A New Kind of Superhero

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Wade Wilson, better known as "Deadpool," is a sarcastic, sometimes schizophrenic, violent, nonsensical comic book character who assassinates people for a living.

He's also one of the only characters in the history of the medium to be aware that he's inside a comic book, which means that he gets to break the fourth wall to talk about writers, artists, and pop culture and make jokes at other characters' expense in a way that can be downright hysterical.

Created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza as a spoof of rival DC Comics' "Deathstroke" (aka Slade Wilson), Deadpool was originally a minor character who occasionally got to play around in the X-Men and X-Force universe, cracking jokes and generally causing trouble for the real heroes. But he quickly became a popular comic book character in his own right. As anyone who has been to a comic book convention can attest, everybody loves Deadpool.

I'm not alone in suspecting that the film industry is going to learn the wrong lessons here.

It's easy to understand why. He has a great look. He's witty, sharp, and hysterically funny. He has a great superpower (self-healing) as well as skills that lend themselves well to high-octane action stories. And he's always getting into shootouts, swordfights, and other assorted brawls. But here's the thing: he's not actually a nice guy.

He swears like a sailor. He spends his time with hookers and other mercenaries. He makes fun of his own audience. He gets in the way of real heroes when they're trying to help people. And did I mention that he murders people for a living?

Don't get me wrong . . . he's a wildly original and entertaining character, but there's simply no way around the fact that this comic book character is not written for kids.

But what's really strange is that there was actually a small but ridiculous push from some parents for Fox to make a PG-13 version of the movie. Somebody even started a Change.org petition asking for a toned-down cut of the movie.

The trouble is, it is impossible to capture the essence of Deadpool on film in a PG or PG-13 movie, and for a long time, director Tim Miller and producer and star Ryan Reynolds struggled to get the now record-breaking movie greenlit at Fox because no one had really done an R-rated superhero movie in the Marvel blockbuster era, and studio heads worried about shutting out the lucrative young-teen and preteen audience. When they finally leaked some test footage and got the ball rolling, one of the biggest fears fans of the comics had was that Fox would try to water down the character to make a "four quadrant" picture — one that plays equally well to kids, adult males, adult females, and elderly people — “fun for the whole family!”).

In what would ultimately go on to become part of the greatest social-marketing campaign for a film in recent memory, one of the first advertisements for Deadpool was an April Fools Day prank video featuring Mario Lopez breaking the "news" that it would indeed be rated PG-13.

Childproofing violent antiheroes in an attempt to please everyone is a vote of no confidence and a surefire path to box-office doom.

Once fans realized that the video was a joke and that the producers were actually going for an R rating, the conversation changed. Fears of studio meddling ruining the movie turned into excitement that just kept building until last weekend, when Deadpool nabbed the biggest opening weekend ever for an R-rated movie.

Unfortunately, I'm not alone in suspecting that the film industry is going to learn the wrong lessons here. Already Universal announced that the next Wolverine movie will be rated R, as though the lesson from Deadpool is that a racier rating will ensure higher box office revenues. Frankly I think Wolverine always should have been rated R. Like Deadpool, he is not a very nice guy, and in X-Men II he kills a half a dozen guys in Xavier's mansion, mostly in front of children, but because somehow no actual blood is seen anywhere, it earned a PG-13.

Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn said via Facebook:

After every movie smashes records people here in Hollywood love to throw out the definitive reasons why the movie was a hit. I saw it happen with Guardians. It ‘wasn't afraid to be fun’ or it ‘was colorful and funny’ etc etc etc. And next thing I know I hear of a hundred film projects being set up ‘like Guardians,’ and I start seeing dozens of trailers exactly like the Guardians trailer with a big pop song and a bunch of quips. Ugh.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

Deadpool wasn't that. Deadpool was its own thing. THAT'S what people are reacting to. It's original, it's damn good, it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn't afraid to take risks.

