Summer Movie Musings
Attending a critics' screening for Columbia Pictures' reboot of a popular superhero film franchise, "The Amazing Spider-Man," I found myself engrossed in musings even as the movie unfolded before me in three action-packed dimensions.
Why are Brits and Aussies taking so many superhero roles in the movies these days? Don't get me wrong: Andrew Garfield does a fine job as Peter Parker. I loved his work in "Never Let Me Go," "The Social Network," and "Red Riding," and I'd been keen to see what he would do with the role that once belonged to Tobey Maguire. Garfield makes Parker a little darker, a little more steeped in the anguish of being a teenager, of being seemingly abandoned by his parents, of being human... and, yes, superhuman.
But survey the state of the genre, and what's more amazing than the idea of a guy who can cling to walls is that Garfield (who was born in Los Angeles but grew up in London) is but one of a legion of actors from across the waters who have taken the role of American Superhero. Welsh-born Christian Bale is set to appear this summer in the third installment of the Christopher Nolan's revamped "Batman" franchise; another Brit, Henry Cavill, dons Superman's cape for next summer's "Man of Steel."
Chris Hemsworth, an Aussie, plays Thor on the big screen; and yes, I know that Thor the comic book hero is based on Norse mythology, but Thor the comic book hero is also an American invention. It's true that metal-clad Iron Man is played by American actor Robert Downey, Jr., and Captain America is portrayed by all-Red, White, and Blue hunk Chris Evans... but then again, Evans also played The Human Torch in the two recent "Fantastic Four" movies, alongside Ioan Gruffudd, another Welshman.
Mark Ruffalo may have inherited the big green mantle of The Hulk from Edward Norton, but before Norton took the role, the Australian actor Eric Bana played Bruce Banner.
This observation brings me to...
I’m all for the best man or woman getting the role. This is not meant to be a xenophobic screed against foreign actors, but rather a query of what it means when Superman, our archetypical American hero, comes to be played by a Brit?
More generally, how curious is it that so few American actors seem to be able to fill the boots of our superheroes? Call me biased (or patriotic), but heroism is endemic to the American psyche. We are the nation that reinvented democracy; we are the people who defended the world against fascism and communism, and won. If anybody should find that a superhero’s costume fits, gloves and all, it’s us.
I know this is a "First World Problem," which is to say, trivial on the surface. Even so, I think it’s every bit as worth contemplating this Fourth of July holiday as any other star-spangled bit of Americana. And here’s why...
Costumed vigilantes with special powers may be silly, but they also serve as magnifications of our own national (as well as personal) ambitions and, sometimes, follies. I took it as a sign of true post-9/11 healing when Superman, played by Brandon Routh, returned to movie screens in 2006. Five years after a day of devastating terror, America was ready to regain its confidence.
When our super-charged heroes clash with super villains, their struggles illustrate and externalize, in dramatic manner, our own, often deeply buried, internal struggles. Those struggles are especially close to the surface at this point in our history, and I don’t mean just in 2012, an election year. For decades, America’s inner tumult has grown stronger and stronger, until we’re not sure we are strong enough to stay united in these United States.
Then there’s the personal side of this mythic narrative. We seem, as a culture, to like and respond to superheroes, and why not? I don’t know about anybody else, but hey, every day I don’t, like, friggin’ lose it is a day I am a superhero. I suspect for many Americans, feeling the ebb of a supportive and nourishing national identity, this may be true: More and more, we’re on our own. We have to stay strong--really strong.
More to the point, perhaps, is how often movie versions of comic book heroes fail when they are cast using Americans. Why is this? Ben Affleck as "Daredevil?" Ugh. Ryan Reynolds, star of "Green Lantern?" Okay, he’s Canadian... but Canada is right next door, and "Green Lantern" was exceptionally awful. (Shall we, I don’t know, "Blame Canada" for that one?)
Are Americans just no longer a people for whom the simpler, purer virtues come convincingly? Are we too culturally cynical to pull it off? I mean, who are we likelier to portray with verisimilitude: Superman, the alien Boy Scout? Or the rage-driven maniac who pulls on a mask in the movie "Super," a guy who calls himself the "Crimson Bolt" and beats people down for cutting in line? Seattle native Rainn Wilson plays the role beautifully.
Going darker still, how about TV’s "Dexter," who could more or less be thought of as a super hero? A sociopath who preys on serial killers? Could the character be a more American idol, or be portrayed by a more American actor than North Carolina native Michael C. Hall?
This tradition of foreign actors playing American superheroes has deep roots... why, it’s at least 12 years old! The modern wave of comic book movies started, arguably, in 2000 with "The X Men," in which Aussie Hugh Jackman played Wolverine and English actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan played Professor X and Magneto, respectively--arch enemies who are also best friends, distillations of humanity’s essential, and essentially divided, nature, reflecting and balancing one another.
Which leads me to...
If superhero movies serve as a means of meditating, en masse, on the conflict between our frail natures and our stupendous capacities, or if such movies provide an avenue for weighing our warring impulses between a yearning to be good and our base, brute inclinations to be bad (or at least selfish and self-centered), they also speak to us as individuals.
The saying tells us that "Every person thinks his burden is the heaviest," and when a superhero bears up under the weight of his responsibilities (give up your day off to go do battle with a megalomaniac and his legion of mindless followers; sacrifice your relationships, but save the world; accept super-strength and limitless vitality in exchange for emotional exhaustion that never ends), there’s a resonance that’s possible. Every member of the audience should be able to say, "That guy can hurl boulders that weigh ten tons, and I can’t bench press 140, but even so, I know just how he feels."
The superhero’s moment of grief, regret, or rage is justified, because it’s also our moment of grief, regret, or rage. Good people can have bad days, and we’re pretty much all convinced that we are good people, right? Even the bad guys up on the screen think they’re somehow doing the right thing, don’t they?
