Heading into 2003, everybody knew what the year's blockbusters would be. The Matrix Reloaded and its follow-up, The Matrix Revolutions. Hulk. Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines. Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. These darkish, noisy genre pictures were as close as Hollywood gets to a sure thing. And then something went wrong. They all performed below expectations, and a few were spectacular bombs.
But that didn't mean people stopped going to the movies! Au contraire! Americans were making stunning hits out of more upbeat mediocrities, pictures like Bringing Down the House, The Pirates of the Caribbean, Bruce Almighty, Finding Nemo and Elf.
Some will say Hulk and the other underperformers failed because they were terrible movies, but it's not that simple. In the first place, most of these bombs were very well reviewed. While legions of online geekboys got some strange thrill out of declaring Reloaded the worst movie ever, the truth is that it was flawed but undeniably impressive. In the second place, since when has being terrible kept a film from being a blockbuster? You've heard of Michael Bay, right?
The thing everybody underestimated in 2003 was the hysterical-parent factor. Right now, Americans are hurting bad. The economy's in sorry shape, and a lot of us are out of work. We're all waiting for another major terrorist attack, and deep down we know this Iraq silliness is only making other nations hate us even more. And everybody has kids, kids, kids. There are little Britneys and Dylans everywhere you look, forever demanding food and clothing and a roof over their heads and entertainment every hour of the day. Given all this grim crap roiling around in people's heads, is it any wonder that even the faux darkness of a Matrix picture doesn't seem that appealing anymore? Right now, people just want something pleasantly bland that their kids will stay quiet through, something to crowd the scary thoughts out of their own heads for a while. And when they find a picture that fits the bill, they'll pounce on it like hyenas on a wildebeest.
And so in 2003, America spent months in the dark, trying to forget. We chuckled dutifully as Queen Latifah brought down the house, trying our damnedest to forget that the house was collapsing around us.