No, it wasn’t the worst summer in the history of summer movies. After all, this was the summer that gave us arguably the greatest superhero movie ever in X2: X-Men United, that provided the year’s first and probably most surprising Oscar candidate in Disney/Pixar’s animated Finding Nemo, that at long last made Johnny Depp the superstar he deserves to be, that showed Tobey Maguire could do adult, that proved that imports, indies, and — yes, folks, there is a God — even documentaries can break through and make a cultural and commercial impact.
So no, it wasn’t the worst summer in the history of summer movies. It only felt like it.
Because while the summer of 2003 has offered much that’s good, never before has Hollywood’s bad been so egregiously displayed. It was the summer of both bloated, alienating pretension (The Matrix Reloaded and The Hulk) and bloated, joyless superficiality (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle and Bad Boys II). It was the summer of Dumb and Dumberer, of bland (Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde) and blanderer (How to Deal). And it was the kind of summer that gave us little hope that Hollywood will do better next year — not when one hears Paramount blaming the failure of Tomb Raider 2 not on the film but on the waning of the videogame that spawned it. So much for introspection.
Which is a shame, because there’s much that can be learned from a summer teeming with so much success — and so much suckage. For example:
1 AUTEURS AND FRANCHISES DON’T ALWAYS MIX. Matching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Ang Lee with The Hulk was inspired. It was also a mistake. While it’s painful to admonish a studio for the rare decision that can actually be described as bold, the fact is that there was nothing on Lee’s resume to indicate he had the next Batman in him. (At least Tim Burton had Beetlejuice.) If anything, his body of work offered plenty of hints that he intended to make exactly the humor-free, high-minded art flick he made. Hate to say it, but if Universal had hired a lesser artist, they might have launched a franchise with a future. THE SOLUTION When it comes to superhero flicks, the director’s enthusiasm should begin with the character, not with the opportunity to undercut the comic-book idiom. The model: Spider-Man’s Sam Raimi, a fanboy whose passion for the wall crawler was palpable. Sometimes, instead of starting with a director in thrall to a personal vision, studios could even begin their creative casting with a well-credentialed producer. The model: Jerry Bruckheimer, whose Pirates of the Caribbean was the summer’s most shrewdly packaged product.
2 KNOW THY AUDIENCE. DreamWorks honcho and Disney vet Jeffrey Katzenberg has been making animated movies for some time now. So you’d think he would have known that Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was destined to sink. After all, boy-skewing action-adventure ‘toons (Treasure Planet, Titan A.E.) always do. Hollywood is often tempted to tinker with proven movie formulas in a bid to grab more green. Sometimes, it works: The unexpected casting of Depp in Pirates made that film more appealing to adults who would have otherwise dismissed it as kid stuff. But too often, you get a conflicted mess like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which dumbed down Alan Moore’s literate and very, very British comics and added a token American character in order to reach more than just young men. It hurt the movie, and didn’t help the grosses. THE SOLUTION Embrace what you are. Seabiscuit didn’t try to be anything else but a faithful adaptation of a serious book about a washed-up racehorse. Guess what? It’s galloping to becoming one of the summer’s biggest word-of-mouth, demo-spanning hits (see chart). Ditto 28 Days Later, a British horror import that unashamedly embraced its genre, R rating and all. The lesson: If you can’t naturally please everyone (like, say, Bruce Almighty and Finding Nemo did), then give your core audience what it really wants.