For the theatrical experience to survive, spectacle films need to expand their definition of what they can be. They need to be unique and true voices of the filmmakers behind them. They can't just be copying what came before them.

So, over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you'll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They'll be green lighting films ‘like Deadpool’ — but, by that, they won't mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’ They'll treat you like you're stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn't do.

I couldn't agree more.

Studios should not go out of their way to make comic book movies darker or edgier on the theory that Deadpool was successful because it had sex, violence, and bad language. Making Superman or Spider-Man into badasses won't make those iconic characters' movies better. But likewise, childproofing violent antiheroes in an attempt to please everyone is a vote of no confidence and a surefire path to box-office doom.

Deadpool is succeeding because it is a ridiculously entertaining movie featuring a classic, well-told story, and because the filmmakers embraced all the things that made the source material great instead of cowing to pressure from parents and studio executives to water down the essence of the character. Miller and Reynolds deserve an enormous round of applause for making a film that was true to Deadpool's comic origins.

Not every film needs to be made for all audiences, and that's actually OK.


Editor's Note: Review of "Deadpool," directed by Tim Miller. Twentieth Century Fox, 2016, 108 minutes.



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Putting the Art in “Art Film”

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What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981) is one of Raymond Carver’s most significant short stories. Four characters — two couples — sit around a kitchen table talking about — well, talking about love, in all its manifestations, but never actually communicating what they mean in a way that the others can understand.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor best known for his cinematic superhero alter ego, Birdman. The film could just as easily be titled How We Act When We Act as Though We Aren’t Acting. It’s a forgivably self-indulgent self-study of the art of acting, portrayed by some of the least celebritized actors in the business.

Like many celebrity movie stars today, Thomson is trying to shake off his stardom by treading the boards of Broadway. He has been pigeonholed by his fans as the Birdman and is trying to escape the character that seems to have taken up residency inside his brain. The Birdman talks to him in a voice that is strangely reminiscent of Batman, and seems to give Thomson kinetic powers. Thomson’s daughter in the film (Emma Stone) is often on the ledge of the rooftop, and Thomson is often on the edge of sanity. He sees and hears things that aren’t there, does things he doesn’t do — or does he? We really don’t know.

It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

Keaton portrayed Batman in two Tim Burton films almost a quarter of a century ago, so it’s easy to make a connection between him and the character he plays in this film. Keaton is a fine but reclusive actor, choosing his projects carefully, and mostly choosing not to work. Yet he has said in interviews that Riggan Thomson is the least like him of any character he has played — and he has played a lot of unusual characters, including Batman, Beetlejuice, and the Multiplicity clones.

The film is set in the St. James Theater on 44th Street, where Thomson is writing, directing, and starring in a “serious” Broadway play based on the Carver story. Art imitates life imitates art as characters break character within the play and actors occasionally break character within the film, making the audience intently aware of the difficulty of both filmmaking and playmaking.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wanted to film this movie in the way a play is made — live, uninterrupted, all in one take, mistakes and all. After discussing the project with stage and film director Mike Nichols, he realized he would need to settle for several long takes of 15 minutes or more rather than one two-hour take, and it was a good compromise. The camera work is stylized and unsettling without calling undue attention to itself. Instead, it recalls the unsettled and stylized state of Riggan Thomson’s fragile mind. For example, the camera climbs the walls to get from a sidewalk shot to a rooftop shot, preparing the viewer to accept Thomson’s ability to reinhabit the Birdman’s power of flight — for real. Or as real as acting can be. At one point the camera just sits in a hallway, waiting for Keaton’s character to come into view. Perhaps Inarritu intended it this way. Perhaps Keaton was late for his entrance. Either way, Inarritu left it as is, instead of editing it out. It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

In the Carver story, light plays a significant but subtle role; the room is light while the four friends are talking, but light gradually leaves the room as it becomes apparent that they will not be able to articulate sufficiently what love is. They can talk about love; they can feel it individually when it happens; they can share stories that seem to express it, but they can’t explain or define it for someone else. They talk about stories and examples that seem to prove what love is, but they discover that language is insufficient to express what they mean. In the film, music seems to take the place of light. The film’s soundtrack alternates between lush symphonies by Mahler, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff and a cacophonous interpretive jazz drum piece created brilliantly by Antonio Sanchez. The music is one of the best components of the film, conveying the changing moods of the character as he soars and frets, yet insufficient for expressing what Thomson is really experiencing.

