Buttering up the politics of popcorn flicks

Paul Wells on the deeper themes of summer blockbusters

Buttering up the politics of popcorn flicks

MPC/Paramount Pictures

The best summer-movie moment for a political columnist came during World War Z. Brad Pitt’s resourceful United Nations analyst, stymied in South Korea as he searches for a cure to zombie outbreaks, learns that Israel has been luckier. Somehow the Israelis had advance notice of the murderous zombie onslaught. They’ve quarantined the entire population behind a wall. Off Pitt goes to Jerusalem to find out what’s what.

At that moment, the vague, generalized paranoia you feel while watching any horror movie sharpens and heats up. What do they mean, “Israel had advance notice?” That’s an echo of the vile conspiracy theories after 9/11, when it was claimed, falsely, that no Jews died in the World Trade Center. Is World War Z a satire on the West Bank barrier? A vote of support for it? Are the filmmakers saying Israel is surrounded by zombies?

Of course, the likeliest answer is that Pitt and his colleagues had no serious point to make. This is a popcorn movie, not a treatise. Its most urgent message is the same as in George Romero’s 1968 zombie classic Night of the Living Dead, and it’s resolutely non-political: When confronting zombies, aim for the head. But the visit to Israel is clever, because just about everyone has strong opinions about Israel and its neighbours. Landing a zombie-fighter in Jerusalem, even for 20 minutes of screen time, triggers all those associations. Director Mark Forster might as well flash the words INSERT YOUR PARANOIA HERE on the screen. It gives otherwise undeserved emotional depth to a movie that’s mostly about leaping and shrieking.

The summer’s other movies make you scratch only a little harder to find their political themes, although I may be the only viewer who felt like scratching. Many of the summer’s big special-effects movies are, in various ways, about power. It’s a theme that preoccupies us in Ottawa.

Superhero movies are fantasies about the concentration of power. Zombie movies are nightmares of powerlessness. There have been a lot of superhero movies in recent years, largely because the Marvel comic-book company has learned to use Hollywood to market its properties, and the rival firm D.C. is getting jealous. Iron Man is one of Marvel’s Avengers. Everyone loves Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Tony Stark: He’s rich, he’s a genius, he lives with Gwyneth Paltrow. But this is Stark’s fourth movie in the metal suit, and he’s fed up. He is haunted by what Alain Juppé, a former French prime minister, called, in the title of a memoir, La tentation de Venise—the desire to retire from superhero life and get away from it all. (Last summer, the same ache afflicted Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight Rises.) In the movie’s climax, a succession of metal flying suits coalesce around Downey’s body and then disintegrate, each replaced in turn by another suit. It’s Tony Stark’s identity crisis played out in real time, and it’s all much cleverer than it needed to be. It’s easy to see why Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black, is the summer’s big box-office hit.

Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel isn’t nearly as smart. It features Henry Cavill in a blue suit (watching in Ottawa, I assumed he votes Conservative) punching another Kryptonian at immense velocity, again and again, for, like, an hour. I was eager to see a director ignore the memory of Richard Donner’s overrated 1978 Superman, but this was not the way to do it. Donner made his movie in an era when any special effect was hard to accomplish, so he had to concentrate on story and character. Snyder labours under no such constraint, and his absolute image-making power corrupts his movie absolutely.

There’s a superhero (or a supervillain; for the longest time, it isn’t clear which) in Star Trek Into Darkness. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the genetically engineered superman Khan Singh. Is he a villain? Is he an ally? In the end, he barely matters. Director J.J. Abrams is chasing a different kind of story, a coming-of-age arc that began in his 2009 relaunch of the Star Trek franchise and continues with young James T. Kirk coming into his own. It’s really the same tale as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped or Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, a poor country boy who discovers he’s bound for greatness. The first time we saw this story in space, it was called Star Wars. Abrams’s Kirk, we discover, is Luke Skywalker.

Longing on a large scale, Don DeLillo wrote, is what makes history. But the television images of giant, helpless crowds protesting in Brazil and Egypt remind us that longing is almost never enough. The mob is not gifted at fine-tuning outcomes. Too often, it screws everything up. That’s the message of zombie movies: malevolent stupidity written across a billion faces. It’s why, to me, even though it’s not the season’s best film, World War Z is the most interesting.

