Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Social Contract

(Spoilers for "Man Of Steel," but if you think a movie like "Man Of Steel" can be spoiled, you're probably an idiot)

In “The Man Of Steel,” the latest joyless superhero blockbuster, our title gladiator purposely catapults a similarly-powered villain through a gas station, causing a massive explosion. It’s one of several moments when Superman’s pummeling of a villain takes precedence over anything else onscreen, an ongoing event that eventually leads to Superman continuing to rain haymakers down on evil Zod as the 9/11’ing of Metropolis occurs in front of him. I’ve heard many bend over backwards to justify this, in a way that’s begun to make me physically ill. I suppose there is now some sort of Social Contract in these films, the acknowledgement that every building that topples is empty, and/or each faceless death should be meaningless.

Of course, the idea that might-makes-right has been keeping audiences coming back to see blockbusters for a couple of decades now. The contemporary version of these fans seems to feel that a little collateral damage is acceptable, as long as the bad guys get theirs, a concept likely borrowed from a real life refusal to admit that armies worldwide, including Americans, produce sickening collateral damage almost weekly (maybe more?). It recalls a conversation I had with a peer about a special ten minute presentation of footage for “White House Down,” yet another recent mass-destruction blockbuster. The plot was unclear to me (I hadn’t seen the footage) so I asked him how the villain had accomplished enacting such violence against the White House, suggesting, “Did he use unmanned drones?”

Amusingly, his response was, “No, no, nothing science fiction like that.” If there wasn’t more evidence that the stomach-turning truth of violence had surpassed the darkest hints of our imagination, that was it. As if an unmanned drone would be “science fiction”: the acceptance, and approval, of films like “Man of Steel” seems rooted in the idea of something like a predator drone being largely approved by general audiences. It may slaughter civilians, and it may pose a threat to our security, but as long as we get the bad guy, what’s another civilian wedding party or two? Hell, even the name “Predator Drone” sounds like a badass tentpole blockbuster starring Taylor Kitsch, Rhona Mitra and Idris Elba.

Amusingly, I saw people arbitrarily drawing the line when criticizing this aspect of “Man Of Steel,” pointing to another similar blockbuster in “The Avengers” in suggesting how such a thing is done “right.” This doesn’t seem to be a notion that critics are pursuing, but let me note ALL FACELESS DEATHS IN MOVIES ARE BAD. Perhaps these films are therapeutic in dealing with our feelings towards massive disasters like 9/11, but that day was over a decade ago. The current generation is not getting therapy out of the visual of skyscrapers coming down, but rather enjoyment. These pictures are not only finding a way to commercialize death (the villain in “Man Of Steel” is flat-out murdered in a way that falsely suggests it was the hero’s only option) but to dehumanize audiences into becoming borderline sociopaths. I’m not certain what’s more appalling: that “Man Of Steel” one-ups “The Avengers” in its violence and off-screen death toll, or that “The Avengers” allows this to happen while its characters are lightly tossing around quips and gags. When the dust has settled, Tony Stark cracks a joke about schwarma, and no one stops and realizes they’re likely surrounded by thousands, maybe millions of corpses.

In other words, these films expect you to accept this Social Contract. One can be dramatic about it, but it involves the acceptance of certain tropes, one of them being that no one must refer to the dead bodies in any massive action scene. In fact, they can’t even be onscreen: the end of “The Avengers” finds newspaper reports glowing, discussing the impact the Avengers had on saving the world, which rings false for anyone who has seen a massive disaster. Chances are, the tragedy will be page one, and any heroes, or “heroes” that arose during the encounter would be downplayed, maybe sidebar’d on page seven. People SHOULD do the right thing and save others: if they do during a horrible incident, they’re a hero, sure, but no one cares if the death toll is obscene. A similar event ends “Man Of Steel” as Clark Kent, ace reporter, saunters into the Daily Planet offices, the assumption being that after the villains eliminated a half-dozen skyscrapers in Metropolis, wrecking crews simply got that one right back up again within months.

Despite the horrifying existential implications of such treatment of death, it’s these Social Contracts that lead these films to be peddled to kids under PG-13 (and adults of arrested development), used as perverted examples of heroism (or in “Man Of Steel”’s case, Godliness) to ignore how we’re domesticating the deaths of thousands. And I think we’ve sat by the Social Contract for these films enough. Through this Social Contract, we’ve allowed these films to have characters who put on costumes and have secret identities, despite the lack of practicality or inherent ridiculousness of such a concept. We’ve allowed these films to constantly present villains as unstoppable beings who experience “justifiable” deaths, but only after they’ve proven to be at all places at all times, setting up elaborate plots that no real person could ever conceive.

