Saturday, August 03, 2013

quirky superhero flicks

I had mentioned previously my preference for and enjoyment of quirky superhero movies—movies that explore, in unique, non-mainstream fashion, what it means to be a superhero. I thought it might be interesting to list some of the movies I have in mind. Feel free to add to the list in the comments, or to disagree with my choices ("Not quirky enough!").

1. "Chronicle." This movie is foremost on my mind because I just saw it, for the third time, this past Sunday. Three teens—a pensive jock, a popular stud, and a shy, introverted geek—are zapped by glowing alien rocks. They gain superpowers like telekinesis and limited telepathy, and find themselves growing ever stronger as they practice using their powers. Andrew, the geeky one, becomes the strongest of the three, but perhaps because he's a social outcast as well as constantly abused by his alcoholic father, he also becomes the least ethical, eventually emerging as the film's supervillain. "Chronicle" counts as quirky in part because it uses the "found footage" handheld camera format seen in films like "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield." It's also a cerebral film, exploring the nature of evil and offering us no easy answers. There's a great deal of thematic overlap with "Revenge of the Sith," which documents the fall of Anakin Skywalker, a similarly troubled individual.

2. "The Incredibles." I've written up "The Incredibles" before, but it deserves mention here because of how tightly it weaves superhero-related themes with other themes like family and greatness. The politically incorrect message of "The Incredibles" is that elites do exist: we're not all equal in intellect and physical ability. The movie is also a clever alloy of both the superhero and spy genres, which are smoothly blended thanks to Michael Giacchino's versatile and memorably eclectic soundtrack. The quirk factor comes from the fact that "The Incredibles" handles most of its issues through the lens of family and, despite being ostensibly for kids, it folds adult issues like revenge and infidelity into its well-structured plot. Typical, big-budget superhero films normally avoid family issues and view the hero as some form of insular Other: Superman the alien, Spider-Man the mutant, Batman the distant rich dude, Tony Stark the maverick genius. "The Incredibles" stresses elitism, on the one hand, and familial teamwork on the other.

3. "Kick-Ass." I reviewed this movie here. "Kick-Ass" is essentially a scaled-down, teen version of the Batman saga: none of the superheroes in this film actually possesses superpowers. Kick-Ass himself is just a middle-class high-schooler fed up with the inaction of his fellows: we all dream of being super, so why don't we ever chase that dream? Along the way, Kick-Ass meets Big Daddy and Hit Girl, a father-daughter team who are, in Kick-Ass's words, "the real deal." Hit Girl is particularly vicious, but Big Daddy has moves of his own, as he demonstrates in the scene where he takes out the evil Frank d'Amico's posse. Gleefully profligate with the gore (a guy gets crushed in a car compactor; another gets exploded in a giant microwave) and the bad language (most of which flows torrentially from Hit Girl's mouth), "Kick-Ass" most certainly qualifies as a quirky superhero flick.

4. "Hancock." I don't care what the critics say—I like "Hancock." Many journalistic complaints about this movie center on the notion that "Hancock" is trying to be two movies at once, and that it ultimately can't decide on what tone to strike. I don't see it that way: if anything, the film's changing tone reminds me of a Korean movie, "YMCA Yagu Danji," which starts off as a comical exploration of old-school peninsular baseball but eventually becomes a serious and sad meditation on the Japanese occupation of Korea. "Hancock" pulls off the same maneuver: it begins as a humorous tale about a drunken, homeless, misanthropic superhero, then widens into a more serious, more epic exploration of the eponymous Hancock's origins, and of the awesome, godlike mythology underlying his superpowered nature (spoiler: Hancock turns out to be half of a divine pair). In a typical superhero movie, you don't expect the hero to stuff one bad guy's head up another bad guy's ass, but that's what happens in "Hancock." That alone qualifies this superhero movie as quirky.

5. "Spider-Man 2." You could argue that, because it's a big-budget summer actioner, "Spider-Man 2" doesn't belong on this list of small, idiosyncratic films. But that assessment misses the point: "Spider-Man 2" was directed by Sam Raimi who, until he took the reins of the Spider-Man franchise, was better known for low-budget gross-out comedies like "The Evil Dead" and "Army of Darkness." The man is the king of quirkiness, but he wasn't given full rein to express that quirkiness until the second Spider-Man film, which plays much more like a Raimi-style monster movie. One of Raimi's favorite actors, Bruce Campbell, appears in all three Spider-Man films, thereby upping the quirk factor. Alfred Molina, as Doctor Octopus, does stellar work as a good man turned villainous. "Spider-Man 2" sits perfectly in the cusp between the first and third movies: it's more explicitly Raimi-ish than is the first movie, and isn't as over-burdened with heroes and villains as is the third movie. It's a smaller, more intimate, more nuanced film than either its predecessor or its successor.

I'm always on the lookout for intelligent superhero films. While I enjoy the crash-bang spectacle of the bigger-budget popcorn flicks, like "The Avengers" or "The Dark Knight" or "Man of Steel," I often find that those big films are missing something at the core. Maybe they lack heart. Maybe they're weak on characterization. Maybe they aren't very original in how they explore a hero's coming-into-power. Maybe they simply lack humor. Whatever their flaws, the huge Hollywood productions often fail to satisfy, which is why I rejoice whenever a film that approaches superheroism from a unique angle makes an appearance. The five movies listed above offer something more to the superhero genre: smarts, character studies, and transgressive, yes-we-just-went-there humor. If you haven't seen the above films, I'd highly recommend them.