Are you feeling happier this summer? If so, it might be because of the movies. The summer of 2018 has had quite a few hits in different genres, but the films people are talking about the most have one major thing in common: they're really damn happy. From romantic comedies like Set It Up, to trips down memory like Won't You Be My Neighbor?, to luxurious escapes like Crazy Rich Asians, to musicals like Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, many of this summer's biggest movies have had one goal: to get us to smile. And it's not hard to see the connection between this summer's uplifting movies and the political environment right now; as has happened many times before, the outside world has caused a new era of escapist entertainment has hit.
Some of these happy new movies fall, naturally, under the rom-com umbrella. Although the widespread assertion that romantic comedies would never be the same as they were in the '80s or '90s may be true, the genre is back in a different way. Streaming giants like Netflix are delivering easily accessible movies like Set It Up and To All The Boys I've Loved Before, and in theaters, romcoms like Crazy Rich Asians, Mamma Mia! Her We Go Again, and Juliet Naked are causing a stir for their feminist, representative take on the genre. All these movies are earning good reviews and box office success for being exactly what we want and need right now: a little bit of love.
Then there are the feel-good nostalgia movies. One of the sweetest films of the season, the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, told the story of Fred Rogers, whose children's show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood played in countless households from the '60s up until 2001. In the #MeToo era, when we've learned that many of our childhood heroes are allegedly problematic, this doc confirmed our simplest of hopes: that a man who presented himself as good, loving, and sensitive was in fact that way in real life.
Disney's live action version of Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin, meanwhile, was both a conduit for the warm and fuzzies and a a necessary undoing of 2017's depressing Goodbye Christopher Robin, about the depressing origins of author A.A. Milne's stories and the unfortunate life of the real Christopher. From the look of Goodbye's dismal box office take, audiences didn't seem to want to know the sad backstory of their beloved characters of Pooh, Piglet, Eyeore, and Tigger; rather, they wanted the adorable Pooh and friends to teach them the importance of taking a vacation or simply playing, rather than working so hard.
Even the superhero genre seemed to understand that people needed a bit of uplifting this summer. It's no accident that Avengers: Infinity War was immediately followed by Ant-Man and The Wasp; while the former had a string of shocking deaths, parental murder, and characters facing their own mortality in a depressing dust apocalypse, Ant-Man and The Wasp's sole purpose seemed to be making us laugh and cheer all movie long.
All these happy movies coming out at once is no coincidence. We're living in an age of escapism that highlights the cyclical nature of movies and how art is forever intertwined with politics. When the news cycle is a repetitious bombardment of mass shootings, climate catastrophes, and the frustrating Trump news, of course we go home at the end of the day in major need of some TLC. And ever since movies were invented, they've been used by people to get a break during trying times. Gone With The Wind may be a problematic film, but it's also technically the world's highest grossing film ever (adjusting for inflation) and it premiered right at the end of the American depression. Fantasy films like The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, meanwhile, rounded out a decade of people waiting in lines for bread and jobs.
Escapism in film continued through the movie musical heyday of World War II and its aftermath, with singing and dancing used as a way to drown out the noise of Nazis marching. More recently, the post-9/11 fantasy world of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings movies brought us an era where good ultimately triumphed over evil and hope survived through even the darkest of times. And today, although, we're not technically in a time of war, it's safe to say we're not in a great era of American politics, either. So there's no surprise that people would rather sit back and experience the lure of an isolated Greek island like the one in Mamma Mia! 2 or the wealthy, gorgeous environment of Singapore in Crazy Rich Asians rather than pay attention to the news.
"When people are feeling stressed or miserable, the desire to escape and immerse themselves in a movie increases," said marketing expert Dr. Ping Xiao in a 2018 report from the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia. She and another professor studied three years of Bollywood movie attendance in India during particularly rough economic and political times. "Our research shows movie demand increases when the economy is not doing well, and that particular types of movies — those that have escapist features such as action movies, comedies and romantic movies — are those most in demand," explained Xiao.
It's interesting, however, that the exact opposite seems to be happening in the land of television. Shows like Orange is the New Black and The Handmaid's Tale highlight injustice and warn us of a future where social liberties no longer exist and oligarchy is allowed to flourish unchecked. Shows like Sharp Objects, Queen Sugar, BoJack Horseman, and The Affair dive into the intricacies of depression, which can sometimes be painful to watch. And HBO's Succession tells the story of a dynastic family whose stronghold could mirror the Trumps.
The reason for depressing TV vs. happy movies might be simple: going out and spending money to see a movie requires more time and energy than simply turning on the TV at home. So naturally, when we do head out, we often choose to immerse ourselves in something that will lift our moods, whereas at home, we're a little more lenient with how our choices will make us feel, and willing to risk feeling a bit low.
It's unknown just how long this moment of happiness in movies will go on, or if the tradeoff will always have to be a time of real-life uncertainty and political turmoil. For now, all we can do is enjoy the happiness while it lasts — and the next time we find ourselves talking about some more serious film fare, perhaps it'll be a sign that we're heading back into more stable times in the world.