Friday, May 18, 2018

AVENGERS AND OTHER SUPERHEROES


Whether or not you’re a fan of recent super-hero epics like Avengers: Infinity War, which breaks box office records, a colossal testament to cinematic greed and excess, or Logan and Unbreakable, which are master classes in how the whole superhero-genre can gain our respect, our attention might rightly be directed to one of its profoundly influential literary prototypes, which remains particularly relevant today.

Once upon a time, Philip Wylie wrote a novel called Gladiator. It was about a man who could lift weights of four tons with ease, leap such distances that he almost seemed to fly, shed machine-gun bullets with ease, rip bank vaults apart as if they were paper-mache. No, it wasn’t a Superman story. It was published in 1930, eight years before Schuster and Siegel produced their first “Superman” comic. Superman and every other superhero owe it a lot. In the opinion of fantasy and SF historian Joe Moskowitz, “Gladiator is probably the greatest tale of a physical superman since the Biblical story of Samson.”

In brief, it is the story of Hugo Danner, born the results of experimental drug treatments given to his mother. When the baby smashes his crib to smithereens, Mom knows she’s got trouble on her hands. She and her husband take great care in the training of their child to hide his strength and deal with the psychological impact of his growing awareness of his “differentness.” After demonstrating remarkable athletic feats as a youth, Hugo leaves home after accidentally killing a fellow athlete. Hugo has difficulty finding a place for himself, exploiting his great strength in prize fighting, strongman acts, pearl fishing, soldiering, farming, and even banking. But when he faces the inability of others to accept him, he determines it would be best to kill himself. The passages at the end of the book when Hugo considers his end are among the most moving in the genre:
Conscience was bickering inside him. Humanity was content; it would hate his new race. And the new race, being itself human, might grow top-heavy with power. If his theory about the great builders of the past was true, then perhaps this would explain why the past was no more. If the Titans disagreed and made war on each other—surely that would end the earth.
Amidst a raging thunderstorm, Hugo raises his fist to the lowering clouds. A lightning bolt strikes him dead.

With apologies to Nietzsche, Wylie himself had this to say about the possible advent of a race of superheroes. “For if ever there does appear upon this planet a tightly knit minority of really superior people, it will be the end of all the rest of mankind--and mankind knows it, not having come through a billion-odd years of evolutionary struggle for nothing.”

Fortunately, Wylie’s prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. But in the subsequent race of literary superheroes,” which his Gladiator so profoundly predicted, we find ourselves awash in their ilk. You can’t swing a stick—or Thor’s hammer, for that matter—without bumping into one. But be careful: You don’t want to piss them off. The moment they shed their benign agendas, we’re all in trouble.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR or, HOW THOR GOT HIS AXE PART ONE


Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. Starring everybody in the whole damned Marvel Universe (including Stan Lee as a bus driver)

Yes, subtitle this mess “How Thor Got His Axe.” And add, “How Thanos Got His Sunset”, and how “Viewers Got Dust Thrown In Their Eyes”. . .

I admit I am the last person to be fair to this movie. I’ve been on record for years about the silliness of this stuff. And as an educator I’ve been forced to watch with growing dismay its addictive results on adolescents and teens. (You might as well shoot this into their veins.) But at the same time, I should be the most qualified person to judge this movie, since I was weaned as a boy on the exploits of John Carter of Mars, the story of a Confederate Army Captain who gained Superhero-Dom on the Planet Mars (and whose name was conferred on me by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself). Big John kinda started this whole thing. Am I a hypocrite to condemn the former while privileging the latter?

At least John Carter’s story was one of the spiritual yearning for Identity, the longing for a rightful home that transcended space and time.

What do have with AVENGERS? An anti-story. A cynical grab at box office bucks. (It’s worked!) Patches and shards of special effects and massive suits of armor and mystical mumbo-jumbo and some Business about The Six Stones that may determine the fate of the Universe.

