Why Superhero Movies?

I was flipping through my movie log for the last four or five months and was shocked to see how many action-fantasy movies–especially superhero movies–I’ve watched recently. What’s going on?

Surely the summer movie schedule has something to do with it (’tis the season), but I’ve also sought out older films to watch or to watch again. Clearly I’m interested, but given what I have written I’m also pretty consistently disappointed. What am I looking for that I’m not finding?

(An obvious answer that feels wrong is that I’m overthinking this, that I’m just watching for quick-fix boy-man power-fantasies of the sort that surely drew me to see these films when I was younger. Or if not that, then nostalgia for those fantasies? Or if not that either, then just laziness, that I’m going back to a familiar genre out of habit. But none of these seem right or, at least, completely right.)

There is something in the constraints of the form of these movies that’s eliciting my active, demanding interest. And when I see something that does not disappoint–stay tuned for my thoughts on :::shudder::: Immortals–my response is not satisfaction but excitement. I think it’s time to think a bit about what precisely is going on here.

So, note to self

Ghost Rider

Sometimes the hardest thing about keeping this movie log is just naming what it is I actually saw because what I saw was so bad I want to pretend I didn’t see it, especially when I know that no reasonable person who considered the subject matter or saw the trailer would have ever thought (not even for a minute) that the thing could be anything but horribly horrible. And so it’s embarrassing to say aloud something like, for example, “I watched Ghost Rider.” But alas, tracking what I watched is what I signed up to do, and yes, what I watched was…(shudder)…Ghost Rider, and so I’m logging it here.

I am so embarrassed.

That said, there is some interesting stuff here. The boy next door who sells pot to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty? He’s the bad guy. And he clearly can’t believe how far he has fallen. (The damned playing the damned!) And remember when Nick Cage was actually a really good actor? Well here, he actually makes some effort. I have no idea what his buy in was or why this is the film he decided to check into, but he is actually kinda fun to watch. I want to see him playing more oddball, non-action, non-romantic roles.

But lets not get carried away and paper over plain facts: the film was so embarrassingly bad it hurts to think about it. Be warned.

The Libertarian Myth

From “Deluded Individualism” in the New York Times:

Thanks to a decades-long safety net, we have forgotten the trials of living without it. This is why, the historian Tony Judt argued, it’s easy for some to speak fondly of a world without government: we can’t fully imagine or recall what it’s like. We can’t really appreciate the horrors Upton Sinclair witnessed in the Chicago slaughterhouses before regulation, or the burden of living without Social Security and Medicare to look forward to. Thus, we can entertain nostalgia for a time when everyone pulled his own weight, bore his own risk, and was the master of his destiny. That time was a myth.

To Rome with Love

So I haven’t seen a Woody Allen film since Matchpoint, which I liked quite a bit. This one is fine. I liked the odd mix of artificiality and naturalism and that the stakes were low. This was a movie being a Woody Allen movie but also, surprisingly, offering a meditation on the phenomena of celebrity and reality TV. An easy hour and a half.

(This was also the first movie I’ve seen since being in Rome that “starred” the city. It was exciting to identify locations.)

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters BrothersOddly light book. Reads fast and is fun enough.

What interests me is this: the book reads like something written by someone who has watched a lot of television. This is not a vague impression. The middle scenes in the hotel, for example, are close to a riff on the series Deadwood. Now, all generic fiction is going to be a riff on something. Absent other direct references to TV, what concretely makes me see television rather than fiction as its generic context?

Favourite moment: Eli feeling embarrassed by the intimacy of holding Charlie’s hand after it’s been amputated.

True Grit

True Grit final coverI wanted to read some westerns on my trip through the southwest, and this one was on my shelf from where a colleague had given it to me last term. I’d picked it up back then but realized that the narration seemed to track the Coen Brothers’ adaptation very closely for the first few pages. A bit of skimming seemed to confirm this was the case throughout, and I put it aside. But now this trip: I was in a rush, didn’t get to a bookstore and so tossed it in my bag.

Reading it through I realized my initial hunch was both right and wrong. The movie and book are very similar, the one tracking the other in a way that, oddly enough, seldom happens with strong adaptations. But what I discovered was that the aspect of the movie that I found the most interesting–after the overt allegory of an old Hollywood ceding place to a new one–the elaborate, complex and beautiful language that I found so interesting it turns out is largely original to the adaptation. The difference is subtle–more a shift in emphasis than anything, a shift rendering the novel’s stylized comic voice a more stylized comico-allegorical one–but it is significant.

