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August 11, 2014

Filed under: movies»commentary»superhero

12 Percent of a Plan

I would love to have been in the meeting where someone pitched Guardians of the Galaxy. "We're going to take all the good will you've built up through the Marvel comic movie franchise, and then spend it on a space movie with characters that nobody really knows, one of whom is a heavily-armed raccoon." And then even weirder, it worked: Guardians is pretty good. Maybe it tells when it should show a little too often, but it never stopped me from enjoying myself. It's got a great soundtrack, good writing, well-done special effects, and most importantly, a really watchable cast.

Of course, this has been the case with most of the Marvel movies. I mean, let's be honest about, say, the Thor franchise, which have been a fun pair of movies considering that they're composed almost entirely of gibberish: Norse gods with British accents (who are actually aliens) fighting against elves and ice trolls (who are also aliens)! The whole thing is completely incoherent, but nobody cares because of the casting: everybody onscreen is good-looking, compulsively charming, and clearly having fun with a very silly premise.

But there's one thing that's been bugging me about the Marvel flicks, including Guardians, which is their endings. Namely, that they've all got the same one: the bad guys summon/control/take over a huge flying object, which immediately crashes headlong into a city.

  • The Avengers: Aliens crash giant worms into New York City.
  • Thor: The Dark World: Elves crash giant spaceship into England.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Nazis crash giant aircraft into the Potomac.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy: Lee Pace crashes giant accordian into alien planet.

Explosions follow, while the heroes rush to tackle the portal/controller/big bad at the wheel. Lots of buildings fall over in the process, and people run through the streets while looking up and behind them (oddly enough, hardly anyone ever trips). Lance Mannion refers to it as the "obligatory ad for the video game," and while that's harsh it's not inaccurate, because it does feel a little bit (between the overused CGI and the framing) like watching someone else play God of War. A lot of money went into it, and someone's clearly having a good time, but it's not necessarily you.

And to be clear, Marvel's not the only company writing screenplays this way. Star Trek: Into Darkness, for example, was a movie that committed every sin in the screenwriting book (and then added a few) but arguably the worst part was the meaningless and cruel spaceship crash at its climax. Over at Fox, X-Men: Days of Future Past has Magneto tossing an airborne baseball stadium at the White House. Huge flying objects are the new glass jail cell.

The problem with these pyrotechnics isn't just that they're repetitive and tasteless (although they are both), it's that they're ineffective: by destroying a huge chunk of a city, the writers are aiming for huge cinematic stakes, but by portraying it from a wide-angle lens (and, in PG-rated films, refusing to show any of the resulting bodies and carnage) there's no sense of drama. It's just computer-generated buildings falling over in the distance: who cares?

For a movie like Guardians, which has no real point other than to be a fun space adventure, it's bad enough that there's a good fifteen minutes of watching architecture instead of the characters that are the real draw. But it's more acutely frustrating for something like The Winter Soldier, which spends its first 90 minutes referencing the modern surveillance state, which is a tricky, subtle political problem. And nothing says "tricky" and "subtle" like sending three flying aircraft carriers through a building in Washington, DC.

Maybe that's expecting a bit much from a huge media property with a multi-year cinema domination plan. Marvel wants to put people into seats twice a year, and if that means making the same movie over and over again, that's fine. It's certainly never stopped anyone else (see also: Transformers and Harry Potter). If they're not even sure they can make a movie starring a woman, the chances they'll mess with the formular are pretty slim.

But look at it this way: now you know when you can take a bathroom break without missing anything. I figure you can stay away until the end of the credits, at which point you'll learn which comic-book movie will drop a giant metal object on Paris next year. If we're all very lucky, it'll be Squirrel Girl's turn eventually.

July 31, 2007

Filed under: movies»commentary»superhero

Soon We Will Be Invincible

If you bring up superheroes outside of comics, sooner or later someone will mention The Incredibles. It happened to me lately. And much like Harry Potter, you're not supposed to dislike The Incredibles. It's a Pixar film, after all. What are you, some sort of hateful hater, filled to the brim with more hate, and living on 101 Hate Lane? How could you feel that way about The Incredibles?

The answer "because it's fascist propaganda" is probably not the most tactful response, in case you wondered.

