THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT – JAMES GUNN’S SUPER AND THE ART OF DISPLACEMENT

October 11, 2011

THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT.

HULK HAS SAID THIS TO YOU MANY, MANY TIMES OVER THE COURSE OF THIS BLOG.

SADLY, A LOT OF FILMMAKERS FAIL TO REALIZE THIS, EVEN SOME GOOD ONES. BUT THE PROBLEM ONLY GROWS BECAUSE IT IS ALLOWED TO FESTER. HOLLYWOOD IS AN INDUSTRY WHERE MOVIES ARE SOLD ON HALF-GESTATED CONCEITS AND THE ATTACHED-TALENT ALONE, THUS THEY REGARD THAT PESKY ENDING THINGY AS JUST SOMETHING THAT CAN BE “FIGURED OUT LATER.” THE FUNNY THING IS THAT THIS NOTION DENIES THE REALITY THAT ANY IDEA HAS TO HAVE A RELATIVE POINT TO IT, BUT HEY, WHAT DOES HULK KNOW? THE RESULT OF THIS CONFUSION IS THAT MOVIE-GOERS ARE OFTEN TREATED TO A SERIES OF LIMP-DICK ENDINGS THAT NO ONE REALLY EVER BOTHERED TO THINK ABOUT IN TERMS OF THE MOVIE THAT CAME BEFORE… BUT PERHAPS HULK BEING A BIT CYNICAL.

MOST OF THE TIME WE GET PLAIN, OLD CLICHE ENDINGS; THE ONES THAT COME TO PASS WITHOUT ANY SENSE OF BEING EARNED. THEY ARE DESIGNED TO MERELY SATISFY OUR MOST BASIC AND FAMILIAR EXPECTATIONS OF THE MOVIE-GOING EXPERIENCE AND WHY? “BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT MOVIES DO.” HULK ARGUES THIS KIND OF CINEMATIC EXECUTION IS ACTUALLY A SOCIOPATHIC BEHAVIOR.

TO EXPLAIN: HULK DOESN’T MEAN SOCIOPATHIC IN THE “I WANT TO KILL PEOPLE” WAY PEOPLE COMMONLY MISTAKE IT FOR, BUT IN THE WAY THAT ONE HUMAN BEING POORLY TRIES TO RELATE TO ANOTHER HUMAN THROUGH CONCEPTS THEY DON’T ACTUALLY UNDERSTAND. THIS IS TECHNICALLY THE TRUE DEFINITION OF SOCIOPATHY (IF THE LESS HARMFUL ONE). THIS MEANS THAT SOCIOPATHS ONLY EXHIBIT FEELINGS BECAUSE THEY THINK THEY ARE SUPPOSED TO, WHICH IN TURN MEANS YES, THESE KINDS OF MOVIES ARE DEFINITELY SOCIOPATHIC. HULK KNOWS THIS IS ON ODD WAY TO CHARACTERIZE THE WHOLE PHENOMENON. WHEN DESCRIBING THESE MOVIES IT IS PERHAPS BETTER TO USE TERMS OF NON-PERSONIFICATION; TO MERELY CALL THIS THINKING MECHANICAL, BACKWARDS, OR JUST SILLY. BUT HULK REALLY WANTED TO MAKE THE POINT THE PRACTICE IS A KIND OF HOLLOW HUMANITY. MOVIES ARE MADE SO THAT WE SHOULD CONNECT WITH THEM AND TO FAIL IN THAT AIM IS TO SADLY FAIL AT THE VERY INTENTION OF FILMMAKING.

THIS ISN’T TO SAY TRADITIONAL ENDINGS CAN’T BE WELL-EARNED OR NICELY OBSERVED, NOT AT ALL. FILMS LIKE THE KINGS SPEECH COME TO MIND AS A GOOD EXAMPLE… THOUGH YOU’D HAVE TO IGNORE THE INFLUENCE OF ACTUAL HISTORY IN THAT CASE, BUT YOU TOTALLY GET THE IDEA. THESE WELL-EARNED ENDINGS WORK BECAUSE, EVEN WITH ALL THE FAMILIAR AFFIRMATIONS AT PLAY, THE MOVIE HAS LIKELY FOLLOWED THE CONCEIT THROUGH TO A FULL-ON CONCLUSION. THIS IS UPSTANDING THE POWER OF THEME. IT GIVES FILMS THINGS LIKE, YOU KNOW, “WEIGHT” AND “MEANING.” WHICH IS GOOD BECAUSE IT’S ALL SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT CATHARSIS AFTER ALL.

AGAIN, THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT.

THERE IS ANOTHER KIND OF ENDING THAT PERHAPS PROVES THAT THIS CONCEPT IS TRUE BEYOND A SHADOW OF A DOUBT. THESE ARE THE TRANSFORMATIVE ENDINGS; THE KIND OF ENDINGS THAT CAN EITHER NARRATIVE-LY OR THEMATICALLY RESHAPE EVERYTHING YOU’VE JUST WATCHED. ONES WHERE YOU SLAP YOURSELF ON THE HEAD AND REALIZE JUST EXACTLY WHAT KIND OF MOVIE YOU WERE WATCHING THE ENTIRE TIME. OH. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE SOME RUG-PULLING PLOT TWIST WHERE SOMEONE WAS DEAD THE WHOLE TIME OR SOMETHING. NO, THE KIND OF ENDINGS HULK IS TALKING ABOUT ARE A LOT MORE RESONANT THAN CHEAP TRICKS. THEY ARE THE WONDERFUL MOMENTS WHERE YOU GO “OHHHHH, SO THAT’S WHAT IT WAS REALLY ABOUT!” IT DOESN’T EVEN NEED TO BE SOMETHING GRAND OR OBVIOUS EITHER, AS THE SMALLEST GESTURE WILL DO, BUT THE KEY TO THESE ENDINGS IS THAT WHATEVER HAPPENS, IT REVEALS THE LONG-PRESENT HEART OF A MOVIE IN A TRANSFORMATIVE WAY.

