Hey, it’s our second annual summer movie roundtable! This time we’ve got our own Megan Byrd, Mai Pucik, and Ashley Schmuecker on deck, along with guest commentators/hecklers Shannon Rahe and Vicki Essex. In part one (of two) we talk Pacific Rim, Kick-Ass 2, the Fast and Furious franchise, and so-called “diversity casting”.

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Ok team, let’s start with a softball question. What were your standout movies of the summer?

Mai: Well, I’m usually one of the “typical adults” that The Atlantic talks about, but now that I’ve tallied it up I’ve seen more films than I usually do in the May-early September range: Star Trek, Pacific Rim, Hitchcock, The World’s End and The Grandmaster. All of them I enjoyed, even the deeply flawed Star Trek and Grandmaster; the one that stands out to me was Pacific Rim. A lot of that was getting to see people like me–people of color, people with disabilities–have not just vital roles but major character arcs in “cancelling the apocalypse,” which is not an experience I’m used to having. But it was also a film with heart, moxie, and giant robots fighting kaiju.

Shannon: Well, you know it is a bad sign when I sit here for a moment and go “wait, what movies did standout to me this summer?”  There’s a lot of movies I enjoyed or liked aspects of but few that I’d really go out of my way to watch again. The Conjuring is up there was one of the better horror movies I’ve seen in awhile. This Is The End and The World’s End were both hilarious takes on the, well, end of the world. Also, The Heat was surprisingly fun and it is always great to see a female-helmed vehicle kick butt at the box office. However, a lot of the movies I saw and that we plan to discuss were fun but I don’t think are films that will stand out to me years down the line. Also, as much fun as Pacific Rim was I would have much preferred the film Hannibal Chau and the Science Bros.

Megan B: Shannon, I am with you there. I’m still trying to think of what has stood out for me this summer. I did not really feel strongly about the “hits” of the summer, but one thing that definitely lasted longer than the impression of these films was my increasingly terrible movie going experiences over the summer. Every time I go to the movies now it seems I immediately ask myself, “Why did I go to the movies?” Between cell phone use, gratuitous chatting, mediocre films, and an ever growing ticket price, my movie going habits have changed from “every other weekend” to “I must see this in theaters and will thus brave the crowds of inconsiderate “movie fans”. I did enjoy Pacific Rim for what it was, but I am looking forward to the experience I will have watching it on Blu Ray in my living room without being surrounded by idiots that think a lack of dialog on screen is an opportunity for their own commentary. Probably the only other film I will purchase and watch again in the future is The World’s End. Edgar Wright does it again!

Ashley: I enjoyed Pacific Rim and Star Trek and was surprised by how much I enjoyed Wolverine. Yet, I honestly don’t know if I fell in love with any of the blockbuster films this summer. Actually, maybe I fell in love with some for a few days and then forgot about them within the week. So I suppose by default the stand out movie for me is Pacific Rim, mostly because my friend and I (who are most definitely drift compatible) decided we will pilot a jaeger named “Drunken Glory” once the kaiju arrive.

Vicki: It’s been a disappointing summer of “meh.” I alternately love and despise sequels, and unfortunately, most of the summers offerings fell flat for me, introducing no new elements to their respective story lines or overall character arcs, Iron Man 3 was probably the most stand-out of the sequels, mainly due to the post-Avengers craze. And if I had to pick an original film to win the summer’s lacklustre trophy for best of the meh, Pacific Rim would probably be my choice for something that was actually new and different. Late to the party was World’s End, which I can safely say was the only film I truly enjoyed all the way through. But really, if you were to ask me about the highlights, all I can think about are the things I didn’t like about all the blockbusters.

The Atlantic argues that this was Hollywood’s “biggest summer in terms of nominal dollars”. Esquire, on the other hand, points to declining grosses over the summer, and calls it “the summer of the flop”. Big summer movies are still a winning strategy for studios–if they succeed. So what’s the truth? Are we starting to hate summer movies? Or do we still love them (but just wish there were fewer of them).

Mai: Movies are so expensive these days (especially where I live — the deep discount tickets start at 10 USD; don’t even ask me about full price 3D) that it just doesn’t make economic sense to me to go see films, unless there’s something I can get out of it that I wouldn’t from watching on a nice TV set. I doubt I’m alone in this–moviegoers are trapped in a cycle where they go to watch blockbusters because those are the only ones that justify the ticket price, and then Hollywood keeps churning out more and more blockbusters of increasing blandness. Meanwhile TV becomes more and more visually impressive, with all the extra time for storyline and character development that serial narratives offer… movies aren’t dying by any means, but I don’t think they have the same hold on pop culture consciousness as they did even when I was growing up.