Birdman is not a mainstream film. It’s not even a standard indie film. If you’re looking for an absorbing plot or wacky entertainment, this isn’t it. But it’s a fascinating piece of art and well worth watching.

How do you act when you act as though you aren’t acting?


Editor's Note: Review of "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)," directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Twentieth Century Fox, 2014, 159 minutes.



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Iron Man 3: The Low-Down

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Literature is fraught with examples of the hero who longs to be ordinary: the prince who covets the life of the pauper, the mermaid who trades her magical tail for the legs of a human, the gods who walk the earth and mate with mortals, the bewitching bride who abandons her powers to marry a mortal. These are just a few.

Iron Man is such a hero. He is torn between a sense of duty to protect his country from the attacks of weaponized soldiers and his desire to enjoy the luxurious lifestyle his successful entrepreneurship affords him. In Iron Man 3 he spends much of his time outside the super suit, fighting the bad guys not as Iron Man but as his alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.).

I like Iron Man. He’s my favorite superhero. First, his alter ego, Tony Stark, is anything but a “mild mannered” Clark Kent. He’s spunky, witty, and unpredictable. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether he’s a visionary or a maniac. Or just manic. I also like the fact that he isn’t stoic. When he gets punched, he bruises and bleeds. In this episode he suffers panic attacks too.

Stark is a scientist, not a mutant as most of the superheroes are. He designed and built his own superhero suit to counteract a nearly deadly injury to his heart. He calls himself “a mechanic” because ultimately, like most practical scientists, he fixes things. He’s also an entrepreneur. Yes, he’s wealthy, but he earned his wealth through intelligence, capital, and hard work. I like that.

OK, he also made much of his money by creating weapons of war, so I can’t give him an A-plus as a libertarian . . . but hey, he’s just responding to the market! And it’s the Department of Defense, not War, that he helps, right? But it does bother him that his scientific experiments contributed to the technology for creating the weaponized soldiers who are now attacking America. He feels responsible.

Superheroes have become our modern mythology, representing the changing values and beliefs of a changing culture.

As this episode begins, Stark is no longer the bon vivant playboy of previous iterations; he is now in a “committed relationship” with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his long-time, longsuffering assistant. Pepper is no longer a wallflower in the background but a buff and courageous überwoman who even gets to “suit up” in the Iron Man paraphernalia a couple of times. Nevertheless, she is kidnapped, early on, by an evil anatomist (Guy Pearce) who has created a new army of weaponized soldiers. Meanwhile, the world is threatened by an Osama-like villain known as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) who is taking credit for suicide bombers exploding in public places throughout the world. Tony spends most of the film fighting these hybrid soldiers, thwarting the maniac, and rescuing his damsel. He vows: “No politics or Pentagon this time — just good old fashioned revenge.”

While chasing down clues to the bad guys in a small Tennessee town, Tony runs into a cute kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins) who helps him fix his Iron Man suit and get it recharged. The sweet, casual interplay between these two characters creates the best part of the film. Tony doesn't have any experience with kids, and as a result, he talks to Harley in the way he would to a grown-up, and Harley responds as though they were best buds. Their conversations are charming and natural.

Iron Man 3 is not as good as the original, but it is certainly better than the second episode. The story is tighter, the villains are stronger, and the character development is deeper. Stan Lee, who created Spider-Man, Iron Man, and many other superheroes of the Marvel comic book franchise, makes his usual cameo appearance, this time as the judge at a Tennessee beauty pageant. Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man movies, chose to produce and act in this one instead: he plays Tony's overzealous bodyguard, Happy. It's not great filmmaking by any means, but it’s interesting as a cultural artifact.