WELL… JAMES GUNN’S SUPER HAS ONE OF THOSE ENDINGS.(1)

BUT PERHAPS HULK GETTING AHEAD OF HULK-SELF. LET’S BACK UP A BIT, SHALL WE?

HULK GOING TO BE UPFRONT ABOUT THIS: THE IMPORTANT THING TO DO BEFORE WATCHING SUPER IS TO ADJUST YOUR EXPECTATIONS AND MINDSET. THAT IS BECAUSE FOR MANY VIEWERS, JAMES GUNN’S SUPER IS A TRULY GREAT MOVIE THAT SIMPLY DOES NOT BENEFIT FROM CLOSE PROXIMITY OF RELEASE TO KICK ASS. THEY ARE VERY, VERY DIFFERENT FILMS AND MOST OF YOU HOPEFULLY SEE THAT DIFFERENCE, BUT IT IS HARD NOT TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT MANY OF THE THINGS THAT WOULD HAVE MADE SUPER SOMETHING “SPECIAL” ON THE LARGER, TANGIBLE LEVEL OF CULTURAL PENETRATION (THINGS LIKE: SOCIOPATHY-AS-SUPERHERO [HULK MEANS IT IN THE KILLING WAY THIS TIME], CARTOONISH SKEWING OF GRISLY VIOLENCE, AND THE SAME VIOLENCE THEN USED FOR GUT-DROPPING DRAMA) ARE SOMEWHAT MUTED BECAUSE THERE IS ANOTHER RECENT FILM THAT KINDA SORTA DOES SOME OF THE SAME THINGS… UGH… THIS IS ADMITTEDLY DUMB, BUT THERE IS THIS WEIRD PRECEDENCE WHERE WE THINK ALL MOVIES SEEM TO EXIST TO THE SAME “WORLD” WITH THEIR OWN TIME-LINED HISTORY EVEN IF THEY ACTUALLY DON’T. EVEN THE MOST ASTUTE MOVIE GOER FALLS VICTIM TO IT.(2) THIS KIND OF THINKING IS BOTH UNFORTUNATE, PERPLEXING, AND YET IT IS ALSO UNAVOIDABLE.

PICTURED: CONTINUITY POLICE

BUT THIS IS OKAY.

THIS IS ACTUALLY VERY, VERY OKAY.

BECAUSE THE SIMILARITIES ONLY HELP TO HIGHLIGHT THE KEY DIFFERENCES.  IT IS NOT THE SUPERHERO TREATMENT OF VIOLENCE THAT MAKES THE SUPER DISTINCT, NOR IT’S DECONSTRUCTION, NOR THE ALLEGORY OF SOCIOPATHY OR FASCISM… WHAT MAKES THE FILM SPECIAL IS THAT IT USES SUPERHEROISM AS A NEAR-PERFECT ALLEGORY OF PSYCHOLOGICAL DISPLACEMENT. SPECIFICALLY, IN REGARDS TO… BREAK-UPS?

YUP. BREAK-UPS.

SUPER IS THE STORY OF FRANK, A SAD SACK, INEFFECTUAL LINE COOK (RAINN WILSON) WHOSE WIFE SARAH (LIV TYLER) IS CURRENTLY FALLING OFF THE WAGON. FRANK MAY BE A LOSER, BUT HE IS A LOSER WHO WANTS SIMPLE, PURE THINGS FROM LIFE:  TO BE GOOD AND TO LOVE HIS WIFE… ONE COULD CERTAINLY DO WORSE. IN FACT, WE LEARN THAT THIS SIMPLICITY AND INNATE GOODNESS IS WHAT ATTRACTED SARAH TO FRANK IN THE FIRST PLACE. ALAS, SARAH SLIPS BACK ONTO HARD DRUGS AND IS PROMPTLY SWEPT UP AS THE NEW GIRLFRIEND OF A LOCAL DRUG BOSS.

THIS SENDS FRANK, SOMEONE WHO SEES THE WORLD IN SUCH SIMPLE BLACK & WHITE TERMS, COMPLETELY OVER THE EDGE. IT IS IMPORTANT TO REALIZE THAT FRANK IS NOT A COMIC BOOK-LOVING INDIVIDUAL. THE SUPERHERO THING IS ALMOST INCIDENTAL, A WAY TO TRANSFER THE INJUSTICE OF THE BREAK UP (AND THE GUY WHO MADE IT POSSIBLE FOR HER TO FALL) ONTO THE LARGER INJUSTICES OF SOCIETY AT LARGE. IT SHOULD BE MENTIONED THAT FRANK CHOOSES THIS MODE OF EXPRESSION AFTER BEING HILARIOUSLY TOUCHED/TENTACLE-RAPED BY THE FINGER OF GOD, WHICH IS EITHER A GENUINE EVENT OR ONE OF MANY PREVIOUSLY-ALLUDED-TO SCHIZOPHRENIC HALLUCINATIONS.(3) BUT WHAT IS MORE IMPORTANT IS THAT FRANK’S GOAL OF ATTAINING SUPERHEROISM IS ONLY A COINCIDENTAL VEHICLE TO PURITY… MAYBE EVEN NIRVANA. OF COURSE, FRANK IS  COMPLETELY OUT OF CONTROL IN HIS APPROACH AND BEATS THE LIVING FUCK OUT OF CRIMINALS WITH A WRENCH. IT’S A HILARIOUS AND DISTURBINGLY ACCURATE DEPICTION OF PURITY PERVERTED. THIS IS WHAT ABSOLUTISM LOOKS LIKE FOLKS.

