What Hollywood’s big-budget mythmaking spectacles did for America, and why it’s all changing.
Since the dawn of time — by which I mean June 20, 1975, the day Jaws chomped its way into movie theaters — the Hollywood summer blockbuster has been America in a nutshell: ambitious, expensive, loud, fond of firearms and legends and heroes, quippy, a little shallow, and always, always wrapped in the stars and stripes.
Blockbusters are our calling cards, our most visible exports, our latter-day empire builders. They’re the only reliably common cultural experience we have left. With their debuts frequently timed to coincide with our biggest national holidays, they’re inextricably linked to our identity. To be American in the summer is to eat hot dogs, fry your skin in the sun, fight about baseball and politics, and go see a new movie in which humanity is under attack, stuff blows up, and somebody has to save the day.
But this summer looked different, for the first time in 45 years. You could still have a hot dog, and you might have been able to watch baseball if your team wasn’t quarantined, and you almost certainly fought about politics. But even if you were lucky enough to live near a drive-in movie theater (and own a car), there weren’t any new blockbusters on offer. They’ve all been postponed. Any American heroes you might see on a big screen are from the past, specters from a simpler time.
Feels fitting, honestly. From Indiana Jones to Captain America, Ellen Ripley to President Whitmore, Ethan Hunt to Batman, both the world and studio budgets have been saved every summer, in one manner or another, by lone-wolf badasses who don’t take anyone’s guff but can also deliver inspirational speeches when needed. They are the descendants of the white-hatted Western good guys, reimagined for a world where the West has been won. Blockbuster heroes respond to the call of duty, the charge to save humanity led by American authorities — or, in the event the government is in shambles, by everyday Americans.
“We can all just sit here on Earth, wait for this big rock to crash into it, kill everything and everybody we know,” Bruce Willis’s Harry Stamper says to his fellow oil drillers in Armageddon. “United States government just asked us to save the world. Anybody want to say no?”
Sure, we nodded, back in 1998. Makes sense. The US government wants some ordinary guys to go into space and save the planet. The fictional version of the government had issued a similar call two years earlier, in 1996, when Independence Day’s President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) personally led a fighter jet attack on an alien saucer. And then again in 1997, when a pair of American secret agents dressed in black — one of whom was a former NYPD officer — saved the galaxy from another extraterrestrial threat.
Not so much in 2020. The very reason Americans — and the rest of the world — couldn’t go see any new blockbusters this summer has to do with American failure. And that failure spans all levels, from the White House to average citizens, in the face of a humanity-threatening virus. As the summer of 2020 has worn on, and other economies have warily but safely reopened around the world, the US has looked less and less like a leader and more and more like an ostrich with its head buried deep beneath the dusty ground.
And so, strangely, the dearth of Hollywood blockbusters in 2020 perfectly illustrates where the US stands in the world at the end of a long, maddening summer. Because it’s a story that’s not just about a commercial product that wasn’t shipped to customers at home and abroad; it’s a story about what the American blockbuster stands for, the myths it weaves, and the place in our collective cultural consciousness it occupies.
With what might be the year’s biggest movie — Christopher Nolan’s Tenet — having just opened everywhere except America before slowly attempting to roll out here, it’s high time we examined what the blockbuster means for us, and how 2020 became the year everything changed.
1) In which Richard Wagner invents cinema
To start properly, we should go back 99 years before Jaws, to August 13, 1876. On that day Das Rheingold, the first installment in German composer Richard Wagner’s four-part cycle of operas, premiered at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Over the next four nights, the cycle — titled Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), or just the “Ring Cycle” — would be performed in full, for the first time ever.
It wasn’t the first time anyone had heard Rheingold or its sequel, Die Walküre; an impatient King Ludwig, Wagner’s patron, had insisted on “preview” performances in Munich in 1869 and 1870. In the intervening years, Wagner had begun to realize his dream of constructing a dedicated theater in which the Ring Cycle would be performed, and found the perfect site in Bayreuth, a town in Bavaria. But financial trouble delayed the construction, so it took until 1876 for the first festival in Bayreuth to begin.