And this Social Contract has poisoned other blockbusters as well, following story-hating ideas like JJ Abrams’ marketing-driven “Mystery Box” approach to storytelling. And critics and audiences gladly sign this Social Contract with no repercussions, and no one balks. Abrams’ “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which incompetently borrows from superhero pictures with its puzzle-box storytelling, supernaturally-poised supervillain and cavalier approach to collateral damage, looks like it will make more than $400 million worldwide, while the wonderfully thoughtful, highly recommended “To The Wonder” hasn’t even grossed more than $1 million at the box office. Granted, that film was never meant to be seen by the same audience that turned in, slack-jawed, for the new “Star Trek.” So why have critics gladly signed the Social Contract and rewarded “Star Trek Into Darkness” with 87% positive reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes website, while “To The Wonder” carries an approval rating in the 42% realm?*

While the “Tomatometer” is both unreliable and an offensive democratization of opinions, it cannot be over-emphasized that most of those critics who wrote “rotten” reviews of Malick’s latest wouldn’t actually consider it to be worse than JJ Abrams’ clanging noise machine franchise. Of course, their reviews of “Star Trek Into Darkness” (and “Man Of Steel” and… ) would acknowledge that it’s good “for what it is.” But none of them have realized what it is anymore, and how “what it is” is no longer acceptable on a creative, intellectual, or moral point. “Man Of Steel” can’t even use the excuse of “fun” or “escapism” as a reason to exist beyond corporate considerations: it’s a bludgeoning, not a movie, filled with uber-violent punchouts and cacophonous moments of chaos as if the film is desperate to not be considered “Superman Returns,” the last outing for the Blue Boy Scout that was blasted for being far too low-key. “Man Of Steel” is drenched in flop-sweat, eager to catch your attention, forcing itself on the audience without a smile, without a joke, paying lip service to the “hope” signal on Superman’s chest as it kills thousands for the sake of cheap entertainment, casually brushing them off the screen as if corpses were distractions.

I didn’t realize it until later, but my sentiments regarding “This Is The End” were similar. This fratty comedy, starring the post-Apatow gang of merry-makers as themselves, is the directorial debut of jokesters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Both have teamed to write a number of middling-to-enjoyable comedies over the last few years (and Goldberg even teamed with “This Is The End” star Jay Baruchel to write a genuinely great one, 2012’s “Goon”), but the advertisements for this film promised a meandering collection of improv moments built around an under-thought apocalypse, with each cast member doing the minimal amount of actual performing. As an excuse for these guys to hang out and be funny, sure, makes sense for all involved. They’re funny guys.

But at some point, when do you put your foot down and say, “Yeah, this isn’t really a movie”? In fact, “Jay And Seth Versus The Apocalypse,” the short that inspired the film, barely fulfills its premise after five minutes. What Rogen and Goldberg did was merely fill the screentime with more actors, letting them riff off careers that already seem like jokes (Franco, in particular, seems like a walking missed opportunity given that his entire career screams “Performance Art”). It wasn’t a surprise to know that “This Is The End” truly is barely a movie, weakly paced and intent on serving up the same dick and fart jokes these guys have built empires upon. Sequences when characters step out of the house that serves as the film’s main location might as well carry signposts suggesting how the film needed a brief change of scenery. One gag breaks the fourth wall to announce “The Exorcism Of Jonah Hill,” a joke that makes the film seem like some sort of spoof, the sort of moment that never occurs for the rest of the film despite only delivering one gag, the idea that these actors have learned everything they need to know from movies. Not exactly fresh fruit being plucked.

I’m not certain how our standards, both in popular cinema and among critics, have dropped so low, really. “This Is The End” offers a few good laughs and some humorous moments enough to satisfy anyone looking for a cheap gag, but it’s featherweight, shapeless, and ultimately without real merit. And “Man Of Steel” delivers the endless, punishing violence of the modern blockbuster that some audiences seem to crave, but without wit or originality, and with a shocking, and by now repetitive, disregard for human life. They used to call this pornography. Now it’s just another Social Contract.

*I wouldn’t be mentioning the “Tomatometer” if the discrepancy between “grades” for “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “To The Wonder” wasn’t so startling. In fact, it’s a gross metric that considers all opinions relevant and binary, one that I wish people would stop discussing as if it means something. I know this because I have reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, including negative ones deemed “fresh” and “positive” ones deemed “rotten.”

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