On The Ringer this week, Sean Fennessey wrote an article called Farewell, My Lovely Garbage about the death of the Good Bad Movie. (The Ringer did a list of the Top 50 Good Bad Movies this week and produced a bunch of other content based around that.) As someone who gets enjoyment from certain bad movies this topic speaks to me, but Fennessey’s article got under my skin for one simple reason: it overreached on its claim that good bad movies are actually gone from Hollywood. Not that he’s even wrong to make the claim, I just don’t think he dug deep enough. There’s one thing I completely agree with Fennessey on, and it’s that Hollywood has changed a lot since 1987.
Fennessey opens his article talking about this year’s The Mummy and he echoes a sentiment I’ve been feeling with a lot of movies I’ve thought were bad lately: “But it also never quite gets bad enough.” The Mummy isn’t necessarily a movie where I feel this way and it’s part of the problem with this whole conversation in that our language for it is totally broken.
“Good Bad Movie” is a phrase we can colloquially understand, but it’s also ridiculous nonsense. Which is fine when you’re having a conversation with a human and you’re on the same page, but when you’re building a list based on a mathematical formula it kind of muddles what you’re talking about. Strictly speaking the top 50 list is about movies that scored low with critics on Rotten Tomatoes, had a bulk of recent Google news hits and a scored well public opinion poll from The Ringer’s twitter followers.
If I were talking about this topic with someone or building a personal list this is not the metric I would use, but I get it, it’s hitting a larger cultural subjectivity rather than just that of The Ringer’s Staff. (Who shared some their own personal picks in a separate article.) But when Fennessey talks about “Good Bad Movies” he seems to be talking about his own personal take on the term, not the mathematical one used in the list.
“Without the sophistication or appetite for massive-scale comic book and science fiction stories, studios leaned into schlocky high-concept dramedies. […] These movies are delightfully bad. But there is something that bonds them: Their stories are original. “
He hones in on a particular kind of movie, and in doing so he hijacks the argument he started with. Now he’s talking about the lack of original (live-action) stories in Hollywood.
“Last year, 63 of the 100 top-grossing movies were based on previously existing source material or real-life events. Six more are animated films. That leaves 31 original live-action stories. Compare that to 72 (!) original stories in 1987.”
These are facts about how Hollywood is different than it was in 1987. But these are facts about the production of movies, not the end quality. There’s nothing that inherently precludes a giant comic book movie from being a Good Bad Movie. I just don’t feel Sean Fennessey is interested in that kind of movie. Which would be fine if he didn’t keep making such broad statements.
“The point here is not that 1987 produced better movies, per se, though that case could be made. It’s that it produced better bad movies.”
I get that Fennessey believes this, but the small amount of circumstantial evidence he presents doesn’t really convince me. He references Death Wish 4:The Crackdown in regards to a time when sequels were almost always tired cash grabs (“How much money can I drain from this dying beast?”) but I’m pretty sure the Taken franchise can get there. It might not, but it could.
I think part of it is that enjoying a bad movie in part comes from a place of being interested in the production, the stuff that makes you go “How did this get made?” And if you’re tired of high budget franchise spectacle, or Producer driven projects, the ways that they go bad might not be entertaining for you.
I thought about digging deeper into Box Office Mojo yearly grossing lists, but I’m not even sure what I’d be looking for. Fennessey sample’s of the top 10 and then 90-100 of 2016 and 1987 are such a bizarre, small sample set that I’m not sure what to do with it. There sure are some good movies at the bottom of the top 100 grossing movies of 2016. Good original movies even. His example even undermines his “lack of original stories” argument since 1987 is sporting 4 “franchise“ films. Fennessey admits that these examples aren’t definitive, but I don’t find them particularly illustrative either. (Though that could be attributed to me just not knowing the 90-100 movies of ’87. I don’t get why pitting Teen Wolf Too against Zoolander 2 is supposed to show how Good Bad Movies can’t exist anymore.)
But there’s one more big thing Fennessey claims about the list and its nature I really dispute: “There are only four films released in the past decade on our 50 Best Bad Good Movies list…” because while this statement is accurate factually, I think it’s incredibly misleading.
First let’s talk about the one movie that made both the official list and the staff pick’s list: The Room. The Room is certainly not a Hollywood picture and it never had a wide release. There is nothing about the current state of Hollywood that would preclude this bad movie phenomenon from happening today, it happens to have been made in 2003, but it didn’t really penetrate mainstream internet culture until around 2010. Which leads into my larger point, which is that it can take time for these kind of movies to penetrate to mass audiences in a positive way.