From the start, people were wowed. The design of the festival house in Bayreuth was revolutionary. It eliminated the traditional horseshoe seating, in which the audience could see each other, in favor of seats that all faced the stage, set on a graded floor that sloped upward from the front to the back of the room, with all boxes on the back wall. This way, everyone in the audience would have an unobstructed view of the stage and see (roughly) the same thing. This seating style, called “continental seating,” was later adopted by movie theaters.
The Bayreuth festival house also contained a double proscenium — two arches, one framing the stage and one on the stage — as well as an orchestra pit tucked away below the stage, so the musicians would not be visible to the audience. Wagner wanted to create the feeling of a “mystic abyss” between the audience and the action onstage, uninterrupted by the sight of the orchestra, which might break the spell. He called the orchestra a “technical apparatus for bringing forth the picture.” Special effects, like clouds of steam and magic lanterns, heightened the experience.
And when Das Rheingold premiered, the room was darkened, making it clear to the audience what they were there for. One observer wrote that the experience was like looking at a “bright-colored picture in a dark frame.” For many in the audience, seeing the production was a paradigm-altering encounter with a work of art, an all-encompassing experience that demanded they focus on the music, the action, and the story. This wasn’t a social occasion or a chance to be seen: It was time to watch the show.
Wagner “created a world,” Alex Ross told me. Ross is the New Yorker’s music critic and author of the comprehensive upcoming book Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music, which chronicles the cultural influence of Wagner and, among other works, the Ring. “He was a great theatrical thinker — he developed this new theatrical space that changed how audiences in the 19th century related to work onstage.” In short, Ross said, Wagner created a sort of prototype for the way that cinema, which wouldn’t debut for a few more decades, would operate. The movie theater — big, bright, (eventually) loud, designed to dwarf the audience and engulf them in an experience — would be patterned, in large part, on what the Ring Cycle pioneered.
The film critic W. Stephen Bush wrote in 1911 that “Every man or woman in charge of the music of a moving picture theatre is, consciously or unconsciously, a disciple or follower of Richard Wagner.”
But when the Ring Cycle first premiered at Bayreuth, cinema was still on the distant horizon. So it was like a bomb had gone off. Now opera companies all over Europe had a new challenge and a new model for performance. The Ring Cycle is massive, very long, technically challenging for the artists, and expensive to mount; most opera companies split it in half and perform it over two years, staging Rheingold and Walküre the first year and Siegfried and Götterdämmerung the second — a franchise, with sequels, if you will. And though its story is drawn from old, old texts, its preoccupation with its earliest audiences’ political and social context was clear from the start. The legend of the Ring Cycle — of greed, foolish men, and the never-ending grasp for power — was a tale as old as time.
2) In which I watch the entire Ring Cycle on my couch, in yoga pants
In the early days of the pandemic in the US, New York’s Metropolitan Opera began streaming archived recordings of its most famous opera productions, for free. For years, the company’s filmed productions have been hits in movie theaters nationwide, playing as “events” for a few days, and it sells many of them on DVD as well. So as various cultural institutions began to open their archives to a newly homebound audience, the Met joined in, drawing from its own vast catalog.
By its second week of streaming in late March, the Met had already brought out the big guns: A 10-year-old production of the Ring Cycle, helmed by experimental director Robert LePage, which made news months before its premiere for requiring a set so heavy that the Met had to reinforce the stage with steel, lest it collapse.
— Playbill ClassicArts (@playbillarts) March 8, 2019
Though the company rolled out the production over two seasons — Rheingold and Walküre in 2010–’11, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung in 2011–’12 — the filmed version played on my TV at home over four nights, Tuesday to Friday. They started at 8 pm and ended very late, as most installments of the show run between four and five hours long. There were Rhinemaidens and Vikings, gods and dwarves, horses and sunrises. I sat on my sofa, munching snacks and drinking red wine as the cast shrieked and spun and sang in German about the glory of death and love and gold and other related matters.
I did not turn off all of the lights in my apartment. And while my TV is pretty big, it isn’t a movie screen, and it is definitely not the stage at the Met.
But the Ring still cast its spell. LePage’s staging makes use of a giant screen that rotates and displays projections of fire and water and much more; one moment at the end of Rheingold, in which the gods cross a rainbow bridge and ascend into Valhalla, took my breath away. I was entranced and enveloped by a story that felt almost primordial, as if it had emerged at the dawn of time. By the time it came to an end on Friday night, I felt as if I’d been on a long, loud, brilliant journey to the ends of the Earth and back.
