Every summer, it's the same ritual: multitudes flock to air-conditioned multiplexes to happily munch popcorn while watching the latest too-big-to-fail theatrical phenomenon. We can see the "important" movies in the fall as awards season approaches — but between Memorial and Labor Days, we binge, guilt-free, on big-budget cinematic candy. Which is how Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, the Goonies, and that giant shark became as identified with summer as the scent of mosquito repellent. Last year, audiences thrilled to the X-Men fighting evil mutants and Tom Cruise fighting bad guys (and bad publicity). This year, the landscape looks a little different.
In a theater near you, Christian Bale's self-loathing Batman has returned to battle terrorist villains and his own violent tendencies in The Dark Knight Rises. Next door, super powered every nerd Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is busy amplifying the angstful, neurotic-teen aspect of his character in The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, web-slinging around a city that, much like Gotham, looks realistically gritty as opposed to cartoonishly dangerous. Prometheus, the prequel to Ridley Scott's terrifying Alien, ups the ante of the original's dank, dour look as another crew of scientists and working-class stiffs follows an ancient race of explorers into the belly of the beast. Just last month, Snow White had the ribbons ripped from her hair, and a few months before that, children killed each other, and we rooted for some of them. Forget blockbusters — we're now in the era of the bleakbuster.
Light, disposable movies based on board games and action figures still arrive on schedule, but is this the beginning of the end for the traditional summer movie? Even the former confuse excess for actual entertainment. (You can't just make a movie out of a game that involves sticking plastic pegs in a grid; you have to unleash a symphony of sound and fury that makes the Transformers movies look like the Transformers cartoons.) If nothing else, disguising standard plots in dystopian chic and adding a patina of pessimism is de rigueur. It makes sense that Scott is returning to the Alien franchise after more than 30 years, given that the rest of the industry seems to have caught up to the creepy, dimly lit aesthetic that he championed in the 1979 original. Money talks, and the record-breaking $19.7 million take for midnight screenings of The Hunger Games, a summer bleakbuster that just happened to come out in the spring, spoke very, very loudly: Hollywood loves you, but it's chosen darkness.
Remember the line "You're gonna need a bigger boat"? Can you imagine quoting, "You're all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us" in decades to come? This is Anne Hathaway as Catwoman's purred promise in The Dark Knight Rises. Granted, it's relevant. Now is the time for Occupy Gotham. And Batman has long embraced his alienated inner goth. Though there were grim blockbusters before Tim Burton turned Frank Miller's chilly, damaged concept of the Caped Crusader into a phenomenon in 1989, the serious superhero took flight around then. After Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) was nominated for several Oscars, a new beast was born: The prestige movie located in a paranoid world of perpetual midnight could fill bank accounts and masquerade as a significant, cerebral flick.
The sheer quantity of this summer's bummer flicks represents a bona fide tipping point, although it may have been inevitable that these cinematic dark nights of the soul were about to hit a critical mass. Back in 1999, the fact that The Matrix could milk a paranoid-android cyberpunk vibe for $463 million in profit was considered a blip on the radar. Since then, our zeitgeist has been infected by an abundance of "the center cannot hold" moments outside our own door. It may be too easy to play pop psychologist and say that living in the shadow of the 9/11 catastrophe, and the pockmarked decade that followed, has given birth to our current bleakbuster mind-set. But after years of flirting with no-future dystopias in the '80s and '90s, we finally found ourselves living in the real-world version of it.
Maybe no-escape entertainment is our new escapism. We used to go to the movies to clock out of the world and spend time with shiny, happy people. Now, we're being offered worlds as foreboding as our imagination allows: Think your life is bad? Try living in Gotham City or Panem or some planet where aliens latch on to your face and lay eggs. Or maybe our innocence regarding these roller-coaster summer movies has been out-sophisticated. There's consolation in seeing people overcome obstacles worse than ours, and these new hybrid blockbusters are offering their own form of work-through-it "fun." Solemnity is the new levity. We've got some collective demons to exorcise, and until we reach the light at the end of that tunnel, we're going to find ourselves sitting in the dark and liking it.
This story originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of SPIN, which you can buy here.