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

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.