3) In which Wagner’s shadow hangs heavy over movies about aliens and dinosaurs
The Ring Cycle’s closest cinematic cousin is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, a series that came out at Christmas, not during the summer. (J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the books on which the movies are based, was explicitly answering Wagner in his tale of a golden ring of power.) The Lord of the Rings films have all the same elements, from magic and fire to sweeping centuries of history to the use of leitmotifs — little musical themes for different characters, a technique that film composers have borrowed from Wagner since film composition became a thing.
With its myth-weaving and hero’s journeys, the Ring Cycle also feels closely related to the Star Wars movies. All three of the films in the original trilogy were released in May, just before Memorial Day weekend: Star Wars (later retitled A New Hope) in 1977, The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, and Return of the Jedi in 1983, six months before I was born.
When it came out in 1977, Star Wars was considered a gamble by the theaters that booked it. The template for a summer blockbuster as we’d come to know it hadn’t been established yet; the only previous true “summer blockbuster” was Jaws, which two years earlier had been a bona fide shocker of a movie.
No matter. Like Jaws, Star Wars was a massive, record-breaking box office hit; what’s more, it became a cultural phenomenon. Both Jaws and Star Wars laid down rails on which future summer blockbusters could coast. They’d be thrilling movies, with adventure, excitement, eye-popping special effects, possibly some explosions. They would generate buzz with help from huge marketing budgets, instigate tons of tie-in merchandise, and, if they performed well, spawn a bunch of (frequently lousy) sequels.
Audiences would want to go to see a summer blockbuster multiple times in the theater. They’d talk about the movie with their friends and family. Catchphrases uttered by its heroes and villains would enter the general parlance. Kids would dress up like those heroes and villains for Halloween. Saturday Night Live would spoof the film.
People around the world would see these kinds of movies in their hometown cinemas. The summer blockbuster would be woven into America’s national legend, and function as an important global export of the country’s self-image: We’re rowdy, we’re scrappy, and we’re here to save the day.
Jaws, the one that started it all, was tonally very different from its modern descendants. Jaws is practically a disaster film, and not a particularly uplifting one. Tragedy strikes because people in positions of authority — the mayor and police chief — fail to save ordinary citizens from the shark that lurks in their waters.
“It’s interesting that Jaws is critical” of its characters, film critic J. Hoberman told me. Hoberman has been writing about movies since the 1970s, largely at the Village Voice, and has authored several books about the cultural milieu that birthed the blockbuster age. “Jaws has a more complicated political formation,” he explained. “The allegory is not so simplistic.” The film is less about triumphant heroes saving the day and more about barely cheating death.
Which is significant, because the blockbusters that evolved out of the Jaws approach gradually became more straightforward, predictable, and triumphalist as time wore on. For a while, the blockbuster remained uncertain as to whether defeating an enemy at great cost to human life was something to uncritically celebrate. Alien (1979) had a great hero in Ellen Ripley, but it doesn’t end with any parades or quippy morsels of wisdom from her. She defeats the enemy, breathes a sigh of relief, and puts herself and her cat in sleep stasis for the long trip home.
In the 1980s, the tone of summer blockbusters began to change, a shift that lasted well into the 1990s. In a large swath of classic summer blockbusters, humanity is threatened by ghosts (Ghostbusters) or aliens (Independence Day, Men in Black) or a meteor (Armageddon) or resurrected dinosaurs (Jurassic Park) or some other force, and it’s up to the hero or heroes to stop it, which they do, while cracking jokes and performing thrilling feats of strength and ingenuity.
It wasn’t always all of humanity that was under attack — in movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the Back to the Future movies (1985, 1989, and 1990), the Batman movies (1992, 1995, and 1997), Top Gun (1986), and others, the stakes are slightly lower. But regardless of the stakes, there’s a feeling of relief and poignant joy at the end. No matter what kind of awful thing happens, someone will save the day, and life will go back to normal. You’re not supposed to exit the ice-cold theater into the summer heat feeling bummed out. You’re supposed to want to go back and experience the blockbuster’s thrills all over again.
