Mixed expectations for summer movies coming out in May.
May 2017 brings three major summer movies: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Alien: Covenant and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. For the past few decades, studios have increasingly pinned their blockbuster hopes on known, low-risk properties with huge licensing potential: hence the ongoing parade of sequels, prequels and remakes. “The blockbuster business model, in which studios focus on a handful of big-budget films, necessitates tried-and-true formulas; if one film fails, the entire studio goes down with it,” wrote Hanaa J. Maselmeh. “For this reason, Hollywood tends to rely on the safety and cultural capital of memory.” This spring is no exception, stuffed as it is with familiar titles, celebrity faces and potential hits, while new stories, original characters and provocative ideas may be in shorter supply.
How are audiences feeling about these opportunities to revisit beloved (and profitable) filmic worlds? I spoke to fans of summer movies here in New York to find out how expectations stack up.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (out May 5)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the first of what will undoubtedly be many eventual sequels to the 2014 Marvel superhero blockbuster, and it is possibly the most enthusiastically anticipated franchise film of the summer. The first GotG starred Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, an Earthling who puts together the titular team of space heroes to fight the power-hungry Ronan the Accuser.
Director James Gunn is back, along with now-certified movie star Pratt and the rest of the original cast, making this the closest to a sure thing among 2017 summer movies, likely to rack up huge box office numbers alongside critical accolades.
The only people I found who weren’t psyched for this sequel were those who didn’t particularly like the first film — although none of them hated it. “What I love about the Marvel Comics Universe films is that I’m left with something to ponder and grapple with after I leave the theater,” said Rana Emerson, a Marvel fan who’s not looking forward to this GotG sequel. “I was bored by Guardians and I don’t care at all about the sequel. In fact, it may be my least favorite of all the [Marvel] films. I had no connection to or investment in the characters. There were lots of funny one-liners and Groot was cute and all. All the characters were like one-dimensional cartoons. The main thing I took away was the sound track. It’s a fun movie, but I wanted to think a little more.”
However, audiences overall (as well as critics) overwhelmingly favored the original Guardians, making it one of the best-reviewed and most beloved blockbusters of 2014. Anticipation for the next installment is articulated by fan Doug Shaw, who said, “I’m 52. I have never in my life looked forward to a sequel as much as I am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.”
GotG enthusiast Zubin Tiku is particularly excited about Vol. 2’s addition of Kurt Russell to the cast as Star-Lord’s father: “I view Chris Pratt as a new incarnation of Kurt Russell’s legacy of charming, irritable and doofus-like masculinity,” said Tiku. “So the prospect of one handing a metaphorical torch to the other in outer space while a baby plant creature holds an atomic bomb makes me believe in God.”
With the original Guardians grossing over $333 million in the U.S. and another $440 million internationally, Vol. 2 looks on track to meet or surpass those figures.
Alien: Covenant (out May 19)
Covenant is the eighth feature film in the Alien series, if one counts 2004’s franchise crossover AVP: Alien vs. Predator (and its sequel, 2007’s Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem). The original Alien, in which Sigourney Weaver became a star as the iconic, extraterrestrial-trouncing Lieutenant Ellen Ripley, told the story of a spaceship sent to investigate an SOS signal whose human crew accidentally invites the titular, murderous Alien onboard. The rest of the series followed future confrontations between deadly aliens and unfortunate humans (or, um, Predators).
The last entry, 2012’s Prometheus, was helmed by the original Alien’s director Ridley Scott. That film was greeted with huge excitement among fans of the series who fondly recalled the terrifying original film. The Prometheus cast, featuring Charlize Theron, Idris Elba, Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace, was stellar and the trailer looked awesome.
Once Prometheus actually arrived, though, fan response largely shifted to disappointment. The collective dismay was best captured by writer Julian Sanchez, who wrote, “The only possible explanation is that Ridley Scott has a Duke Brothers–style bet running with George Lucas: Who can produce the most crushingly disappointing prequel to a beloved classic of late-’70s science fiction cinema? There’s no other way to account for the tedious, incoherent two-hour train wreck that is Prometheus.” (Sanchez’s review is well worth reading in its entirety.)
