In a discussion of Gareth Edward's Godzilla, the Slate Spoiler Special podcast explores how the movie marketed itself to be as "dark and profound as the original." They go to note that the first half of the movie teased at potentially very interesting concepts and philosophies. However, in the last act, the film ends up pulling a "bait and switch," and slipping into a simple action format that never arrives at any emotional or philosophical substance.
It seems something similar could be said of almost every big budget these days: The message and intellectual ideas might start ambitiously big but end small, dwarfed by a third act that is all action. I am looking at you, Star Trek Into Darkness and especially you Prometheus.
Even with the best big budget films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier we find that they often begin with interesting ideas but falter at the end. In Winter Solider, the Avengers heroes Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. initially seem like bad guys who engage in some morally grey "strike first" military action. But this fascinating moral ambiguity disappears when the true villains appear and the movie turns into a black and white film with Nick Fury as the unambiguous hero, which is awesome but not so "meaningful."
Speaking of Samuel L. Jackson's Nicky Fury, the original cut of The Avengers actually contained a very dark condemnation of Nick Fury by Agent Hill. In the scene, Hill blamed Nick Fury's arrogance and messing with alien weapons as part of the reason for the film's nearly apocalyptic events. This scene, like the ambiguity in Winter Soldier, ultimately did not materialize.
This leads us to the question: Can big movies, and other entertainment media, have big messages or even pose big questions?
Right now the most "thoughtful" big budget movie this year may actually be The Lego Movie with its analysis of adulthood perfection and realistic reinterpretation of the "chosen one" myth. If that doesn't seem ludicrous enough for you? One might even make a case for the raunchy comedy Neighbors where the once irresponsible partier Seth Rogen character must deal with growing old, becoming a dad, and taking responsibility. No matter how you look at it, it is safe to say that big budget movies aren't getting close to the Shakespearian levels of intellectualism of yester years.
So why don't big movies have big depth? From a box office perspective, it makes sense not to "push values." According to research on the "hostile media bias," people are hypersensitive to any media that might threaten their beliefs. People are so hypersensitive to belief threat that psychologists find that two people with opposite views can sometimes watch a piece of media and both think the program was biased against them!
However, there's one perspective that's more critical of us movie snobs than of the movies themselves. The perspective is that these big movies actually do give us big messages or at least big questions; it's just up to us to find them. Instead of hitting us over the head with themes of moral ambiguities or thoughtful complex, the films give us just enough to inspire our own thoughts, if we choose to. If the Slate Spoiler crew can spend hours debating the meaning the most popular movies ever year, then these movies must be doing something.
Us movie snobs change our tune and instead appreciate these movies as starting the conversation rather than finishing the conversation. We can ask, what does Godzilla have to say about the forces of nature? What warnings does Captain America give us about strike first policies? Does Star Trek Into Darkness have a message for us about the military complex? And instead of demanding an answer in the films, we can use the films content to begin to find our own answers.
Maybe I am just a pretentious film nerd who studies moral psychology and I am alone in my wanting to find both giant monsters fights and meaning in the same movie. But chances are, if you clicked on this article and have read this far, you share these desires too. So maybe what we should stop complaining about the shallowness of these movies and see them as just the starting point. They are pieces of "art" that are there to inspire not preach. And maybe that's actually better.