I love Joss Whedon’s work. I have seen every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, & Dollhouse. I can quote Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog if there are enough amaretto sours involved. I have read all the Buffy comics, his run on Astonishing X-Men with John Cassaday, and began reading Runaways only because of his recommendation (Note: he was right, it was amazing!). I even picked up Titan A.E. because of his involvement, and subjected myself to Alien: Resurrection since I knew he wrote the screenplay. Whedon understands genre like no other, and his work is directly responsible for me taking greater interest in the fantasy genre. And until a week ago I was in high heaven because I knew that he was writing and directing the Avengers, a film that is the culmination of five years of careful planning and ambitious plotting by Marvel’s film studio division.
Then I saw Chronicle this weekend, and everything changed. Now I no longer want to see licensed characters hitting their defined plot points, but rather see these new heroes unleashed. I fully believe this weekend began the death knell of certain intellectual properties in this industry, at least at this level of budget and lack of creative involvement.
(A little bit of explanation is needed. I picked up on this idea from my friend and fellow academic Nicholas Yanes, who is much more well versed than I am in terms of comics scholarship and intellectual properties of companies. He was the one who had originally suggested the idea and sent me the link regarding intellectual properties and licenses. Besides seeing Chronicle immediately, you need to read about him and follow him at his various sites. He is an excellent resource for comics knowledge, a strong writer, and a person who can see the real big picture behind the scenes. Basically this got started as a way of explaining my trepidation towards The Avengers, and then it dovetailed into a huge analysis of comic licenses. Sorry, Nick.)
<*minor spoilers ahead, but nothing that will take away from the plot and nothing that hasn’t been given away by the trailers. Just know that the film is awesome and worth your time*>
(Seriously, can I gush about how good Dane DeHaan is as Andrew? He completely sells the idea of a kid that never feels good in his skin, and when he finally starts to come into his own he just can’t become what he always wanted to be. Amazing performance.)
<spoilers end, which is too bad if you only read to this because you’re missing some awesome analyzing>
But ultimately what The Avengers is about isn’t just the movie; it’s also about promoting toy products and continuing to get future fans involved for future movies with this product. It’s the same reason Star Wars is going to have its whole six-movie story rereleased in theaters in 3-D, and it’s the reason we’re getting multiple movies based on licensed characters and products this year (The Hunger Games, Battleship, John Carter, and the final Twilight movie, not to mention Thor 2 and Iron Man 3 in 2013 with the Adam Sandler-produced and scripted Candy Land. I know, I can’t believe it either). It’s just about the licenses in the end, and this move towards the known product at the expense of the untested, unsure and original has actually made a fable come true:
Familiarity has bred contempt, at least for me. I’m sick of movies and properties that take no chances, and fear that Hollywood will continue to pursue this path until they run out of recycled ideas.
So my worry comes from this question: How can Whedon, the ultimate genre-hopping maven, even hope to compare to this little movie that was made for less than the catering budget of an ambitiously plotted, hermetically planned and sculpted event movie that HAS to hit specific plot points and MUST address fan service and routine in order to maintain the power of the license? The Avengers is the culmination of so many dreams of mine, and most definitely that of Whedon and Marvel Studios, not to mention fans across the world, and yet it seems ultimately hollow when I think about how satisfying Chronicle was in terms of pure and unexpected storytelling. I fear that nothing The Avengers can show me will top the perfection of the flight scene, the talent show, or the incredible, Akira-inspired intensity of the finale. Ultimately, it’s because I know everything about The Avengers from years of reading the comic, scanning fan sites and absorbing spoilerific details, while I knew nothing about Chronicle until a week ago. In terms of onscreen experiences, I’m so glad I went in blind since it added to my enjoyment.
But it’s also because The Avengers can’t really take chances with their characters. These aren’t lowly teenagers in this movie, but characters that carry their own movie franchises who are colliding in one huge movie that is meant to sell toys and further movies. I have no doubt it will be fun, but at this point that’s all I believe it can achieve. Unless I see something that convinces me otherwise, I don’t think that the movie is going to rise beyond “Oh, cool!” That frightens me since I’m a huge Whedon fan, yet I think his hands are tied when he’s using characters not created by him. Plus, I worry about the storytelling being used to tell a full movie. Previous films have shown traces of bloat and have set up future films, frustrating audiences paying $10 and not realizing that they were part of a grand experiment (but not frustrating terribly much).