Okay, Big Thanos: MAKE A FIST. Your gauntlet has six settings into which the Six Stones can be affixed. And then, all Hell will break loose. And you can enjoy your damned sunset.

Pity poor Wakanda, by the way. It had its moment in the sun a few months ago; and now... well, you know...

But let me turn to the redoubtable critic Anthony Lane, who can skewer a superhero movie better than most. He advises us that for just $19.99 Thanos could have collected all the Six Stones on the QVC Network! (That in itself is punishment enough). He adds, “Why is it always the Universe that’s at stake in these stories? Why not Hackensack? Does anybody care what happens to South Dakota, or Denmark, or Peru?”

And I’m going to steal from Lane a quote he attributes to Sigmund Freud, which says a lot about all of us who fall victim to films like AVENGERS: “Even dire criminals and comic heroes captivate us within the context of the arts by dint of the narcissistic rigor with which they keep at bay anything tending to diminish their ego.”

Finally, if you’re puzzled about the Dust Storm that concludes AVENGERS: INFINITY WARS, I advise you to read Philip Pullman’s magnificent epic trilogy, His Dark Materials. It answers everything...

I also hope you will read Philip Wylie’s classic Gladiator, first published in 1930. It’s a superhero story, THE superhero story, which stands alongside John Carter. More on that in a second installment to come.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

IN AGAIN, OUT AGAIN...


BREAKING IN, directed by James McTeigh,, starring Gabrielle Union as Shaun Russell.

BAD SAMARITAN, directed by Dean Devlin, starring David Tennant as Cale Erendreich and Robert Sheehan as Sean Falco.

Never go to the party without checking out the exit. Never enter the front door unless you know the back door. Consider the houses in two new films, BREAKING IN and BAD SAMARITAN. Viewed at random, they nonetheless display remarkable similarities: No sooner do the characters go inside, then they have to go outside. Immediately. But then, darned if everybody doesn’t find themselves inside again. Only to escape outside again. And so it goes, like a continuing point-counterpoint, in again, out again...

In BREAKING IN, Shaun Russell (Gabrielle Union), along with her two children, inspect the dwelling of her recently deceased father. It’s quite a house, heavily fortified and lavished with all manner of technological gadgetry, including room monitors and motion-control sensors. There is a secret inside: There’s a safe somewhere with a cool million secreted away. And there’s also a gang of four thieves caught in the act of searching for the swag. The gang grabs the kids and keeps them inside, while mother Shaun is trapped outside, looking in. It’s not long before she finds herself inside while the kids are now outside. And the bad guys, well, they’re in and out, reversing the polarities. And so it goes, over and over.

I’ll stop there while I note that THE BAD SAMARITAN also features an amazing house to go in and out of, full of high-tech whiz-bangs, including monitoring devices and motion sensors. It too hides a secret: In this case, it’s a maniacal serial killer, Cale Erendreich (David Tennant) and the female captive he keeps chained in a torture room. Amateur burglar Sean Falco—yes, there’s a “Sean/Shaun” in both movies!—breaks into this house, discovers the shackled victim and, yes—you guessed it—hastily escapes to call the cops. Sean’s break-in is discovered by Erendreich, who turns the tables and breaks into Sean’s own house. Meanwhile, the cops enter Erendreich’s house and find—nothing. So now they leave. You can bet they’ll be back. Meanwhile, our “bad” Samaritan in desperation goes to the FBI. Maybe they’ll listen. . .

Okay, so where are we with these films? In or out?

IN BREAKING IN Shaun and her two kids manage to turn the tables on the bad guys. It’s cat-and-mouse, all the way, creeping through the corridors and rooms inside and stalking the thieves from the roof outside. Shaun may be “just a Mom,” as she declares to them, but she’s damned resourceful and manages to leave a trail of broken bodies behind, some in and some out of the house. It’s all about family.