IT LOOKS HURTY

MAKE NO MISTAKE, THE PERVERSION OF PURITY IS EXACTLY WHAT IS GOING ON HERE. IT IS NO ACCIDENT THAT FRANK’S INSPIRATION FOR HIS SUPERHEROICS ORIGINALLY CAME FROM A CHEESY/BAD TV SHOW ABOUT A CHRISTIAN SUPERHERO, ONE THAT IS SIMPLY DRIPPING WITH BACKWARDS APPROACHES TO SEXUALITY AND THE SACRED MIND. FOR ONE, THE SHOW ADDRESSES THEIR WRONG-HEADED NOTION OF SECULAR SEXUALITY BY DRESSING UP THEIR ACTORS AS TITILLATING NYMPHOMANIACS… CAUSE THAT WILL WORK. WHICH THEN MEANS THE DUPLICITY OF PURE INTENTIONS GONE AWRY IS CLEARLY SOMETHING THAT IS NOT LOST ON GUNN. FRANK, IS EXACTLY LIKE THIS CHRISTIAN TV SHOW, GOING ABOUT HIS QUEST FOR PURITY IN A COMPLETELY WRONG-HEADED WAY. THEY’RE BOTH SIMULTANEOUSLY GIVING INTO URGES WHILE DECRYING THEM: CRIME VIA CRIME, SEX VIA SEX. THE ONLY DIFFERENCE IS THE VIEWPOINT AND IN THE INNATE BELIEF IN ONE’S OWN GOODNESS. HEROIC INDEED.

HULK WILL STOP FOR A MOMENT HERE TO ACKNOWLEDGE THAT RAINN WILSON DELIVERS AN EXCEPTIONAL PERFORMANCE IN SUPER. THERE’S SOMETHING INHERENTLY CHILD-LIKE ABOUT WILSON, SO HIS FITS OF RAGE COME ACROSS LIKE THAT OF AN INDIGNANT TODDLER. BUT THERE IS ALSO SOMETHING UNIQUE TO HIS MAN-CHILD. IT IS NOT FRATTISH AMATEURISM ON DISPLAY BUT SOMETHING ELSE. WILSON IS RAW AND UNFORMED, CHANNELING SOMETHING DARK, PRIMORDIAL AND YET SOMEHOW INNOCENT AT THE SAME TIME. LOTS OF PEOPLE PROBABLY WON’T SEE IT, BUT WILSON REALLY DIGS DEEP HERE AND FINDS SOMETHING KIND OF AMAZING. AT THE SAME TIME, ELLEN PAGE DESERVES PRAISE FOR WHAT HULK WILL CALL PURE COURAGE. ONE OF THOSE THINGS ABOUT ACTING THAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T UNDERSTAND IS THAT YOU ARE CONSTANTLY PUTTING YOURSELF OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE… COMPLETELY OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE IN MOST CASES… AND THERE IS A WAY THAT PAGE THROWS HERSELF INTO THIS BRAZEN, UNHINGED ROLE WITH RECKLESS ABANDON. HULK NOT SURE IF SHE’S SHE ALWAYS IN CONTROL OF THE PORTRAYAL OF THE SOCIOPATHY THAT EMERGES FROM HER, BUT THE ENERGY AND COMMITMENT IS UNDENIABLE. MORE IMPORTANTLY, THE EFFECT ON RAINN AND THE MOVIE AT LARGE IS WONDERFUL.(4) ANYWHO, THE TWO OF THEM EVENTUALLY GO FULL-RETARD IN TERMS OF SUPERHEROISM AND TAKE TO IT’S LOGICAL, HORRIBLE ENDPOINT.

THE ENSUING COMIC BOOK DECONSTRUCTION IS HILARIOUS AND RATHER DARK… LIKE, JET-BLACK DARK. BUT WE APPROPRIATELY GET LOST IN THE MANIACAL JOY AND BACKWARD ETHOS THE SAME WAY THAT FRANK DOES… OF COURSE, THIS DOES NOT LAST FOREVER. BECAUSE ULTIMATELY THE MOVIE NOT ONLY BECOMES ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE, BUT IT BECOMES SOMETHING ELSE… AND THAT IS SOMETHING ELSE IS POIGNANT.

YOU HEARD HULK

IT IS ABLE TO BECOME THAT SOMETHING ELSE DUE TO POWER OF THAT TRANSFORMATIVE ENDING THINGY HULK MENTIONED EARLIER (SEE, HULK EVENTUALLY GETS TO HULK’S POINTS!). HULK WARN WE GOING TO GET ALL SPOILERY NOW, BUT THAT’S OKAY, THE MOVIE BEEN OUT FOR LONG ENOUGH HULK THINK. AND MORE THAN THAT IF IT’S TRUE THAT “NO GOOD MOVIE CAN BE SPOILED” THEN HULK’S PRETTY SURE THIS WOULDN’T TRULY AFFECT YOUR VIEWING AND MAY INSTEAD GIVE YOU A BETTER LENS TO VIEW IT WITH.

SO…

SUPERHEROISM IS ABOUT MANY THINGS, BUT ONE OF THEM IS THE LACK OF AMBIGUITY. THE GUY DEALING DRUGS IN A PARK IS NOT PART OF A LARGER SYSTEMIC PROBLEM, BUT INSTEAD HE IS A PERSON GIVEN A CHOICE TO DO RIGHT OR DO WRONG AND THEY CHOSE WRONG. AS SUCH, FRANK BRINGS THE PAIN ACCORDINGLY. THE END OF THE FILM ACTUALLY HAS FRANK GIVE AN IMPASSIONED (AND PRETTY CONVINCING) SPEECH ABOUT THIS VERY TOPIC. FRANK GETS RIGHT INTO A BAD GUY’S FACE, SCREAMING AT HIM THAT, “THE RULES WERE MADE A LONG TIME AGO” AND BASICALLY IMPLYING THAT WE’VE BECOME SO COMFORTABLE BREAKING MOST THEM THAT WE’VE ALMOST FORGOT WHY WE MADE THEM IN THE FIRST PLACE. IN A WAY, FRANK IS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. SOCIETY IS A NECESSARY CONSTRUCTION AND SOMETIMES THE OLD FASHIONED CONCEPT OF “RIGHT AND WRONG” IS ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL TO OUR SURVIVAL… THEN AGAIN, THE VALIDITY OF THIS MESSAGE IS TEMPERED BY THE FACT THAT FRANK ROUNDS OUT THIS SPEECH BY MANIACALLY STABBING A GUY TO DEATH, BUT HEY, AMBIGUITY IS NOT FOR STABBIN’.

