Review: Chronicle

I finally saw Chronicle last week.  I know, I call myself a fanboy and yet it took me two weeks to get around to seeing a movie documenting a geek fantasy come to life.  All I can offer in my defense was that I had to go with my sister to see Woman in Black, and then I got really sick.

But enough about me, I have a request to review this movie, and damn it, that is what I am going to do.
Basic set up: Three high school students come across a mysterious object in the woods. After this encounter, they slowly develop telekinetic powers.
 The hook: it is a found-footage movie.
When ads came out about this movie I had a mixed reaction. On one hand, I am a leery of the whole found-footage genre. I think it is getting overused and you always have the sense that all the characters you are watching are doomed.  On the other hand the trailers looked like it was going to be a good movie.
So which hand won?
First, I think we need to look at what kind of movie we are looking at. Strip away the found footage aspect, and this is at its heart a superhero origin film. But even that is over-simplified, as it does not follow the normal conventions of an origin film either. 
I don’t want to give too much away, but basically this is a superhero origin film that does not focus on the person destined to be the hero. In pure geek terms this is like a Spider-man movie that focuses on Harry Osborn.
They also give a good reason why it is a found-footage film. In most films of this subset, it does not make sense why the characters would keep filming as the events progress. Here, Andrew, the main focus of the three leads, is heavily abused and bullied. He starts filming things as a coping mechanism, and as the film progresses it becomes clear that his filming has become obsessive.  Also since he is telekinetic he can be filming and still be in the shot.  It is a good hand wave and makes this movie much more interesting than a lot of others have been when this technique is used.
The heart of the movie is the main characters and their relationship. Andrew, played by Dane DeHaan , as our camera man is also our main character. As I said above, he is dealing with his father who is an abusive drunk, a mother who is dying, and he is a target of bullies in his neighborhood and school.  His retreat behind his camera makes perfect sense. His only friend is his cousin Matt, played by Alex Russell, who is more popular, and has been growing away from him. Rounding out our trio is Steve, played by Michael B. Jordan; a friend of Matt’s who is running for class president.
The first act of the movie is about the three boys bonding after they start gaining their powers. It plays true because I honestly believe that any group of teenage boys in the same circumstance would act the same way. 
The second act starts to turn dark as the first signs of strain from Andrew start showing. An abused kid starts getting power; the tragedy is almost a forgone conclusion.
In the third act, when things fall apart you still feel for them, because so much time was spent showing who they are and how they ended up there.
The films weakness comes from the supporting characters. They are just not well-developed. Andrew’s father is just a stereotype, a drunken abuser with no redeeming qualities. There were a couple of chances to give his character some depth, but they were not taken; instead just driving home what a horrible person he is. Andrew’s mother has no character beyond being sick and dying.
I wish a little more depth was given to Matt’s romantic interest, Casey. She is a video blogger, which gives Matt a chance at scenes that do not involve Andrew.  It is implied she is into social causes, but really she is there to give Matt someone to relate to beyond his buddies.
As a movie about superpowers it works great. They set the rules the powers obey, and stay consistent to them. They do fall prey to psychic nosebleed trope (please read the rebuttal to this trope here). As previously stated I think the depiction of what the boys do with their powers is very realistic. They do not start out as very powerful, and so they test what they can do, and largely use it to screw around in novel ways. The special effects are fairly effective, especially in conjunction with the home video style.  The way they handle the characters flying is especially effective.
Final verdict: This is a very good movie that every self-respecting geek needs to add to their collection once it has its DVD release.

I can’t believe it’s not Superman

With the release of the movie Chronicle I am pleased that a cliché was avoided. Not that the movie is free from them, let’s face it, it is a found footage movie, but there is one I am glad it avoided. (At least I think they did, I haven’t had a chance to go see it yet. I know “Bad Fanboy”)

It’s a movie riffing on superpowers and superheroes where the characters powers are not based on Superman.
Think about it for a minute, name a superhero movie not based on a pre-existing superhero property where the hero’s powers were not basically Superman’s. Seriously the only one that I can name off the top of my head is the Toxic Avenger and I’m not sure he counts.
When I say Superman based I am talking about the following specific powers:
Super strength
Other powers will often be present as well, but those three seem to be universal.
I’ll admit that there are a lot of superheroes in comics have these powers and are not considered rip offs of Superman. Rogue of the X-men, the Martian Manhunter, and Thor spring immediately to mind.
But most of the characters I am talking about are clearly taking their cues from Superman.
Now to be fair Superman is a cultural icon and the first image to enter people’s minds when the term superhero is used.  But all that tells me is that a lot of screenwriters are lazy. (Let’s all pretend to be shocked). So I guess for most people not immersed in geek culture Superman is synonymous with superhero.
And in most cases these portrayals are exploring ideas that you couldn’t with Superman himself. Superman is the paragon of superheroes. He is confident, noble, and humble. Often these pastiches are exploring ideas that would not fit with those qualities.
Most often you find the story to be about an ordinary person leading an ordinary life suddenly finding themselves with superpowers.
In the sixties you had two competing TV comedies, Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice, which had heroes who gained temporary powers based on a secret formula.  While similar ideas both had different execution. Mr. Terrific worked for the government who supplied the super pills that only seemed to work on him. Most episodes had his powers run out at the worst possible time. Captain Nice was a police scientist (no one said forensics back then) who invented a formula that gave him powers. Most episodes were about him needing to get to his formula in order to save the day. The other big difference in these shows was that Mr. Terrific was awkward with his powers, where Captain Nice could handle them, but was stuck with a ridiculous costume his mother made.
Moving on to the eighties and you had the Greatest American Hero, about a school teacher given a superhero costume by aliens that gave him superpowers. Like Mr. Terrific he had poor control over his abilities. The appeal of this show was the buddy cop aspect provided by his FBI friend/partner.
All these shows while having some fun with the everyman superhero idea suffered from the same problem, a problem that all TV shows featuring a super powered hero, be they from a previous license of not, suffered from. Almost none of the antagonists had superpowers. So really none of them ever really had a comic book feel to them, but more of a superhero in the real world vibe.
Movies didn’t always fare much better. You had parodies, like The Return of Captain Invincible. This was a movie where a hero from the 50’s is disgraced and becomes an alcoholic bum. He is found and has to clean up his act in order to save the world from his arch enemy. It was low budget fluff, even if it did have Christopher Lee as the bad guy.
There was a terrible Italian movie called Puma Man. Yes, Puma man.  His powers were Puma based yet somehow they still made him a Superman Pastiche. His powers were even of extraterrestrial origin. If you heard of this one at all it was because Mystery Science Theater 3000 got their hands on it.
In 1993 there was Meteor Man, which sadly really wasn’t more than Greatest American Hero with an all-black cast.
More recently there was Hancock with Will Smith. To the writer’s credit instead of having a movie about an everyman with powers, it went with “What if Superman was a drunken asshole.” What was nice was they did dig a bit into the characters psychology to given him a reason for being that way and made it a redemption tale.
And there are certainly exceptions. The Incredibles for example was more of a riff on the Fantastic Four.
Sometimes Warner Brothers, who owns DC comics, thinks that these shows get a little too close to their copyright for comfort. For example WB sued over the Greatest American Hero. Ultimately lost as the court felt the character wasn’t close enough to Superman to warrant a violation, even with nearly the same powers.
Of course there are the non-powered heroes, but that could be a whole article on Batman pastiches. (And probably will be)
Will we see more Superman pastiches in the future? I don’t see why not.  Until then I think I will get out there and see Chronicle.