In BAD SAMARITAN, our young hero is on his own. Once again, he’s inside Erendreich’s house, but he discovers the killer is one step ahead of him and has set a timer to blow everything to smithereens. So, he blasts his way out of the garage before the whole edifice explodes in a blaze of glory. Undaunted, he tracks the killer out to the country where—you guessed it—the killer has upped the ante and keeps another house. Inside is the killer’s victim, imprisoned in a cell. Before our hero can break in, he’s caught and bludgeoned with a shovel. Now we’re outside. Before the killer can dispatch the captive girl, who’s been shoved inside a lime-filled hole, the tables are turned, the girl crawls out of the hole, and the killer is overwhelmed. In a final stroke, they take his body back inside the house, tie him up, and leave him for the arriving FBI.

In a crucial distinction between these two films, I should note that BREAKING IN takes itself very seriously (unless you greet with some bemusement the ingenious plotting that turns everything inside out). BAD SAMARITAN, by contrast, never quite takes itself seriously. It is a weirdly funny film, mixing some terrific shock effects with a few deft, deadpan exchanges among the characters. In sum, we learn from both films that it’s best to plot an escape for every entrance in life. If that’s the best I can say for both experiences, then,... COUNT ME IN!

Monday, May 7, 2018

TULLY


Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody. Starring Charlize Theron as Marlo, Mackenzie Davis as Tully, and Ron Livingston as Ron.

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

NIGHT NURSE.

Like a nocturnal Mary Poppins, the young lady we know only as “Tully” comes to the aid of a mother stressed out after the birth of her third child. Marlo (Charlize Theron) has reason to be stressed: Her first child is autistic, her second child is nearing her “difficult” pre-bubescent years, and the screaming new baby needs constant attention. Chaos reigns. Marlo’s hubby (Ron Livingston) is no help. He works hard, but he’s away on business all the time and too tired at home to deliver anything but a night-time peck on the check.

So along comes Tully, a bright-eyed 20-something, preternaturally wise in the ways of seemingly everything, especially children. And she is very effective in her night-time caring for the baby, soothing mother and child along the way. However, we begin to watch with some apprehension as Tully ingratiates herself into Marlo’s trust. Soon the two women are sharing confidences. And, yes, things get pretty creepy when Tully arrives at Marlo’s husband’s bedside prepared to be a surrogate for Marlo’s flagging erotic desires.

Then, after the household appears to be settled and back on track, Tully persuades Marlo to share a night on the town. The ladies visit the bohemian haunts of Marlo’s pre-marital escapades. There is a key conversation between them when Tully declares she can no longer remain as the Night-Nanny. But by now Marlo has grown dependent on her. She needs her. Tully is insistent that it is time to go. Like Mary Poppins, her work is done. Marlo must now return to the “normalcy” and safe routine of her life as wife and mother. On the ride back home, Marlo falls asleep at the wheel and plunges the car off a bridge into a stream. Miraculously, she is saved and wakes up later in the hospital to the kindly face of her waiting husband.

But something odd is happening. Marlo’s husband is called into the hospital office where he is quizzed about her psychiatric problems. Problems? At first, puzzled, he then admits yes, his wife has suffered exhaustion recently. All the while, Marlo is experiencing a delirium dream, a vision in which a mermaid-like figure swims down toward the sunken car and releases her from the confining seat belt. She swims to safety.

Strange, yes. Indeed, there has been something decidedly strange about this movie from the very beginning. It’s only upon nearing the end of the film when it is casually noted that Marlo’s maiden was Tully. Tully... Of a sudden, all the tumblers of a locked safe move into position and the door flies open: Tully has not existed to anyone save Marlo. Tully is Marlo. That is, Marlo’s pre-marital self. The self that had been locked away and lain dormant for too long. Think back to the careful staging of every scene with her and Marlo together and we realize Tully never interacts with anyone save Marlo.

It’s fascinating to realize how an extraordinary, outre fantasy has been deployed in the restoration of normalcy. The miracle hasn’t blown open the doors off reality, it has closed them tightly. Mary Poppins didn’t fly away. She landed back on our doorstep.