BUT AGAIN, HULK DOESN’T THINK GUNN IS REALLY INTERESTED IN THE MORALISTIC IMPLICATIONS OF SOCIETY OR EVEN REALLY IF FRANK IS RIGHT OR WRONG. GUNN IS INTERESTED IN THE THINKING AND THE DYNAMIC THAT CREATES IT. THIS IS ABOUT HOW WE ADOPT MORALS TO DISGUISE WHAT’S REALLY BOTHERING US.

SUPER IS ABOUT DISPLACEMENT.

WE KNOW THIS BECAUSE, AFTER THE BLOODY CLIMAX, THE FILM MOVES TOWARD THE REAL ENDING. FRANK REUNITES WITH SARAH, BUT ONLY FOR A SHORT TIME OUT OF HER “SENSE OF OBLIGATION.” THIS MOMENT SHOULD BE MORE UNNERVING, A HAPPY ENDING SLIPPING OUT OF GRASP, BUT FRANK EXPLAINS IT ALL A WAY THAT MAKES IT ALL OKAY. FRANK CONTINUES: SARAH MOVES ON FROM HIM, FINDING SOMEONE WHO IS BETTER SUITED FOR HER TROUBLES, HER HUMANITY, HER AMBIGUITY.  FRANK NARRATES THESE EVENTS WITH A KIND OF SWEET HONESTY AND UNDERSTANDING. NOT ONLY HAS FRANK CHANGED, BUT WE BEGIN TO REALIZE/REMEMBER THAT THIS WAS ACTUALLY THE SORT OF PERSON HE WAS IN THE BEGINNING. THEN, IN THE AGONY OF THE BREAK-UP, FRANK LOST SIGHT OF JUST HOW MUCH “RIGHTEOUSNESS” MATTERS IN A HAZE OF ANGER, RESENTMENT, AND LACK OF UNDERSTANDING. BUT NOW THAT FRANK HAS GONE THROUGH THE RING OF FIRE TO PULL SARAH OUT, NOW THAT SHE IS IN A BETTER PLACE, HE TOO IS IN A BETTER PLACE. HE STILL EVEN GETS TO BE A PART OF HER LIFE, BECOMING “UNCLE FRANK” TO HER KIDS. THE MONTAGE GUNN PUTS TOGETHER HERE IS UNDERSTATED, DISARMING, AND QUIETLY STUNNING. IT IS WHOLLY REPRESENTATIVE OF A KIND OF BEAUTIFUL CATHARSIS FOR A CHARACTER WHO NOW UNDERSTANDS EXACTLY WHAT HE DID, WHY, AND THE WAYS IN WHICH IT IS NOT NECESSARY ANYMORE.

FRANK AND THE MOVIE HAVE TRANSFORMED.

BETTER YET, THIS ENDING RESHAPES THE COMIC BOOK BLACK COMEDY THAT PRECEDED IT, BRINGING IT ALL BACK AROUND TO MAKE THE ENTIRE FILM A NEAR-PERFECT ALLEGORY OF BREAK-UPS. HULK IMAGINES THERE ARE A WHOLE BUNCH OF VIEWERS WHO DON’T FULLY SEE HOW THIS MOVIE CONNECTS TO THE DARK, FUNNY SUPERHERO MOVIE THAT CAME JUST BEFORE, BUT INDULGE HULK FOR A MOMENT:

THINK ABOUT BREAK UPS. THINK ABOUT YOUR BREAKUPS. THINK ABOUT HOW WE DISPLACE OUR FEELINGS. THINK OF WHO WE BLAME AND WHY. THINK THE LACK OF AMBIGUITY WE ADOPT. THE RAGE. THE EMOTION. THE LACK OF GOD DAMN REASON. HECK, IS THERE ANYTHING ON EARTH THAT FUELS US MORE TO CHANGE? NOT JUST TO, SAY, LOSE WEIGHT OR CHANGE APPEARANCE, BUT TO ADOPT NEW THINKING? TO TRANSFORM?(5) THIS IS THE POWER OF BREAK UPS. HULK ARGUE THERE ARE FEW THINGS MORE POTENT TO OUR MENTAL VIEWPOINT. BUT SINCE THIS IS AN ALLEGORY, FRANK DOES NOT GET BURNED IN HIS TRIP INTO THE RING OF FIRE, NO FRANK MAKES IT OKAY THROUGH THE OTHER SIDE, JUST AS WE ALL DO WITH BREAK-UPS. FRANKS LITERAL BATTLES ARE OUR METAPHORICAL ONES. AND THEN THIS BLATANTLY LOVABLE AND DANGEROUS SOCIOPATH COMES TO HIS MOMENT OF TRUE UNDERSTANDING AND MOVES ON AS A MORE COMPLETE PERSON… IT’S KIND OF BEAUTIFUL REALLY.

YOU CAN SEE IT TOO, CAN'T YOU?!?!

OH BY THE WAY, HULK TOTALLY LIED TO YOU EARLIER.

HULK SAID WHAT MADE SUPER INTERESTING HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH COMICS, AND THAT’S ONLY HALF TRUE. THE MOVIES DOES HAVE MANY WONDERFUL THINGS TO SAY ABOUT THE NATURE OF RELATIONSHIPS AND BREAKUPS, BUT ONCE YOU ESTABLISH THOSE IDEAS, THEY CAN THEN BE RE-INTERPRETED BACK INTO HOW DISPLACEMENT WORKS IN COMICS AND SUPERHEROES. PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT, LIKE ALL THINGS, THIS IS HULK’S INTERPRETATION OF THE MOVIE. HULK JUST ONE PERSON (THOUGH, COME ON, HULK COUNT AS MUCH AS TWO PUNY HUMANS). BUT HULK REALLY BELIEVES THIS APTITUDE FOR DISPLACEMENT GETS TO THE HEART OF WHY SUPERHEROES RESONATE WITH US MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE.

