2012 was a wildly successful year for Superhero films. The conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a box office smash, The Avengers confounded the naysayers and went on to make upwards of $1.5bn, and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man – while not quite as commercially successful – still earned a cool $750 mil, and was regarded by many to be a great improvement on Sam Raimi’s schmaltzy attempt 10 years previously.
Now, it just so happens that, due to the complete lack of imagination and originality in LA these days, studios throughout Hollywood don’t take gambles, preferring to go with safe films that make a decent chunk of change (see above), as opposed to risking fresh ideas that do not have an established fan-base. So we have the comic book adaptions, the novels, the reboots and god awful remakes – producers of Total Recall, I’m looking at you. Thank God no one’s touched Blade Runner…yet.
Into this testy and conservative climate stepped Chronicle. It was made for only $15 million, had a debut director (Josh Trank) at the helm, and had no known leads. Since then, the director is Hollywood’s next big thing, one of it’s stars has been hailed as the next Leonardo Di Caprio, and the film itself has what might just be the best ever super-villain arc to grace the big screen.
Chronicle is simply an origins story of three teens who encounter a mysterious object in a cave, and subsequently develop super powers, putting tests to their relationships and also their own character. What sets these boys apart is that they are true representatives of the current generation, obsessed with one-upmanship and chronicling their escapades on video and mobile phones. These are not pastiche characters, boy scouts or standard bearers of society, and that is just one of the films refreshing aspects.
It’s fair to say that superhero origin stories usually have a formula to the way the character finds and develops his powers. Trank sticks to this but grounds his characters so well in reality that they are probably the most authentic accounts of what would actually happen if Joe Bloggs discovered superpowers. Abusing powers to pick up girls – who wouldn’t do that? Moving a woman’s car in a parking lot, literally playing mind games? Classic. Screw the cat in the tree.
Secondly on the limited budget Trank had, it was an ingenious idea to give this story the shaky cam Blair Witch effect. Once again it gives the film more authenticity and also allows the DOP to pull off some rather nifty camera work – not even Superman has this much fun when he’s flying. We are also treated to unexpectedly large set pieces that astonish and ramp up into an incredibly satisfying conclusion.
But what seals the deal is the arc of each character, in particular that of Andrew (Dane Dehaan). Compared to Batman Forever‘s Riddler, Captain America‘s Red Skull or Spiderman 3‘s Venom, the metamorphosis of Andrew from a frail abused teen into all out Super-Villain is at once heart-breaking, believable, and downright nasty. Kudos to Max Landis for creating such engaging characters, but perhaps that’s not surprising, given who his father is. What makes this really worth a second look it is finding originality and breaking new ground in what, to some extent is a very traditional genre. With iconic characters such as Batman and Superman, who have been around for over 70 years, it’s a fantastic achievement that Chronicle is managing to push barriers and ask questions.
If only Hollywood would take more risks with original concepts and ideas, we might actually leave cinemas a lot more often with the satisfaction of seeing something truly fresh, dynamic and surprising – as opposed to being so limited in creativity, the best a mega budget movie can come up with is giving a giant robot testicles.