A book-movie combo to revisit.

Snow White and the Huntsman

As summer draws to a close, this is on my short list of the best movies I saw. I know, I know. How can this be? Simple: Charlize Theron. She is incredible in this movie, chewing up her scenes and spitting them back out. And the filmmakers, whenever she is there, rise to her level creating visual and narrative moments that are inventive and beautiful. In fact, the first twenty minutes of this movie are better than anything I saw this summer bar nothing.

The weakness of the movie is everything not involving Theron. Kristen Stewart is as awkward as Anne Hatheway but without Hatheway’s redeeming self-consciousness. Hatheway always seems to know something’s not working right, that something’s not clicking, but she is trying goddammit, and it’s gonna happen, really, just give it a minute.

Stewart on the other hand struts around without a clue, all awkward slouch and creepy eyes-only-half-open stares, biting her lip, thinking that these things add up to something like a character or an emotion or that, and this is the worst of all, that it is sexy. She is quite simply unwatchable.

When she is on-screen and her story unfolds, nothing is inventive or beautiful. Instead, the gears of the machine creak and churn and the ground up bits of influence float to the surface undigested and ugly. The Dwarves are badly done, embarrassingly so, and difficult to watch. The Huntsman’s role makes no sense.

But Theron, Theron, Theron. She kept popping back into the story and every single time she did, the screen lit up with her performance and the filmmakers’ excitement. I’d watch it again, just for those moments. And fastforward through the rest.

Total Recall

Paul Verhoeven‘s film is much better than I remembered. It moves quickly and really highlights how much movies today–however flashy their editing or speedy the fights or violent the action–are too often ponderous bores. Twenty minutes of story is blown up into two hours of movie–or even two movies, or three or more–and all the filler is pure bathos.

Total Recall has no time for bathos. It’s just gets stuff done in an efficient, exciting and entertaining pace.


Solid movie. The disaffected outcast indie movie is one of the most mannered around, but this take finds air to breath. The tone is neutral enough to develop Terri as a gentle, good, but young character and all of this without the safety of a winking, quirky irony.

Landscape is a huge issue here: no film permit, no budget, have to hide while filming and so you wind up with “quirky boy” looking like a sharecropper hiking to DeGrassi. How do you recover from that? It does. So bravo.

The best scene of the movie comes early: Terri watching an eagle eat the mice his uncle had him catch in the attic.

Superhero Catch Up Edition

Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Dark Knight Returns

Batman was disappointing. A rough mash-up of the Bane story and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns with bits of the “Ras Al-ghul’s daughter as mother of Batman’s son” story thrown in to boot. The results are a mess with the film pulling back into a second origin story to get started again. Anne Hatheway remains the most confusing movie star of the moment: what are her qualifications or her appeal?

Periodic Tales

Periodic TalesPeriodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements from Arsenic to Zinc was a spontaneous purchase in the airport. And for a while, I tore through the first half of it. But weeks later, I haven’t finished it. Partly, that’s just me not being trapped in an airplane, reading. Partly it’s that the book reminds me of A Voyage Long and Strange.

As with that book, the author here has a framework that makes his book a series of topical essays. Fine. But also like that book, the individual essays’ root subject is the small “vacations” the author takes to “discover” information about the ostensible subject. So here, the author tells the story of visiting the odd little shop in [fill in the blank] that sells [fill in the blank] that has a part that relies on X element. Tell everything in the language of “So I went to visit…” and you have a pretty boring travelogue dressed up as a cultural history of chemistry.

There’s more to the book that that, but the weight of this organizational choice overbears it and makes it feel like a museum tour led by a chatterbox guide who doesn’t really want to talk about (or believe we want to hear about) the thing we signed up to see.

Robinson Crusoe

Robinson CrusoeRereading Robinson Crusoe, I have the same reaction I had the last time: I get to the point where he’s about to meet Friday and stop reading it. It is too long and too slow. Then I finish it.

In the end, the novel is very good and very interesting historically. I want to know about the book. I want to discuss aspects of it. But I don’t want to read it anymore.