Babysitters for adults

Posted on May 10, 2014


On the eve of the release of the new ‘Godzilla’ movie, Baradwaj Rangan muses about the generic nature of Hollywood’s summer blockbusters.

I watched the new Spider-Man movie last week. I use the word “new” cautiously, for it only refers to this Spider-Man instalment being the one that was released most recently. Otherwise, it’s the same old, same old. There’s a secret from the past. There’s a tragedy in the present. A friend turns foe. There’s comedy, as when Aunt May forbids Peter Parker from doing the laundry because the last time he turned everything blue and red. He pauses for a beat and replies that he was washing the American flag. Then there are the villains, who keep coming at him as if on an assembly line. First, there’s Electro, who was bitten by eels and is now some sort of human power supply. (I kept waiting for a joke where someone asks him about his “current employment;” it never came.) Then there’s Green Goblin. Then, just as you thought the film was over, someone straps himself into a steel suit with a horn and calls himself Rhino.

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t a bad movie. It’s just not a very good one. It’s probably not even a movie – more an adult version of the animated films that come out every month and function as babysitters for a couple of hours. We want to be distracted for a while. We walk into one of these movies. That’s the basic nature of the transaction. It’s like how, in the 1970s and 80s, we used to get masala movies with unfailing regularity. We saw some. We missed some. The ones we saw we felt we could have missed. The ones we missed we didn’t feel an overwhelming compulsion to see at some future point. It was all the same thing, more or less. You could miss The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and watch it when it premieres on TV. Or you could you just wait for The Amazing Spider-Man 3, where we’ll see more of the same, more self-referential gags, more secrets and tragedies, more villains created by accident. Maybe a computer geek will fall into an open manhole and emerge as Drain-O, who threatens to kill the residents of New York City by unleashing a stink.

Meanwhile, Godzilla emerges from the oceans this week. I must say it sounds more exciting that the prospect of a new superhero movie. For one, the last time the giant lizard clomped around our screens, it was 1998. That’s a reasonably long leave of absence. And two, the cast consists of Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn and Bryan Cranston. In other words, there are no superstars. In other words, anyone can die at any time. It’s hard to pretend that Tom Cruise’s life is in danger, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson could end up a midmorning snack and no studio executive is going to have a heart attack. I have nothing against Taylor-Johnson. I actually think he’s quite cool. He married a woman 23 years his senior and incorporated her last name into his own. He probably deserves to be a bigger star. It’s just that he isn’t one yet. And that means he’s fair game.

Otherwise, I expect no surprises from the new Godzilla movie. I’m not enough of a fan of the franchise to react to the trailer the way this person did on one of IMDb’s message boards: “MUTO might be a serious threat, but how is unleashing Godzilla on it remotely close to being a good idea?” I don’t know what any of that means. It doesn’t matter much, either, that unlike in the 1998 film, this Godzilla actually looks like the creature from the Japanese daikaiju (giant monster) films. Apart from a core group of the faithful, most people are only going to care about whether the film lives up to what Frank Darabont, one of the film’s writers (and the director of The Shawshank Redemption), said in an interview: “What we’re trying to do with the new movie is not have it camp, not have it be campy. We’re kind of taking a cool new look at it. But with a lot of tradition in the first film. We want this to be a terrifying force of nature.”

But we can bet that Godzilla won’t be too terrifying. That might mean that the younger viewers would stay away, and that, in turn, would mean that the parents who don’t want to shell out babysitting costs would stay away as well. So, no, the new Godzilla cannot afford to be too terrifying. It cannot afford to be too idea-driven, harping on Godzilla being a metaphor for the impact of atomic/nuclear weapons, because this would mean stretches where the action slows down for conversation, and that’s not what global audiences, many of whose first language isn’t English, are going to be lining up for. This is the reason most of these summer blockbusters look the same – because they aim to satisfy such different markets with a single product. The days are gone when a studio would allow Tim Burton to make his nihilistic and nightmarish Batman movies. In 1992, Batman Returns grossed some $160 million in North America and some $100 million worldwide. Today, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is released worldwide before it opens in America. It had already grossed some $150 million before the first American ticket had been sold. With this kind of potential global profit, no one’s interested in taking huge creative risks. Why break your brain over what’s essentially going to be a babysitter for adults?

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Posted in: Cinema: English