Summer Blockbusters

Tis the season—sort of

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Independence Day is usually a holiday in which we celebrate our freedom by trying to burn the entire country down with explosives—if ever there was an example of America doing America in the most American way possible, the Fourth of July is definitely it.

Since everything is different these days, so was how we marked the day that marks our freedom. Large municipal displays were out, but it seems the citizenry around these parts more than made up for it, laying in and lighting off a store of amateur fireworks the likes of which I have never seen before.

I’m sure Uncle Sam was very pleased by the show of explosive fealty and freedom shall be assured for some for another year.

But the holiday is more than just the day the fireworks industry makes its yearly sales goal and your brother’s friend almost loses a finger to an errant Lady Finger, it’s also the weekend Hollywood unleashes its biggest summer blockbusters.

Mind you, these are not the slightly smarter, slicker and, in many cases, more expensive movies that mark the beginning of blockbuster season, which happens months earlier, sometime around Memorial Day. Instead, with July Fourth comes a deluge of pure popcorn fare, the kind of movies that are never referred to as “films,” the ones we seek out when what we need is sheer escapism in a dark, air-conditioned room.

Needless to say, the movies that were scheduled to make their debut this July Fourth weekend—Minions: The Rise of Gru (aka the latest Despicable Me installment) and Free Guy (a videogame comedy-action flick starring Ryan Reynolds)—are on hold until we enter a phase of diet pandemic instead of the full-flavored version that is our current reality.

However, Hollywood did have a trick or two up its sleeve, with the release of July Fourth cinema that was actually… wait for it… good. Not just a good way to occupy the kids while getting out of the heat for a couple of hours. But good movies in the sense that we generally understand things to be good.

The first of those was, of course, Hamilton. Disney acquired the rights to show Lin Manuel-Miranda’s record-smashing Broadway hit for an equally record-smashing $75 million, initially scheduling it for an Oct. 15, 2021 release to theaters. COVID changed all that, and now it’s available for home viewing via Disney+. This is not a remade-for-the-big-screen version of the zeitgeist-capturing musical about Alexander Hamilton; rather it’s a filmed version of the live show with the original cast. Reviews say it does an excellent job capturing the Hamilton experience in all its transcendent glory.

Another timely July Fourth release for the times in which we currently find ourselves is John Lewis: Good Trouble. Before he became a 17-term member of the House of Representatives, before he was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 80-year-old civil rights leader and son of sharecroppers was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and was one of the leaders of the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama that ended in a attack by police that was so violent, it is now forever known as “Bloody Sunday.” Along the way, he’s been beaten and arrested dozens of times, and still unwavering in his belief that if we all make enough “good trouble,” racial justice can and will be achieved. It’s impossible to fit 80 years of a truly extraordinary life into one 96-minute film, but this documentary gives it an admirable try.

Now that you’ve seen some theater of the stage variety and watched a documentary, you might be wanting something that falls more into the realm of the popcorn movies of yore. As ever, I have suggestions.

Will Smith to the Rescue: It might surprise you to know that Fourth of July blockbusters have an undisputed king, and that ruler is Will Smith. Sure, you could go with the movie that shares its name with the national holiday, Independence Day, but there is so much more to choose from in Smith’s occasionally ignominious July Fourth filmography. For instance, you could easily go with Men in Black or its sequel, Men in Black II (MIB 3, Smith’s last with the franchise, had a Memorial Day weekend release, but go ahead and watch that one too—there are no rules here). Or you could queue up one of Smith’s lesser Fourth of July blockbusters such as Hancock; I, Robot, or even Wild Wild West.

Take an Animated Adventure: Summer is the season for animated fare, what with kids being out of school and all. Although you still can’t go to a movie theater, this might be the year to hang a white bed sheet on the side of your house, buy or borrow a digital projector and invite the neighborhood over for a socially distant viewing of one of July Fourth’s animated blockbusters. We first met Felonious Gru and his army of adorably evil Minions when Despicable Me was released the weekend following July Fourth a decade ago, and in keeping with tradition, its sequels, Despicable Me 2 and 3, as well as offshoot Minions have all followed in its Independence Day footsteps. Pixar is also in on the Independence Day action, and two of its most well-regarded movies, Finding Nemo and Inside Out, were released prior to July Fourth, but that was the weekend they went from slow burn to explosively decimating everything else in their box-office path. Add to that, both Ratatouille and WALL-E are proper July Fourth releases, and only one of them is guaranteed to make you cry and be glad all of the people you invited over for outdoor movie night are sitting far enough away that they can’t see your tears. 

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