8 Ways The Movies Of Summer 1997 Changed Hollywood Forever

Back in 1997, studios couldn't imagine that comic book movies like 'Batman & Robin' would rule the box office a quarter-century later.
Back in 1997, studios couldn't imagine that comic book movies like 'Batman & Robin' would rule the box office a quarter-century later. / Warner Bros.

The year 1997 seems both impossibly long ago and strangely recent, and bears odd similarities to 2022 in that it was a big year for Nicolas Cage, Will Smith, and Batman. Costumed heroes battled in computer-generated landscapes and a lot of things blew up. 

Yet there are household name actors in 2022 who were still in diapers then, and 1997 megastars who wouldn’t draw a second glance now. Marvel was a comic company, and the internet made loud noises when you connected to it. 

Looking back at the summer of 1997, how much of an impact did it have on the Hollywood of 2022? Turns out, quite a lot …

1. It brought in the Age of Cage.

Nicolas Cage in 'Face/Off' (1997).
Nicolas Cage in 'Face/Off' (1997). / Getty Images/GettyImages

Before 1997, Nicolas Cage was an actor. A good one, too—he won an Oscar in 1996 for Leaving Las Vegas. After following that up with Michael Bay’s The Rock, he surprised everyone by delivering a one-two punch of wildly enjoyable, incredibly violent movies that dominated the summer of 1997: Con Air and Face/Off. These came out a mere two weeks apart and propelled Cage into the realm of sh*t-blowing-up movies. His filmography since then has been strikingly uneven—equal parts prestige and bargain-bin—but in 1997 there was nobody better at explosive kookiness.

2. It codified our new millennium paranoia.

Jodie Foster in 'Contact' (1997).
Jodie Foster in 'Contact' (1997). / Getty Images/GettyImages

Perhaps partly due to existential anxiety stemming from the imminent new millennium, a lot of filmmaking eyes were cast skyward in 1997. Men In Black, Contact, and Event Horizon provided different takes on what could be out there. Contact—which, apart from that one beloved mirror shot, hasn’t really stood the test of time—offered a more cerebral approach, while Event Horizon combined psychological trauma with body horror; Men In Black, on the other hand, offered a cheerful, crowd-pleasing take on conspiracy theories. (Also released that summer: Richard Donner’s paranoia-is-correct thriller Conspiracy Theory.) One summer later, this existential dread would be made even clearer with the death-from-above double-whammy of Armageddon and Deep Impact, as the world collectively decided it was all probably over for us.

3. It solidified Will Smith’s ownership of July.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in 'Men in Black' (1997).
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in 'Men in Black' (1997). / Getty Images/GettyImages

One year earlier, Independence Day had introduced the world to Will Smith, Movie Star. While that movie was arguably an ensemble piece, it transformed Smith from beloved sitcom star to major box-office draw. Men In Black gave him his second Fourth of July opening in a row, and it turned out to be a colossal hit both critically and commercially (and came accompanied by a hit single). This would be the Will Smith model for a few years, recreated for both Wild Wild West and Men In Black II, both of which sort of sucked but still made a fortune. 

4. The 21st century’s biggest genre came calling—but nobody answered.

'Batman & Robin' (1997) star George Clooney pals around with his Batsuit.
'Batman & Robin' (1997) star George Clooney pals around with his Batsuit. / Colin Davey/GettyImages

In 1997, Hollywood didn’t know that comic book movies were set to become the cultural behemoth they are now or who the audience for them might be. (Men In Black was technically based on a comic, but it was a pretty obscure one and the movie bore minimal resemblance to it.)

The Batman franchise breathed its last breath—for a while at least—with the DayGlo codpiece-fest that was Batman & Robin, while two potentially great comic book movies, Spawn and Steel, failed to hit. Spawn didn’t seem quite certain about what it was trying to be, flip-flopping between a brutally dark revenge movie and a farting-clown slapstick-a-thon; Steel, on the other, shed most of the details of its origin story, making Shaquille O’Neal’s helmet look all the goofier. Both films set things up for 1998’s Blade, which essentially established the beginning of the modern era of comic book movies. 

5. A bunch of ‘that-guy’ actors got upgraded.

The year 1997 was a great one for taking familiar-looking character actors—the Danny Trejos of the world—and solidifying them in moviegoers’ minds as more than just “that guy.” In 1997 alone, Trejo was featured in Anaconda, Champions, Con Air, Trojan War, Los Locos, and Dilemma, as well as a Sepultura music video and a documentary. Steve Buscemi was a known name to the arthouse crowd, but his unforgettably odd performance in Con Air—a standout even in a movie filled with deeply odd performances—made him legitimately well-known. Viggo Mortensen and Jennifer Lopez, each of whom had been startlingly attractive sixth-names-down in a few movies, had their first major roles (in G.I. Jane and Selena, respectively). 

6. It brought an end to subtle performances.

The indie film explosion of the early 1990s brought with it a more naturalistic, understated, subtle approach to acting, but in 1997 everyone decided to throw that out the window. Sometimes through plot contrivances, other times through very specific decisions, and other times still in a bid to out-act goofy costumes, it was a big year for chewing the hell out of all available scenery. Con Air is wall-to-wall showing off. Face/Off is a feature-length who-can-act-the-maddest contest. Vincent D’Onofrio spends all of Men In Black making increasingly silly faces. Batman & Robin features Arnold Schwarzenegger bellowing ice-themed puns while laminated in glitter and Uma Thurman vamping about like she’s in a 1930s silent movie. John Leguizamo’s Spawn character shouts pretty much every line, while Jon Voight’s Anaconda villain is essentially a cartoon character.

7. Willing suspension of disbelief took a holiday.

Sylvester Stallone in 'Cop Land' (1997).
Sylvester Stallone in 'Cop Land' (1997). / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

Larger-than-life stars who normally played supersoldiers (or genies) spent 1997 presenting themselves as ordinary people, a glimpse of the future where we are occasionally expected to buy The Rock as a suburban dad. Sylvester Stallone gained 40 pounds to play a beaten-down sheriff in Cop Land, but still looked like he could benchpress a truck. Flashback scenes in Batman & Robin have Arnold Schwarzenegger portraying a cryogenics scientist the size of a house. Shaquille O’Neal spends the entirety of Steel towering a foot and a half above everyone else as an engineer whose very enormousness in a work environment must be an OSHA violation. At the other end of the spectrum, the late-summer entry The Edge asked us to side with the sexagenarian Anthony Hopkins as he fought a full-size bear (accompanied by the very un-Anthony Hopkins line, “I’m going to kill that motherf***er”). 

8. It has non-obvious echoes a quarter-century later.

Brendan Fraser faces off against a lion in 'George of the Jungle' (1997).
Brendan Fraser faces off against a lion in 'George of the Jungle' (1997). / Getty Images/GettyImages

Twenty-five years later, it’s some of the more unlikely movies of 1997 that still create ripples. A G.I. Jane joke at the Oscars this year led to international headlines. Two of the stars of Anaconda (Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson) reunited for a rom-com, Marry Me. While it’s always 1999’s The Mummy that gets mentioned, the internet’s ongoing love affair with Brendan Fraser owes a lot to 1997’s George Of The Jungle, in which he looks about as good as any human being has ever looked. Arguably, the movie from that summer that cast the longest cultural shadow wasn’t a hit until it was released on video—Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which is still being poorly impersonated (and making people horny, baby) after two and a half decades.

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