Many fans felt similarly, and what they’ve seen so far of Covenant has done little to wash the bad taste from their mouths. Christina Raia calls the original Alien one of her favorite movies and says, “I was excited about Prometheus because Ridley Scott was back, but I was disappointed by it. One of my favorite aspects of Alien is the slow-paced tension… Covenant feels more like an action film.” She further notes that she has lost respect for Ridley Scott “due to his dismissal of complaints of whitewashing in films like Exodus: Gods and Kings,” and feels conflicted about supporting the career of Michael Fassbender, who has been accused of domestic violence and will reprise his Prometheus role as android David (well, kinda). “His case is far less cut-and-dry than Johnny Depp’s but still not something I can ignore.”
“The Prometheus / Covenant nonsense is the Star Wars prequels all over again,” said franchise fan Davis Dunavin. “The Alien franchise was at one point a showcase for promising, young directors. The extended universe needs to be wrung from the hands of Ridley Scott.” Davis also noted that a central, crucial feminism driving the early films was lost when Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley exited the series after the fourth film, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 Alien: Resurrection. “While Sigourney Weaver is not technically essential to an Alien movie, anyone who tries to make one should respect her trailblazing and bring Ripley’s spirit to the films,” Davis said. More than a few Alien fans I spoke to expressed disappointment in the lackluster roles Theron and Repace were given to play in Prometheus and don’t expect Covenant to meaningfully rebound so far as gender politics are concerned.
“As far as Alien: Covenant, I just don’t see the point,” said series fan Che Broadnax, pointing to Prometheus’ litany of failure and noting that “It wound up making the universe of the franchise vastly smaller… Also, black goo: why does it do something different in every scene in which it’s featured? And why are these scientists who are allegedly the best in their field so bad at everything? That movie is as dumb as a box of rocks.”
Most agree Prometheus made excellent use of 3D and was very pretty to look at, but strong visuals are about all it added to the series. Still, it grossed over $126 million domestically and another almost $277 million internationally, earning back its estimated $130 million budget a couple times over and paving the way for another Alien franchise entry no one particularly wants to muscle in among this year’s potential blockbuster summer movies.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (out May 26)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a real, new movie that is actually coming out in the year 2017, even if you may think it was already released, as its subtitle reads like an amalgamation of the previous three sequels. DMTNT is Pirates number five, following the ongoing buckle-swashing of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow and Orlando Bloom’s also-returning Will Turner as they battle ghost pirates and pursue something called the “Trident of Poseidon,” an artifact that gives its possessor “total control over the seas.” Are you still reading? Bless.
Public response is rather…meh. “The first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was perfection. They should have stopped there,” said longtime fan of the series Clare Bruff. “But sure, I’ll go see the new one.”
“Just let it die,” said Jeanette Sears, a hard-core fan with a Pirates-inspired tattoo. “I obviously have to go see it, but if even I can’t remember the plot of the fourth, there shouldn’t be a fifth.”
Others felt the franchise and star Johnny Depp — whose charms anchor much of the films’ appeal — have more than worn out their welcome. “Pirates is just a vehicle for Depp to look gross and unbathed,” opined summer movies enthusiast Lily Tsui. Filmgoer Christina Raia added that the film would “further bury his abuse of [actress and Depp’s now-ex-wife] Amber Heard,” a key reason why many former fans are now less than eager to support the actor’s work.
Even before that disturbing story broke, response was generally middling the last time Pirates dipped into the summer movies pool with entry number four, 2011’s Stranger Tides. Tides powered its way to $241 million domestically and a staggering over–$1 billion gross internationally, despite an absence of buzz or audience enthusiasm. It stands to reason that neither domestic violence, nor uninspired writing, nor the waning appeal of Depp’s Captain Keith Richards schtick will keep audiences away when the Disney machine dumps this on 75% of movie screens across the globe right when air-conditioning season kicks in. “Sure, I’ll go see the new one,” is exactly the response Disney execs bank on when it comes to wheezing franchises such as Pirates, and so far such reliable, if unenthusiastic, attendance (as well as robust merchandising) has more than kept the ship afloat.
Regardless of how much anyone really likes any of these films, it’s likely they’ll all push their way to profit, come VOD or video game monetization, even if ticket sales stall. Even if all of these somehow prove to be total financial misfires, it’s unlikely the sequel-prequel-reboot train will slow down anytime soon.