Superhero movies are the safest bet for Hollywood studios today. They require big budgets, but they bring home big box office receipts. No fewer than four are slated for release this summer. Fans attend midnight showings on the first day of release, and audiences applaud enthusiastically throughout the show. It's almost like attending an old tent revival meeting. This isn't terribly surprising, because superheroes have become our modern mythology, representing the changing values and beliefs of a changing culture. The various superheroes continue to cross over into each other's mythologies, with numerous references to each other within their separate movies. It is worth watching the films if only to see how their characters and values change from year to year, and to observe the cultural phenomenon they have become.


Editor's Note: Review of "Iron Man 3," directed by Shane Black. Marvel Studios, 2013, 130 minutes.



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Batman and Business

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Business is bad in Hollywood, and I'm not talking about the box office receipts. Businesspeople have been portrayed as bad guys in movies for the past several decades. When an audience member asked about this trend during the "Liberty in Film" panel at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival last month, Hollywood biographer and insider Marc Eliot dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "It's just a shortcut," he explained. "When you see a businessman on the screen, you know it's the villain. It just streamlines the story."

As moderator of the panel, I agreed with him that these shortcuts are probably not intentionally sinister; in fact, the technique goes all the way back to Aesop, who used them in his fables. "If a character was a dog, you knew he would be loyal," I acknowledged. "A fox would be cunning. A crow would steal. In the old days," I went on, "a black hat meant 'bad guy' and a white hat meant 'good guy.' But shortcuts are dangerous and unfair when we're talking about whole groups of people." I specifically referenced the "shortcuts" of earlier generations of filmmakers: blacks were clowns; Indians were ferocious; women were weak. I suggested the danger of having a new generation automatically think "villain" when it sees a businessperson. The problem is that these characters often mirror and perpetuate basic prejudices within a culture. Onscreen stereotypes lead to real-life prejudices.

Panelist Gary Alexander added this biting criticism: "Using shortcuts is just plain lazy." It's true that filmmakers have always used stock characters as shortcuts to storytelling, and they probably always will. But that doesn't mean we have to accept them.

The silver lining to this clouded silver screen is that these shortcuts can be changed. The challenge for filmmakers is to break away from them and create independent characters who can surprise and satisfy. Just as filmmakers of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s deliberately challenged black and female stereotypes by casting against type and writing untraditional storylines, so libertarian filmmakers today need to write screenplays that challenge and overturn the stock business villain. These characters need to be portrayed in the rich, three-dimensional diversity that exists in the real world, where some business people are admittedly bad but others are surprisingly (to filmgoers) good.

What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies.

This actually happens in The Dark Knight Rises, the latest entry in the Batman franchise. It's subtle, but it's clear: although there are some bad businesspeople in the film, there are just as many good ones, smashing the stereotype and insisting that viewers look past their stock expectations. For example, when Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) discovers that his homes for at-risk and orphaned boys have not been funded for two years, he confronts his trusted friend and protector, Alfred. "The homes were funded by profits from Wayne Industries," Alfred sadly explains. "There have to be some." That’s a reminder to Bruce, who has been in a deep funk since his girlfriend died, that his neglect of his company has had wide-ranging effects. Bruce — and the audience — are thus informed that "excess profits" are a good thing. They can be used for doing good works, if that is the business owner's goal.

Similarly, in another brief interchange the audience is told that everyone is affected by the stock market, whether they own stocks or not. I don't think I'm giving away too much to tell you that, early in the film, the bad guys break into the stock exchange. The chief of police is unconcerned about the consequences of a financial meltdown, arguing that the average person saves his money under a mattress and doesn't care about what happens to the stock market. The head of the exchange tells him, "If this money disappears, your mattress will be worth a lot less." A simple truth, simply stated.

