January 15, 2019
Movie Mixtape: 6 Movies to See After You See ‘Glass’
The first act of The Incredibles is still the fairest portrayal of what superhero home life would look like. The flurry of domestic bliss and panic mirrors a lot of families with young children, but there’s an additional anxious hum to the rhythm of their lives. That fear of being caught, of suppressing who they are for the “greater good” of a fearful, misinformed larger society imbues every choice they make.
Yet it’s only one family. One view on what it might be like for a very small group of super powered humans trying to fit into the suburban model of peaceful boredom.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough stories of real people living in superhero universes and superheroes living realistically in the world. Chris Evangelista’s review of Glass – which he opened by reliving the pleasant surprise of learning Unbreakable was about comic books – was another reminder of that. That’s one reason M. Night Shyamalan’s original film hit so hard in 2000. It came during the superhero genre’s puberty, treating those figures with far more respect than the average spandex fantasy and dissecting the human psyche behind grand acts of heroism long before The Dark Knight‘s literal prisoners dilemma.
Treating super people as people is still rare. What’s even more fascinating is that Marvel and DC’s dominance has created a world where the standard story involves superheroes navigating a world where everyone accepts that superheroes exist, creating a subgenre of movies about people who may or not be super trying to survive in a world where people think they’re crazy. It’s a subgenre to which Glass now belongs.
I’m assuming you’ll fire up Unbreakable (they’re alive, damn it!) and Split, so here are 6 other movies to wrap your supervillain mind around.
The correct first answer is Super, but Special was the even-lower-budget version with a delusional twist that landed a few years earlier. Where James Gunn’s angry missive on violent, pajama-clad obsession considered one man’s limitations, Special sought to use the placebo effect to turn a mouse of a man into a lion.
Michael Rappaport – in his best role – stars as a comic book fan in an antidepressant drug trial who thinks the pills have given him super powers. Everyone telling him he’s wrong only reinforces the delusion, and a series of heartbreaking, sad-funny scenarios plays out (walls will be run into at great force). The movie is far better than its budget, and potentially arrived too soon. I have to wonder if it would have gained more traction even a few years later with Tony Stark announcing he’s Iron Man and all that.
Wilder Napalm (1993)
Ah, yes. A romantic comedy about two pyrokinetic brothers (Dennis Quaid and Arliss Howard) vying for the love of a woman (Debra Winger) whose choice of man apparently boils down to an adventurous clown and a boringly stable careerist. Just watch the trailer. Watch it.
Why is this a thing? Because a pre-Breaking Bad Vince Gilligan wrote it. When it’s not knee deep in sibling rivalry, the film explores the effect of keeping a super talent hidden (comfort for one brother who devotes himself to firefighting and exasperation for another seeking fame and fortune) as well as the confused sexual politics of bedding down enhanced beings. Its uncomfortably silly but worth a watch for kitsch value alone. Of course, this wasn’t the only time Gilligan would examine the dicey sexual appetites of superpeople…
What if Superman were an alcoholic asshole? That’s what Hancock ended up being even though its journey through development hell started as Vincent Ngo’s truly bonkers Tonight, He Comes – a script about a superpowered individual with explosive orgasms and very little remorse about using his powers for his lizard brain needs. For what it’s worth, Hancock billed itself as a raunchy take on superheroes, and it delivered that within the confines of a Will Smith summer blockbuster back when he thought saying a swear might injure his personal brand.
Smith plays Hancock, an impenetrable amnesiac who agrees to let Jason Bateman’s character rehab his pr image after destroying millions of dollars of property in some of the simplest crime-busting situations. Imagine The Avengers getting the bill for The Battle of New York. The movie heads into PG-13 with a telegraphed story, but it’s a fascinating artifact if only to see the limit of how rough Smith was willing to get a little less than a decade before the also-faux-gritty Suicide Squad.
Death Becomes Her (1992)
Willis has never played a genuine superhero except in Shyamalan’s movies, even though his persona is unerringly tied to John McClane, a normal human being who might as well be wearing a cape. McClane’s abilities and invulnerabilities grow increasingly cartoonish with every installment, and he’s played virtually the same character in dozens of movies.
Death Becomes Her is the closest he’s come to supervillain territory. He plays a plastic surgeon caught between two loves of his life (Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn) who have each taken an elites-only magic potion to ensure eternal life and youthful good looks. Willis comes off as equal parts mad scientist and Igor, doing their bidding to keep them looking as not-terrifying as possible despite tons of major accidents they inflect on one another. It’s a story about people with a fantasy power using it for their own selfish ends while hiding that power from the rest of the world.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
To put it mildly, Glass is not the sequel people were expecting. Love it or hate it, you’ve gotta give Shyamalan credit for not traveling the easy path of fan service. It hews closer to Cuckoo’s Nest than you’d naturally assume, which makes a certain amount of sense considering the talkative, philosophical nature of Unbreakable. Shyamalan is nothing if not subversive, quality notwithstanding.
For the uninitiated, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on Ken Kesey’s novel, stuffs a very bad man played by Jack Nicholson into a mental health ward with a host of other strong personalities (including Louise Fletcher’s absolutely unforgettable Nurse Ratched). Similar to Glass, it uses a tight space to get its brain messy with bigthink concepts – particularly ones that revolve around control, systemic harm, and crime.
Over 200 years old, Judex is the first superhero film. Told in serial format, the French production focused on a pre-Batman Batman figure called “Judex” (Latin for “Judge”). He sported a big hat to hide his identity, used cutting edge gadgets to defend the innocent from the corrupt, and hung out in a cavern lair when he wasn’t punching bad guys. Without spoiling the big reveal, the movie is effectively about a normal person donning extreme measures and a cape in order to right a series of wrongs. And to fall in love along the way.
Directed by silent master Louis Feuillade, it was a huge hit that spawned a sequel. Watch it and drink every time you spot a superhero trope still in use today.
Despite the launch of comic book superhero movies with the 1960s Batman, there are shockingly few movies critical of that storytelling model, the worship of the masked vigilante hero, or the ethical reality of a person working outside the system to bring a self-styled sense of justice to the people. That probably says a lot about populist views of the system itself – that there needs to be some fantasy figure who swoops in to cut through red tape and fix things.
It’s the dissection of that fantasy (rare as it is) that’s far more interesting than the feel good bad guy destruction in the average superhero tale. The question of what draws a person to do wrong or do right at this scale is almost never analyzed beyond the surface, which is why it’s no surprise that a subgenre has sprung up begging us to ask and answer that question. Whether Glass does that is another story, but at least it’s trying.
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