Thorin gets two origin stories — ah ha, so that’s how he got the Oaken Shield, I get it now LOL — and a new archnemesis. Meanwhile, roughly every half-hour, someone will tell Bilbo that they don’t really think he belongs on an adventure, until finally everyone agrees that Bilbo does belong on an adventure. Essentially, Bilbo’s dramatic arc in The Hobbit is: Will he agree to be the star of the movie called The Hobbit?
Just to gild the lily a bit, Jackson also adds in scenes where various authority figures tell Thorin, and Gandalf, that the clearly heroic quest they have undertaken is not heroic – in this metaphor, Elrond = Captain Stacy = Matthew Modine in Dark Knight Rises = your parents, who just don’t understand. And fans of Tolkien know that future episodes of The Hobbit will juxtapose the dwarves’ search for their lost gold with the battle against a force of pure evil. By comparison, imagine if someone remade The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and added in a subplot where it turns out that the gold-hunters only want gold so they can kill Evil Zombie Hitler.
Some of these movies are good. Some of them are terrible. But I’m less interested in a critical appraisal of these films, and more interested in what their eerily unified themes mean. Because, looked at from this perspective, here is what the Modern Hollywood Blockbuster has become:
1.Movies about protagonists who doubt themselves until they suddenly don’t, because the plot demands that they stop being confused around the Act 3 mark.
2. In fact, movies where the actual saving of human lives is less important, narratively speaking, than the fact that the hero finally decides to be a hero.
3. Movies where, furthermore, the hero is misunderstood, but only by crusty-old-dean authority figures, whereas the common people always love them (and sometimes they actually applaud them).
4. Movies where the heroes pay lip service to the idea that “morality” is a thing that is not set in stone, before ultimately reaffirming their own goodness, nay, awesomeness, therefore establishing a world where, if you are not with the hero, then you are a villain.
5. Movies where everything is a goddamn reference to something, and you can’t even have a clearly Robin-esque character without finally establishing that his name is actually “Robin.”
6. Movies that are, ultimately, set in a world that is essentially the playground for our heroes to decide whether or not they’re going to be heroic. Spoiler alert: They are.
There is something oddly selfish and self-aggrandizing about this entire genre. With the exception of Katniss, all of the heroes are –from a certain perspective — bullies who insist that they’re doing everything for the greater good. The fact that they are so often misunderstood by people in power gives them a victim complex that is rarely ever deserved. Watching these movies is a little bit like hanging out with a bunch of rich people who didn’t get hugged enough by their parents, who think that working a nine-to-five job constitutes self-sacrifice. It’s Chicken Soup for the Popular Kids, over and over and over again.
Why is this important? Because, after over a decade of commercial success, the whole concept of the Superhero has begun to infect other films. Take a look at the two real-life movies at the front of the Oscar race. Zero Dark Thirty is shot like a documentary — or rather, is shot in a way that used to be “documentary-esque” before it became “24-esque” — but I would argue that it’s essential character arc is that of a superhero. Jessica Chastain’s (fictionalized) Maya is engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with the movie’s (arguably fictionalized) Osama Bin Laden, as surely as Batman is with the Joker or Bond with Silva. We know, as citizens of the earth who watch the news, that Maya is right about everything. Even her minor missteps are entirely understandable — a lost file here or there. Maya has an Uncle Ben – the character played by Jennifer Ehle, who dies in a scene that doesn’t have much to do narratively with anything, except justify Maya’s fierce determination. Any character who calls Maya’s greatness into question is proven wrong, immediately or eventually.
I suppose you could excuse Zero Dark Thirty from this argument by pointing out that we don’t really know anything about the hunt for Bin Laden. We depend on the fact that Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow interviewed CIA agents; we depend on the knowledge that they based Maya on a genuine person; we depend on the hope that they didn’t cut too many corners for narrative coherence, that they didn’t invent lines like “I’m the motherf—er that found this place” just because they felt like all this investigative stuff was getting really boring.
But look, then, to Argo, a movie that positively rejoices in rampantly fictionalizing a fascinating true story. The most glaring changes are obvious: The scene in the Bazaar, the trucks chasing after the airport. But more telling is the fact that Tony Mendez’ plan is constantly assailed by Authority Figures Who Don’t Understand That The Hero is Always Right. (In Argo as in Zero Dark Thirty, Kyle Chandler plays J. Jonah Jameson.) This results in a moment when the U.S. Government actually cancels the extraction plan, meaning that Tony Mendez has to go rogue. None of that happened. It’s there to add tension — which, fine, it does. But it also turns a great story of heroism into a perfect example of the Superhero Delusion: Someone who does the absolute right thing, even though other people tell him not to, and succeeds fabulously.