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Our superheroes, ourselves

What the current crop of comic-book action movies tells us about America's identity crisis
By JAMES PARKER  |  July 9, 2008


Shrink wrapped: Gamma rays got you down? The doctor will see you now. By Dr. Robin S. Rosenberg
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.

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Related: Review: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Growing pains, Photos: Arisia 2010, More more >
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