Later, Bruce Wayne teams up with Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard), the head of another corporation, and she voices similar truths about the free market. "You have to invest to restore balance to the world," she tells him, acknowledging the importance of capital investment and private enterprise. And when he looks around at a lavish business party she is hosting, she tells him, "The proceeds will go wherever I want, because I paid for the spread myself." Even Ayn Rand would likely approve this self-interested heroine who understands the value of business.

Meanwhile, Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), one of Batman's archenemies, looks around at Bruce Wayne's huge estate and growls jealously, "You're going to wonder how you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us." What a reversal of stereotypical shortcuts! A businesswoman who expresses the proper role of business, and a burglar who reveals her petty jealousies. Bravo, Christopher Nolan!

Cinematically The Dark Knight Rises delivers all that was promised in the weeks and months building up to its release. Christian Bale's troubled Bruce Wayne lifts the character far above the comic book hero created by Bob Kane and trivialized by the Adam West TV series in the ’60s. Gone, too, is the sardonic humor injected by George Clooney's portrayal in the ’80s. This Batman is a reluctant savior of a world that has largely misunderstood and rejected him. While he has a few ardent supporters, most consider him a traitor and want him destroyed. He is briefly tempted away from his mission by the love of a woman. He suffers indescribable agony in a dark prison at the hands of a monstrous villain named Bane (Tom Hardy) — the "bane" who wants to destroy the world. Despite his reluctance, Bruce accepts his arduous task. In short, he is a classic Christ figure, adding gravitas to the modern myth of Batman. He even says at one point, "My father's work is done."

I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that a TSA-style Movie Safety Authority does not take over our malls and movie theaters.

But while the characters are rich and well acted, the story is interesting, Hans Zimmer's musical score is powerfully compelling, and the final hour is particularly thrilling, it was difficult to watch this film. Action movies have always provided an opportunity to enter another world, suspend one's disbelief, enjoy vicarious experience, then step back into the real world where "things like that" don't really happen. But in light of what did happen in Aurora, Colorado on opening night, I found it almost impossible to separate myself from the barrage of onscreen shooting in the first half hour of the film. It seemed devastatingly real because I knew it was during this scene of heartless shooting in a very public location that the actual shooting began. I was almost ashamed to be there, seeking a few hours' entertainment from a film that was the unwitting stage for such terror.

I also found myself looking around the aisles and corners of the theater, watching for suspicious characters and devising an escape plan. This was partly because I had to display the contents of my purse to a uniformed employee before entering the theater. I hope that fears like this dissipate for everyone. And I hope that a TSA-style MSA (Movie Safety Authority) does not take over our malls and movie theaters.

Spoiler alert — read the next paragraph only if you have already seen this movie, or if you have no intention of ever seeing it:

The film ends with an "aha" moment that is so thrillingly unexpected that, when I saw it, the entire audience gasped in disbelief. But I should have known from the beginning. Marc Eliot explained it to us in the “Liberty in Film” panel, and he was right: Hollywood uses shortcuts to tell us who the bad guy is. Even when a writer-director is planning the most delicious of twists for the end, he is helpless against his own Hollywood instincts. Nolan telegraphed it from the start: In modern movies, the business owner is always the bad guy. Even when you least expect it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Dark Knight Rises," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2012, 164 minutes.



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Still Entertaining, After All These Years

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What is with all these superhero movies? Iron Man. The Hulk. Captain America. Thor. Do we really need yet another version of Spider-Man? Okay. We get it. Peter Parker gets bitten by an enhanced spider while visiting a science lab. His uncle is killed by a criminal whom Spidey could have stopped if he hadn’t been self-absorbed. He's misunderstood and mistreated. He gets the idea for his costume from a wrestling match. And he can't have a girlfriend because he has to save the world. The story has become so familiar, it isn't even Amazing anymore. So why do we have a new Spider-Man every other year?