THINK ABOUT IT. LET’S GO TO AN EXAMPLE. LET’S GO TO SUPERMAN. WHY IS DISPLACEMENT IMPORTANT WITH SUPERMAN? BETTER QUESTION: WHY ISN’T SUPERMAN AS POPULAR AS HE ONCE WAS? BECAUSE SUPERMAN WORKS BEST AS A VEHICLE FOR OUR DESIRE TO BE INVINCIBLE. MORTALITY USED TO BE A REGULAR FIXTURE OF CHILDREN’S LIVES. SPECIFICALLY THINK ABOUT POST-WAR SUBURBIA: POLIO, THE COLD WAR, NUCLEAR ARMAGEDDON, POORER MEDICAL CARE IN GENERAL. BASICALLY, DEATH WAS VERY MUCH A PRESENT AND TANGIBLE THING. AND WHAT WOULD ANY KID WANT WHEN THEY ARE LIVING IN THAT KIND OF REALITY? THE SAME REALITY WHERE MOST KIDS NEVER FLEW ON AN AIRPLANE? THE SAME REALITY WHERE MOST OF THEIR FATHERS WATCHED THEIR BROTHERS-IN-ARMS DIE IN WORLD WAR 2? IN THAT CULTURE IT IS NOT QUITE A STRETCH TO SAY WHY SUPERMAN RESONATED SO DEEPLY. IT WAS A MATTER OF DISPLACEMENT: THEY WANTED TO BE INVINCIBLE.

BUT NOW? INVINCIBILITY IS THE  SURBURBAN EXPECTATION. KIDS DON’T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT FANTASIZING ABOUT BEING INVINCIBLE ANYMORE BECAUSE THEY ALREADY ARE. SO THE POPULARITY OF SUPERMAN PLUMMETED. IT’S NO ACCIDENT THAT ROCK BOTTOM WAS HIT ALONGSIDE THE MUCH PUBLICIZED “DEATH OF SUPERMAN”… THE WRITERS DIDN’T EVEN REALIZE THEY QUELLED THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT HIM: HIS INVINCIBILITY.

"MOMMY, I WANT TO BE THAT GUY!"

BUT WHO’S POPULARITY SKYROCKETED? BATMAN’S DID. NOTHING QUITE LIKE THE UNHINGED SOCIOPATH WHO IS DARK, BROODING AND TAKE OUT ALL THE TROUBLES AND INJUSTICES OF THE WORLD BY BEING THE GODDAMN BATMAN AND BEATING THE CRAP OUT OF PEOPLE. THAT’S WHAT KIDS WANT THESE DAYS. INJUSTICES AREN’T WORLDLY THEY ARE SCHOOLYARD AND PERSONAL. WHERE SUPERMAN EFFORTLESSLY STOPPED BULLIES AND DID THE RIGHT THING, BATMAN EMBRACED HIS INNER DARKNESS AND TOOK OUT THE INJUSTICE OF HIS PARENTS’ DEATH ON THE WHOLE CRIME AT LARGE. BATMAN IS THE VERY MODEL FOR ANGER DISPLACEMENT. HE ISN’T GIVEN A GREAT POWER. HE ISN’T A BOY SCOUT. HE IS AN ANGRY YOUNG MAN. AND WE WANT TO BE HIM SO WE CAN TAKE DOWN THE BULLIES… OKAY SO MAYBE OUR MOTIVATIONS ARE A LITTLE MORE NUANCED THAN THAT LATER ON IN LIFE, BUT THERE IS NO DENYING BATMAN FANS ARE STILL CHANNELING SOMETHING INTO THEIR DESIRE TO BE THE DARK KNIGHT… AND LIKE FRANK, HULK ARGUE THE ACT OF DOING SO IS NOT SO PRETTY.

DISPLACEMENT IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS TO SUPERHERO GENRE AND JAMES GUNN SEEMS TO KNOW THAT. SURE KICK ASS HAS A LOT OF INTERESTING THINGS TO SAY ABOUT HOW WE RELATE TO COMICS, BUT SUPER IS COMICS IF THAT MAKES SENSE.

SUPER GIVES US AN ORIGINAL ONE AFTER ALL: THE CRIMSON BOLT! A SUPERHERO WHO CAN OVERCOME BREAKUPS. IT GIVES US WISH FULFILLMENT BY UNDOING THE INJUSTICE/SAVING THE GIRL WE LOST, AND ALSO TEACHES US WHY WE WANT TO BE SUPERHEROES IN THE FIRST PLACE. BUT IT ALSO TRANSFORMS…

AGAIN, THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT. AND JAMES GUNN GIVES US AN ENDING THAT SHOWS US HOW WE CAN HOPE TO OVERCOME IT. NOT JUST BREAK UPS, BUT THE MORAL INCLINATION TOWARD ABSOLUTE PURITY. TO AVOID THE KINDS OF ABSOLUTISM THAT ONLY BREEDS CONFLICT. TO EMBRACE OUR AMBIGUITY WHILE STILL HOLDING ON TO THAT SHINING LIGHT OF GOODNESS TUCKED DEEP IN OUR HEARTS.

AND BY DOING THAT. JAMES GUNN CREATES A RARE, UNIQUE MOVIE THAT MAKES US FEEL BETTER.

AFTER ALL, THIS IS ABOUT CATHARSIS, RIGHT?

MAYBE WE CAN EVEN GET A RABBIT.

ENDNOTES!

(1) FOR REFERENCE, THE LIST OF OTHER MOVIES THAT INCLUDE THESE SORTS OF TRANSFORMATIVE ENDINGS INCLUDE THE ALTERCATION WITH KAY/CLOSING DOOR OF THE GODFATHER, THE ZIPPING OF THE BAG IN ALL THAT JAZZ, THE “HAIL SATAN!” OF ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE SEAT-BELT SIGN IN SAY ANYTHING, THE WALK ACROSS THE POND IN BEING THERE, THE LAST FEW MINUTES OF FIGHT CLUB (“YOU’VE MET ME AT A VERY STRANGE TIME IN MY LIFE”), AND THE ENTIRETY OF PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON’S WORK (THINK ABOUT IT: HIDING THE BLOOD ON THE CUFF, “YOU’RE A STAR,” THE HINT OF A SMILE, A HUG FROM BEHIND, AND LASTLY, “I’M FINISHED.” PTA IS THE MASTER OF THE SMALL GESTURE).

