Why Franchise Directors Keep Apologizing for Their Movies, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace a Lack of Mass-Cultural Consensus

06/29/2011 10:31 AM |

Ill just have to try harder. I dont know. I will. I will. I will. I will.
  • “I’ll just have to try harder. I don’t know. I will. I will. I will. I will.”

If you’re reading about movies online at all, you’re probably aware, whether you like it or not, that Michael Bay’s third Transformers movie opens this week at a bunch of theaters, ready to annihilate second-tier box-office records, like highest gross ever on a Tuesday between the hours of 9PM and 12AM, or second-highest ever non-opening Wednesday. If you go further and are an actual fan of the Transformers movies, or just follow the pre-release gossip-hype cycle, you may have heard that as a show of good faith, Bay has even kinda-sorted apologized for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the previous film in this franchise, which many critics and presumably some fans hated for its nonsensical story, ear-and-eyesplitting action sequences, casual racism, and general Michael Bay style muchness.

Even if you’re further aware of Bay’s reputation as a cocksure jackass, his apology may not surprise you. The previous-installment mea culpa has become standard issue for summer blockbuster sequels.

You may have caught an Entertainment Weekly cover story in the run-up to the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, in which Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer semi-apologized for the convoluted nature of the previous sequels, assuring readers and potential ticket-buyers that movie four would be more streamlined, more efficient, stronger, faster, whatever.

Beyond the matter of lip service—the fact that making a mega-expensive disappointment and apologizing later seems to be considered an easy course of action these days—I find these moments of pre-approved, internet-ready candor more than a little bizarre, not least due to their increased frequency. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the endeavor Bay treated with such uncharacteristic sheepishness, made more money than its predecessor. It was the second-biggest hit of 2009 after Avatar, and ranks just outside the top ten biggest domestic box office hits ever (lower, of course, if you adjust for inflation, a selective technique somehow not used much in the first several decades of box office reporting, but what now seems to be considered of utmost importance in a way I consider semi-dubious, but sometimes instructive).

To me, this raises the question of who, exactly, Michael Bay is apologizing to, and why. Granted, there are hit movies that no one in particular “seems” to like; that is to say, it’s entirely possible for a movie to get to $100 million or even $200 million based on a killer ad campaign, brand recognition, relentless promotion, weak competition, and so on, rather than audience enjoyment. $400 million, though, I’m not so sure. You can’t cruise to $400 million off of a single boffo weekend. If your movie makes that much money, probably a lot of the people who saw it were, at least, fine with it.

Now, before I’m accused of validating populism, please understand: it’s not that the money made by Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen absolves Bay of that movie’s many shortcomings, though I’m not so sure it’s appreciable worse than his other films so much as even more upfront about its Bayness. It is a ridiculous movie, terrible in many ways, and if you look back at that list of all-time hits unadjusted for inflation, Transformers 2 is surely one of the worst movies there (I say “one of” because I would vastly prefer to watch Revenge of the Fallen again before Passion of the Christ or those Shrek sequels. I mean, it has giant robots beating the shit out of each other; I’m not made of stone). I just find it curious that Bay, who rarely apologizes for anything, felt compelled to throw his biggest hit under a bus.

Granted, there is something to the theory that a sequel’s box office tends to reflect opinions of the original moreso than opinions of the new movie. Hence, Dead Man’s Chest outgrossed the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie by a wide margin, reflecting that surprise hit’s likely high rate of audience satisfaction; At World’s End brought the franchise down to more regular levels; and On Stranger Tides, which is the lowest-grossing installment in the U.S. (though the highest globally), reflects some residual disinterest from the third movie. Perhaps Bay is attempting to guard against a comedown on Transformers 3 as a delayed referendum on its predecessor (though Pirates 4 shows no evidence of this working).

I have no idea which Pirates movie this comes from, and neither do you.
  • I have no idea which Pirates movie this comes from, and neither do you.