The cynical answer is that superheroes are box-office gold. But I think there is more to the superhero craze than simple economics. Every culture has its myths &‐ larger-than-life stories that reveal the community's values, hopes, and fears. Superheroes are the American equivalent of the Olympian gods. Like the Olympians, they have human desires and human foibles. They can be lusty, angry, vengeful, and capricious. But today's superheroes are quite different from the gods of old. They no longer want to be worshipped. In many respects, they just want to be left alone.

Much can be revealed about our evolving culture by examining the evolving superhero. The latest version of The Amazing Spider-Man is quite good. The special effects of Spidey flying through the sky, somersaulting onto ceilings, and hanging from buildings are — OK, you knew it was coming — amazing. His arch nemesis, a lizard-man mutant, is well-developed and complex. The story is satisfying, amusing, and tense, especially in 3D. The casting is superb, especially Andrew Garfield as the new Peter Parker. His gangly youthfulness and spindly physique evoke the angular appendages and lightning speed of a spider. He’s cute, but somehow creepy and unpredictable too.

Even more interesting, however, are the metaphoric and mythic underpinnings of the new story. In many ways the superhero is a metaphor for adolescence. It's no coincidence that Peter is experiencing his first romance at the same time that his body is developing new powers and abilities. He is literally growing new organs, with goo that shoots out of his hands unexpectedly when he gets excited. Like many teens, he doesn't know his own strength, slamming doors and breaking handles with his new muscles. Moreover, he is self-absorbed and self-interested, experiencing pure joy in his own new powers. Superheroes of the previous century had an innate, almost Christlike sense of mission and nobility, but today's young superheroes revel in their newfound abilities. Like the teen mutants in February's Chronicle, Peter reacts joyously as he combines strength, speed, and gymnastic agility to fly from the rafters and swing from the buildings.

Myths always include a conflict between good and evil. A close look at mythic heroes and villains will therefore reveal much about the cultural fears and character values of a generation. In the original comic, Peter is bitten by a spider that has been exposed to radioactive particles. Like other mid-century science fictions, Spider-Man embodied a generation’s fear of the atomic bomb and radiation. In the 2012 version, the laboratory is studying interspecies genetic engineering, revealing a new generation’s fears and concerns about unintentional consequences to genetic meddling.

Another mythological mainstay is the quest for self-discovery. A moment of such discovery occurs directly as Peter enters his English class. His teacher tells her students, “A professor once told that there are only ten stories in all of fiction. I contend that there is only one: ‘Who am I?’” She may be wrong about the number of storylines, but she is certainly right about the importance of self-discovery in literature. It reaches all the way back to 500 BC, and Sophocles’ foundational play, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus discovers who he is by discovering who his parents were. The current story also starts as a quest for self-discovery, as Peter sets out to uncover secrets about his father.

When Peter settles down to thwarting criminals, his motives are far from altruistic. He is no Superman, fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” He just wants to find the man who killed Uncle Ben, and if he ties up a few other criminals along the way and leaves them for the cops to arrest, so much the better. Eventually, however, he accepts his mission to fight crime and protect his community. Could we really expect to see a superhero who is not expected to “give back”? As a voice from the dead, Uncle Ben tells Peter that when you are given a great talent, you have to share it with the world.

But this time he doesn’t have to do things all alone. Most revealing is director Marc Webb's treatment of the community at large — the people of New York whom Spider-man is trying to protect. Unlike the inhabitants of Superman's Metropolis or Batman's Gotham or the Avengers' Manhattan, they don't stand around looking up and pointing while the superhero does all the work. They get involved, helping Spidey help them. I love this newfound push toward self-reliance, even if it is a self-reliance that “takes a village.” (How I hate that metaphor!)

Over all, Webb has created a satisfying new version of this cinematic mainstay. I still don’t know why we needed a new one, but it held my attention, even though I know the story inside and out. Myth has a way of doing that.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Amazing Spider-Man," directed by Marc Webb. Columbia Studios, 2012, 136 minutes.