But the "X Men" movies also spoke to a special slice of humanity, especially the first two movies, which were directed by the openly gay Bryan Singer. Teens who are different? Teens who find themselves the targets of blowhards and bigots? Teens who struggle to hide who they are, or struggle to accept themselves in a world that’s all too often ready to reject them? Haven’t gay people, by and large, had precisely those experiences and those struggles?
The metaphor may have been broadly, and sometimes crudely, drawn in the "X Men" trilogy (especially in the Brett Ratner-directed third installment, which featured a "cure" for mutants), but the emotional power of those films was undeniable. One moment in particular sums it all up--a scene in which a gay, er, super-powered teen is confronted by his mother, who asks him if he can’t simply not be a mutant. Yeah. Like he has a choice. Like any of us do.
Which swings us, Spider-Man like, straight to...
What if the new Spider-Man were to be read as a gay parable? The start of the first Spider-Man movie had a narration that told us that all good stories are about a boy getting a girl, and the new Spider-Man movie hearkens back to that in a scene near the end, set in an English class, when a teacher tells her pupils that literature only really has one plot.
I think she’s confusing literature in its old-fashioned sense with literature in its 21st century incarnation, which tends to lack subtext and be all about, well, pretty much the same things over and over: getting laid and blowing stuff up. But whatever.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t see a larger social message in the film.
In "The Amazing Spider-Man," Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically engineered spider and discovers shortly afterwards that he has super-strength and a tendency to stick to walls (and other surfaces). His new abilities take some getting used to (as do his less socially acceptable proclivities: In one scene, he gazes at a fly with desperate hunger). It’s the confusing awkwardness of adolescence, of dealing with a changing mind and body, writ large. Naturally, sexuality comes into the picture, albeit presented in a hetero-normative way. (I’ll leave it others to dissect the rough homoeroticism of Parker’s fraught dealings with the school jock/bully, Flash.)
Parker likes a girl named Gwen Stacey, but Gwen is surrounded by hostile authority figures: Dr. Curt Connors (played by Rhys Ifans... a Welshman!), a scientist who picks up the unsettling habit of transforming into a giant lizard, is her mentor. Capt. Stacey of the NYPD, who fails to prioritize things well when Connors begins to terrorize the city, is her father.
Connors thinks that everyone should enjoy the benefits of being cold-blooded and crazy; meantime, Capt. Stacey is fixated on arresting Spider-Man, the flamboyantly colorful individualist whom he regards as a menace to society, when he probably should be focused on containing Connors... who is, after all, trashing bridges and buildings. (Why, oh why, does ideology, mirage-like and nebulous by nature, so often trump the practical necessity of maintaining social and physical infrastructure?)
Now, despite Parker’s lust for Gwen, let’s run this narrative through the gay decoder algorithm...
A very real and powerful force is destroying the community. Those in power first deny its existence and then, when matters get out of hand, split their focus between the urgent matter of addressing a profound, imminent danger and the business of persecuting someone a little different, someone they don’t like for mainly ideological, and prejudiced, reasons.
Meantime, the common folks fill in the gaps left as a result of poorly managed and insanely misallocated resources, and help our misunderstood hero save the day. (I love how in the original Spider-Man films, ordinary New Yorkers stood up for Spider-Man, banding together against The Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus. It’s a worthy motif that survives in the new take.)
But though the common folks know better, it’s still the elite who think they should have the last word. Right up until the last, the authority figure in charge of putatively protecting society (i.e., the same guy who was focused on the wrong things all along) attempts to keep our hero away from his true love, telling him, in effect, that to follow his heart would be selfish and dangerous.
Hm. Sound familiar? More than 50% of Americans think we should have full equal rights, and so should our families, but out of touch self-styled Captains of the Universe like NOM and Mitt Romney still don’t get it.
Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am just musing too widely and reading too much into the genre of comic book movies. But I keep thinking of that old David Bowie song...
"We can be heroes." If we follow our hearts, that is... because what if doing anything we can to be with the person we love, regardless of what anyone else thinks, really is the one story worth telling, and the one goal for which a guy really ought to have super powers and use them?
I’m a man who loves a man. That’s my super power. Some folks hate people like me; some folks fear people like me; some see us as alien or unnatural, and some see us as monsters.
But here’s the thing: A hero’s strength comes from within. A hero knows that he’s a good guy, and his actions prove it. He rises above prejudice and bias, because when you get right down to the roots and bolts, it’s not important what other people think. What matters is that we see ourselves as heroes and act accordingly.
This is the underlying message of the superhero narrative, and another reason it’s so appealing to Americans; after all, we are a nation of individualists (or at least we like to flatter ourselves that we are).
That’s a good narrative for GLBTs, too, but maybe with a few changes to the script. Like, ditch the protective camouflage. It may work for Superman and Batman to blend into society using alternate identities like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, but when gay men try to pass as straight, it’s generally a catastrophic mistake.
I refuse to hide behind a secret identity of fake heterosexuality just to fit in and sidestep the dangers of being who I really am. That’s what works for me.
As for "The Amazing Spider-Man?" It’s a fun flick with some clever ideas. It exceeds the original Sam Raimi trio of Spidey movies in some regards, and in other ways it doesn’t quite live up. That’s fine; this is a Marc Webb project, and he’s as free as any other director to bring his own vision to the screen.
In short, "The Amazing Spider-Man" is cut from the same form-fitting cloth as any other superhero movie. This is no art house classic, though it’s certainly better than most movies of its genre. But maybe what’s on the screen isn’t the most important part of the film.
Maybe, for a fun summer flick, what counts is the same thing that counts in life: What you bring to it.