compared to the $174 million Iron Man 3 opened 2013’s summer season with and taken as part of a $200 million total domestic gross (so far)—more than $60 million shy of the first Amazing Spider-Man in 2012. Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past both did well at the box office, but neither were runaway success stories. Tellingly, both still trail the haul stacked up by The LEGO Movie back in February. The Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow still hasn’t crossed the $100 million mark in the U.S., and the less said about A Million Ways to Die in the West, Jersey Boys, and Blended the better.

But why is it now, specifically, that we’re declaring Time of Death on the summer blockbuster?

Compare this summer’s crop to last year’s big-budget hits: Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Man of Steel, Fast & Furious 6, and Star Trek Into Darkness, all of which grossed more than X-Men—this summer’s top grosser so far—has managed. And then there’s 2012, which had the one-two kapow of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, among other hits, to buoy it.

But it’s more than just dollars that we’re concerned with. It should be maintained that, with exception, people go to the movies to see good movies. There’s always the initial fascination over a big-budget effects orgy like Transformers, but there’s a snowball effect and a longevity at the box office when people hear about a good movie, boosting them to earn more than expected. That’s a universal benchmark for a Hollywood success story. Blockbusters and low-budget indies alike are both capable of performing better than expected, and, by and large, that happens when a movie is good.

So what are the movies this summer that are performing better than expected? Not Age of Extinction, Amazing Spider-Man 2, or Godzilla, all of which received mild-to-bad reviews to match their mild box-office performances.

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It’s The Fault in Our Stars, which proved that emotions are as valuable special effects as explosions. It’s Snowpiercer, which proved that action thrillers don’t need fighting robots and men in capes to wow audiences. It’s Neighbors, which was made on a production budget that was less than 15 percent that of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and 22 Jump Street, which mined a majority of its comedy from the fact that funneling too much money into outlandish special effects in a sequel is a bad idea. Basically, the biggest comedy blockbuster of the summer ridiculed the very notion of the summer blockbuster itself.

This past weekend, the two releases everyone was talking about were Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Boyhood. Apes, in every way, is a summer blockbuster, and it did supremely well at the box office, raking in $73 million—a stellar debut, even if it’s not enough to save the box office from its summer tumble. It also, as it happens, is a great movie, with a 79 Metacritic score that tops every other blockbuster released this summer.

And Boyhood, which has an almost unprecedented 99 Metacritic score, had the best per-location average of any release this summer and the second-best average of the year, behind only The Grand Budapest Hotel. Richard Linklater’s brilliant cinematic experiment, filmed bit by bit over the course of 12 years, is a small indie film. But it’s fantastic and got audiences excited to see it, explaining its excellent per-theater average.

The success of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Boyhood prove it: When a movie is good, people will go see it, whether it’s a blockbuster or an indie.

Maybe it’s not entirely accurate, then, to eulogize the summer blockbuster and go on about how the poor box office this summer hints at its death. Instead, let’s make this a birth announcement and welcome, finally, to the world the discerning audience. It’s an audience that loves blockbusters as much as it loves delicately made indies. It just has one demand: that they be well-made.

And it's about time Hollywood met that demand.