The idea of a “blockbuster” is a tricky one to pin down. The word itself originally referred to bombs used in World War II that were powerful enough to wipe out entire city blocks, and its metaphorical usage in that sense—talking about something that makes a significant impact on the population—was what most people had in mind a few decades later when it began to be used to describe runaway successes like Jaws and Star Wars. But since then, the word’s meaning has expanded even more to mean not just a major cinematic success, but also a movie made in the same style and tone as those successes.
In the introduction to the 2003 essay anthology Movie Blockbusters, editor Julian Schnabel writes: “If ‘night’ is the key term structuring the discussion of film noir, the blockbuster appears most frequently understood through repeated association with an alternative key term—namely, ‘size.’ Size is the central notion through which the blockbuster’s generic identity comes to be identified.” In other words, “blockbuster” becomes all about attitude and scope, which is why Avatar and The Lone Ranger, despite receiving very different welcomes from the moviegoing public, can both be rightly classified as blockbusters. The goal of a blockbuster is, simply, to overwhelm the viewer. The concept isn’t about return on investment; it’s about the investment itself, about the size and scale with which filmmakers hope to dazzle the audience. There’s no such thing as too much.
Yet not all blockbusters are created equal. If the first modern blockbusters were able to pair size with focus, then today’s examples are victims of creeping bloat. The genre started out promising save-the-world stakes while also trotting nicely along through linear, cleanly managed plots: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters.
Today’s blockbusters, though, are about size above all else. In place of a guiding directorial hand or vision—say, the kind of sensibility that could make something like Die Hard stand out from the pack—the films are subservient to the idea of overblown spectacle, and the filmmakers themselves are slaves to that whim.
Think of the bludgeoning work of Zach Snyder, who broke out with the plastic, mindless spectacle of 300 and whose Man of Steel isn’t so much an action movie as a grim machine meant to pummel the viewer into submission. (The final half hour or so is almost nothing but CGI flying men knocking over CGI buildings with CGI tanks and ships, an orgiastic and totally numbing experience.) Michael Bay is the undisputed king of this kind of thing: He has made more than 10 hours just of Transformers movies, smashing giant metal blurs into each other at high speeds with no purpose or end in sight. And there’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe, each entry becoming more and more homogenized, devoted only to massive, choppily edited fight scenes strung together by thin characters and filler dialogue. I’m sure something happened in Iron Man 3, but I couldn’t tell you what it was.
Blockbusters are now all about delivering more: more music, more mayhem, more action, more characters, more sound, more explosions. They are altars to the god of sensory overload. Instead of captivating viewers by allowing them to witness action and vicariously feel suspense, blockbusters now seek to replicate that action impressionistically, thrusting the viewer into a hazy experience of what it might feel like to be in the film instead of just watching it.
This, unsurprisingly, has led to some wildly varied movies, but it’s also done some interesting things to video games, too, whose growth has roughly paralleled the development and expansion of the modern blockbuster. The adventure stories that heralded the birth of the modern home video game—Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda—were relatively straightforward action titles requiring the player to linearly progress the plot from A to B to C and so on, until things wrapped up. Super Mario Bros. was even literal about this: You can only move forward, not back. Once you cross the edge of the screen and begin to usher in the world beyond it, you cannot return to the place you left. There’s a pleasing emotional balance here with the blockbusters of the era: Kill the giant marshmallow man, save the princess.
Yet as blockbuster films began to become exercises in specific types of size and tone, video games followed suit in their own way, offering an increasing number of tangents within games that replicated the multiple plotlines and feeling of space and size found on the big screen. For instance, a movie’s pacing is out of the hands of the viewer, so video games couldn’t borrow anything like editing or special effects from cinematic blockbusters, but they could import the sense of leaving the viewer overstuffed. In blockbuster movies, you get tons of characters; in blockbuster games, you get tons of things for your character to do.
Blockbusters are all about size, which in film equates to visual scale and in games is often represented as “options.” A movie wants to overwhelm you with images, but a game wants to overwhelm you with activity: open-world environments, customizable avatars, side quests, collectibles, achievements, mini-games, and so on. Anything to keep you busy. You can spend as much time as you want playing checkers in Assassin’s Creed or casino games in Mass Effect 3. You can pass actual real-world days of your life just golfing or watching fake television shows in Grand Theft Auto V. You can ride your horse from one end of Red Dead Redemption to the other, doing nothing but shooting birds and collecting flowers and saving the same town again and again from a gang of thieves who never seem to get the message. You can, in other words, avoid plot and consequence as long as you’d like and just play around with the window dressing, which is the same state of self-pleasing distraction that filmmakers want you to enter when you watch a robot that turns into a truck ride another robot that turns into a dinosaur.