The James Clayton Column: What was blockbuster season 2012 really about?

This year’s summer season was full of superheroes, aliens and action heroes, but what theme tied its films together? James has a theory…

You know the Double Rainbow video that became a viral internet hit a few years back? If you’re not one of the 34 million people who’ve seen it, I’d urge you to seek it out on YouTube. It’s beautiful – a man marvelling at the stunning sight of a pair of rainbows over Yosemite National Park, California and subsequently breaking down in hysterical tears, totally overcome with loving awe at nature’s wonder. It’s like Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, except it leaves you with a positive view of the Universe and doesn’t end with our happy nature-boy hero getting eaten by a bear.

Familiar with the meme now? Good, because I want you to note the way that Hungrybear9562 euphorically screams out “What does this mean?!” and then imagine me doing the same thing (if it helps, I do in fact look like a hungry little bear). The difference is that I’m not getting high on the spectacle of a phenomenal brace of heavenly technicolour bands. Instead, I’m surveying the summer blockbuster scene and marvelling at the multitude of movies released recently, a smile on my face as sweet visual memories surface. I’m gazing over all these glorious gems, grinning with gratitude and ecstatically screaming out to the sky, “What does it mean?! What does this mean?!”

And what does it mean? What has this cinematic summer really been about? When, in future times, academics and cultural archaeologists pore over the remnants and analyse Film 2012, what will they be putting down in their theses and in the pithy summary paragraphs to decisively explain this movie era?

Film scholars and critics are very good at coming up with broadstroke conclusions that encapsulate epochs. For instance, 1950s Japanese cinema is all about post-atomic bomb trauma and the decade’s Hollywood output is characterised by a rabid fear of communism. America’s post-Watergate, post-Vietnam motion pictures are explicitly endowed with distrust, paranoia and pessimism and 1980s horror cinema is rife with anxiety about an uncontrollable AIDS epidemic.

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In recent years most significant pop-cultural products have been put under the microscope and studied from the contextual standpoint that everything has been affected by the 9/11 attacks and relates to the War on Terror.

Sometimes there’s something in such theories, and sometimes it’s all tenuous waffle-and-syrup – the shoe-horning of so many tenuous links into one hypothetical box for the sake of writing a ropey thesis or so you can look cool in front of your mates. Well, forgive me readers, because I’m going to do some epic shoehorning (it’s a giant skyscraper shoehorn that can reach up and bend rainbows) and outline just what the cinematic zeitgeist is all about. This blockbuster season can be titled just so: Summer 2012: We Found Our Alternative Families. (Cue triumphant fanfare music and the appearance of dancing bears and double rainbows.)

Stick with me here, because I believe I might be on to something. Endeavouring to keep it simple, here’s how I believe modern society stands as reflected in the contemporary works released in theatres over the past few months: individuals are feeling abandoned or isolated now that the nuclear family has been destroyed or exposed as an insufficient or unhelpful institution. They thus seek out alternative new social groups and find psychic wholeness and a sense of belonging in new unorthodox non-blood families.

Films have explored this theme throughout history – from The Wizard Of Oz to James And The Giant Peach via Goodfellas and the Alien franchise – but lately it seems to be a more prominent underlying issue. Perhaps it’s the Olympics effect pulling people together to euphorically unite along wider national and international lines rather than along bloodlines. More likely it’s a symptom of the internet age, where individuals can feel more connected and closer to distant strangers than their relatives.

Whatever the reason, it’s there and plain to see on screen, having subconsciously infiltrated the collective psyche and crossed into pop cultural creation. Take a flick knife and cut open any new movie and you’ll find the ultimate meaning eyeballing you, expressing this idea – “the nuclear family is no good anymore and we’re all about celebrating alternative, unconventional family units now”.

Prescient pictures like The Grey (Liam Neeson buddying up with new brothers to survive and beat ravenous wolves) and Chronicle (alienated adolescents sharing telekinetic solidarity) laid the foundations for the summer flicks. Likewise, the presence of movies like Rampart, Dark Shadows and Killer Joe did good work showing just how awful families are. Depictions of relatives as destructive bigot brutes, ruined monsters and the kind of callous scumbags who’d happily sell their daughter to a twisted sociopath with a fried-chicken fetish do no favours for the image of the traditional family institution.

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“But show me the proof! Give me evidence corroborating your crackpot theory!” I hear you cry. Behold, then, the grand ensemble movies that gather together eclectic isolated stars – loners and rejects lacking nuclear family stability – and join them into a happy new hero unit that, in spite of difficulty and dysfunction, inevitably experience victory.

See The Avengers in which perennial outsider Joss Whedon successfully crafted an exceptional family – a Norse god, a mutant, a super soldier, a billionaire cyborg and several secret agents – with the power to save Planet Earth. Likewise, look at The Expendables 2, where the diverse detached soldiers-of-fortune have effectively formed their own family built on war experience and wisecracking banter.

They’re all forming alternative families. See Pirate Captain and his oddball buccaneer band in The Pirates! An Adventure With Scientists, the crew of Prometheus clinging to their human (and android) kinship in the face of cosmic hostility, and the odd extended family (human and animal) of We Bought A Zoo. Observe as well how loose end Alex Pettyfer is adopted into the fraternity of male strippers in Magic Mike and finds new purpose, personal satisfaction and a sense of belonging in a highly unusual fresh family.

In The Dark Knight Rises, iconic orphan Bruce Wayne is once again grappling for love and trying to get the essence of family from figures like Alfred, Catwoman and Jim Gordon while his nemesis Bane – abandoned nihilistic outcast – builds his own brotherhood beneath the streets of Gotham.

A similar desire underpins all these stories. Parentless geek teen Peter Parker hopes to hook up with surrogate father figure Dr Curt Connors in The Amazing Spider-Man. Dwarves adopt the titular heroes of Snow White And The Huntsman while the cast-off jukebox dreamers of Rock Of Ages find home in the hair metal scene. Ted is about an only child getting what the nuclear family can’t provide from a magical talking bear. All of these characters actively create alternatives to the conventional family and find peace and fulfilment in doing so.

That’s what it all means, then. Of course, your mileage may vary with this theory and I’d be happy to debate it. I just hope you get to me before my new hungry bear brothers eat me alive.

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James Clayton is available to adopt and would prefer to be placed with a comic book hero supergroup than with a gang of male strippers. You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.

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