(2) FOR EXAMPLE, “HOW COME NO ONE HAS EVER BEEN A SUPER HERO BEFORE?” NOT ONLY HAS THIS QUESTION BEEN ASKED IN A MULTITUDE OF RECENT META-COMIC BOOK FILMS, BUT WE ACTUALLY DO HAVE REAL LIFE SUPERHEROES THESE DAYS AND THEY’RE IN SEATTLE. CHANCES ARE YOU’RE ALREADY AWARE, BUT IF NOT, THEY’RE CALLED THE RAIN CITY SUPERHERO MOVEMENT. IF YOU HAVEN’T HEARD OF THEM… WELL THEN THERE’S THE ANSWER TO HOW AMERICANS WOULD REACT IF BATMAN WAS REAL: WE WOULDN’T. ANYCRAP, THE POINT TO ALL OF THIS  IS THAT ASKING IF THESE META QUESTIONS AND SPECIFIC DETAILS ARE CHANGED BY CURRENT EVENTS IT CAN THROW US OFF… AGAIN, SOMETHING TOTALLY UNFAIR BUT SOMETHING WE CAN’T HELP BUT DO.

(3) ALSO, THE IDEA THAT JAMES GUNN EITHER SEES GOD AS A TENTACLE RAPIST OR THE FLYING SPAGHETTI MONSTER, IS SOMETHING THAT WILL DELIGHT HULK UNTIL THE END OF TIME.

(4) THIS IS NOT TO SINGLE THEM OUT FROM THE REST OF THE CAST, IT’S JUST TOO MANY MOVIE REVIEWS END UP LISTING WHAT’S GREAT ABOUT EVERY ACTOR. HULK COULD EASILY DO THAT HERE. KEVIN BACON CONTINUES HIS ANNOYING HABIT OF NEVER GIVING A BAD, UNCALLED FOR PERFORMANCE (SERIOUSLY IT’S INCREDIBLE) AND THEN GUNN’S REGULARS LIKE ROOKER AND FILLION KNOW EXACTLY HOW TO MAKE HIS MATERIAL WORK. AND HEY IT’S BUBBLES FROM THE WIRE EVERYONE! BUBBLES! HOW AWESOME IS THAT!

(5) BATMAN: “DEATH OF PARENTS, DEATH OF PARENTS, DEATH OF PARENTS.”

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20 Responses to “THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT – JAMES GUNN’S SUPER AND THE ART OF DISPLACEMENT”

  1. CW said

    I loved Super when I first saw it. Then I read analysis like this and point at my monitor and say “Yes! That is a big part of why that film worked, only articulated more coherently and capslock-y than I could have put it!”

  2. Really well written, Hulk! I would argue one point though – I think you miss an important aspect of Frank and Sarah’s relationship at the end of the film.

    By the time Frank shows up at Kevin Bacon’s place, I felt that Sarah realized she no longer wanted that life, but felt trapped in it. She wanted to return to the quiet life Frank gave her. Bacon goes so far to say that Sarah chose him over Frank because he is interesting.

    To me, when Frank took on the Crimson Bolt persona and started to become a public hero, he became “interesting”. This is the opposite of what Sarah wanted – she wanted the original Frank and that life from before. But even when Frank gives up that “interesting” aspect of his life, it is still part of who he is, and Sarah can’t accept it.

    To me, this is part of the “break-up, get back together, break-up” format of some relationships. The “get back together” part of this type of relationship happens when one party, the Dumper wants to return to the previous life and the other party, the Dumpee has changed to be the person the Dumper wanted in the first place. After some time, the Dumper realizes that the situation will not work and once more Dumps the Dumpee.

    In these instances, the Dumpee is stuck in a spot where they don’t really know who they are any more. They weren’t what the Dumper wanted, so they became what the Dumper wanted only to still not be what the Dumper wanted and now the Dumpee has no idea who they really are. I think that is partly how Frank felt at the end of the film. He knew he couldn’t go back to his old ways and he knew he didn’t want to be the Crimson Bolt anymore but he didn’t know what was next for him.

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      HULK THANK! AND WHAT YOU SAY IS INDEED A SPOT-ON APPRAISAL. ONE OF THE REASONS HULK LOVES GENRE FILMS SO MUCH IS THAT THE TREATMENT OF THESE KINDS OF RELATIONSHIPS ARE FULLY-REALIZED, BUT UNLIKE A LOT OF DRAMAS WHERE THESE ISSUES ARE THE ONLY TEXT AND TAKE UP THE ENTIRE, THE ECONOMICAL NATURE OF GENRE CAN ALLOW YOU TO INFER A LOT MORE INTERESTING INSIGHTS. FOR EXAMPLE ATTACK THE BLOCK CLEARLY ARTICULATES A FEW CONCRETE IDEAS TO SEE THE THEMATIC NARRATIVE THROUGH, BUT THERE ARE SO MANY OTHER DETAILS THAT OPEN WHOLE WORLD SOCIOLOGICAL IMPORT. GUNN’S SUPER DOES THE SAME THING, JUST IN REGARDS TO RELATIONSHIPS AND THE MANY POSSIBLE THINGS GOING ON WITH FRANK’S PYSCHE. IT’S AWESOME REALLY.

      AND WHAT’S REALLY NICE ABOUT FRANK NOT KNOWING WHAT’S NEXT FOR HIM IS THAT HE’S AT PIECE WITH IT.

      GOOD STUFF!

  3. Chayzar said

    Great column, as always.

    I need to watch Super again, as I spent the entirety of it terrified that it was going to end with Frank having a malignant brain tumor. The actual ending of the movie took me completely off guard, and is brilliant, as you’ve illustrated very well here. I hope more people seek this movie out, and gain something from your analysis.

