The Cricket: Hollywood shoots the works, with dreadful repetition
In 1776, John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail, that the signing of the Declaration of Independence was so important an event in America's history that "it ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
Because of that, your neighbors next week will be lighting off enough fireworks to scare the dog and make your street sound like Baghdad on a bad night.
Or, as an alternative, you and yours can gather at a place where a professional fireworks show is being staged to mark our nation's 237th birthday.
Anyone over age 8 knows how a professional fireworks show goes: a big combination of explosions to start the show, followed by a few smaller combinations to show off a variety of colors and styles, and then a massive shoot-the-works finale where everything goes at once.
That pattern has been the standard for fireworks shows since the invention of gunpowder. Apparently, the formula is more popular than ever, because it's been channeled into the plot of nearly every summer blockbuster movie.
(OK, here's the part where I write SPOILER ALERT! in all caps, and warn everyone who hasn't seen "Iron Man 3," "Fast & Furious 6," "Man of Steel" and "World War Z" to stop reading this column, leave the house and see a movie.)
To watch a summer popcorn movie is to get exactly what you expect to see, because it's exactly what Hollywood marketers have trained us to expect. And what we expect is action, amped up and dumbed down, delivered the same way every time.
"Iron Man 3," the first major action movie of the summer, provided the template. After a flashback prologue and a little scene-setting, the main plot kicks into high gear when the villain launches a missile attack on Tony Stark's Malibu cliffside mansion. Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) goes on the road to find the Mandarin and uncover his secret, which leads to a series of set pieces that include battling a super-soldier (James Badge Dale) and rescuing White House staffers who have fallen out of Air Force One. Then comes the big finish, with dozens of Iron Man suits charging around a giant portside loading dock to save the president (William Sadler), defeat the real villain and blow up the entire dock.
There's nothing wrong with the finale of "Iron Man 3" in itself, except that it's at odds with the witty charm that Downey and director Shane Black have been building up beforehand. It's as if the studio suits told Black and Downey they could do whatever they wanted for half the movie, as long as they scheduled something to explode every 15 minutes and made sure everything exploded in the last half-hour.
"Fast & Furious 6" took the fireworks-show idea to ridiculous extremes. The finale here involved our heroes trying to stop a cargo plane from taking off from what must be the world's longest runway. This ending involved explosions, cars on fire, a plane on fire and a car on fire crashing out the nose of a plane on fire.
Even our most venerable movie hero, Superman, was not immune from this fireworks syndrome. The ending to Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel" is an over-the-top battle royale, a building-crunching fistfight between Supes (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that did more damage to downtown Metropolis than Zod's giant terraforming (or, to be totally accurate, Krypto-forming) machine.
That's why all the talk about the ending of "World War Z" has been so fascinating. As Vanity Fair and other publications have reported in exhausting detail, producer/star Brad Pitt brought in a new set of writers "Lost" colleagues Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard to devise a new ending when the one Pitt and director Marc Forster had already shot wasn't working.
The ending that wasn't working was, based on reports, very much in keeping with the shoot-the-works mentality of Hollywood blockbusters. It involved a giant battle in Moscow, with Pitt's UN investigator leading a ragtag army of humans against hordes of zombie extras.
For Pitt and his producing partners to recognize the limitations of that ending is admirable, and to pull the plug and start over is practically unheard of. In Hollywood, the mindset is to put the money on the screen, to salvage the footage that cost the most regardless of whether the expensive material makes any sense to the story.
The ending that Goddard and Lindelof devised for the reshoots involved Pitt's character landing at a World Health Organization lab in Cardiff, Wales, and with a small group of scientists devising a vaccine of sorts to repel zombie attacks. It was great for the studio, because it was relatively cheap to film, and it was good for audiences because it was more interesting than anything else in the movie.
The ending is the antithesis of the explosion-heavy blockbuster finale in that it draws its emotional payoff not from noise but from silence. It's satisfying not only because it's a positive outcome (as compared to the massive Moscow battle), but also because it's a refreshing change from what other summer popcorn movies have offered.
Will the success of "World War Z" make Hollywood studios rethink their bombastic finales? Not likely, because "Iron Man 3," "Fast & Furious 6" and "Man of Steel" all made money sticking to the formula. Fireworks shows aren't going to change what works for them, and neither will Hollywood.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans.
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