' ' Cinema Romantico: An Assortment of Superheroic Spectacular Nows

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

An Assortment of Superheroic Spectacular Nows

There’s a scene late in “Iron Man 2” when the titular character’s bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), and, uh, personal assistant, Natasha Romanova cum Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), rush to the factory where the principal villain is hiding out. Naturally the principal villain has numerous nameless flunkies stationed to provide resistance. What transpires more or less crystallizes what has transpired with the modern American summertime blockbuster.

Happy is essentially a character of a different era. A one-time boxer, he harkens back to a period when prizefighting was king, and pugilists went man-to-man in classical slugfests. “Boxing is about respect,” Scrap Dupris once opined, “about getting it for yourself and taking it away from the other guy.” And it’s just that sort of physical exercise in respect that Happy engages upon arrival at the principal villain’s facility. He steps forward to confront the first line of opposition, and the two men engage in a tough, all-out heavyweight title fight consolidated into a single round.

Black Widow, on the other hand, while based on a character dating back all the way to the sixties in the Marvel universe, exists in “Iron Man 2” of the modern movie universe, the place where suspension of disbelief has never been higher and violent tussles have never been easier and CGI has never been more {yawns – stretches}. While Happy is in the midst of a life and death struggle, she’s in the midst of special effects ballet, leaping to and fro, ducking, dodging, dancing, and dispatching three, four, maybe five times the foes of her accomplice, mowing ‘em down like they were little rubber ducks in a carnival air rifle game. And when Happy finally vanquishes his opponent, he looks up, beaming at a job well done, having truly earned this victory, and ready to celebrate with his corner. Of course, his corner, having already cleaned the rest of the house, is long gone. What’s next?

When it comes to these superhero summertime tentpole cabarets, it’s always, “what’s next?” It’s never, “hey, what about this right here, right now?”, as evinced by the decision to green light Marvel movies into the year 4545. Or is that just the interwebs frothing at the mouth? Eh, the truth, as it usually does, likely lies somewhere in the median between the sidewalk of THINK PIECE: MOVIES ARE DYING and the footpath of MOVIE CRITICS ARE PRETENTIOUS SNOBS!

Mark Harris, as he so often does, did an exemplary job detailing the film industry’s “addiction to franchises”. “Movies are no longer about the thing,” he wrote, “they’re about the next thing, the tease, the Easter egg, the post-credit sequence, the promise of a future at which the moment we’re in can only hint.” His piece is far more comprehensive than just this observation, of course, branching out to examine the entire industry, but essentially boils down to “(t)he notion that the movie (or even the idea for the movie) should come first is quaint.”

Richard Brody, ever the contrarian, the man who could see your article about the Iowa River flowing to the Mississippi and raise you an eloquent, wordy, oddly convincing take that, no, it actually flows to the Missouri, took polite offense. “In decrying the great success of franchises and the modest success of the humanistic movies that he admires, Harris seems to be writing in an echo chamber—as if a movie that doesn’t open on three thousand screens, doesn’t cost a hundred million dollars, and doesn’t make a hundred million, doesn’t really count. He’s wrong. What counts is the movie, whether it’s seen by a few thousand viewers or by millions, and what makes a movie count (whether it’s seen by millions or thousands) is the critical judgment that asserts that it counts and shows why it counts.”

I remember seeing “The Dark Knight”, the middle film of Christopher Nolan’s Herculean trilogy, a film that always had one eye on its next film, and the man sitting next to me flipping out – wigging out – over the moment when Batman’s Batmobile suddenly became the Batcycle. You might’ve thought Jesus appeared in a plume of smoke. He loved it. You might surmise that Brody himself is writing an echo chamber, like he’s talking merely about himself and Anthony Lane and the Lords of The New Yorker telling you, Average American Without A Film Studies Degree Who Clearly Knows Nothing, what’s good and what’s bad. He’s not. He’s writing about the audience. No, no, no, no. He’s writing about every single audience member. He’s writing about the dude sitting next to me at “The Dark Knight”.

Audience members so routinely profess to hate film critics, so long as the film critics disagree with what the audience members think, but if you buy a ticket you retain the right to form a critical evaluation yourself. That dude sitting next to me at “The Dark Knight” didn't pen a tome regarding his love of said film, but his reaction made clear what he felt “critically” in that individual moment - that is, woo-hoo!!!!! And those individual moments are now what exclusively make these superhero summertime tentpole cabarets.

Ours is a time of GIFs and Vines. Ours is a time of Tweets that bear no meaning yet carry the weight of our respective worlds. Ours is a time of instants and impressions. Ours is a time of iPhones in place of cameras, snapping 200 pictures of the thing in front of us instead of taking time to spiritually inhale it. They make movies on iPhones now, you know. No, they don't make superhero summertime tentpole cabarets on iPhones (yet), but they may as well. They're really no different than scrolling through your iPhone camera roll, never stopping, just going and going, next, next, next, next, next, next, wait, what about that one? No time! NEXT!!!

Superhero summertime tentpole cabarets are not simply produced at light speed, they move each and every one themselves at a speed akin to Black Widow working her way through so many Marvel versions of the red uniformed Star Trekkers, rendering the precious critical buzzword “stakes” immaterial, always on the look out for what’s next, for the next special effect, the next bit of eye-popping flummery, the next Batcycle in place of the Batmobile.

Black Widow's 30 microseconds of ass-kicking is like our present day world, its accelerator accidentally getting stuck in “Ludicrous Speed” sometime around Apple's invention of The App Store, gone before we really had time to take it in. But if you watch these movies and focus on Here and Now as opposed to What's Next?, well, I promise that you'll see Happy Hogan over here on the periphery really working up a sweat, really laying it on the line.

I don't really remember “The Dark Knight Rises” even though “The Dark Knight Rises” was EPIC. But I do remember Anne Hathaway's momentous mouthing of “please” in “The Dark Knight Rises”. Forever, wrote Emily Dickinson, is composed of nows, and if these movies keep composing enough of those nows maybe they really can last forever. Maybe.


Derek Armstrong said...

Nicely argued. I don't remember Happy Hogan's fight from having watched Iron Man 2, but I will always remember it as the perfect metaphor for what you're discussing here. I'm peanut butter and jelly of the writing here -- great job.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, man. Appreciate that comment. For me, this is the scene that always jump to mind when I think of these sorts of movies. Had been meaning to write about it for a long time.