Good Bad Movies don’t often make a name for themselves as such in their initial run. If they do then they’re just considered good movies. (The way The Fast and the Furious movies score well with critics now because people know what they are and they deliver what people want from them) Or they do so only at a smaller cult level. Context matters. When someone goes out to the theater their expectations and desires for a movie are different than if they’re just watching whatever at home. Watching a movie you’re excited to go out and see creates a much different level of expectation than if you’re watching some garbage everyone else hated out of curiosity.
Hollywood has changed because they’re still focused on that Box Office business. In an increasingly difficult space where home entertainment is more diverse than convenient than ever they have to find reasons to entice audiences to go out and pay a premium for their product. Certain kinds of films are certainly not made as frequently, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be made. Nine Lives (2016) is exactly the kind of family film you wouldn’t expect to get made anymore and it got made fun of by everyone who heard about it but is also totally watchable. I’m not saying Fennessey is wrong to say that these kind of movies are less frequent, current market forces are not in their favor, but that doesn’t mean they won’t keep existing here and there.
Part of the reason the 80s is the birthplace of the Good Bad Movie is because of the growth of the VHS tape market creating an increase in demand for content, with less regards to quality. Today the equivalent of that is streaming services, so if you’re looking for weird garbage movies that could be amazing, I’d be trolling those services not the box office. But with such a bulk of content available on the internet, newness is less of an advantage toward discoverability so it’s less likely for a movie in that space to really have penetrated the mainstream yet. The king of that space as far as I’m concerned is A Talking Cat!?! from 2013, a family movie made by a director who mostly makes homoerotic schlock.
Here’s the biggest problem with Fennessey’s argument though, the actual list isn’t made up of the kinds of movies he’s talking about at all. Instead it’s dominated by the same kind of spectacle blockbuster that Hollywood makes all the time. Here are the top 5 movies on the list: Batman & Robin (The fifth Batman movie and the 4th in that series), Masters of the Universe (An adaptation of an animated series and Toy Line), Congo (I don’t really see the difference in adapting pulpy novels vs comic books, as far as why I saw this movie it might as well have been in the Jurassic Park cinematic universe), Wild Wild West (This is a throwback to when movie stars could sell a movie, but it’s also built on the shoulders of the Will Smith-in-big-sci-fi-movie brand. Again this might as well be in The Men in Black cinematic universe for how it marketed itself. Also this is theoretically based on an old TV show so this might as well be The Lone Ranger (2013) of its day.), and finally the number one movie is Godzilla (You can’t get any more big budget, same-as-every-other-blockbustery than Godzilla Combining the formula of the Roland Emmerich disaster movie with the plot beats of Jurassic Park and tying that to the long running Japanese film icon. Everybody loves Godzilla.)
There’s a detail in the write up for Godzilla by Victor Luckerson that I think is illustrative of what I’m getting at: “Director Roland Emmerich has said kids love it more than his other films.” That makes sense to me, I loved that movie when it came out, even if it wasn’t really Godzilla and it was bullshit that the military killed her. And also Godzilla is totally a movie that could potentially get made today or in the future. I mean Jurassic World and Kong: Skull Island basically are that same kind of movie, it’s just that those movies have good Rotten Tomatoes scores.
There may be only 5 movies from the past decade on the list, but there are also only 6 from the 80s, the period Fennessey spends so much time mythologizing in his post. If anything I feel like Fennessey missed a possible difference in what he valued in a Good Bad Movie and what the popular culture is valuing. Fennessey talks about the watchability of these movies, but I don’t know that most people are actually watching the movies that made The Ringer’s list. I think they might just be consuming Memes based around them. That’s just conjecture based on how I understand the internet to work and how unwatchable some of these movies are.
The Wicker Man (2006) is actually unwatchably bad. But it’s great when you just pull out the Nic Cage clips. (Also notable is that the most famous clip, “Not the Bees,” was a scene that was cut from the theatrical version and only included on the unrated DVD.) I also have a hard time believing that people are actually sitting and watching Wild Wild West and not just listening to the theme song and remembering that giant mechanical spider and laughing. That movie fits in with modern bad blockbusters in that it’s aggressively unpleasant. If that can be at the top of a list like this then I expect a Transformers movie on a similar list in another 10 years.
But more importantly the more time I think about Batman v Superman, and the more space I can put between it and my feelings for the thoroughly miserable Man of Steel (And idiot fanboys who say it’s actually good), the more I think that that was actually a Messterpiece, or even a “Good Bad Movie.” It’s fucking terrible, in a very special way.