And what’s more, more often than not, the heroes of these movies are not particularly fancy people. There’s a big divide between the cops, soldiers, fighter pilots, and drillers who save the day in many blockbusters and the suave martini-swilling British James Bond, or the highly trained martial artists who make their way over from Asia. The consummate blockbuster hero is a pretty normal guy who just worked hard, has a lot of specialized knowhow, and probably carries a sizable gun. He’s us, in other words; he’s real America.
“You cannot lose with that — making people feel good about themselves,” Hoberman told me. “We’re number one! Ultimately it’s a business, and that’s good business. It would not be good business to make [the bloody 1969 revisionist Western] The Wild Bunch now.”
Of course, not every major, buzzy summer release fits the mold. Anomalies slip through. In 1999, for instance, two dark horse horror films — M. Night Shyamalan’s surprise hit The Sixth Sense and the low-budget Blair Witch Project — covered themselves in glory without the marketing machine that drove an Independence Day. In 2003, Pixar started releasing its films almost exclusively in the summer, beginning with Finding Nemo, and found wild success. And plenty of movies have become hits in the other blockbuster window, near the December holidays.
But there’s something distinctive about a movie concocted, packaged, and sold by Hollywood for air-conditioned summer consumption, accompanied by popcorn and a jumbo Coke. Some massive problem must be solved by our maverick protagonist, a distinctly American type who follows the rules when the rules work for him — the blockbuster hero is almost always a him — but disregards them when he knows better.
Even Star Wars, set in a galaxy far, far away, had that unmistakable quality in the roguish Han Solo. And he was played by Harrison Ford, who would later play one of the most American summer blockbuster heroes imaginable: Indiana Jones, who swung into theaters in the summer of 1981.
Notably, there’s a touch of Siegfried — strapping young man, legendary hero, and (not accidentally) German nationalist icon in the 19th and 20th centuries — in all of them.
4) In which blockbusters must be as silly as the Ring Cycle to work
If Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the forerunner of contemporary cinema as an experience, it’s also got all of the elements of a summer blockbuster, the most important of which, to my mind, is pretty simple: It’s very goofy.
I mean, don’t tell Wagner I said that. I think he found it much more serious and thrilling. But right from the start, it’s quite ludicrous, in the best possible way. In the very first scene, Rhinemaidens — singing high-pitched gibberish — coyly tease Alberich the dwarf, who gets mad and steals the gold they guard. Whoever makes that gold into a ring can rule the world (hello, Tolkien). Alberich uses it to enslave the rest of the dwarves.
Meanwhile, the gods sing and cavort, argue and fight. Wotan, the ruler of the gods, is a chronic cheater who promised the giants who built his castle that they could have his sister-in-law as payment, and hasn’t quite figured out how to get out of the agreement. Many, many things happen. There’s inadvertent incest (hello, Star Wars), twice, and a lot of broken promises.
By the third installment, we meet Siegfried, a strapping young hero in the Germanic mold who is also kind of a whiny and petulant large adult son. The whole thing ends with an apocalypse: The Rhine overflows its banks, the ring is returned to the river, and the gods are consumed by flames.
The Ring Cycle takes itself very seriously. But it is, to put it lightly, pretty ridiculous stuff. And it is exhilarating.
A blockbuster also has to take itself very seriously, so that we understand the stakes; for the story to work, we do have to believe, at least fleetingly, that these aliens or dinosaurs or ghosts or whatever are truly a threat.
But it’s just as important that we recognize how utterly wacky the whole thing is, because that recognition lets us disengage slightly from what’s happening onscreen. We can enter the fantasy without needing to buy the idea that there really are aliens or Death Stars or whatever outside the theater walls, waiting to take us down. In the summer, blockbusters serve up escapism at its finest. Threat, but always by proxy. Thrills, but never realistic ones.
As the 21st century kicked off, the action- and comedy-driven summer blockbusters of the 1980s and ’90s often gave way to pure fantasy, as in the Harry Potter series, and pure goofiness, as in the Pirates of the Caribbean films, an entire franchise based on a ride that already existed in Disney’s theme parks. Neither of those franchises exported the American patriotism that summer blockbusters had showcased for so long. But hints of the future appeared, too — not least because, in the wake of 9/11, we were looking for a hero. First, there was Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (in 2002, 2004, and 2007). Then the first two installments in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins in 2005 and The Dark Knight in 2008) expanded our vision of what a superhero film could do.