In order to understand this, you have to separate the story of the movie, which is crafted with Pixar's typical care and humor, from its message, which is abhorrent. Ignore the villain's desire to conquer the world, and ignore his ruthless demeanor. Pay no attention to the charming way that the Parr family reacts to each other, and actually listen to what each character is saying:

Mr. Incredible: You mean you killed off real heroes so that you could *pretend* to be one?
Syndrome: Oh, I'm real. Real enough to defeat you! And I did it without your precious gifts, your oh-so-special powers. I'll give them heroics. I'll give them the most spectacular heroics the world has ever seen! And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that *everyone* can have powers. *Everyone* can be Super! And when everyone's Super...
[chuckles evilly]
Syndrome: No one will be.
That's not an isolated line, either. The theme of "if everyone's special, no-one is special" gets parroted by several characters, although the emphasis changes--family brat Dash clearly stands in for the audience when he despises this philosophy, since it's the rationale his parents use to keep him from using his superspeed, while Syndrome just as clearly thinks it's a great e-e-e-evil plan.

One is forced to wonder, frankly, why this is supposed to be such an evil plan. We don't wonder why Syndrome is a villain, naturally--he makes that perfectly clear by using heroes as guinea pigs for his doom machines, and planning to manipulate the populace for his own benefit. But these don't follow directly from the "special" sentiment. They're standard bad-guy plots, which have been applied to a strawman philosophy in order to demonize it. The same thing happens with the Parr family: they're undercover to keep from being sued, which may be a shame but doesn't have anything to do with some mythical "everyone's special" point of view.

And of course, we have no reason to believe that if everyone were special in some way, that everyone would be devalued, apart from the way that The Incredibles stacks the deck. Surely everyone can have their own special gifts in their own way. It's ridiculous to think that if Syndrome could sell everyone a pair of jet boots, all of a sudden we would be plunged into a world of mediocrity. Why should it be a bad thing that everyone could reap the benefits of superpowers? Wouldn't you like to have a pair of jetboots? I would. The only possible way that you could see this in a negative light would be if your worldview is divided into two groups: those who have inborn powers (the Supers), and those who don't (and are therefore inferior mediocrities). There's something of this viewpoint evident in the contempt shown by the "natural" heroes and villains for Syndrome, who dares to work hard and build his own super powers, thus artificially crossing over from unter- to ubermensch.

I am not, by the way, the only person to have noticed this. Search Google for "the incredibles and ayn rand" and you will find many critics who have noticed its... unusual subtext.

In the film's defense, as with so many other lovingly-rendered details (the montage of cape-related disasters, the references to "monologuing,") this philosophy is true to the comic source. As a friend of mine has pointed out when we were discussing this problem, superheroes are the ultimate fantasy of agency by the powerless. They ask, "what would you do if you had amazing powers and no-one could stop you?" Dramatically, I agree that it's a fun thought experiment, and it's made for some great pop cultural moments. But it's a terrible basis for a moral or ethical message, because it by definition puts the wants and needs of other people secondary. It always assumes that the majority of people are only either A) targets to be protected, B) collateral damage, or C) barriers to the hero's progress. In almost all cases, the hero must work from outside (or even against) the system put into place by and for normal people--a point of view that's often held by fanatics and radicals, both conservative and liberal.

Both in terms of comics and their adaptation, this radical perspective is jarring when extracted from its customary position because it's so far from the usual message of American feel-good entertainment. We're used to Saturday morning fare and kids' movies (or many times, even films targeted at adults) that remind us that everyone has something of which they can be proud, or that hard work can take a person far. At times, especially for cynics, the clumsy moralizing of these plotlines may seem cloying or heavy-handed, but consider the alternative. It's hard to imagine a cartoon subtly arguing that "some people have gifts, and they are better people, who should not be restricted by society," but that's exactly what The Incredibles does. Viewers may dilute this message on their own by believing that they, too, are part of the special group, but it doesn't change the caricature of the masses oppressing their betters--shades of John Galt!

The reason that many reviews of The Incredibles mention its agenda but forgive it anyway is that the movie is honestly an amazing work of art. It's filled with clever homage, underhanded references, and witty dialogue. It's funny, and fun to watch. I admit that, but I also believe that good art and bad reasoning are not mutually exclusive. There are good reasons that Triumph of the Will is still shown to film and media criticism classes to this day--which is not to say that Pixar is on the same level as Riefenstahl. I only wish that its ideology--one shared with several genres of popular fiction--saw a little more critical awareness. We may not always want to admit it, but superheroes are a significant influence on American culture, from Spiderman to Batman, Captain America to the Tick. It would be nice if there were a little more discussion on what that ethically implies.

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