Every year, as Labor Day draws near, you start to hear it. That plaintive refrain, echoing over the hills and plains of movie blogland. Worst. Summer. Ever.
Whether for reasons of critical acclaim, box-office performance, or a combination of both, there's always a reason to feel underwhelmed after the last big release of the summer months. And 2016, admittedly, does feel worse than usual. After a perfectly serviceable season opener of Captain America: Civil War, things went downhill. Fast. Though the season will probably end up being about as profitable as 2014, there was something extra disillusioning about this year's tentpole movies, so much so that by the time Suicide Squad screened, critics could regularly be heard questioning their professions entirely.
Every summer is the worst summer!
But let's be real — every summer is the worst summer! Part of that is just the nature of summer — we're always in a bad mood by the end of it; it's always over before we've taken advantage of it in the way we had hoped to. But hyped-up blockbuster properties, sequels, and threequels have an particular ability to leave us disappointed. Search hard enough on the Wayback Machine, and I'm sure you can find an argument for why any given year's crop led to the "worst summer ever" since the dawn of the World Wide Web.
Wait, hold that thought — we'll do it for you. Selectively. At least until the 1980s.
2010: The Sands of Time
Kwame Opam: Summer 2010 was the worst. Yes, this was the year that Inception and Winter's Bone came out, but it's also the year that M. Night Shyamalan and Avatar: The Last Airbender decided to shit on everything. An adaptation of one of the most inventive and beloved animated series of the era that turned out to be a muddy, mindless, and frequently offensive mess. It's a strong contender for one of the worst movies ever made. It's so bad Avatar's creators like to pretend it doesn't exist.
Of course, that was only the nadir of an all-around terrible summer. You had Iron Man 2, easily one of the weakest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You had Sex in the City 2, which stretched the premise of "Hey, what are these women up to since their show ended?" to its logical extreme by sending them to Abu Dhabi. You had Prince of Persia, which apparently soured Jake Gyllenhaal on blockbusters for years. And you had Jonah Hex, which was an early sign that Warner Bros. had no idea how to make a decent comic book movie that didn't involve Batman.
Speaking personally, though? This was one of the worst summers of my life, period, and the movies only made it worse. Imagine the absurdity of getting into a fight after watching Shrek Forever After, which ends up leading to the worst breakup of your life. Then imagine trying to get back together after watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. That movie is great, but the absolute last one you watch when your relationship is in shambles. 2010 was a nightmare. 2016 is just fine.
2009: Revenge of the Fallen
Russell Brandom: Do you remember summer ‘09? Think back to the charmless trudge of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe, the wasted potential of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Terminator: Salvation. Those alone should qualify it as one of the worst movie summers on record. Friends tell me there was also a great Pixar movie and a good Harry Potter movie, although I still haven't seen them.
But for me, the sourest lemon will always be Zack Snyder's Watchmen, [Ed: technically a spring movie, but whatever] which I saw after a friend convinced me it was worth a shot. I love the book for all the usual reasons — but after 40 minutes of lovingly shot blue-green violence, I realized Snyder was probably more of a Spawn fan. Of course, there were still another two hours to go at that point, including an excruciatingly bad sex scene set to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It was so uncomfortable that my friend and I couldn't look each other in the eye walking out of the theater, too ashamed of what we had experienced together. Seven years later, it still holds the title as the worst time I've had in a movie theater. And somehow, despite all odds, someone let Snyder's reign of terror continue.
2007: At World's End
Emily Yoshida: In the summer of 2007, I picked up a job ripping tickets and shoveling caramel corn at the original recipe Arclight Cinemas on Sunset and Vine. It paid minimum wage, and I only stayed for four weeks, but of course, the real perk was the ability to see free movies when I was off-duty. I took full advantage of this and the theater's perfectly adjusted A/C during the dog days of August, but it turns out I was one summer too early. 2008 would prove to be one of the best summer movie years in recent history, but this was still 2007. 2007. After a pair of threequels nobody asked for (Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third, yes, a Shrek movie came out in 2007, yes, 2007 is ancient history), Transformers introduced dubstep cinema to the world, shattering our earbuds in a whirlwind of digital metal, and then... everything was a blur. There was a Harry Potter? And a Pirates movie, I guess? A third Ocean's? Sure, sounds right. I didn't see them. I used my free pass to see loftier fare, like The Bourne Ultimatum (which was fine) and, uh, inexplicably, the Jet Li / Jason Statham vehicle War. I saw Sunshine and Starlight in 30-minute increments over the course of a month on my lunch breaks. I Know Who Killed Me sadly never made it to the Arclight, or really, anywhere at all.