And six weeks before The Dark Knight’s US premiere, in May 2008, a little movie called Iron Man hit theaters, birthing a cinematic universe that would grow up to swallow the summer blockbuster season whole. It’s not that other movies weren’t coming out. Pixar still turned out reliable summer hits, and franchises from Indiana Jones to Mission: Impossible still made bank at the box office.
But there’s no doubting what dominated the summer in the 2010s: movies about superheroes, based on comic books that had been written decades earlier, often to exalt and uphold American values. Twin poles held up the tent where the rest of the Avengers assembled. There was the heroic Captain America, a fighter for truth and justice in skintight stars and stripes. And there was Tony Stark, a slick playboy who was richer than God, who embodied everything about American industry, ingenuity, and capitalism, and who flew around in a hollow robot suit that bore a distinct resemblance, if only in functionality, to Inspector Gadget.
It’s okay to admit that superheroes, on the whole, are a little silly. As it built out the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel, and sometimes its nemesis DC, leaned into that knowledge in the same way its blockbuster predecessors had for decades: with quippy heroes and silly jokes, goofy bits and funny callbacks. The studio didn’t want you to take its movies too seriously.
And yet you had to take them seriously; the investment of time, money, and story- and character-tracking involved in keeping up with the tale, stretched over more than a decade, required more than casual alignment. Sometimes the Marvel blockbusters dared to buck the triumphalist trend of their ancestors from the ’80s and ’90s; occasionally they ended on a bit of a downer. But when Avengers: Infinity War concluded with half the Earth’s inhabitants turned to dust, the downbeat note was tempered by the absolute certainty that in the end, in the final installment, all would be set right. And true to summer blockbuster form, Endgame wasted no time getting its groove back.
5) In which legends create fantasies and realities
In spinning the yarn of the Ring, Wagner drew on Norse mythology, but he also sought to tell a tale that would resonate with his 19th-century German audience. “What he did with myth was modernize it and dramatize it for contemporary audiences,” Ross told me. “He modernized it not in terms of putting everything in contemporary garb and contemporary stories; he treated them on their own terms. Below the surface it’s obvious how he is adapting these old stories to modern concerns and themes.”
Ross noted some parallels: “Alberic, the Chief of the Dwarves, is an industrialist. Woton is an older-school aristocrat who is trying to keep up with the times and perpetuate his power. The sword and ring are technologies that allow someone to wield power. Wagner is using myth to comment on contemporary life.” Later, writing his own answer to Wagner in the shadow of two world wars, Tolkien would transform the Germanic myth into a distinctly English one, imagining a power-hungry evil that threatened the pastoral life of hobbits as well as the fate of the world.
What Wagner had done, later generations would continue to do, both in staging the epic and in borrowing its music, images, and story for other purposes. And his influence went beyond a mimicking of his style. “This hugely problematic figure, extraordinarily original and powerful artist, is almost the object lesson in how art can become swept up in horrendous politics, and how art can exhibit its creator’s flaws,” Ross said.
Most people associate Wagner and the Ring Cycle, in some measure, with Adolf Hitler and Nazism; that’s because, as Ross points out in his book, Hitler’s cultural and political regime borrowed heavily from Wagnerian mythology to create its own iconography. “In Germany, it was seen as this allegory, how the pure German hero was going to defeat these insidious elements all around,” said Ross. Though Wagner never said the dwarves were caricatures of Jews, that came to be the prevailing interpretation.
And Siegfried, the hero, became so tied to Nazism that when American Nazis opened a camp on Long Island in the 1930s, they named it “Camp Siegfried.”
The power of myth — big stories that tell us our origins, that give us a sense of who we are as a people — is what drives art. And it’s no coincidence that they’re a great way to engender a nationalistic sense of belonging, if that’s what you’re after. By nature, myths elide details and rely on archetypes. They convert history into legend. They suck you into their story and ask you to identify with it. Myths rely on emotions more than logic, serving up feelings rather than principles, guidelines, or rational arguments.
For a long time, Westerns were the greatest of Hollywood myths, and they “used to just be ubiquitous,” Hoberman pointed out. “If you think of a television as an appliance, you’d just turn it on and a Western would be there.” But the genre started to die out midcentury, and the experimental, countercultural movies of the late 1960s and early ’70s, like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider, pushed against the mythology of the Western and its do-good John Wayne-style hero.