But here’s a different theory, unsubstantiated but possible: most casual moviegoers couldn’t tell you much about Transformers versus Transformers 2, or Pirates 2 vs. Pirates 3. Honestly, I’d guess that most casual moviegoers don’t have these passionate opinions about every movie they see. I don’t mean this as a sign of stupidity or weakness (maybe quite to the contrary, as I’ve expended lots of pointless energy on lots of pointless movies). My guess is that for the most part, most moviegoers have a couple of movies each year they really love, one or two they really hate, and a whole lot in between. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End may not have alienated audiences so much as fallen into the wide chasm between a movie that surprised and delighted them, like the first Pirates picture, and a movie they outright loathed (I’m not sure what to use as an example here, because widely loathed movies are usually, paradoxically, not seen very widely. Let’s just say Jonah Hex for the fun of bringing up Jonah Hex). The expectation that mass audiences will revolt against sequels that don’t live up to the fun and surprise of a first movie is as silly as the idea that audiences will attend and enjoy a movie series in perpetuity.

No, these sequel apologies actually seemed more designed to please that other nebulous collective of disparate personalities, the internet. The vacuum created by the lack of a trustworthy source on general public opinion has been filled by angry, dismissive, and/or illiterate internet commenters, which has become the de facto voice of the people for many lazy journalists (print and online alike). Actual scientific polling is hard, and kind of silly to dedicate to something as frivolous as investigating national consensus on a movie, but not to worry: the internet offers endless anecdotal evidence about how much some guy supposedly liked a movie he may or may not have seen!

What’s shocking about this is not the torrent of opinions themselves (in fact, no joke, I’ve read some fascinating and insightful film criticism in internet comment threads, sometimes from anonymous strangers!), but the way online carping has been allowed by actual media to drive the narrative on a movie, rewriting facts with feelings, a kind of casual, disorganized mob rule. A movie like Iron Man 2 will be casually referred to in print as “widely panned,” despite 70% of the Rotten Tomatoes reviews skewing positive; movies, especially movies designed for popular entertainment, are apparently subject to a relentless rounding, a nuclear version of thumbs up/thumbs down where a few things are amazing and perfect and everything else kind of sucks. Think your movie got good reviews and/or made a decent amount of money? Wait a few months and a blog or commentator or Entertainment Weekly will tell you that, actually, “nobody” liked it.

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My pet example of this rewriting is the Star Wars prequels. Obviously, Rotten Tomatoes is not a flawless indicator of cultural consensus on a movie, as it concentrates most heavily on reviews from the film’s original release, and reduces all verdicts to a thumbs up/thumbs down binary, making mixed reviews trickier to parse. But even so, Tomatometer scores can be telling. All three of the Star Wars prequels garnered over sixty percent positive scores from Rotten Tomatoes critics; somewhat lower in the “cream of the crop” numbers that tend to count only more reputable sources, but even so, you can find any number of respectable, measured, sometimes quite complimentary reviews of the films.

The post-2005 media narrative on the prequels, though, is that they are reviled, hated, the disappointment of a generation, scorned by critics and fans alike. Some critics joined in to the tune of rewriting their own reviews. In a 2005 Ask the Critic sidebar, responding to the question of what review of his garnered the most hate mail, EW‘s Owen Gleiberman mentioned that Phantom Menace was the movie he was “most lambasted for panning,” with the smug aside that he did “wonder if all those furious letter writers still agree with themselves,” implying that, you know, time proved Gleiberman right and Star Wars fans wrong: everyone hates that movie! If they had only sat down and thought about it, they would’ve realized they actually hated the movie, too.

Only the thing is, Gleiberman didn’t pan the movie at all! He gave it a well-reasoned, mildly positive mixed review. But having a nuanced opinion of The Phantom Menace doesn’t fit the narrative, because “everyone” hates that movie. So it’s Gleiberman, then, who seems to fail to agree with himself, and I wonder if he’s even conscious of it, or if his “opinion” shifted to match the internet-fueled, media-endorsed clamor.