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Superheroes for Fun and Frolic

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If you haven’t heard of Chronicle, you aren’t alone. On hearing the title, most people think it’s a re-release of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Chronicles of Riddick. But the title of this film is just Chronicle. And it’s just out. But the word “just” doesn't do justice to this chronicle of a super-unhero in the making. This is a film — one of several this season — that focuses on the art of filmmaking. It is fun and exciting, but it also deserves critical acclaim for its cinematic techniques.

As a story, Chronicle challenges one of the basic elements of the superhero genre: for some reason, we simply accept the idea that a person who has been given supernatural powers will automatically decide to use them for the common good. From Superman to Spiderman, superheroes have accepted the idea that they have an obligation to “give back” to society by giving up their personal desires and happiness.

Chronicle asks its viewers to consider what it would really be like if a hormone-driven, angst-laden, alcohol-addled teenager suddenly developed supernatural powers of levitation and kinesthetics. In this film, might does not make man righteous, and superpowers do not necessarily make superheroes.

When three high school seniors, Andrew (Dane DaHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), accidentally stumble upon what appears to be a meteor tunneled into the ground, they are exposed to something akin to radioactive power. This affects their brains, and soon they find that they can control objects outside themselves. The story is so old it is almost iconic. But these boys revel in their newfound powers and continue to frolic like teenagers. It never even occurs to them to use their powers altruistically for the betterment or protection of humankind. In fact, they never compare themselves to superheroes. Nor do they worry about any dangers or risks that might accrue to them from having been exposed to those powerful rays. They just live in the moment, laughing and playing (and fighting) as teenagers tend to do.

As the film opens, Andrew sits behind a video camera, reflected in the mirror in front of him. He carries his camera everywhere, recording his conversations and the events around him. He represents this generation’s fixation on chronicling everything they do digitally, via video cameras, Facebook, and blogs. Director Josh Trank uses a camera-lens point of view so that the camera becomes the protagonist’s eyes. It almost becomes a character, in fact — the predator in the woods or behind the closet door that is always watching.

It may seem obvious to say that the audience sees through the eyes of the protagonist; after all, that’s just Literature 101. But although we identify with the protagonist in most films, we don’t literally see what the protagonist sees. The camera is usually focused outside the protagonist, filming the character as he or she talks, walks, and interacts with others. Most of the time the eyes are actually the viewers’, not the character’s. And that feels pretty comfortable for the viewer.

In Chronicle, however, we don’t see Andrew except when he happens to be reflected in his camera’s lens by a mirror or another shiny surface, or when he decides to turn the camera onto himself, or when other inside-the-story cameras catch him on film. This deliberately draws attention to his generation’s penchant for self-recording. It echoes the narcissistic reaction of these boys to their superpowers, while giving the film a creepy, voyeuristic tension.

It's actually a little too distracting: we constantly hear Andrew’s voice off-camera; and although tension is created in the beginning, because we see only what happens while the camera is turned on, too much attention is drawn to technique. Apparently Trank realized this, because partway through the story Andrew finds a way to film the trio without holding the camera himself. Eventually Trank abandons the technique altogether by allowing the story to be “chronicled” by all the security cameras and handheld devices in the city. This seems to be less distracting for the viewer; it maintains the integrity of the concept but adds another interesting layer of meaning to the film.

In addition to offering a fresh take on the superhero genre and a fresh approach to cinematic technique, Chronicle uses some nifty special effects in showing how the boys learn how to develop and control their powers. The subplots involving Andrew’s dying mother and abusive father are also powerful in helping us to understand Andrew as more than a two-dimensional comic-book character. This is a movie that film buffs will enjoy almost as much as the teen audience it seems designed to attract.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chronicle," directed by Josh Trank. Davis Entertainment, 2011, 83 minutes.



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