The dawn of the modern manchild comedy
Instead, 2007 will probably go down as the inaugural year of the modern manchild comedy, which is now waning in favor of the modern Girls Can Be Gross Too comedy. Knocked Up and Superbad made movie stars out of Seth Rogen and Michael Cera, respectively; whether this is a good thing or bad thing depends on who you ask. For big-budget genre franchise filmmaking, 2007 came at an awkward phase, when many of the big properties launched at the turn of the millennium were getting a little droopy, and the next wave had yet to crest. Foolishly, I quit my job before the fall, when No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood managed to make for a satisfying Oscar season. But my time on the inside was good for something: thanks to the time I spent casing it, I knew how to sneak into movies for the next three years.
1992, I Blew Up the Kid
Tasha Robinson: Unlike some of you, I don't peg particularly bad film years to major life losses. Summer movie seasons pretty much blur into one big, loud blob for me. Thankfully, there is this thing of beauty: Box Office Mojo's season-by-season comparison tool. Ye gods, does it bring back some terrible memories, especially of 1992, the summer where Tim Burton's Batman Returns topped the charts. That film was a huge letdown, but of course it came in at No. 1, because its primary competition consisted of Alien 3, Universal Soldier, Patriot Games, and Lethal Weapon 3, the one that tried to make a selling point out of the fact that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover's perfectly good cranky bromance from the first film had permanently become an awkward Joe Pesci threesome. (Note: There is no other kind of Joe Pesci threesome.)
All y'all's awful years at least have some high-profile bright spots, but Summer 1992 at its absolute best couldn't offer up anything better than the weird turns in Prelude To A Kiss, Lars von Trier's Zentropa, and Raising Cain, none of which feel remotely like summer movies. Summer 1992 should probably get some points for its surprising run of female-led hit comedies, including Sister Act, A League Of Their Own, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Death Becomes Her. But as a blockbuster season, it's just dire, unless you hold 3 Ninjas close to your heart, or you treasure Single White Female, Honeymoon In Vegas, Unlawful Entry, or Honey, I Blew Up The Kid.
Everything after 1989 is terrible
Bryan Bishop: Yes, I know that we're all trying to figure out which summer out-worsed the other, but thanks to Netflix we're in a particularly resonant moment of nostalgia, and I'm just going to take it all the way: every summer at the movies since 1989 has been the worst. Because like it or not, the 1980s were the one true home of the summer blockbuster.
Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) may have been the first instances of the runaway hit, but the years of 1980 through ‘89 were when it became enshrined as a cultural institution. E.T., Back to the Future, Die Hard, The Goonies, Ghostbusters; check out the comparison tool Tasha linked to above, and poke around. You'll weep. It's not like every movie was good then — this is the same decade that gave us sequels like Cannonball Run II and Staying Alive — but what you will find is summer after summer of films that, good or bad, largely remain cultural touchstones. (And again, that's not to be confused with films of actual quality — 1986's Back to School, I'm looking at you.)
There are plenty of other films out there that are inventive, subversive, and clever
But take a formula and photocopy it enough times (they probably would have said "Xerox it" back then), and you get diminishing returns. And summers that once boasted three or four legitimately good films become summers with just a couple. Or a summer like 1995, where you had Batman Forever, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, Waterworld, Mortal Kombat, and The Net all competing for what could be the worst possible thing to land at your local multiplex.
That was the ‘90s model — and it's one we're pretty much still using today, where we breathlessly hope that one or two hits will turn out to actually be worth watching, and raise the box-office tide accordingly. I mean, just look at some of these years we're talking about up above. 2009, 2010, any year with a Transformers movie... is it any wonder people are wrapping themselves in nostalgia cocoons? But that's the trick: summer blockbusters may largely be dreck, but there are plenty of other films out there that are satisfying. Inventive. Subversive. Clever. Just don't expect many of them to show up between May and September.