Chronicle doesn’t have that problem. Instead of needing to hit plot points of fantasy costumed heroics, it allows itself to grow as a teen movie and become an unexpectedly thrilling tale of redemption. It doesn’t rely on widely know licensed characters, but on the archetypes that fill out the genre. The film smartly updates it for our time, and even cleverly adopts a solution for the visual aesthetic of the “found footage” filmmaking style that could have hamstrung the entire production. And others are starting to take note of the success of these original characters, with movies like Super and Defendor popping up to fulfill the more humorous and thoughtful genre conceits without needing a costly license for these characters. If anything, a decade of superhero origin stories have taught us everything we need to know about how these heroes work. Now we want more, with fresher voices and greater emphasis on believable, likeable characters that are new to us.
Chronicle joins Take Shelter and Unbreakable as updates and hybrids of genre, with the former looking at the possible apocalypse through the visions of a man with a family history of paranoid schizophrenia, and the latter the origin of a superhero as a man who never really found himself until he met his opposite. All these films are successful character studies at their core, and all necessary understandings of what audiences want because the filmmaker wants to tell a story with characters they create because it will have consequences. We don’t want to just see the end of the world or our friends get superpowers or our fathers become bigger than life. We want to walk through this journey with them, but not (just) because of the amazing sights we’ll see. Take Shelter and Unbreakable both successfully cohere around these characters that are fully fleshed out and perfectly acted by their leads and supporting characters. There is darkness, pain, suffering, levity, light, and hope all mixed in these films, and Chronicle is no different. If anything, Chronicle actually surpasses them with the romantic idealism of teenage life. And it didn’t require us to have any knowledge of their backstory first; instead, it took us for the ride and smartly assumed we’d like the protagonists enough to come along.
<*another minor spoiler scene. Again, nothing is revealed that isn’t in the trailer, but you should avoid this paragraph if you want to go in pure. Then again, why are you reading so much about it if you haven’t seen it yet and would be angry at me for spoiling anything?*>
The flying scene in Chronicle is the ultimate reason that I loved the movie so much. When the three friends begin to experiment with flying, there’s something so pure and organic about it. They don’t decide to help other people with this, and they don’t resolve to become the ultimate arbiters of justice. Instead, they are 18 year-old kids that just want to experience new things and have fun, and the idea of flight and play is what they want to accomplish. I had a giddy smile on my face throughout the entire experience, and when they are finished and screaming at Andrew’s camera that they can fly it made me realize what I was missing in all of the movies I’d seen with superheroes: a palpable sense of joy and excitement. Here we discover their powers with these characters, and the audience shares their excitement. It also gives the narrative greater meaning. The arc of Chronicle soon turns tragic, and this scene means that the resulting chaos only has greater pathos. Moreover, they are not licensed characters nor have recognizable powers and code names; they are teenagers, and their drama and discovery plays itself organically on the big screen in 84 minutes without any promise of a sequel. Oh, one could go back there if one was smart enough to do it, but it doesn’t feel like it’s necessary to revisit this universe, and in many ways that’s much more satisfying to me now.
I think the camera movement is integral to the film’s success, and Max Landis’s screenwriting conceit of telekinesis as an explanation of why the camera can move around in space freely is a genius move. Moreover, I think it’s essential to the post-flying scene where the three of them are sleeping over at Matt’s house; to me, this is the scene that thematically underscores the film and emotionally grounds it in reality. When Matt and Steve are looking at each other in confirmation that flying gave them the best day of their lives, Andrew is too focused on the camera and watching it watch over him to really be involved with his other friends, both of whom would have helped him (and both of whom are unaware of the camera’s presence, which makes their naivete and vulnerable statements so much more poignant and real). It says a lot about character development, presence, and writing. It’s astounding to me, and I think it says a lot about this writer-director team that they can convey all this information visually and silently. It let me discover these characters in a way other films are not confident enough to do.
Only once did I find a really transcendent scene in a superhero movie last year, and it was the scene in X-Men: First Class when Magneto and Charles Xavier (I refuse to call him Professor X as a fellow academic; when I see his C.V., then I will be satisfied) unlock the full potential of his powers via an image of his mother’s kindness through the absolute darkness of the Holocaust. Images and instances like these are so few and far between in superhero films now I think I’ve lost my taste for them. Then I see a movie like Chronicle and realize what I love about them: real people acting with joy when it comes to having powers, and their characterization driving their arcs.