In Defence of the Blockbuster

By Todd Lam

It seems silly to defend the blockbuster. After all, the reason they’re blockbusters in the first place is because so many people like them. These are big movies with big audiences, and usually at least some amount of approval from the critics and reviewers. So why the need for defence?

Why Blockbusters Get No Love

To no small extent, blockbusters equate fluff, pandering, and the lowest common denominator. They are spectacles meant for hollow entertainment for the masses and born out of market research and focus groups. They are stuffed with trendy actors whether they fit the roles or even know how to act, pushed with big-budget advertising and viral campaigns, and rely on special effects, explosions and car chases instead of thoughtful artistic craft.

Need I go on? You know the prejudice. It’s not reserved for movies; it’s all part of our learned belief in a duality of experience that puts popularity and success on one side, and authenticity and “real” value on the other. Even those of us without affected artistic pretensions want to feel like we’re special, that we have certain standards and that we’re in on something that most people don’t get. Maybe we can enjoy entertainment for what it’s worth, but it’s not a reflection of our own tastes.

What Makes a Blockbuster?

What are the most popular films of all time? Going by pure box-office gross, the top five are “Avatar,” “Titanic,” “The Avengers,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2,” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” (no, really). You can’t deny that at least four of the five have SOME substance, with incidences of thought-provoking themes, engaging characters, and lovely cinematography. Whatever your tastes may be, no matter how critical you are, you’ll grudgingly admit (if not out loud) that the first four are movies that do many things very well, and include at least a little something that anyone can thoroughly enjoy.

If I’m being too hard on “Transformers” (which I don’t believe I am), it’s an opinion shared by the majority of the movie reviewers. But that doesn’t even really matter, because movies aren’t all about being good movies. If you want to go to the movies, it’s not always because you want to see the specific film, sometimes it’s just because you want to go to the movies. Whether it’s family night, date night, dude night, or party night, it’s a movie, and the bigger it is, the more suited it is for not having anything else in mind.

What’s playing? Oh, that “Transformers” movie: good enough. Movies are allowed to be bad and still be entertaining. McDonald’s hasn’t sold billions of burgers because there are billions of idiots; they exist to fill a specific purpose; one that pretty much anyone can enjoy without mistaking it for something that it’s not. And you can even make fun of it, make fun of yourselves and each other for doing it, and still have a good time.

The Blockbuster All-Stars

For a bigger picture, consider the highest-grossing films of all time. Even with those tricky and suspicious adjustments of the value of the dollar, adjustments for inflation, ticket prices, population changes, etcetera, you can be reasonably sure that these are The Big Ones; the movies that brought in the biggest percentage of people and money.

“Gone with the Wind,” “Avatar,” “Star Wars,” “Titanic,” “The Sound of Music.” Hmm, that’s much more of a mixed bunch.

We have to concede that the labeling of a film as a “classic” automatically boosts our opinion of it, just like filming in black and white makes anything look more important. And crossing generations adds to a film’s mainstream acceptance, so the decades of film-to-television exposure have given “Gone with the Wind” and “The Sound of Music” the same kind of semi-artistic cachet possessed by arguably “more substantial” films like “Citizen Kane” or “Casablanca.”

On a similar note, more recent but still generation-spanning movies such as “Star Wars” and “Titanic” have the ability to grab a large number of people with widely diverse ages. Seeing something on TV as a kid adds an element of nostalgia, and simply cements it into your experience of what makes up the world as a whole (as Keanu Reeves would say, “whoa.”).

The “Transformers” of this batch is, obviously, “Avatar.” When the movie appeared in the previous Top Five, there was a definite capacity to say “well, okay. I can see why, even if I don’t personally agree.” But when stacked up against the all-time contenders, the virtues of it start to pale a little. Nearly anyone can name a dozen – or a hundred – movies they’d justify as all-time classics rather than “Avatar.”

What Makes a Blockbuster Unique?

And that’s a crucial point. Just like an “artistic achievement,” a “classic film” is NOT, and perhaps can never really be, a Blockbuster. What makes a classic film? It’s a film that you want to see again and again, a film that never grows old (or grows old in exactly the right way). It’s a film that you may wish you’d seen, or could see again, on the big screen, but that consistently satisfies TV-sized viewing for years to come. A blockbuster is a film that you HAVE to see, for the short time that it’s on the big screen, and then maybe once or twice again (perhaps disappointed by what it loses) when it comes out on DVD or Netflix.

Does that equate disposable? Sure, from one point of view. But something that is truly disposable can be skipped; a blockbuster shouldn’t be skipped, not if you want to share in the experience of the times, in the amorphous social zeitgeist (Keanu: “whoa”). Even if you hate something, the lack of it robs you of something to enjoy hating. Therefore, it’s essential rather than disposable.

We love and hate blockbusters; we almost never “meh” blockbusters. For whatever the specific reasons may be, a blockbuster is capable of touching us – perhaps not too deeply, perhaps not too personally, but it’s a touch that you can feel and therefore earns every bit of value that it possesses. You see it all around you, it’s part of your experience whether you like it or not. Blockbusters are socially, culturally, and historically significant. Miss them, and you’re missing a little of life. And face it, there’s a lot in life that you can laugh about and commiserate about with anyone, even if it’s all simply small talk.

Todd Lam is from Salt Lake City and writes for He spends most of his time watching TV, of course, and exploring the internet

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