Have blockbusters stopped trying to surprise us?

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John Wick: Chapter 4 is just the latest blockbuster to do exactly what it says on the tin. But when did Hollywood decide we stopped wanting more?

Spoilers lie ahead for No Time To Die and Top Gun: Maverick.


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When was the last time a big Hollywood blockbuster surprised you? I mean jaw-on-the-floor, “I can’t believe they’ve done this,” surprised you. Top Gun: Maverick surprised everyone, but only because it was very good: no-one left the theatre saying they hadn’t expected quite how the ending panned out.

Did Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery shock you to your core? It was a murder mystery, after all. But then, part of the appeal of that franchise is really that they deliver on our expectations: there’s a murder, Benoit Blanc solves it. Very entertainingly, I might add, but hardly stunning stuff.

What about Don’t Worry Darling? Ah, you might have me there. Who would have thought that this 1950s suburban utopia could turn out to be… Well, that would be a pretty massive spoiler, I suppose. But even a twist ending isn’t much of a surprise when the rest of the film is screaming “there’s a twist coming soon! I promise!” The real surprise in that film would have been if there were no twist at all.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is kicking the cinema doors down this weekend, and I imagine most punters going in will have a pretty good idea what they’re getting. If you’re expecting anything resembling a three-hour fight sequence interspersed with neon lights reflected in puddles, then it’s unlikely to surprise you either. Though I suppose watching Keanu Reeves shoot a few hundred people in the face is shocking in its own way.

No, more and more it’s looking like Hollywood have given up trying to raise our collective eyebrows. Just look at the last few months: as far as big studio releases go, we’ve had Shazam: Fury of the Gods, Creed 3, Avatar: The Way of Water, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, 65, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Cocaine Bear (the plot of which is probably visible from the plane the cartel dropped its, ahem, icing sugar from).

What actually is surprising is that, with maybe one or two exceptions, all of the above have been perfectly entertaining. They’re handsomely-made, neatly plotted, and generally deliver more-or-less exactly what you hoped they would when you bought a ticket. It’s been a good while since the studios pumped out a verifiable stinker – but they haven’t made much that really blows your socks off, either.

No Time To Die, now that was a surprise. In a remarkably bold move which still feels risky to talk about in print (this is your last and only spoiler warning) the filmmakers decided to blow James Bond up with a missile. Lots of missiles, actually, as if they were worried we wouldn’t believe they’d done it.

They were well-rewarded for it, too. Even a year-and-a-half after its release, it seems most of the internet is still balanced on tenterhooks waiting for news of the next Bond, an enthusiasm buoyed by an ending to Craig’s era as daring as it was entertaining. Outside of 007, though, it feels like few studios are willing to take too many narrative risks.

That’s probably understandable, really. Post-pandemic cinema attendance is still on shaky ground, and it makes some sense that the people with the big budgets aren’t willing to splash the cash on anything likely to split their audience down the middle.

But, as Bond’s last outing proves, sometimes you have to take risks to get people talking. As delighted as I am that Universal actually made a film called Cocaine Bear, it’s hardly the sort of picture that demands an hour of conversation down the pub afterwards. It’s certainly not something that necessarily needs a second watch to appreciate all its nuances.

On the smaller side of the equation, too, the recent success of films like Everything Everywhere All At Once, Barbarian, and even the ever-present on-demand dominance of 2019’s Parasite indicate that there’s still a market for a good movie which gives you no clues going in. If anything, social media means word-of-mouth might be more important now than it’s ever been, and nothing gets people talking like the age-old moviegoer mantra, “I want to know what you think about this.”

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about studios needing to take more risks and commission different kinds of movies. And, true, it’s nice to see the recent return of dumb, mid-budget premise flicks like Beast, Cocaine Bear and 65, or, frankly, the financial success of any movie that isn’t wearing a cape.

But it’s worth remembering that the opportunity for risk taking doesn’t end with the marketing department. The ever-present doom-and-gloom surrounding the film industry indicates that Hollywood doesn’t know what we want anymore. I’m not sure we quite know ourselves. When in doubt, though, imagine we’re an indecisive chocolate lover faced with a tin of Quality Street: surprise us.

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