So I think I’ve cracked blockbusters, is the headline for today.
This project is a history of superhero movies, and one of my goals is to figure out how superhero movies work and what they’re for, so that we can tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. And because the concept of “superhero movie” is actually a subset of the larger concept “blockbuster movie”, I’ve been looking outside the genre to see if I could pick up some helpful clues.
So far, I’ve talked about Quo Vadis, which was the first big silent spectacle film, and The Birth of a Nation, the first American blockbuster, which invented most of what we know as the language of cinema. Recently, I looked at Gone With the Wind, which is still the highest-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation, as well as Spider-Man: No Way Home, our latest and greatest, which is basically a two and a half hour whiteboard exercise on how to fix seven previous movies.
And today, to pull it all together: the 1975 sneak-attack spectacular Jaws, the first modern blockbuster that set the standard for how a summertime adventure story is supposed to make us feel.
Jaws is the story of a killjoy police chief who inserts himself in between a mechanical shark that wants to eat people and a whole community of people who appear to be basically fine with that.
The film takes place on Amity Island, a fictitious New England beach community populated almost entirely by ninnies, who watch a small child turn into a bursting blood fountain right in front of their eyes, and then have a meeting to talk about whether it’ll ever happen again or maybe it’s just a coincidence.
After two terrifying public shark fatalities, police chief Martin Brody suggests that the town put up a couple signs to say Beware of the Furious Floating Chainsaw Massacre, and that doesn’t sit right with the citizenry.
You know, all the way up until a year ago, I would have said that the sun-dazzled citizens of Amity Island were unrealistically reckless, but now that I’ve lived through the anti-vax insanity of 2021, the only thing that surprises me is that we don’t see people wearing T-shirts that say My Chum, My Choice, and throwing their children into the shark’s mouth just to prove that they can’t be controlled by Big Harpoon. The only good thing I can say about the people who live in this town is that at least there are fewer of them, as the movie goes along.
But the point of placing Brody in this nest of ninnies is to connect the audience with the movie’s main character. From the moment that he lays eyes on the first shark victim, Brody and the audience are perfectly aligned. We know what he knows; we notice what he notices. When the menacing soundtrack indicates that there’s shark activity, our impulse is to go and tell Brody about it, and it usually turns out that he’s worried about it, too.
So when he tries to convince the town that embracing the killer shark lifestyle is not a good long-term business decision, we feel frustrated, too. He wants action, and we do too, and the gibbering townsfolk are just obstacles that get in the way of us going out and having more shark adventures.
And then Richard Dreyfuss shows up as magical pixie oceanographer Matt Hooper, entering a tense argument scene with the line, “Uh, you know those eight guys in the fantail launch, out there? Well, none of them are going to get out of the harbor alive.” And then he smiles, a little cherubic black-comedy smile, and Martin Brody falls instantly and irrevocably in love.
This is what we’ve been waiting for: a friend and an ally, who makes sarcastic jokes and says interesting things about sharks. When the dumb island knuckleheads drag a tiny little tiger shark out of the ocean and the mayor declares mission accomplished, Hooper immediately says that obviously that’s not the real shark, because we’re only thirty-five minutes into the movie and we didn’t even see it get caught. Then Hooper says they should cut the shark open and see if there’s an eight-year-old inside, and all of a sudden, that is the thing that we most want to see in the world.
The thing that people don’t understand about Jaws is that it’s actually a romantic comedy about a police chief and an oceanographer, whose meet-cute involves a whirling bloodstorm of human remains. There’s a pivotal scene where Hooper shows up at Brody’s house with two bottles of wine and invites himself in for dinner, and they banter and have flirty eye contact, and then they go out together and cut open a shark.
The boys prove that the tiger shark isn’t the real killer, but the mayor says it’s the Fourth of July, and we’re going to celebrate our freedoms by spreading misinformation and putting innocent people in jeopardy, which again is so 2021 that they might as well include a subplot about somebody hacking the blockchain and stealing NFTs.
That sets up another thrilling act of non-consensual aquatic gastronomy, at which point Brody and Hooper go and fetch Quint, the third most interesting person on Amity Island, and the three of them spend the last forty-five minutes of the movie fighting with a shark that hates them so much it’ll chew through an entire boat to get at them.
