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2023 was the summer of petty men in movies

Step aside, women! It's time to do something that society never does, and focus on the presence and power of men in movies. The summer of 2023 sure did.

2023 was the summer of petty men: Mads Mikkelsen, Ryan Gosling, and Robert Downey. Jr

Barbie has cracked a billion dollars at the box office. And though the industry seems to have incorrectly deduced: “Well, let’s make more toy movies, I guess,” it does create hope that change is on the horizon, and that more tastes can be met and more risks can be taken. Yes, Barbie was a hit. But would it have been a hit without the whimsical antics of a patriarchy-blinded Ken?

We can’t know for sure, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the summer of 2023’s movies were occupied and enhanced by one subject in particular: The petty man. Steady yourself: this isn’t an attack. This is a celebration. I’m here today to pay homage to the men of the big screen. In particular, the petty male characters that occupied the big screens during the recent summer’s new movies.

This is a song of praise, reflecting on why these particular male characters’ pettiness elevated the movies they were in, and gave a much needed boost for the lacking, long, or potentially overwhelming adventures we went on this year under the glare of the projector.

This first began in the lackluster Indiana Jones finale, The Dial of Destiny. Indy was back to doing what he does best: punching Nazis. It was a forgettable and regrettable installment in what is a beloved franchise for many; the cinematic equivalent of eating a past-its-prime grape and spitting it back out. You can still taste it. But the movie villain, Mads Mikkelsen’s Jürgen Voller, was the one piece of Destiny’s puzzle that made anything close to an impact.

Indiana Jones has always been famous for its grandiose antagonists. Fascist trenchcoat-wearing fiends who have their faces melted off? Done it. A beautiful femme fatale who seduces father and son alike? Check. A Russian psychic with a bob as black as night and sharp as a blade? Got it.

Mads Mikkelsen as Dr Voller in Indiana Jones: Dial of Destiny

While Dial of Destiny was weak, Mikkelsen’s Voller stood out as being inherently ‘Old Indiana Jones’, for no other reason than that of his motivation. Voller wants to find the dial to travel back in time so he can kill Hitler and replace him as the Fuhrer, because he thinks he can do a better job.

Honestly? On paper, this grand plan reads like a teenage girl’s desire to overthrow the Queen Bee so she can reign supreme. It’s kind of wild that the entire driving force behind this adventure movie is a man who wants to manipulate the very fabric of space and time so he can oust his incompetent boss.

This might have been a fluke, had Dial of Destiny not been followed up by the pop culture megalodon known as Barbenhiemer. Ken, upon discovering patriarchy, goes mad with power and completely reshapes Barbieland society. His insecurity that explains his fast attraction to the male dominated ideals comes from his relationship with Barbie, or lack thereof.

Ryan Gosling as Ken in the Barbie movie

He yearns for her attention, acceptance, and hopes that her affections will justify his confusing existence. But he never gets it, so he falls back on what he thinks will be a last-ditch attempt to get his own way, for once. Ken doesn’t even know what he wants. He only loves horses and trucks. He sequesters the female-run Barbieland government, all because he thinks she let him down. For Ken, the patriarchy isn’t an awakening. It’s revenge.

In a theater across the way from Barbie, there was another movie so drenched in pettiness that the room almost stank of it. There’s something we’ve been missing from the movies for a long time: a sense of camp. It’s what makes the best movies of all time remain eternally important. Oppenheimer is the campest movie of 2023, even with Barbie in the mix. From Emily Blunt stumbling into a kitchen and asking, “Where’re the martinis?”, to Josh from Drake and Josh being the man who detonated the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer was a surrealist fever dream.

But the core of the movie is Lewis Strauss and his ability to hold onto a grudge for years. The entire political backbone of Oppenheimer hinges on the fact that Lewis Strauss spends years in a tormented state of hatred because he thinks that two people were gossiping about him. Hey, he’s just like me!

Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer

Of course, Oppenheimer is much more nuanced and emotionally complex than one idea. But it’s hard to deny that over the course of the summer, we’ve met many on-screen men, and each of them have had something in common. They’ve got a grudge, and they’re going to be bitter as hell about it. But the reason this works is that all these men get their comeuppance in a way (albeit with vastly different results). Voller dies in a plane crash, Strauss gets verbally bitch-slapped by young Han Solo, and Ken learns a heavy lesson.

The summer of 2023 has been a cinematic achievement. Not only has it become an incredibly culturally historical time for movies, but has also reignited a passion for movie theater-goers around the world. We may never have another summer like this.

But when you look back in old age and remember fondly the year in which you dressed all in pink and stood in line for hours, or watched a harrowing three hour biopic about nuclear war with a bucket of popcorn the size of your head, remember them. The petty men of cinema who had their stories, and made the movies a little more interesting for doing so.

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Take a see what we’re most excited about, check out our guides to the Killers of the Flower Moon release date, Dune 2 release date, and Wonka release date. You can also check out our Barbie review, Indiana Jones 5 review, and Oppenheimer review. Or, get to know the Barbie cast and Oppenheimer cast.

For more longreads, check out why the Barbie movie’s body diversity couldn’t have come at a better time, and see why we think you need to put your phone away in the cinema.