We've previously looked back at the lessons of Summer 2011, which inches further to a close on this largely uneventful (unless of course you're among the lucky attendees at PAX Prime, of course) weekend. But the thing about lessons is that they are often subtle and nuanced - and Hollywood simply does not deal in subtlety or nuance. Hollywood learns big lessons from taking big bruises. For example, as I may have mentioned somewhere before, it was clear for a long time at the tail end of the 1960s that lavishly produced, dramatically retrograde spectacle cinema was collapsing in on itself, but it took the disaster of Cleopatra to force moviemakers to admit it.
Hollywood, in other worlds, learns its lessons from box office failures or "bombs." The lessons are not always absorbed correctly - the failure of Terminator: Salvation" seemed to mainly torpedo the end the idea of Christian Bale being a bankable movie star (the new logic: Batman is a bankable movie star, Christian Bale merely plays him) rather than raise the argument that maybe making more Terminator movies isn't a good idea. Sometimes they are flat-out incorrect - the initial failure of Grindhouse led to an explosion of profitable Grindhouse imitators. But for the sake of continuity, let's run down some of the biggest duds of 2011's blockbuster season and the lessons Hollywood will - fairly or not - likely be taking away from them:
The Damage: "Summer Movie Season" now extends all the way back into mid-Spring, and if Sucker Punch had been a hit we may have had to move the post back even further. Well, it wasn't. Costing close to $100 million and not making that back even after overseas grosses were counted, Sucker Punch was the risky movie Warner Bros. had to let Zack Snyder make in order to keep him happily connected to the studio as a go-to guy for tough properties like the deadline driven Superman reboot, The Man of Steel. Its lackluster performance hasn't (and probably won't) hurt Snyder's career, but it now has a permanent place alongside Scott Pilgrim as a fixture of the "stop making movies for ComiCon crowds!" bleating from the old-guard critical press. And it certainly didn't do any favors for its main cast of rising female stars - or the notion of female-driven action movies in general.
The Lesson: Sadly, the principal learning experience movie executives are likely to take away from Sucker Punch is a crummy one that they think they already know: That women who aren't named Angelina Jolie cannot carry an action film. This is one of those confirmation bias things that only seems to work one way - one box office bust starring ass-kicking women is enough for Hollywood to smugly shrug and declare, "See? Nobody wants to see girls in an action movie," but when the Jason Statham vehicle The Mechanic went belly-up no one would've even thought to declare the age of the scruffy balding male action star "done." A more pertinent (though no less intellectually discouraging) lesson might be that a premise as out there as "confrontational visual essay on gender politics told through symbolic multi-tiered fantasy sequences disguised as sexploitation, as a (literal) 'sucker punch' to the darker aspects of male action-fandom" is probably not a pitch you spend quite this much money on.