Summer’s Numbers Don’t Lie: We’re Not Interested in Agendas

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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.

paul-asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

5 Responses

  1. -Agreed. How long will it take before they realize “get woke=go broke”. They’re like Heath Ledger’s Joker. “It’s not about the money! It’s about sending a message!”

  2. -As one of these audience members described here, i could not agree more. With the crowd interacting after the movie, we heard many similar comments and even had similar conversations with a few strangers. it was FUN to be at the movies again with this sense of community it created. period.

  3. -Top Gun: Maverick was a fantastic movie, but I worry that the conservative backlash against “wokeness” (however one defines that) will further discourage an already risk-averse Hollywood from taking chances and challenging audiences with bold, provocative ideas. I strongly disagree with Kyle Smith about old Hollywood being run by “pure showmen who were fanatically devoted to giving the audience what it wanted.” That may describe today’s bland franchise extensions, but it doesn’t describe boundary-pushing filmmakers like Welles, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick, Polanski, Lynch and the Coen brothers. Most classic Hollywood films were great not because they gave us what we wanted, but because they gave us something entirely new that we didn’t realize we wanted.

    1. -Completely agreed, ‘woke’ in the sense of awareness is a very old word that predates World War II and goes back at least as far as the song “Scottsboro Boys” (1938), and in practice it all too often just feels like an insult against people who question the American status quo. I also agree with you about the filmmakers you mentioned, back when there wasn’t as much of an emphasis on expensive, huge-return blockbusters (though indie movies are still doing very well even if Disney and other studios usually make more noise).

      “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”

      “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”

      Paul, and Kyle, do either of you have evidence that including lesbian and gay characters was what directly hurt this movie? You yourself say, “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.” It definitely didn’t hurt Avengers: Endgame’s financial returns to any noticeable degree. I watched Lightyear a few weeks ago on Disney+ and simply didn’t think it was very entertaining, that it looked very good, or that it needed to exist (Toy Story 3’s emotional tug at the end didn’t work for me, but I respected what it was trying to do, and I assumed that would be a well-deserved end of the franchise, though what I paid attention to of 4 wasn’t bad). One might as well speculate that Marvel’s “Eternals” performed poorly because of having LGBT characters instead of questioning whether people actually liked the movie (I certainly didn’t).

      “Lightyear,” for all the criticisms I had about its quality from start to finish, particularly its cheap-looking flight sequences (I’d just gotten done watching “Top Gun: Maverick” a few weeks earlier in full-immersion 4DX format, and that will probably be my favorite movie of the year), didn’t really feel like a lecture, and the few scenes that did felt like typical inspiration cliches, not like a lecture that says “you’re bad for not agreeing with homosexuality (I did like the family montage, but in a worse version of my problem with “Up,” I thought it was one of too few notable parts of the film).”

      “how much this just felt like a traditional movie—one with fairly traditional values baked inside”

      This doesn’t mean anything. Cultural values change over time. Culture nowadays thankfully acknowledges my right to vote, own land, and marry a white woman if I so choose. Hollywood used to condemn this, particularly depictions of “miscegenation.” I do think that ‘Maverick’ did an artful job of basically not having an actual story outside of its simple but enjoyable characters—the enemy nation and culture aren’t really defined, there’s no complex terroristic or political motivation, and all of the antagonistic elements feel easily interchangeable, which I think will help the film not age quickly since it never feels like a product of the Cold War or of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions. There’s no cheesy Russian villain or stereotypical Middle-Eastern villain (Plugged In’s own review of the terrifying “United 93” also praised this https://www.pluggedin.com/movie-reviews/united93/ ). But a movie that promotes relationship abuse (a significant problem I had with “Brokeback Mountain” and to some extent the Gaston-LeFou interaction in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast”) is in its own way promoting an agenda, even if it’s doing so subtly instead of overtly.

  4. -If I’m not mistaken, Top Gun used God’s name in vain several times, I can’t believe Plugged In would be okay with that!

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