Shannon: Well my love of summer movies is completely influenced by the fact that I still have a drive-in near me that shows two first run movies for $6 a pop. So, I pretty much look forward to the summer and make an excuse to go to the drive-in as much as possible during the season. If that wasn’t something near me then I certainly wouldn’t go to the theatre as much though for many of the reasons Mai listed. I’ll see a movie I think will be just “meh” for a few bucks but I sure as hell am not spending $10 on a rehashed Star Trek film by JJ Abrams. There’s also been a few stinkers I sat through because the second movie is one I was looking forward to. No other way I’d seen the likes of Olympus Has Fallen and After Earth in the theatres. The other plus side of the drive-in is that you can snark and drink your way through the duds, as there’s no one around to disturb.

Megan B: Is it safe to say that there were no surprise hits this year? A few films made slightly more money than expected, such as The Heat (but anyone with faith in the creators was not surprised); the narrative seems dominated by the films that made far less than expected, so perhaps that is why the story is about the flops rather than the “performed as expected or mildly less so”. The underperformance of Lone Ranger and to a lesser extent Pacific Rim reinforced Hollywood’s problematic love affair with the sequel, justifying their lack of confidence in original content, so frankly I don’t think anyone in Hollywood is sweating headlines about a summer of flops. The movies they expected to perform did well, and the flops just guarantee their tried and true formulas. Breakaway summer hits like Inception do not sit well with Hollywood execs because it’s not something they can predict or replicate. About the only effect that film had on summer blockbusters is the sound that has made its way into every film trailer since.

Mai: Worth mentioning that Pacific Rim was a flop in the US and a success internationally, though I’m not sure what lesson Hollywood execs will draw from that. But Iron Man 3’s tweaking for the Chinese market seems to have paid off; the US market is slowly losing its place as the market, and eventually we can expect to see changes from that. Though probably not fewer sequels.

Vicki: While I still love the summer blockbuster, I’m not enamoured by the disaster porn and sequelmania formula Hollywood has stuck to. Granted, The Avengers did set the bar very high, so it will be challenging for every superhero, action, and disaster flick to top Whedon’s work, or even meet the expected standard his nascent Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Part of the reason I continue to head to the theaters between May and September, though, is for the hopes I’ll see something new, either visually in terms of special effects, or in a storyline. Big movies offer big scope, and for a jaded audience that wants more, more, more, blockbusters offer a glimmering hope that the trailers will live up to their wildest dreams. Sadly, this summer’s offerings became a case of “the best stuff was in the trailers” or “they never explained why they did that in the trailers in the rest of the movie.”

Ashley: Personally, my summer was insane. I’m pretty sure about twenty major life changes happened between May and September and I went to the movies more often than usual just to escape reality. I loved that they were there when I needed them, but as I mentioned above, my love for them was fleeting. There is a certain anticipation and nostalgia that accompanies to release of summer blockbusters, but they are getting a bit uninspired and repetitive. I think people are ready for intelligent story-driven films – and for the love of everything sacred can we get just one film that passes the Bechdel test?

Ashley, the Mako Mori test has been offered as an alternative measurement of representation in movies. Spider-Xan on Tumblr says, “It’s really easy to throw away a film because of that test (which is flawed and used incorrectly in a lot of ways) if you’re a white woman and can easily find other films with white women who look like you and represent you… But as an East Asian woman, someone like Mako — a well-written Japanese woman who is informed by her culture without being solely defined by it, without being a racial stereotype, and gets to carry the film and have character development — almost NEVER comes along in mainstream Western media. And honestly — someone like her will probably not appear again for a very long time.”

What do you all think about the new test, the old test, and the concept of “testing” media like this in general?

Ashley: I don’t believe the Bechdel test is indicative of whether the film is 1) a good film or 2) a feminist film. I do believe that testing media with this tool does help us discern if women in the film have voice and agency, and also whether that voice does anything other than further the male lead’s narrative. I think the Mako Mori test is also a useful tool to do this and a test that hopefully more films will pass and in turn, introduce us to more kick-ass women with their own stories. However, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that films have at least two strong female characters that talk to one another with their own story arcs independent of men. /sigh

Mai: I’m mixed SE Asian myself and Spider-Xan’s answer speaks to me. It means a lot to have a character like that at the emotional center of an internationally successful blockbuster, and while Pacific Rim had a lot of flaws in representing minority characters that do need to be talked about–the lack of East Asian supporting characters in a film set in Hong Kong, the lack of female characters in general, Crimson Typhoon’s identical Chinese triplets dressed in red who of course die first, cane-using Dr. Gottlieb played by an actor who doesn’t use a cane–it bugs me that so many white, Western feminists dismissed the film because it “didn’t pass the Bechdel test” and Mako, a Japanese character raised in Japan, didn’t fit their norms for a white, Western protagonist. Tests–whether Bechdel or Mako Mori–are only useful as far as they raise discussion, not shut it down.

