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Graham: Summer movie season is now every movie season

Blockbusters abound, and it’s only March. Get used to it

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Spring just sprung, but at the movies, it’s already summertime.

Alicia Vikander in “Tomb Raider,” a movie that previously would not have hit screens until Memorial Day.

Opening this weekend in theaters is the giant robot, giant monster smackdown “Pacific Rim Uprising.” Last weekend was “Tomb Raider,” the rebooted action franchise entry based on the popular video game series. Next weekend is “Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg’s ambitious ode to gaming culture.

Make no mistake, all three of these are summer movies, the kinds of films that used to populate multiplexes between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when the kids were out of school, brains were fried and explosions were the language of cinema.

Somewhere along the way, the summers got longer. And now summer is pretty much all year ’round at the box office.

This year is the most aggressive push for permanent summer yet. “Black Panther” has been shattering records since its mid-February opening, once a ground for horror flicks and kiddie cartoons, but now ripe ground for culture-shaking superhero sensations.

That set the table, and now blockbusters and franchise fare are lining up to fill their plate. In two weeks, they’ll be joined by “Rampage,” starring the Rock and based on a video game where giant monsters smash buildings to smithereens. If that’s not a summer movie, what is?

And summer itself still has plenty in store: “Deadpool 2,” a Han Solo movie, “Ocean’s 8,” “The Incredibles 2,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and so on.

For moviegoers, the expansion of blockbuster season into a year-round state of mind means more franchise fare clogging up screens for more months of the year. And it is leading to the further dumbing down of movies.

The traditional Memorial Day kickoff to the summer movie season migrated to the first weekend in May following the launch of “The Mummy” on May 7, 1999. When that movie collected a then-bountiful $43 million its opening weekend, Hollywood saw dollar signs in its eyes, and that early May frame was used in subsequent years to launch movies like “Spider-Man” (2002), “X2: X-Men United” (2003) and “Mission: Impossible III” (2006).

Since the launch of “Iron Man,” which opened to $98 million over the May 2 weekend in 2008, Marvel has carved out the first weekend in May as its major launching pad, opening a new movie in that slot seven of the last nine years.

While May is still the biggie, April and March have been creeping up on its tail. The “Fast and Furious” franchise staked out a home for itself with April openings in 2011, 2015 and 2017, while March played host to the first “Hunger Games” movie in 2012 and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” in 2016.

Marvel was set to launch its third “Avengers” movie, “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” May 4, but earlier this month the release was moved to April 27, a switch that was announced via a playful back-and-forth between Marvel and Robert Downey Jr.’s Twitter accounts. That one-week shift effectively makes the last weekend in April the new first weekend in May.

The emphasis on blockbuster filmmaking is an acknowledgment of the importance of the global box office. Movies like “Tomb Raider” and “Pacific Rim Uprising” are engineered for worldwide audiences and will gobble up money overseas, which is great for the studios collecting the checks but not so good for fans of well-told stories or even fun, well-made blockbusters. When movies are made to appeal to broad swaths of moviegoers in Iowa, the United Arab Emirates and Japan alike, the most generic creative choices are going to be the ones that win out. Humor is specific, explosions are universal, so that’s why so many movies feel like an air raid these days.

Now since it’s always summer, indies and character-driven fare are being pushed further out into the margins, which is why the gap is widening between prestige pictures — awards fare that typically floods screens in the fall and holiday seasons — and audiences. The last decade has given us five of the six least-grossing Best Picture winners of the modern box office era. So if you’re a movie exec, are you going to make another “Spotlight” or “Rampage 2”?

At their best, movies reflect who we are. They’re not just about entertainment and explosions, they hold up a mirror to our values and beliefs. Blockbusters can do that too — there’s plenty to be learned from “Black Panther,” a movie that has shaken the superhero paradigm — but that film is an outlier in the machine. There are a lot more “Pacific Rims” than there are “Black Panthers,” and it’s a long, seemingly endless summer ahead.