…About the new uncanny!
Here’s part of an email conversation I was having with my friend Jack, slightly edited:
“Ang Lee’s Hulk made such a painfully-explicit connection between Bruce Banner’s repression and his transformation that I never got upset with him growing to twenty feet tall or whatever it was. Maybe this was helped by having listened to the commentary, in which Lee reveals he had another forty minutes of expositional dialogue on hand that related the Hulk to cancer — symbolically, accepting the dread of a growing cancer you can’t stop takes away the problems of where the mass comes from, I think — because it becomes horror, not SF. Horror you don’t need so much explanation for, do you? I’m sure you need a little less — struck suddenly once again by that unknown person’s definition of the word “uncanny”: something that moves like it’s alive, but you know it isn’t alive.
But, even in Lee’s Hulk there’s another, more reasonable out for this weird situation: which is that where the energy/mass comes from is history. Metaphorically and actually: young Bruce Banner was changed before he was even born, and then changed again as a little boy — he might’ve been storing energy in his mutated cells for thirty-odd years, along with the rage. Well, it all falls to the ground no matter what you do, of course — but without the idea that the Hulk’s mass comes from the weight of the past, the Ed Norton version suffers by comparison, because it’s got nothing to go on but science — hilarious to think that if Banner was converting energy directly to matter he would’ve frozen everything for miles around when he changed to the Hulk, but RIDICULOUS to think what would happen according to this scheme when he changes back to Banner — 700 pounds of mass converted completely to energy, WOW — goodbye continental United States!
A flawed movie. I mean, I liked it okay. But we have to have some reason to believe Banner is an angry person deep down, or nothing flies — to even see the transformation on the table is I think an unimaginative reach — I didn’t want to see it, and it didn’t look at all like the stuff in the comic books, that tried so hard to be believed. To see Banner’s horror at feeling his emotion-governing intelligence slip away…that was in there as far back as Kirby, and it’s Atom Age stuff, and I believe it probably would have covered a multitude of sins. Consider: if the crumpling of the table under the Hulk’s mass had been accompanied by Banner’s desperate moan and attempt to hold onto rational thought, the layers of humanity peeled away by his transformation…he feels like he’s dying and he wants to live…but he can’t hang on, because the table crumples. He CAN’T hang on, because the physical facts are both otherwise, and inexorably so. The outrage of physics is more tolerable in that case, because it’s plainly supposed to be a metaphor: its justification is in what it’s supposed to show. I think of Iron Man’s boot-jets in the movie, so obviously driven by nothing but the magic power-plant that replaces Tony Stark’s heart — and I don’t recall anyone asking where the propellant for the jets came from, because it’s as plain as day that it can’t come from anywhere, the thing is simply impossible on its face — heck, he flies from Malibu to the Middle East and back in just a couple of hours, it’s absurd. We see the jets; they’re jets. And jets work like jets.
And yet it’s okay, because they give you something to look at besides the absurdity — you’re permitted to equate Tony’s superhuman suit, with his superhuman Will. With his heart growing three sizes that day.
In the recent Hulk movie, though, you’re not given anything like this. The only truly touching or amazing thing you’re given is the travelogue “Lonely Man” bit — those helicopter shots of the Brazilian fahvelas, I was surprised to find, really made me feel something. Well, two things: awe…and guilt. Can you believe I had to wait ’til they made a second Hulk movie, to have that picture brought before my eyes for more than three seconds? Like, it wasn’t on 60 Minutes or something? Guilt, for sure. And then Ross bombards a New England college — tell you what, it made me think the scenes of Brazilian poverty were being trivialized. “Oh, and now we’ll blow up this American college brochure to make it all even.” There’s a dissonance in there I think they didn’t intend; I think one could do a political reading of this movie. I’ve never read George Steiner, they tell me he’s bad, but it nonetheless does make me think of the one line I know from him, about the Commandant reading Goethe on his way to the gas chambers: “is not the poet’s verse an insult to the naked cry?” That irritated me, that “Assault On Bryn Mawr” stuff. They spent a good amount of time at the beginning of the movie showing that Banner’s flight exposed him to how most of the world is living in our garbage…connected him to the reality of lives lived, and consequences…consequences that were heretofore easy for him to shun…I mean surely if this movie’s about anything it ought to be about consequences…I’m sorry, does this sound just too naively angry of me, too undergraduate?…they even show him walking UP the hill to America…and then once he gets there they utterly fail to put the pieces together into anything like a puzzle-picture. What’s the Hulk so mad about, anyway? I think it isn’t just the extra mass that needs accounting for, in this picture…”
And so there I was, wondering if I’d said all this before…because it occurs to me that it really is probably true:
Superhero movies work best as horror movies.
Oh my God, how obvious is this?
Horror is the solvent of realism.
Take The Dark Knight, and its one absolutely lurid moment: when we see Harvey’s face at last, and it is not realistic, because the world has changed along with him — it has turned, it has dissolved, from a world of crooks and vigilantes with a slight science-fictional edge, into a world of superheroes and supervillains…a world where at any moment you, or you, or you, or you could have an “origin”, and become something utterly bizarre, utterly terrifying…utterly unreal.
And it really works! As I said before: you want a Watchmen movie? Well there it is. Creepy, ain’t it?
So, be it resolved: superhero movies that toy with science fiction instead of horror are going to have a much tougher row to hoe…
Uh…Superman probably excepted.
But hey then look what they did on that Smallville show!
Okay, the Fantastic Four would probably be better off concentrating on SF too. Hmm, I guess Flash is also all about the science…Green Lantern…Aquaman…
All right, so it might not be a universal principle!
Still, I know it gives me ideas for what could happen in the next Iron Man movie…
And I think it’s probably at least a little tough to deny that SF and horror make a zingy combination.
Horror as the solvent of realism. The sponsor of the uncanny. In movies, anyway.
Are superhero movies the new horror movies?
Should they be?