I see at least one movie in theaters every week, because I have a much easier time connecting with the giant, fictional people on a movie screen than I do with actual humans, and if I go too long without my Hulks, Fantines, Wreck-It Ralphs, and Lincolns in my life, my brain will vibrate and my heart will explode. I don't care what I see. This means that, as long as I'm in a theater and there's a big fat screen with a bunch of attractive people saying words at me, I'll be fine, because I love movies.
This also means that I see just about everything, which means I get to notice the trends. As much as I think 2012 was a great year for movies, it's also another in a long line of years where some of my favorite types of movies were absent. Another year that reinforces the idea that, unfortunately, there are just some kinds of movies we simply aren't making anymore.
(aka the Everyman Action Hero)
Like I do every Christmas, I rewatched Die Hard recently, and because I'm like one of those bears that can't be satisfied by fish after it gets a taste for human flesh, I ignored all other movies/life obligations in favor of watching Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard: With a Vengeance. (I don't rewatch Live Free or Die Hard ... more on that later.)
All three of those movies are amazing, but the first Die Hard will always have a special place in my heart. Not only is it one of the most well-structured movies in the history of film, it's also got the perfect example of the Everyman Action Hero. John McClane isn't a super cop, he's just a good cop who is doing his best in a bad situation. He's not even that great when it comes to solving whatever crime he's working on; every clue that he gets is acquired by accident, and he doesn't usually figure out what the terrorists are up to until it's just about too late. He isn't super strong or super bright or super anything. He gets in fights with his wife and drinks too much and barely knows how to dress himself. He's just a guy. Which is great, because I'm just a guy, so if this whole Internet comedy thing doesn't work out, maybe I can grow up to be Die Hard.
The success of Die Hard paved the way for plenty of movies with similarly average protagonists stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time (Nicolas Cage in The Rock, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, even Gordon Freeman in Half-Life), and they all ruled, except for The Rock, which only kinda ruled.
Instead, They're Making ...
The Everyman Action Hero is dead. He was killed and replaced by Jason Bourne, and I don't know if we'll ever get him back. Audiences, apparently, no longer want to watch a good, average cop who happens to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time; they want to see impossibly tough/smart/resourceful/cool supercops. They want Jason Bourne, or that other guy who isn't Jason Bourne, but is still mostly Jason Bourne.
Just look at the movies that have been coming out. The whole Harry Potter franchise is based around Harry being the special chosen one. The biggest films of the year have been superhero movies. Skyfall featured maybe our Jason Bourniest Bond ever. The Hunger Games is about another "chosen one," a girl who happens to be the greatest archer alive and supernaturally great at surviving. Django Unchained's Django was immediately the fastest gun in the West. And so on and so on. We don't want our heroes to be good; we want them to be the best. Hell, even McClane in Live Free or Die Hard (and, based on the trailers, the upcoming fifth installment of the Die Hard franchise) is more Jason Bourne than John McClane.
Even our Die Hards aren't Die Hards anymore!
I'm sure this is just a trend that will pass and we'll get back to movies with Everyman Heroes just as soon as the world gets sick of Jason Bourne; I just hope it happens before they can do a gritty reboot of Fletch starring Jason Statham as a Fletch who can do back flips and punch through walls.
Even though I'm not a huge fan of the character, I'm a big fan of Richard Donner's Superman. It's exactly what a Superman movie should be: It's got Superman, Lex Luthor, some other stuff, a bunch of really good Supermanning, a cute-as-shit Lois Lane, truth, justice, and the American way. Simple. Fun. Exciting. Bright.
Instead, They're Making ...
Superman, only, not really. Gritty Superman. Zack Snyder's Superman, which looks like this:
Is that really what you're wearing?
Grrr! Roar! Scary! Grit! As we, as a movie-going nation, get older, it looks like we're mistaking too-cool cynicism and ironic detachment for maturity and sophistication. Everything -- everything -- is gritty now, even Hansel and goddamn Gretel, even Jack and the goddamn Beanstalk, even the Wizard of goddamn Oz. Everything.
When did optimism become a bad thing? Modern filmmakers are bent on taking popular, existing properties and bringing out the darkest and grittiest aspects they can find and making that their story. When directors look at a character like Superman, they're not saying, "Hey, I'd like to tell a story about this guy in blue and red spandex who loves America and punches bad guys and smiles and is handsome!" They're saying, "Sure, Superman, but what makes him angry? I want to focus on the stuff that depresses him, I want to see Superman as a badass. What if Superman was a dick? That's the movie I want to make, because even though I'm making a Superman movie, I don't actually care for the character. My name is Zack Snyder."
Superpowers are just as cinematic as fishing and beards.
And it's not even Snyder's fault, or anyone's fault, for that matter. In 2006, Bryan Singer tried to make a genuine, honest-to-goodness Superman movie, and what happened? Everyone hated it. For whatever reason, simple plots with good guys who are just Good and bad guys who are just Bad don't work for us anymore. It's not enough that your hero fights for the American way; he needs to be tortured, psychologically and emotionally, and his villains need to be complex and subtle. If your hero doesn't have some tortured past or dark secret, your audience will hate you.