When I got home from World War Z, I watched Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers on Netflix. The paranoia then was different. Ordinary people in a small town were replaced by identical aliens, until you couldn’t know whom to trust. The evil then was insidious. In a word, it was Communism. In World War Z, it’s bloody obvious, it’s coming right at you, and there are millions more just like it. The body snatchers knew exactly what they were doing. The zombies have no clue. The zombies are far more frightening.

For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at macleans.ca/inklesswells


Buttering up the politics of popcorn flicks

  1. “Donner made his movie in an era when any special effect was hard to accomplish, so he had to concentrate on story and character. Snyder labours under no such constraint, and his absolute image-making power corrupts his movie absolutely.”

    There’s an obvious metaphor / symbolism there for modern power politics in general, so little subtlty or nuance…and I’m thinking about Obama here more than anything; so much promise, but the product?!?!…but then again he has hordes of zombies to contend with, so whom am I to judge.

    • There’s actually a hell of a lot of cultural metaphors that you can find specifically in horror themed movies. My partner’s thesis is on this topic, and when you really look into it, it’s surprising how much looking at a society’s idea of horror can tell you about what’s going on in that society.

      Where this gets concerning is when you look at today’s horror and the mainstreaming of basically torture porn in movies like Hostel

      • In Canada you can write a PhD about a popcorn movie? This is the Cengage business model apparently.

        • I highly doubt it.
          What you can do, however, is look at the cultural reflection and influence of a specific genre of movies across a wide period of time and across various different cultures.

  2. It’s just a zombie movie friends. Nothing more and nothing less. Why read more into that? Lets keep our fantasies free from being painted over with the unrational realities we must deal with on a daily basis. Lets try not to confuse the two.

    • And Shakespeare just wrote plays, nothing more and nothing less.

      The reason we read into these things is because everything is a product of its time. For a really easy example, think about blackface. The fact this was a form of entertainment that was considered highly acceptable in the mainstream tells us something about what that culture is and was experiencing.

      • Blackface was a horrible thing. Western culture is different now. Tolerance is the most promoted social theme. And these super heroes are not new. While sending Pitt to Israel can be interpreted politically, if you really want to. Iron Man and such, are just movies. These days action movie makers don’t bother making statements, they are hardly doing art, its just a money making exercise.

        So trying to find political mumbo jumbo in most action movies is pretty much on par with conspiracy theorists making up stuff about a light they saw in the sky. Just enjoy the action and forget it. This article is just another pulled-out-or-arse writing that columnists do when they are out of ideas.

        If your “strong opinions” about Israel makes you see hidden messages in the movie, then its your own personal thought process, don’t drag everyone else into it. I’m sure Israel is in the forefront of many real life advancements. So why not zombie cure? Seeing how lot of these top showbiz producers are Jewish, it doesn’t have to be a political statement if they feel like portraying their motherland being superior in something.

        Moreover, no matter what country it is, you can always pull some kind of political ‘insight’ out of it. What if it was China or Korea, or even the French? Ideas pop up in your head don’t they?

        • no cultural artifact exists in a vacuum and any competent artist would know that even with a worldwide scope, the wall in Israel wall was going to be a thing.

          Strangely enough (and this ironically supports your theory), after reading the book nothing supports the theory the author of the novel WAS a competent artist. I can actually see him saying “yeah i’ll just put this bit in Israel, cool, man”, and not considering the broader context at all. And the movie is just as muddled in that respect, so they’re working off that (yes, it could have been avoided and altered, but that’s another story altogether).

          So normally your “it’s just a movie and carries no meaning” doesn’t fly, but maybe this once it is possible the author didn’t really grasp what he was doing.

    • It’s pretty hard to spend 9 figures to make “just a [blank] movie” in any genre, especially with the dozens of people now involved at the writing, directing, and producing level. The actual tendency will for each such film to have many and mixed messages; for the filmmakers to narrow it down to just a few key messages is a challenge. Plus, one cannot forget McLuhan’s insight that the medium is the message; whether intended or not, every blockbuster contains messages about the culture in which it was made.