Every generation feels nostalgic for the time they first got into movies. I’m well aware of this impulse, and it’s made me wary of my own warm and fuzzy feelings toward the blockbusters of the early 2000s. For a long time I asked myself: is there something truly different about those movies when compared to the franchises of today, which stink to me of corporate soullessness? After much internal debate, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a difference. A Hollywood blockbuster is always going to be a primarily financial proposition, but this was a period in which studios knew that sequels could be hugely profitable, they just had no idea of how to guarantee their success. Profits were at the mercy of creatives who seemed to have a sort of magic touch, and not the other way around.
This article was inspired by a tweet by film critic Jake Cole, whose claim for the years between 1999 and 2007 as the peak of blockbuster filmmaking aligns with mine. The proof is right there, in the franchises that dominated this time: Spider-Man set the mold for the superhero boom that followed, but was brimming with Sam Raimi’s love for goofy horror and sincere melodrama. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy inspired a fantasy boom of its own while being cheesy and monstrous in a way none of its imitators have been able to pull off*. The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean movies featured outstanding action sequences, and if they were perceived as creative failures it’s because they followed their directors (the Wachowski sisters and Gore Verbinski respectively) down ludicrous yet fascinating rabbit holes of their own making. Even the much maligned Star Wars prequels are unquestionably a product of George Lucas’s personal vision.
Then came the year 2008. The Dark Knight turned emotionally restrained self-seriousness into a commercial commodity, and most importantly, Iron Man gave birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The overwhelming, relentless success of the MCU proposed that an actively protective and homogenic approach was the only way to succeed. What needed to be safeguarded was the brand, not the creators. The nail in the coffin came when fans cheered as Disney bought George Lucas out of the franchise that, until then, had been synonymous with his name. I know there are exceptions to this rule. I know that things won’t stay this way forever. All I ask is that the future doesn’t make me want to live in the past.
* Even Jackson himself was unable to recapture the magic with his horrendous Hobbit trilogy.