Shannon: Well, let’s put it this way. The Purge passes the Bechdel test. Does that make it a good movie? Of course not. I think tests like the Bechdel test and the newly established Mako Mori test are awesome and a great tool to look at films through. Still, I don’t think passing one or the other makes a film good nor does a movie failing these tests make it terrible.They’re good tools for the audience to have in mind when watching a film though and something I’d like for more filmmakers to perhaps have in the back of their head when casting.

Megan B: I still see a lot of value in the Bechdel test for its simplicity. As others have already stated, it’s not proof of the quality of a film or even the writing of the female characters; but it’s just such a simple not-very-high-bar that so many films fail to pass. And if we need more proof of its relevancy: the Daily Telegraph reported that 2013 had the smallest number of speaking roles for women in five years.

Vicki: I agree with my colleagues. Tests are tools. It’s kind of sad we even have to have one for the explicit purpose of telling whether women play any kind of important role in a modern Hollywood film.

This was the summer of Benderhoot Cumberdude as Kahn Noonien Singh and JDeppz as Tonto, but it was also the summer of Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori and Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost. But Pacific Rim also had a generic white dude lead, and the comic relief comes mainly from the white dude scientists. In TV land, Orange Is The New Black is a great show with a diverse cast… headed by a nice white lady. I want to talk a bit about race and blockbusters. In our Marvel comics roundtable we talked about the disposability of ‘diversity’ characters. Is diversity something Hollywood is beginning to take seriously, or is it good for some bonus points?

Mai: Hollywood and TV creators/produces assume that even if your film or show starts a lot, or even mostly minorities, you still need a pretty white person to sell it to the audience. Jenji Kohan called lead rich white lady Piper the “trojan horse” she needed to sell Orange Is The New Black and draw both network and audience towards a show with a far more diverse cast.

I don’t know whether del Toro and his producers introduced Raleigh quite so cynically, but he’s even more overtly the lead-in character rather than the lead. His dead brother character drama only matters until his flashback triggers Mako’s, and then the movie’s emotional arc is her and Stacker all the way.

If we are going to be cynical about this, I’d rather have privileged characters as trojan horses for movies and shows with minority-strong casts than no movies and shows with minority-strong casts at all, but I’m not convinced trojan horses are quite as necessary as Hollywood thinks they are. Or if they are, it’s because Hollywood made it so.

Shannon: I think Hollywood took a tremendous step back this summer as far as diversity is concerned. You have JJ Abrams whitewashing a character of color who in the original Star Trek series and Wrath of Khan is literally a genetically engineered super human made up from the best components of humanity. In the JJ Abrams universe those best components made a white dude apparently. Then you have The Lone Ranger which saw Johnny Depp cast as a Native American and the justification for that was “well, he says he has a trace amount of Native American in him so…” Which completely ignores the fact that he still presents as a white guy.

Pacific Rim did a great job of making the cast more diverse but you also have a Hispanic director at the helm who I think may take into consideration minority casting more than other mainstream, white directors.

Honestly, the best summer blockbuster as far as diversity is concerned was Fast and Furious 6. Which is a fun, mindless popcorn flick but I seriously cannot recall any other mainstream films which such a diverse cast. And it passes the Bechdel test to boot.

However, you can’t completely blame Hollywood because they’re making movies for the same audience that flipped out when Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall in Thor. So, how much is Hollywood just conforming to what it always does and how much of it is the audience’s fault for not only letting them but then also getting riled up when they try to insert a PoC into a role they saw as should be played by someone white?

Megan B: I don’t see Hollywood making much headway in terms of diversity, and Shannon definitely points out several examples of backsliding as well with the whitewashed characters. Progress can be seen as Jodi Foster took on a role originally written for a man in Elysium, and Pacific Rim has very well rounded characters that happen to be women and PoC, but there are still way more white dudes blowing shit up in our summer blockbusters. As the expectations for summer tentpole movies grow bigger, so does the risk aversion towards casting actors that are not the standard white male lead. If Hollywood looks at the highest performing films and says “it’s not in our formula” it won’t happen.  Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy? Absolutely. Meanwhile, television is killing it as far as writing more diverse roles, even if as mentioned earlier many of the shows making progress are still led by a white actor. As television continues to dominate pop culture narratives, here’s hoping Hollywood will eventually follow suit.