The thing that makes this work is that the movie keeps demonstrating that it’s on our side — continually focusing our attention on the most interesting people and the most story-productive situations. That means we’re all working together towards the same ends — Brody and Hooper and Quint, and the camera, and the soundtrack, and you and me, sitting in the theater. We all want to catch that fucking shark.
So that’s why, when the big jump-scare comes, everyone in the audience lets out a yelp that ripples pleasingly through the theater.
Everybody is completely, breathlessly, in tune: the characters want the shark to show up, the audience wants the shark to show up, and the movie sets up a moment where we get what we want, and it’s terrifying.
And that little burst of audience noise is the key that demonstrates how blockbuster movies work. The shark is suddenly way closer than you’re comfortable with, catching everybody off guard, and people let out a little startled cry — followed by a chuckle and a little buzz of whispered conversation, as you become aware that it’s not just you, individually traveling with Brody and Hooper and a lunatic on this incredibly breakable boat. You’re part of a little community, along with everyone else in the theater, and you’re going through this experience together.
Now, I want to go back to the climax of The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 blockbuster that glorified the Ku Klux Klan. This is a bit of a jarring juxtaposition, so I want to do a quick explanation of why I’m suddenly bringing the Klan into my fish movie discussion. If you haven’t read my Birth of a Nation piece: the movie is both a massive step forward in filmmaking technique and a malevolent propaganda piece, explicitly advocating for white supremacy and the permanent subjugation of Black people in the United States. It was an evil film, and it was an extremely well-made film, and it was the highest-grossing film in America for more than two decades, until Gone With the Wind came along, which is basically the same movie but in color.
In the Birth of a Nation post, I quoted some reviews describing the thrilling climax, when pretty white Elsie Stoneman is trapped in a room with a mixed-race man who plans to marry her, and the film cross-cuts between her desperate plight and an exciting crowd of white-hooded Ku Klux Klan members, riding to her rescue.
The intended impact of this climactic moment is the same as the shark hunt in Jaws: to get people audibly excited in the theater, so that it becomes a shared emotional experience.
Here’s what the review in The Atlanta Journal said about this moment in the film:
“Loathing, disgust, hate envelop you, hot blood cries for vengeance, until out of the night blazes the fiery cross that once burned high above old Scotland’s hills and the legions of the Invisible Empire roar down to rescue, and that’s when you are lifted by the hair and go crazy.”
I think that’s a good description of what the blockbuster movie is supposed to do: to set you up for a cathartic expression of intense feeling that’s magnified by the responses of all of the other people sitting in the room with you.
Obviously, it’s preferable if we could direct that at sharks and not at perfectly nice Black people who are minding their own business, so for Jaws, that would be:
“Loathing, disgust, hate [for sharks] envelop you, hot blood cries for vengeance [against the shark], until [Hooper gets stuck in a cage and Quint gets devoured and Brody is alone on a rapidly disintegrating boat], and that’s when you are lifted by the hair and go crazy.”
I really like that phrase — “when you are lifted by the hair” — because it describes a moment where you no longer have individual responsibility for this emotional experience.
Now, that communal emotional catharsis works best when they can pack as many people into the theater at once as they can, so that’s why blockbusters have aliens and sharks and wizards and attractive movie stars and recognizable intellectual property, in order to fill the room on opening weekend.
It’s possible to enjoy these movies on your own, and over the last two years that’s mostly what people have been doing, but the correct way to watch a blockbuster movie is in the company of other people, so that you can walk out of the theater together — and just for that moment, you are part of a crew of victorious shark hunters. You defeated Thanos, and put an end to Voldemort; you blew up the Death Star, and sent E.T. back home — you, and the other people standing with you, on line for the restroom.
So that’s going to be the standard, as we keep digging into the history of superhero movies: the audience is aligned with the main characters, the movie is showing you the interesting things that you most want to see, and you’re having an intense, shared emotional experience that keeps everyone pleasantly buzzing as you exit the theater. If a blockbuster superhero movie is successful, then it needs to be as thrilling as punching a shark in the face. We’ll see how the climax of Superman: The Movie measures up to that standard.
How Alexander Salkind revealed himself
as the true villain of Superman: The Movie…
1.94: The Shakedown
— Danny Horn