What these media mobs demand is not even necessarily good movies and certainly not nuanced opinions; they want apologies and deference. Read comments on Star Wars-related matters online (an activity I do not recommend at all), and you’ll find that many anonymous nerds want nothing more than for George Lucas to make one of those all-important apologies on behalf of the prequels, to make a show of it the way Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer has no problem performing for the fans. So great is the demand for a Lucas apology that when Simon Pegg mentioned a brief run-in with the nerd god-slash-devil during an interview, the vague exchange was combed for crumbs of director remorse, breathlessly reported as Did George Lucas Tell Simon Pegg the Star Wars Prequels Sucked?

Let me answer that concisely: no, he damn well didn’t. Apparently the worst sin of the prequels (which, full disclosure, I like just fine! I take Star Wars seriously enough to marvel at its intricate designs and some interesting storytelling, yet not so seriously that CGI, clunky dialogue, or general silliness offends me down to my soul) is not that they disappointed some nerds, but the idea that George Lucas likes them the way they are made them that way on purpose! So prevalent and resonant to this crowd is the idea that Lucas should capitulate to the collective consensus on his movies (which also, by the way, made the kind of money that makes me deeply suspicious of the “everybody hated them” claims) that we’re still getting fan-made spoof videos expressing this anxiety, this certainty that Lucas didn’t really mean it, that it was all just a bad dream, a horrible put-on. Maybe this kind of psychological harm lingers in the backs of heads behind the newer franchises like Transformers and Pirates, which is why the filmmakers are so eager to let a bunch of nerds know that, no, it’s ok, I agree with you and I made the changes you asked for.

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Look, I understand the catharsis in being allowed to believe that an artist agrees with you about his or her work. I remember reading an interview with Tim Burton about his first Batman movie—not, I smugly note, in the publicity run-up to Batman Returns, but in an actual book actually reflecting on his career!—in which he noted that it’s the only film of his to which he feels a little cool, and thinking to myself, yes! You can totally tell! This is why I responded so much more intensely to Batman Returns! This kind of thinking can happen in idle moments, too, based on even less: When I saw Okkervil River in concert a couple of weeks ago, I was so pleased with their song selection, and found it so in sync with my favorite songs of theirs, that I wondered if the band, too, thought The Stand Ins was a little dull. My heart also sang a little a few days ago when I read a Manohla Dargis review of Bad Teacher that echoed my thoughts on the movie almost exactly, nearly point by point, and expressed in Dargis’s typically strong prose. What can I say—people like the feeling of agreement. Sometimes it makes them feel validated.

I’m also fascinated by the question of how a movie plays for an audience, especially these big summer would-be crowdpleasers, and I understand the desire to somehow quantify it. But sometimes even a pleased crowd doesn’t mean much beyond not rioting for a couple of hours (I was amped after I saw X-Men: First Class, despite a few flaws; by traditional measures of audience enjoyment, second-weekend box office and CinemaScore and the like, “regular” audiences found it right in that wide, South-of-the-first-Pirates-movie-North-of-Jonah Hex, “meh, pretty good” range). As Editor Mark pointed out when I first mentioned my thoughts on this to him, most big summer events are pre-sold and foreign-appealing enough that true money-hemorrhaging bombs have become few and far between—Green Lantern, as rightly disliked as it seems to be, will not lose money on a Jonah Hex scale, and probably nothing else this summer will, either—thus protecting the bottom line and maybe further depriving us of a concise final word on whether or not a movie has succeeded.

Hence, the devilish deal that we will cobble together a consensus from internet cranks and report it and repeat it until it becomes unverifiable common knowledge, which in many cases is like an opinion, except kind of stupid. Rather than grasp desperately for an official party-line cultural take on a movie, or even despair at the suggestion that, guys, ninety percent of the population actually doesn’t care about movies enough to love or hate very many of them, maybe we could try to derive some enjoyment out of that natural divisiveness—that there is no movie that “everyone” hates or loves (well, maybe Sneakers. That shit is tight), and that “everyone has an opinion” doesn’t actually have to refer to the same one.