  4. I know exactly what you mean about transformative endings. They’re difficult to pull off, but when the work they can really elevate a movie into something special.

    I would argue you missed an obvious example, though: No Country for Old Men. It’s only after the credits have started rolling that we realise the movie was really about the Sheriff all along.

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      YUP, NO COUNTRY HAS THE ULTIMATE TRANSFORMATIVE ENDING. NOT JUST FOR THE SHERIFF BUT EVERY CHARACTER AND IDEA PRESENTED IN THE MOVIE. ONE DAY HULK’LL WRITE ABOUT IT!

  5. I just finished watching Nolan’s Memento and what ultimately got the Batman films made on the strength of such a “gimmicky” film ( that did well for all that ) is the the ending. The raw power that comes from the bolt-of-lightning ending where you realize the movie you thought you were watching is something else entirely, and entirely more wonderful. Great post.

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      THERE’S A WAY HULK CONNECTS CEREBRALLY TO THE ENDING OF MOMENTO, BUT EMOTINALLY, OR MORE IMPORTANTLY NOT THEMATICALLY . SURE THERE’S A LOGIC HULK CAN MAKE OF THE ENDING OF COURSE, BUT THE PROBLEM IS THAT HULK DOES NOT FIND THE LOGIC ALL THAT COMPELLING. WHICH MEANS THE MOVIE FEELS LIKE A REALLY WELL-CONSTRUCTED EXERCISE. THIS ISN’T TO SAY THAT A MOVIE CAN’T GET BY ON THIS KIND OF CEREBRAL EUREKA, JUST THAT HULK FINDS INCOMPLETE WHEN COMPARED TO SOME OTHER THINGS. AS A COUNTERPOINT, HULK FEELS LIKE INCEPTION IS A MOVIE WHERE NOLAN PUT IT ALL TOGETHER.

      • Agreed. It is very much an intellectual exercise, but one that paid off hugely, at least in terms of Nolan’s reputation and seemed to strike a chord with viewers who seemed genuinely wowed rather than irritated. Which is something…

  6. Hulk if you do a crossover with DC any time soon you should talk to Superman and Batman and remind them what they used to be (Batman has changed as much or more than Superman). Even those of us that like the God Damn Batman (and I absolutely do) or even sensitive Supes need to remember who teaches kids about pool safety, being strong, using head, doing right and other important things.

  7. Incandenza said

    Could you explain what you mean by ‘the ending is the conceit’? You say it over and over again but even at the end of this post I still have no idea what you mean. The ending needs to be organic? The ending is the coolest thing about the story?

    • FILMCRITHULK said

      SORRY, PERHAPS HULK SHOULD HAVE EXPLAINED BETTER. A CONCEIT IS TRADITIONALLY USED TO REFER TO AN EXTENDED METAPHOR THAT RUNS THROUGHOUT A PIECE OF WORK. HULK WAS USING IT TO IMPLY THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ENDING AND HOW IT SHAPES THE ENTIRE IDEA / POINT OF THE MOVIE. NOT JUST “A” POINT MIND YOU. BUT A POINT THAT ABSOLUTELY GETS TO THE HEART OF THE MOVIE’S CORE IDENTITY.

      HULK PUT IT LIKE THIS. SO MANY TIMES PEOPLE WILL COME UP WITH AN “IDEA” FOR A MOVIE. AND OFTEN THAT IDEA IS THE MAIN CONFLICT. FOR EXAMPLE SOMEONE GOES “I GOT AN IDEA! IT’S ABOUT A GROUP OF VETERANS RETURNING HOME FROM WW2 AND THE DIFFICULTIES THEY FACE ADJUSTING TO NORMAL LIFE ONCE AGAIN.” (YES, HULK TALKING ABOUT THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) WELL EVERYONE MAY SIT AROUND AND BE SO HAPPY ABOUT WHAT A GREAT IDEA FOR A CONFLICT AND THE SPECIFIC THINGS THEY MAY FACE BUT FEW PEOPLE REALIZE YOU HAVE TO FOLLOW THAT THROUGH TO THE ENDING. AND WHAT YOU SAY IN THAT ENDING WILL SHAPE EVERYTHING YOU HAVE TO SAY ABOUT YOUR CONFLICT. SO, LIKE AN EXTENDED METAPHOR THAT RUNS THROUGHOUT A PIECE OF WORK, THE ENDING OF YOUR MOVIE SHOULD BE THE CONCEIT.

      THEREFOR, TECHNICALLY IT IS “CONCEIT-LIKE” THAT IS MORE APPROPRIATE USAGE, BUT HULK THOUGHT THE DEFINITIVENESS WOULD RAM HOME THE POINT.

  8. I just caught up with 127 Hours last night, and while I generally like Danny Boyle’s films I couldn’t help but be let down by this one. After watching a fairly bravado piece of cinema – not a lot of directors could make watching a guy stuck in a hole so interesting – my only thought was: “wow, he cut his arm off. That’s fucking intense.” Did I miss something, or was the whole point of the film that being a lone-wolf was selfish and bad, and family good?

    • LJ Floodulike said

      I only saw this film once, when it came out, so apologies if I’m writing something nonsensical or obvious but, in this case, I would say title is the conceit. i.e. the reason it’s called 127 hours it that this was the amount of time it took James Franco’s character to come around to the horrible fact that his only option other than dying, was to cut off his own arm.

      I see what you mean, that there might have been a message along the lines of, ‘arrogant tool, who thinks he’s summet when he’s nowt, gets what’s coming to him,’ but while there certainly is a small grain of that message in the first third of the film, I would say the general point is more subtle and humane.

      In some ways, it’s a classic character ark: A character, very well adapted to their home environment, arrogantly assumes, like Gulliver, that they are therefore invulnerable in all environments and then, you know, find themselves surrounded by giants with disquieting nipple hair.

