The change came slowly, but if you wanted to pick a specific point when everything went wrong, you’d want to look at Iron Man 2. The character arc of the first movie was a relatively simple redemption tale: A selfish, arrogant man becomes a hero. That’s also, weirdly, the character arc of Iron Man 2, except that the movie doesn’t seem to realize that the character is still selfish and arrogant. Tony Stark is a brilliant, popular, successful rock-star billionaire. At the start of the movie, he has to sit down and be chastised by the U.S. government, with Garry Shandling as the crusty old dean. In what amounts to one of the single most ideologically confusing things ever said in a fluffy popcorn movie, he tells the government, “I have successfully privatized world peace” — essentially telling the audience that he is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb pointed at the whole world, beholden to no one except himself — and everyone applauds.
The movie then settles in for an interminable second act where we learn that Tony Stark had an Emotionally Distant Father, awwww, who actually really loved him, yaayyyy! Also, he might be dying, until Nick Fury shows up and gives him some new technology, and then he’s not dying. In the end, Iron Man decides to be Iron Man and save the day in a very Iron Man-esque way.
This is, more or less, the same story arc followed by last year’s three major superhero movies. It’s also the same story arc followed by Van Wilder and pretty much every Adam Sandler movie. I’m being cruel to be kind, but also because the whole moral character of the superhero genre is evolving in a weird, unsanitary direction. Don’t underestimate the difference between the end of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. The former ends on an ambiguous note, suggesting that the hero is a kind of necessary evil, and that heroism will cost you everything: Your love, your happiness, your life. The latter ends on an unambiguous note, suggesting that the hero has become a symbol of everything that is good and true in our society, and also that being a hero earns you a long retirement café-hopping with Anne Hathaway.
Maybe this is all okay. Every generation gets its own Defining Cinematic Hero: The cowboy, the lone-wolf cop, the beefcake gun-toting superman, Will Smith. Like the superhero, all of those heroes represent a very specific brand of American fantasy. If you wanted to psychoanalyze, I suspect that the modern brand of superhero represents a simultaneous self-realization and self-delusion. We admit that America did some bad things for awhile there, but we also want everyone to know that our heart was in the right place.
Then again, by exalting the Sad Perfect Messiah superhero archetype, we may be deluding ourselves even more than we realize. The best movie made last year about people with superpowers resembles other superhero movies, on the surface. The main character is a camera-loving narcissist, like Tony Stark. He’s a social misfit, like Peter Parker. He has an emotionally-distant father, like everybody. There’s a scene where he uses his powers to impress people, and receives thundering applause.
The difference is that in Chronicle, the main character turns out to be the movie’s villain. I would argue that Chronicle is a deconstruction of the Superhero Movie. It’s like a revisionist western, or a neo-noir: A movie that interrogates the tropes of its own genre. It seems to suggest that we all want to be a Sad Perfect Badass Messiah — that we all have the same victim complex, that we all want so badly to be loved by everyone all the time, that our vision has turned inward until all we can see is the self we create. (The hero/villain of Chronicle films himself all the time, which might have seemed weird in a era where we didn’t all regularly update our Facebook profiles.)
It’s always dicey to talk about morality in art, partially because art doesn’t really need to be moral, partially because “morality” and “art” are two of the vaguest concepts in any language, such that even mentioning them is enough to inspire a go-nowhere debate. But Chronicle does feel like a harsh moral and artistic corrective to the current decadent phase of the Superhero Movie genre. The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises — and Skyfall and Twilight and kind of The Hunger Games and even The Hobbit and Zero Dark Thirty and Argo – are all movies about heroic heroes who do heroism and are hailed for it, many of them while being insanely attractive and romantically tortured and after crying briefly about dead friends whose legend lives on to inspire the heroes to be heroic.
Chronicle is about absolute power corrupting absolutely. There is no hero; there’s just a guy who stops the villain, and his reward is to lose everything. In its own weird way, it feels like a portrait of an America where everyone thinks they are a superhero — the characters in the film would have just started grade school when Spider-Man hit theaters. It makes other Superhero Movies look simple — and silly — by comparison. It’s a reminder that supervillains have the Superhero Delusion, too. Hollywood has already hired the director to make Fantastic Four 3, or Fantastic Four 1, or whatever.
Meanwhile, the star of Chronicle will be acting in Amazing Spider-Man 2 or The Spectacular Spider-Man or whatever. He’s going to be playing Harry Osborn, a character who we all know turns into a villain. The genius of Chronicle is that it argues that Peter Parker could turn into a villain, too. The scary thing about Chronicle is that it suggests we all would. Is that because we didn’t learn any lessons from Superhero Movies? Or is it because we learned those lessons all too well?
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