Following the one, two sucker punch of successive Warner Brothers/DC and Disney/Marvel shareholder presentations, among the most analysed and discussed dull PowerPoint presentations in history, it is hard not to feel a deep sense of fatigue with the superhero genre on the big screen and the way in which the summer ‘block-buster’ season is being extended out to cover the entire year, with seemingly a tent pole film every month stretching well into the next decade.
But while it is depressing to see movies lined up like a Guinness Book of Records domino run attempt, this is also the way the Hollywood system works, if you think $200 million dollar movies are made for purely artistic reasons, then you are living in Bizarro World my friend.
Some of these films will be good, some will definitely be bad, and the majority will be mediocre much like any other popular film genre stretching back to the Edison Company’s The Great Train Robbery. And just like the western, eventually audience will tire and move on. There is a question over whether they will move on to another film genre, or whether the superhero movie is the last gasp of big-budget theatrically released film, but that is another story.
Even now, as the Marvel Studio and DC movies establish hegemony over the global box office, it is too easy to forget that the range of films based on and inspired by comic books is far broader. Non-superhero films based on comic-books include: The Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, and Persepolis alongside more obvious entries such as Sin City and 300. There is a thriving sub-genre of indie movies that present themselves and meta-textual commentaries on the superhero genre, from Kick-Ass to (in my opinion by far the best) Super.
Joss Trank and Max Landis’ 2012 film Chronicle is slightly different, being neither based on an existing comic property, nor as self-consciously self reflexive as the satirical Super. Chronicle like the TV series Heroes, follows in the wake of a move in comic books during the eighties, to take super heroics and place them in a quasi realistic environment imbuing their characters with a degree of psychological realism.
Chronicle’s innovation was to tie this to the found-footage technique and the narrative conventions of the teen movie. The found footage style has become much loathed, because it has become an easy template for filmmakers of limited ideas and talents to make cheap genre movies – usually horror. Another criticism of the style is that it precludes the individual vision of a director by enforcing an unartistic and restricted selection of shots and compositions and limiting creative choices in the edit suite. This argument has some merit, but Chronicle blows all that out of the water.
The film begins with Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) in his bedroom beginning a video diary with an old camera he has obtained. Andrew’s home life is bleak; his father is a bitter drunk and his mother seriously ill. School offers little respite with corridors filled with bullies and girls who won’t look at him twice. The only person he has any connection with is his cool philosophy quoting cousin Matt (Alex Russell). But even Matt finds him a touch needy and annoying, especially with his new obsession of filming the minutiae of his life.
In an effort to get Andrew to come out of his shell Matt invites him to a local rave, but ditches him on arrival. The socially awkward teenager ends up retreating to the car park. He doesn’t know is his life is about to change forever. The most popular boy at school, star athlete and class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan) finds Andrew in the parking lot, and tells him he needs his camera because he and Matt have found something “really cool” in the woods. This turns out to be a mysterious hole-in-the-ground with a big glowing alien McGuffin-doohickey machine inside. The mysterious artefact gives the three boys telekinetic powers. Being teenagers, they practice and develop these powers by essentially punking people and giggling about it behind the bushes. Matt and Steve have no idea about how difficult Andrew’s life is at home, and the effects it will have when combined with his increasingly powerful new superpowers.
The combination of first time director Trank’s imaginative use of the found-footage format, Landis’ very witty screenplay, and excellent performances from all three leads come together to create a film that feels fresh and exciting.
These characters aren’t the heirs to fortunes, sole surviving members of an alien race, or top gun pilots. They go to school and deal with the same shit we all do. Although it has a compact running time a significant amount is spent building these characters and hanging out with them. When the inevitable darkness and conflict arise, the reasons are so well established and relatable that the story becomes a tragedy.
This is a film that on the side of the outcast and the misfit so often the object of demonisation. There is criticism to be made that the film’s female characters are rather thin. In particular Ashley Hinshaw as Matt’s ex-girlfriend – who also films events for her own blog – feels like a convenient plot contrivance rather than a legitimate character.
Despite a relatively small budget, Chronicle features often quite astonishing special effects. To misquote another superhero film of a few decades back “you will believe a teenager can fly”. The films’ climatic scenes offer plenty of bang for your buck, but are effective because you care about the protagonists. The expansive scale and detailed character arcs make this closer in comic book terms to Alan Moore than Stan Lee. Russell and Jordan play the charming good guys with charisma, but the film belongs to DeHaan, there is a touch of DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries in his performance.
For first time feature director Trank this was as much as a career launch-pad as Cloverfield was for Matt Reeves, or District 9 for Neill Blomkamp. The director’s next project is a rebooted Fantastic Four. As for Max Landis, he has his directorial debut Me Him Her in production, and has penned a very intriguing sounding Frankenstein for director Paul McGuigan starring James McAvoy as Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe as Igor. I am willing to bet that he doesn’t have to be described in terms of his paternal ties for much longer.
This review originally appeared on screenjabber.com