      The interesting thing about Franco’s character (and Gulliver,) is that in the usual plot consisting of ‘character placed in new and intimidating environment,’ (which describes the majority of films, to some degree,) the hero won’t have initially chosen to cast themselves into the situation in the first place. Oh sure, they’ll almost always voluntarily re-insert themselves towards the end of the plot, thereby putting into practice the valuable lessons they’ve learnt, from the scenes leading up to this cathartic point of self-actualisation. But they won’t originally have… fucking volunteered for it, unless to get over some deeply felt past injustice.

      In fact, the characters who traditionally put themselves in this preposterous position at the start of the narrative, tend to be the bad guys, whose blinkered arrogance and lust for power drives them towards these unmanageable situations. (Chronologically, at least. Admittedly, these days, this detail is frequently held back until later in the film, for narrative impact.)

      But in this case, we’re presented with a protagonist who is basically taking terrible risks, because he assumes, since he’s very well adapted to his carefully constructed urban environment, that he is equally invulnerable in the starkly isolating wilderness. I presume that this kind of naïve arrogance is intended to be taken for just that: this is based on a real person, so Boyle, on one level, is probably simply being true to the man himself.

      Obviously I accept that it is also, almost certainly, intended as an understated allegory on the modern condition, whereby because we have produced environments in which we are less likely to be harmed, we assume, almost as a reflex, that this means we are indestructible against nature’s rising tide. Is there in addition, something here about the idea that, just because we’ve read the facts about any given topic, it means we mistakenly imagine we understand the thing itself? (That’s a genuine question by the way – I honestly couldn’t say. Likely just a brainicle-spurt too far. Likely this whole reply is, acourse.)

      Soo, back to the actual film… :S

      Because of the way the narrative was put together, it seemed to me as though these moments of past arrogance weren’t so much looked upon by Boyle as schadenfreude, but more as a statement of one of the ways this scenario could realistically happen to a person. I felt, upon point of contact; stone upon arm, that the perception of Franco’s guy, as a character changed in the minds of the audience, and as a result, you were suddenly right there with him, in a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ sort of way.

      I agree with you that I also remember finding the ‘Oh fuck, he cut his own arm off!’ moment a shocking and visceral experience, even though I knew it was coming before stepping into the cinema. To me though, that moment felt pretty well earned, as we had been, to some degree, living through it with him. Witnessing his psychological journey from hope when he thought somebody would save him, through existential, almost solipsistic despair when he realised nobody was coming.

      Perhaps nobody had even missed him. His connections with others did seem to consist of these vignettes whereby he painstakingly managed to come across as a ‘nice guy’, while at the same time, seeming to see them as only there to feed his personal narrative, (from my terribly inexact recollection of the film,) totally avoiding connecting with them on an emotional level. And then he is thrown into a situation with characters so fundamentally important – the unyielding cliffs and his own mortality – that he can no longer look away. He tries to, but this new set of characters have him by, like, the arm, and aren’t letting go.

      And then we get to the pain itself. Obviously there’s always going to be a difference between empathising with pain and feeling it – if there wasn’t, nobody would ever watch a film. However, I would say, that the majority of the audience are, at this stage, viscerally gripped and internally wincing, coming a little into contact with our own human vulnerability.

      At which point we are back to the title and struck with the question, (because we probably have prior knowledge of the film’s gruesome conclusion,) ‘would we have cut our own arm off any sooner?’

      Now, there are going to be some pragmatists who’ll hack through the thing within 24 hours, saying ‘I never liked that one anyway,’ or some pun about finding the whole experience disarming, but watching it, I was certainly in the ‘wait until the last possible moment to do the bad thing’ camp. (Seriously – I’m a vegetarian, and would only kill the goat on the desert island at the bitter end. Oh sure, you get some idiots who claim they would die before killing the goat, but I’m convinced those people are belligerently deluding themselves because they’ve confused principles, which possibly mask an eating disorder, with situational context.)

      But even though you are, (okay, I mean, ‘I was’,) watching the film from hereon in as something grippingly visceral, it does still manage, at the right points, to pull you back to something more existential. Like the way in which the film portrays the constructed self breaking down, when utterly alone – reaching out to mad imagined hopes. And when utterly alone, the way it fights back – pooling inner resources; taking into account past events, and most importantly – the present situation; trying to be realistic without causing unnecessary damage. And, I suppose, the acceptance of inevitable death, (which, if it is actually inevitable in the very near future, is only right and sensible,) and the natural struggle against that acceptance.

      I suspect that the constant conflict between what we see as evidence of reality and what we feel to be true on a more emotionally based paradigm is also something Boyle intentionally included. And I suspect one of the reasons he wanted to make the film in the first place was because he wanted to make something in which an emotionally disconnected cipher is transformed into an everyman, through a journey of extraordinary pain, existential crisis and, like hacking off limbs. And in that, I think he succeeded. I dunno, what do you think?

      I’m sorry my dear, I came on here to read about Super, which I watched recently. Didn’t intend to reply to any of the three year old comments – and certainly didn’t mean to write some sort of substandard Hulk-length answer. Terrible business. Honestly, I’ve finished off an entire bottle of wine whilst writing this (I can’t decide whether that makes me a slow drinker, or a quick one…), and didn’t know what I was talking about even before I started drinking.

      I applaud your stamina if you’ve made it this far. Thanks.

  9. Saw Super over the weekend and really enjoyed it. The tonal shift at the end was almost a bit jarring as it went from being all stabby to sentimental, but it worked! I also was happy that Frank wasn’t a comic-book nerd that lived in his basement. And speaking of tonal shift, Ellen Page did a great job with switching from giddily psychotic to well… sexy. I watched this and Tree Of Life over the weekend and my biggest disappoint with the latter was that I didn’t see it in a theater.

  10. [...] ENDING IS THE CONCEIT – JAMES GUNN’S “SUPER” AND THE ART OF [...]

  11. [...] Film Crit Hulk would happily remind us, “the ending is the conceit.” The ending of a work ought to summarize and crystallize the themes of the preceding story. Whether [...]

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