“For a while, there was actually a period when movies were, relatively speaking, downbeat,” Hoberman explained. “They were about antiheroes. And so, a lot of the movies in the 1980s are a return — to what was perceived of as ‘normal’ — after the bummer of the late ’60s and the ’70s.”
Hoberman ties that return to the broader cultural reaction against the “bummer,” personified best in the election of Ronald Reagan. The president of the 1980s, in addition to his career playing mostly good guys in Hollywood and on TV, had worked in the film production unit of the Army Air Force. Under him, militaristic movies became more acceptable again, Hoberman says: “Once you had Rambo and Top Gun, that just became another aspect of summer fun.”
The Hollywood blockbuster hero is embedded in a type of movie that doesn’t just tell a story; it envelops you in the story. It pulls on your senses with bright lights and loud noises, the kind of enhanced reality that entranced Rheingold’s first audiences. It makes you feel as if you are in the action, on a thrilling mission to save the day. You, whoever you are, whether or not you’re American, are drawn into its legend. You are part of the myth. If only for a couple of hours, you believe it.
6) In which Hollywood scrambles to stay on top of the blockbuster heap
If you’ve been a faithful consumer of Hollywood summer blockbusters in the past few years (or just someone professionally obligated to see them), you might have noticed a subtle shift. They were still led by American heroes, of course. But they were downplaying the traditional American maverick a bit.
As early as 2010, Hollywood studios were making noticeable changes in their fare to lure international audiences into the theater. The Wall Street Journal noted that global ticket sales had ballooned — once just a footnote to studio executives, they’d grown to comprise nearly 68 percent of the $32 billion global film market, a 10 percent rise over the same statistics in 2000. Trends like a boom in multiplexes in Europe and increased IMAX screens across Asia helped account for rise.
Yet it was also true that as filmmakers, technology, and funding had become more abundant and sophisticated in countries around the world, local film industries had grown to challenge Hollywood’s hegemony. One way to keep audiences outside the US buying tickets was through casting: Put big stars from several markets in your movie, and people will show up to see it. Marquee names weren’t enough to ward off the threat, however; by the end of 2019, ticket sales in China were breaking records, but the share of those receipts that went to Hollywood shrank.
Still, the change was noticeable, especially outside the MCU behemoth. In 2018, Skyscraper (that movie where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s main enemy is a burning tower) opened two weeks earlier in China than in the US, and featured global stars like Singaporean actor Chin Han and Chinese legend Tzi Ma. That same year, The Meg — which seemed almost to signal a perfectly symmetrical end of American summer blockbuster domination in its vapid, giant-shark-driven plot — also heavily focused on an international cast, with actors including Bingbing Li, Masi Oka, Winston Chao, and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson. Films such as these featured jokes about the American characters’ bad Chinese pronunciation, making space for an international audience to join in on the fun.
Ultimately, they still followed the blockbuster formula; the big, flashy action stars (like The Rock or The Meg’s Jason Statham) fit the maverick mold perfectly. But the nationalism was noticeably dialed down. And downward trends at the summer box office — with flops like the X-Men film Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International, which should have been franchise-driven hits — made me wonder, by the end of 2019, what the future of summer blockbusters might look like. Would they be more attuned to a worldwide audience, less stuck to the traditional mythology? Would Hollywood, long the progenitor of a distinctly American breed of legend-weaving, find itself doing something different in the years ahead?
At the time, it was exciting to imagine that the Hollywood summer blockbuster might be on the verge of another reinvention, since I felt as if its formula, like the Western before it, had metastasized, gotten tied up in its own trappings. But I never could have predicted what was coming.
7) In which a pandemic destroys the myth, and we wonder what comes next
There weren’t any blockbusters this summer. For the first time in a long time, there wasn’t an American hero to watch on a big screen. No fighter pilot presidents, no cops and soldiers, no scrappy secret agents, no superheroes. Across America, with a few exceptions, most big screens stayed dark. The movies we watched, we mostly watched at home. Or we watched them from our cars, at drive-in theaters — spending an evening with heroes from other eras, in a moviegoing format we’d nearly abandoned.
One weekend in June 2020, the highest-grossing film in America was Jurassic Park. Two weeks later, it was Ghostbusters. A week after that, The Empire Strikes Back.
