By Noah Gittell
This was the summer America went back to the movies. After three years of handwringing about the future of cinema, this blockbuster season finally felt like a semi-normal one. In fact, it felt better than that. There were fewer releases than normal—a byproduct of the drop in productions during the worst of the COVID era—but those that performed well stayed in theaters for weeks, even months.
In between, there were a bevy of independent films, some that went straight to streamers and others that committed to their theatrical releases, providing solid counterprogramming to the Hollywood glitz. With the battle between studios and streamers now coalescing into a productive detente, the summer of 2022 felt a lot like the future.
How ironic then that the summer’s biggest hit is a paean to the past. “Top Gun: Maverick” is an effective blockbuster with groundbreaking aerial sequences, but what surely thrilled so many viewers was how profoundly it paid homage to its own history and, by extension, ours. Many sequels and reboots have tried but few have succeeded in tying its star, its plot, and the external movie landscape together into one unifying glory. Between the dominance of superhero movies and the uncertainty of the cinema’s future, “Top Gun: Maverick” felt like a warm hug from an estranged parent. It gave us the movie experience we thought we’d never get back. No wonder it has made $1.5 billion dollars.
The staying power of “Top Gun: Maverick” recalls the days when a film like “The Godfather” would play in movie theaters for a year. “Maverick” probably won’t achieve that feat, but it has been among the six most popular movies in the U.S. for 12 weeks now, and last week it jumped back up to No. 2. People are clearly returning to see it over and over again, which is a testament to how purposefully the film was made for the big screen, and how an old-fashioned movie star like Tom Cruise can still get movie lovers in theater seats.
“Elvis”, the kaleidoscopic biopic of the King of Rock, has similarly stuck around, and although it’s $142 million domestic gross will not rival that of “Maverick” (close to $700 million), its staying power demonstrates that a bold, new take on a familiar story can find a huge audience. The film is overwhelming and overlong, but it’s a film that demands to be seen on a big screen with a superior sound system. That’s a big reason why the music biopic continues to thrive, but few of them are as wonderfully weird as “Elvis”.
Ongoing franchises continued to perform well, although their success is no longer a big story. “Thor: Love and Thunder” is quietly on pace to outgross its predecessor “Thor: Ragnarok,” despite garnering very little buzz. It’s nobody’s favorite film of the summer, and yet it has grossed $700 billion. That’s the new normal for Marvel. “Jurassic Park Dominion” was an even bigger hit, even with atrocious reviews and no word of mouth. Dinosaurs still sell.
More surprising were the small, independent films that stuck to the theaters and refused to quickly jump to streamers. “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”, with all its bighearted whimsy, was based on a YouTube short, but it has succeeded with a limited rollout in arthouse theaters. Two months after its release, it’s still not available to watch at home, despite grossing only $5 million (not bad for a movie its size). “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” a buzzy horror-thriller starring up-and-comers Rachel Sennott, Maria Bakalova, and Amandla Stenberg, similarly stuck to theaters, and is garnering significant buzz, and not only for the controversy over a nasty email written from one of its stars to a critic who panned it.
Meanwhile, the streamers are doing fine. “The Gray Man” might be one of the biggest hits of the summer, if we had any way of comparing streaming numbers — Netflix only tells you how many “hours” it was viewed — to ticket purchases. “Prey,” a Predator movie set amidst the Comanche nation, was well-received and seemed like a hit by the online chatter. Rumors are already swirling about sequels to both films.
The fall calendar is equally sparse due to the Covid production schedule, so the summer films you love might still be around in the fall or winter. You’ve heard of Christmas in July? This year, we might be getting a summer blockbuster season in December. Is it the new normal, or the final gasp of a strange, aberrational era? To quote the great screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.”