Between The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and... um, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, 2012 is shaping up to be the biggest year for comic-book movies in the genre's history. And while those giant-sized blockbusters are sure to provide plenty of F/X-driven spectacle (and, in the case of Chris Nolan's final Batman flick, some potentially provocative political commentary), perhaps the year's most intriguing, creatively ambitious superhero picture is the one that's not based on an established, long-running four-color title. I'm talking about Chronicle, the feature filmmaking debut of director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of John) that Fox is releasing in theaters today with surprisingly little fanfare. Applying the "found footage" conceit that's almost exclusively been used for horror movies ever since The Blair Witch Project to the story of three ordinary teenagers that accidentally acquire special powers, Chronicle has its issues (a complete lack of subtly chief among them) but overall it's a clever, entertaining spin on the typical superhero origin story. Here are five reasons why comic book fans should vote with their wallets this weekend and make Chronicle the year's first big hit.
1. Its Heroes Are Just Like Us
As has been discussed ad nauseum in virtually every history written about the comic book medium, one of the primary factors for Marvel's resurgence in the '50s and '60s was Stan Lee's insistence that the company's heroes come equipped with all-too-human flaws to balance out their super-human abilities. Readers adored Spider-Man, for example, because when he was out of the suit, he was dorky ol' teenager Peter Parker, who might be able to scale towering skyscrapers, but still can't get a girl to go out with him.
At least Peter had a good support system (in the form of Aunt May and Uncle Ben) to help him recover from the random cruelties of high school life. Chronicle's central character, Andrew Detmer (Dane Dehaan), is an outcast both at school -- where he's a frequent target for bullies and otherwise ignored outright by the general student body -- and at the home that he shares with his dying mother and abusive father. Indeed, the emotional and physical punishment he endures on a daily basis is the primary reason why he decides to pick up a video camera and chronicle his life in the first place; some small part of him clearly hopes that if people can see the way he's being treated, someone will extend a helping hand. Anyone that was (or still is) called names at school will identify with the profound sadness that hovers over Andrew like a dark cloud.
Chronicle's other super-powered teens are less immediately sympathetic, but certainly recognizable, relatable types. Matt Garetty (Alex Russell) is Andrew's well-meaning cousin, who does want to help the poor kid, but not at the expense of his own social standing, while Steve Montgomery (Friday Night Lights's Michael B. Jordan, who is terrific here -- someone get this guy his own starring vehicle, stat) is that charmed kid that's seemingly good at everything he tries, be it sports, school politics, or getting girls. Initially strangers, the three form a strong bond after an encounter with a strange, glowing object leaves them with telekinetic abilities. Their friendship rings true throughout, as the three young actors interact with an ease and comfort that suggests they've been friends since childhood instead of just the period they spent shooting this movie.
2. It Remembers That Having Super Powers Can Be Fun
Arguably the greatest downside of the groundbreaking work that comics writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison did in the '80s was that the industry at large suddenly decided that somber, self-serious superheroes was the way to go, an attitude that has carried over into too many comic book movies. (Perhaps the best thing about the first Iron Man movie was Tony Stark's joyful expression when he took his maiden flight. That pure elation about being a freakin' superhero was one of the many things missing from the disappointing sequel.) Even the upcoming Spider-Man reboot appears to be recasting wisecracking Peter Parker in a darker vein. In contrast, Trask and Landis actually allow Chronicle's young heroes-in-training to enjoy their abilities -- at least for a little while. In the immediate aftermath of their close encounter of the third kind, they film themselves testing out their psychic powers, graduating from assembling Lego towers with their minds to moving a parked car across a parking lot to an impromptu game of football... hundreds of miles up in the sky. As fun as all of this looks, several of their pranks do carry a distinctly malicious undertone, which sets up the next item on our list of things the movie does really well.
3. Its Villain Is Actually Menacing
Leaving aside Heath Ledger's terrific Joker, the recent batch of comic book movie villains has been pretty weak, from those evil clouds (yes, you read that right -- evil clouds) that menaced Earth in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Green Lantern respectively to Kevin Spacey's embarrassing Lex Luthor to Thor's annoying adoptive brother Loki. Chronicle solves the lackluster bad guy problem by having one of its heroes -- the troubled Andrew -- turn to the dark side. Essentially, Trask and Landis have given us a version of Peter Parker who has great power, but no responsibility and -- lacking that essential second element -- he comes to see nothing wrong with using his abilities to lash out at his tormentors rather than protect them. One can see reflections of both Magneto and Kid Miracleman (my personal pick for the scariest super villain of all time) in Andrew's descent into super villainy and the climactic battle royale, which pits Matt against his cousin with the safety of the entire city of Seattle on the line (again, shades of Miracleman, specifically the infamous 15th issue depicting the bloody, brutal Miracleman/Kid Miracleman dust-up in London) resonates all the more because you know just how far the bad guy has fallen.
4. It Plays By the Rules
Although the characters do otherworldly things, Chronicle remains very much grounded in our own everyday reality. There are no invading alien races, enormous fortresses of solitude or shadowy leagues of assassins plotting the economic downfall of our country to invade on these kids' lives. The escalation of events also feels entirely logical, as it stems almost entirely from the consequences of the character's personal decisions rather than any outside forces. That sense of realism carries over to the "found footage" conceit; instead of forcing one character to carry the camera throughout, Trask allows different people to film the action at different times. (He also establishes that Andrew is able to use his powers to operate the camera without holding it, thus freeing the film from having to maintain an exclusively first-person point of view.)
That said, the film does cheat a bit in the climactic battle, which is pieced together out of footage shot by security cameras, the Seattle police, TV news reports and random bystanders that happen to have their iPhones out. It's a creative way to expand the found footage approach, but there are some shots that no ordinary camera would have been able to grab. (That said, this sequence does double as commentary for how so much of our lives today are captured on video.) Chronicle also fails to solve the biggest logical flaw that this kind of film runs up against, namely who the heck is cutting all this footage together in the first place; early on, we watch Andrew editing scenes that he filmed on his computer, but that doesn't account for who assembled that final set-piece into a sequence that made any sort of narrative sense. The rest of Chronicle is so compelling though, that these occasional lapses in logic don't ruin the overall experience.
5. It's A One Shot, Not an Ongoing Series
While the filmmakers probably could find a way to devise a sequel if they (or the studio) really wanted to, Chronicle is unique among recent comic book movies in that it tells a complete story that comes to a definitive end. There's not even a bonus scene after the credits that suggests the possibility of another installment, which is refreshing after Marvel Studio's increasingly annoying practice of including post-credits teasers setting up the next big crossover event. While it's understandable that studios are high on superheroes because they promise lucrative franchises (and, don't forget, some of these characters have starred in ongoing series for well over seventy years in the comic book realm), Chronicle is a nice reminder that not every superhero story needs to have a Part II.
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