Is there a breed of person more tenderly optimistic, more winsomely hopeful for the best, more loyal to the possibility of good, than the American summer moviegoer? To put it another way, has there ever been a bigger sucker? Year after year, he stands in line and hands over his money, to receive, year after year, the same treatment: i.e., Hollywood shivering in icy gratification as it pisses on him from a great height. It’s become one of nature’s biorhythms, like the return of the swallows to Capistrano: the dog days come around, the asphalt softens in the heat, and the megaplexes begin to bloat and boom with big-budget idiocy.
And idiocy, being always the sequel to some other idiocy, is never original. You’ve seen it all before! National Treasure 14: Hell’s Gate. . . The Matrix Deionized. . . Son of Son of Fool’s Gold. . . No Way Can You Die This Fucking Hard. . . The product is poor, the contempt is palpable. If you bought it once, goes the thinking, you’ll buy it again. In fact you’ll never stop buying it — why should you?
This summer, however, things are a little different. True, we’re getting the usual rash of run-ons and sequelae — Hellboy II (opens this weekend), a second attempt at the Hulk (from a few weeks back), our seventh installment of Batman (next weekend) — but when you add Iron Man and Hancock (which have earned $312 million and $112 million so far, respectively) to the roster, a more interesting picture begins to emerge. There’s a certain thematic density to these nearly simultaneous releases. We seem . . . preoccupied. Indeed, we may be said to be obsessed. A sensitive interplanetary visitor, alighting at AMC Boston Common and watching a few of these movies back-to-back, might conclude that we are in the middle of a national nervous breakdown.
The lean green schizophrenia machine
Just take a look at the protagonists: Tony Stark (Iron Man) is a repentant billionaire arms dealer; Hellboy is a demon outgrowing his infernal beginnings; Bruce Banner is a cool-headed scientist incorporating a maddened green monster (that would be the Hulk); Hancock is a celestial being descending gnostically through bum-like levels of mortality and despair; and Batman . . . Batman broods on the turrets of Gotham, ears pricked, phobias squashed, dispensing terror to the bad guys. Common to all these movies is a CGI-blowout of an ending, in which the hero faces down his fear, his temptation, his vengefulness, his will-to-power, his not-self. Good Hulk battles Bad Hulk; Nice Iron Man battles Nasty Iron Man; red-and-blue Spiderman battles all-black Spiderman; Hellboy, who has been assiduously sanding down the stumps of his demon horns (see the hell sparks fly!), sprouts a whole new pair . . . and on and on.
Movies, of course, are just movies. These projects have been in the works for years — chugging along Hollywood’s trillion-dollar poop-chute, now stalled or un-financed, now flush and moving again. Nobody associated with their production planned to make any great statement. And cinematic trends are not clinical symptoms. But the Zeitgeist works by coincidence, and the fact is that all of them, all these noisy dramas of superheroic identity crisis, have popped out now — at a moment of intense national self-interrogation. Are we liberators or torturers? Decent men or sadists? Are we chained to our fears or ready to embrace “change”?
Congressional committees and op-ed pages are dinning these questions into our ears. “Could the president order a suspect buried alive?” enquired Representative John Conyers on June 26, of Justice Department torture groupie John Yoo — and the answer was not “Are you out of your mind?” but an ass-covering, “Uh, Mr. Chairman, I don’t think I’ve ever given advice that the president could order someone buried alive. . .” It’s enough to turn you into Allen Ginsberg, apostrophizing the continent: America, you complicated bitch! Your Liberty torch is the flare of a pyromaniac! America, you big clanking bastard with your double-chambered heart, do you know who you are?!
The theme of the troubled Übermensch, embarrassed or threatened by his own power, is no novelty. Apart from Hancock, all the aforementioned superheroes have their origins in the comic books of the past century, and even the youngest of them — Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, who first appeared in 1993 — is firmly in the tradition: a grumpy, lopsided, blue-collar epigrammatist, spiritual brother to Wolverine and the Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm. Divided selves, divided sensibilities: looking back, we can see that the primordial fission occurred in 1941, when Stanley Milton Lieber, teenage staffer at New York’s Timely Publications, sawed his first name in half and became Stan Lee. It would be another 20 years before the genesis of Marvel Comics, but with the naming of his freewheeling, rapid-fire editorial alter ego — a vector for the genius of artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — Lee opened the portal through which the Marvel universe would eventually come swarming.