This was originally posted on my main blog last year.
I've been thinking a lot about the notion of the heroic recently, and partly that is because of the superhero movies coming out of Hollywood in recent months and years. After watching the newest Superman movie with my nephews and godchildren, I was discussing the idea of the hero with my godchildren's parents. We talked about how differently Superman was presented in this new film than he was in the older versions from our childhood. I've discussed in other blogs long ago the subverting of traditional gender roles in the heroes of recent films (the same pattern of reversal is followed in MI3), but I'm thinking now of the hero in terms of broader relationships -- not just with The Other, but with the society of which he is a part.
In Superman Returns, much is made of the hero's frailty. Not only does he have to depend on his mother to save him at one point, and Lois's family at another, but he finds himself in a regular hospital just like any of us, waiting to be saved by faceless humanity. Similarly, we see Spiderman saved by the good people of the city in the last film, and in the X-Men films, good old diplomacy and politics are a real part of protecting the mutant population.
Northrop Frye, in his Anatomy of Criticism, points to the disappearance of the hero as one of the features of "winter" literature. In his erudite walk through the literary canon, Frye divides literature into genre groups, associating each group with the 4 seasons. Spring = comedy; summer = romance; autumn = tragedy; winter = irony/satire. For all his erudition, this approach of Frye's makes his criticism very accessible.
It seems to me that the new packaging of the superhero, the display of his/her vulnerabilities, the all-too-humanness of the hero, represents a move in Hollywood Film. It seems to me that we might just be seeing a move toward winter, a move toward a preference for satire and irony.
I would argue that traditionally, Hollywood has been seen as The Land of Eternal Spring. "A Hollywood ending" has become almost synonymous with "a fairy tale ending" or "happily ever after." There has been a preference for this sort of happy ending -- a spring/comedy convention -- in most Hollywood productions. While dark films, satire, irony, or movies that don't end so happily have always been around, they haven't by any means been the norm coming out of Hollywood.
Superhero movies, for me, seem like a good place to look for the indicators of a possible "change of season" in Hollywood. In Frye's criticism, he is mostly concerned with mythologies, and what is more akin to myth than the superhero/comic-book-based movie? It is the modern mode of presenting mythologies, isn't it? And it seems that we are moving toward a darker, more ironic hero than what we were seeing on the screen 20 years ago. (And that is more closely akin to what we've always had, more or less, on the pages of the comic books.)
But I don't see this trend stopping with this type of film. I recently saw The Break Up with some friends, and was pleasantly surprised by it. It seems even the "chick flick" might move into a winter mode. Frye speaks of the ironic myth as one which attempts to create "a more realistic content which fits [romantic mythical forms] in unexpected ways" (p. 223). It is often a parody of summer/romance, as he points out. I think this is precisely what is going on in The Break Up. It presents a more realistic version of the fights between a couple, rather than the over-the-top, too-much-to-be-taken-too-seriously sort of onscreen fight we often expect in a more traditional "chick flick." There is a realism to the fights that puts an edge on the show, and it is an edge that is usually lacking in the genre. Even more significant is the ending, which is also a real twist from what the genre has taught us to expect of such films. Frye mentions that when we are unsure of how we should judge the outcome of a text, we are moving in the winter world of irony. I think that is exactly the state in which The Break Up leaves the viewer.
I am not sure if this trend towards winter time will continue, but it is one that I will follow with great interest.
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