Welcome back, movie normalcy.
Sure, folks aren’t going back to the theaters in quite the numbers they were before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Indeed, cinemas are still hurting: A major theater chain says it may file for bankruptcy, and several other chains are trying to lure people back to the box office with a National Cinema Day—selling tickets for just $3.
But the summer of 2022 also saw the return of the blockbuster—and of the flop. And, as always, the numbers tell some interesting stories about what we want to see … and what we don’t.
First, let’s run down the summer’s biggest hits: Top Gun: Maverick remains both the season’s—and the year’s—biggest hit, having earned $691.2 million thus far in North America and a massive $1.4 billion worldwide. That makes it the fifth biggest movie ever in the domestic market, and it’s not done yet.
Maverick is followed by Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which officially opened the summer season May 6 and banked $411.3 million domestically. Jurassic World: Dominion (June 10) comes in third with $374.8 million; Minions: The Rise of Gru (July 1) is fourth with $354.8 million; and Thor: Love and Thunder (July 8) is fifth with $336.6 million.
Now, these movies don’t have a lot in common beyond being big-budget action movies. But they do remind us that folks want to have fun at the theater—and ideally, they’d like to do it as a family. All of those films are rated PG-13 or lower, and all look light, colorful and fun. (The Multiverse of Madness was dark thematically, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it ‘til you watched the movie.)
But while you’d expect Marvel to make oodles of dough, and Minions movies are always box-office juggernauts, Maverick just might be one of the year’s biggest surprises. Sure, everyone thought the Top Gun sequel was going to do just fine. But a sequel released 36 years after the original? Becoming the year’s biggest movie thus far? No one saw that coming. Our own Bob Hoose called it an “almost picture-perfect sequel,” and tons of secular critics agree. (It’s at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes’ “freshness” scale.)
Speculations surrounding Maverick’s success range from our yen for stand-alone stories, Tom Cruise’s ageless charisma and, well, jets.
But one thing that I hear again and again is how much this just felt like a traditional movie—one with fairly traditional values baked inside. It wasn’t preachy, but it felt, both in tone and tale, a little old-fashioned. Audiences almost universally walked out of the theater smiling.
Now, contrast that with the story of another famous pilot in another wildly anticipated movie: Lightyear.
Expectations were high for Buzz Lightyear’s origin story. It seemed like one of the year’s guaranteed winners. Indeed, Pixar had a near-unbroken record of box-office successes. If we discount Onward (which was released right as theaters were shutting down) every Pixar flick has been a hit. Even the ill-regarded The Good Dinosaur earned $123.1 million in North America, and $333.8 million worldwide. Lightyear would far outperform that meager take, most believed. It might well become Pixar’s fifth billion-dollar blockbuster.
But much of Lightyear’s pre-release buzz (pardon the pun) revolved around an LGBT couple that’d be an important part of the story. And that, perhaps, kept many families at bay. So far, Lightyear has earned just $118.3 million in North America, and a truly underwhelming $225.9 million worldwide. That makes it, relatively speaking, a rare Pixar flop.
“Disney’s decision to spend a couple of minutes of screen time reminding us that it’s a gay-friendly company may well have cost it millions in ticket sales for what was supposed to be its annual Pixar mega-blockbuster,” wrote Kyle Smith of the New York Post. “Disney has to consider the idea that there might be many Pixar fans who have no problem with gay marriage who nevertheless would prefer the matter be left out of kids’ movies.”
One wonders whether the same dynamic was in play with Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. While technically not a summer movie (it was released April 15), it too carried some LGBT buzz to the box office: Albus Dumbledore, sage mentor to Harry Potter and countless other young wizards, was officially going to come out.
But people didn’t come out for the movie. The film has made just $95 million domestically. The previous low-water mark in all of Harry Potter-dom? The almost universally panned Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, which collected $159.6 million in North America.
Now, certainly Dumbledore’s failure could be the product of many other elements: No Johnny Depp, franchise fatigue, etc. And many of the year’s biggest hits had glancing LGBT references, too. It could be argued that most moviegoers aren’t turned off by such inclusions.
But it seems to me that moviegoers, especially families, are wary of movies that overtly push a certain collection of messages—movies that seem to pander to one segment of the moviegoing public while ignoring another.
Again, let’s hear from Smith:
“Hollywood was founded by, and for generations run by, pure showmen who were fanatically devoted to giving the audience what it wanted. Today Hollywood’s message is, ‘Let us entertain you! But first, a brief lecture on what’s wrong with you, the audience …’”
Top Gun: Maverick wasn’t interested in offering lectures. It wanted to entertain, and entertain as broad an audience as possible—conservative and progressive, young and old. And in this age of message-laden movies, that’s one lesson that moviemakers themselves should think about.