As far as the backlash seen when filmmakers decide to make a traditionally white character black or non-white, I think the reaction is heightened within fandom. Audiences seeing the film without a preconceived idea of what the character looks like wouldn’t think twice about a black Rue or Heimdall. The same fans complaining about Miles Morales are not filmgoers concerned about diversity.

Vicki: Sadly, Hollywood is slow on the diverse casting front, which is why organizations like Racebending.com still exist. This summer, with the exception of Pacific Rim, POCs were pretty much set aside as sidekicks, adjuncts or tokens. And even Pacific Rim’s story had to be sherpa’d by the straight white male, played by every man Charlie Human Hunnam.

There is, unfortunately, still some outdated and wrong-headed notion that straight and white is the default race by which all experiences are understood, which I think is why there was such an insane backlash against Rue in The Hunger Games. But if we don’t give the public other champions, how do we get through to the gatekeepers that we’re smart enough to accept and process and enjoy diverse characters?

I agree with my colleagues: the Fast and Furious franchise is the only one to get it right, with contextual and non-contextual casting and believable interaction among the different players,

Let’s talk a bit about Fast and Furious, and another youth-oriented movie that came out this summer, Kick-Ass 2. Fast and Furious is pure popcorn, but it’s a consistently entertaining series that doesn’t talk down to its audience, and manages “diversity” casting with grace. On the other hand Kick-Ass 2 uses racism and misogyny for shock value, and sidelined its best character in high school hell, for much of the film. Fast and Furious does incredible box office, and is THE most popular franchise among youth I know, whereas Kick-Ass is less and less a cultural thing. (On the other hand, misogyny is going strong in romcoms). Does this say something about what audiences “really want”? [Whether that be: movies that represent them, movies that don’t talk down, or movies that are actually fun.]

Shannon: I think a lot of moviegoers want to see themselves represented on the big screen which is something the Fast and the Furious series seems to get. Yeah, they’re cheesy and silly but you have a diverse cast unlike anything else Hollywood puts out. And the sixth installment did better than any of the previous five did.

So, you would think that would make Hollywood filmmakers stop and think for a minute that maybe, just maybe, we should make movies with casts as diverse as the population that goes to see them. After all, Latino moviegoers are a powerful force: “according to a Nielsen report this year, Latinos represent 18% of the moviegoing population in the U.S., yet they account for 25% of all tickets sold.”

I actually enjoyed Kick Ass 2 but I recognize it has problematic aspects to it. A lot of that comes from the source material though and the twisted mind of Mark Millar. Let’s just say I’m glad they cut things from Kick Ass 2 that were actually in the comics. What is weird though is Kick Ass 2 is a mix of the comics Kick Ass 2 and Hit Girl. Part of me wonders why we couldn’t just leave the two separate and make an actual Hit Girl movie as she’s honestly the best part of the films.

They’re definitely different films but it is interesting to see how they both try to cater to the same younger audience in different ways.

Megan B: I have not seen either of these films but I will say that Fast and Furious was met with the most enthusiasm by my friends than any other film this summer. Being a completist, I have to watch the first 4 (5, 6 I have no idea how many of them there are) before seeing the latest installment.

Mai: I’m in the same boat as Megan B. I keep hearing so many good things about these films (at least the later installments), it’s just finding the time to catch up that’s my problem.

Ashley: I haven’t seen the newest Fast and Furious films (I vaguely remember seeing 1 and 2 a while back) and I have yet to see the Kick-Ass films.

Vicki: The thing is, the Fast and Furious franchise and the Kick-Ass franchise are wildly different. Fast and Furious has had 6 movies to establish itself as the cool kid with the awesome friends, a self-actualized entity that recognizes and accepts it’s all about cool cars, doing what’s right even if it means crossing a line, and also VROOM VROOM VROOM! CARS! KABOOM!!!

Kick-Ass 2, meanwhile, is the overconfident kid still groping for the bra clasp while trying to offend as many people as possible in an effort to look and sound cool. It’s the kid on the block who is trying to make friends, to do the right thing despite a complete lack of subtlety, skill or ability–and we appreciate it for what it is. But we also can’t treat it the same way we treat the much more mature and confident Fast and Furious.

One hopes to see the potential of Kick-Ass 2, and recognize its failings as honest mistakes in its effort to grow. We hope to God the misogyny, racism and over-the-top cartoonery isn’t earnest. Because no one wants to hang out with THAT kid.

Continued in part two.

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Shannon Rahe works in social media and once had a bit walk on role on Falling Skies. You can find her on Twitter @Hokuboku.

Vicki Essex is a romance writer. Find her on Twitter @VickiEssex and www.vickiessex.com.