By August, nearly half the world’s cinemas were open, 90 percent of those outside the US. Internationally, most cinemas were making their money from local films, rather than Hollywood blockbusters. Hollywood studios had postponed most tentpole releases into 2021, creating a domino effect. If they couldn’t open in the US, most executives decided, they wouldn’t open anywhere.
But the longer the Covid-19 pandemic wears on — due to a combination of poor public messaging, refusal to comply with widely established best practices, a push to reopen economies prematurely, and failures of leadership at the highest levels — the more the global theater industry is hungry for movies.
So now Mulan is coming out on Disney’s proprietary streaming service, Disney+, but will also open in theaters in territories — notably, China — where the streamer doesn’t exist. And Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, from one of the few auteurs who can still draw an audience for an original film with little to no hint of what it’s about, finally opened abroad on August 26, and is slated to start a slow American rollout one a week later, in places where theaters are open.
If those two releases go well, and if the coronavirus rears its head as schools open in the fall and people start spending more time indoors, then it seems quite possible the American audience’s dominance in Hollywood may weaken. The industry may turn on its head.
The irony is too much. The mythology spun by the blockbusters — that scrappy, ingenious Americans will be the ones to save us from meteors and aliens and whatever else might threaten humanity — has been badly shaken. The wealthy, supposedly independent US is the tail, not the head, of an epoch-making catastrophe.
There’s no rapid change on the horizon. “They’ll keep making these movies in Hollywood until they go broke,” Hoberman told me. “It’s still the best way they know to make money.”
“It’s very hard for me to imagine any other national film industry being able to produce consistently successful international blockbusters,” he continued. “In China, the industry is just too nationalistic, too insular. They can’t do it. And as insular as Americans may be, it’s part of Hollywood DNA that the movies are for everyone.”
But as Ross pointed out, a change might have been a long time coming, because of what happens when legends are co-opted to propel nationalism and patriotism to the forefront of a culture. “We can look back at what happened with German patriotic exploitation of Wagner and apply that lesson to American popular culture,” he said. “We can think about how these stories are not simply innocent, but have political ramifications, and sometimes rather dark political ramifications.”
“We’ve been coasting for a long time on images of American good guys fighting the Nazis, with Wagner playing in the background,” he continued. “But since 1945, American influence on the world stage has not always been for the good. It’s such a comforting story to come back to, but the lease may be running out on the myth of American purity and heroic goodness.” (Indeed, if the massive worldwide success of 2018’s Black Panther — a February release that challenged the usual narrative peddled by superhero films — is any indication, that reassessment is already happening.)
August closed in America with plenty of indies and international imports and streaming-only releases on offer, but no new Hollywood blockbusters. At the end of a summer where we glimpsed a vision of a future that could be decidedly not America-first in its entertainment choices, a summer where the most audacious cinematic experience I had was watching a 17-hour opera on my TV in my PJs, I am hopeful about the future. A shake-up in Hollywood has never been a bad thing, and the spirit that birthed the blockbusters — of showy, expensive, unselfconscious spectacles — has not always yielded the best fruit.
But everything feels uncertain. This summer broke our myths. This essay is not going to end with triumph. Our struggle with the pandemic won’t either, whatever myths leaders try to weave. We are, at best, two guys at the end of Jaws, holding on to floating barrels, paddling back to the island. We’re Ripley and the cat, trying to push the alien out of the airlock so we can sleep till we reach home.
We can only hope there won’t be a sequel.
New goal: 25,000
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All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year
Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.
Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.
So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.
Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.
Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)
During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.
Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)
Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.
Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)
Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.
Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)
This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.
Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)
If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.
Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)
With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.
Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)
The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.
Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)
Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.
Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)
Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.
Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)
The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.
The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.
The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.
The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.
Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)
We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.
Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)
The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.
Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)
The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.
Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)
Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.
Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)
Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.
Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)
The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.
Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)
With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.
Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)
Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.
Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)
The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.
Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)
The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.
Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained
Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.
In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.
Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.
It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.
Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.
Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.
Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.
The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”
At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.
On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.
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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year
From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.
Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.
From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.
“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.
Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.
The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.
Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.
Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.
Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.
The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.
Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.
Calls for urgent reduction of violence
Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.
Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.
“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.
There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.
1/4 I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever. https://t.co/hVl4b032W6
— U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad (@US4AfghanPeace) October 27, 2020
A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.
But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.
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