Looking for a Hero

Catching up with The Batman this weekend – a film that was finally released theatrically in 2022 and promptly became the highest grossing movie so far this year with about $750,000,000 in worldwide ticket sales– was long overdue.

Ostensibly this is because I teach screenwriting and try to assign my students an old or new movie to see most weeks so storytelling and structure in different genres becomes second nature to them.

But truly – that’s merely the surface reason.

OK so this is the reason, right?

The real one is that I believe watching the top-grossing movie of any year allows you to stay informed

But also this..

What this means is that, like it or not, the film the most people go to see in any given year tells you quite a lot about our world — whether you want to know it or not.

So, here’s what I know after watching three hours of The Batman.

1. Robert Pattinson is a finer actor than you think and possesses great hair and seductively angular features.

2. Prosthetics have gotten to the point where, if Warner Bros. demanded it, the technical geniuses behind Hollywood moviemaking could make even ME look like The Batman.  Or Selena Kyle.

And, most importantly –

3. We live in a time where there are no SUPER heroes anymore.

But somehow we managed to have three Spidermans?

In writing classes we teach that no one is 100% altruistic.  Meaning every hero has a little bit of villain in them and every villain has a touch of a hero lurking somewhere in their souls.

The key to villains is they believe deep down what they’re doing is right and justified.

The path to a hero is that the vast majority of the world think their actions are right and justified. 

In our world there are no actionable super majorities to anything anymore.  Certainly not heroes.   I doubt even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky would get a supermajority worldwide vote if we had a global lie detector.  Nor would Russian President Vladimir Putin achieve worldwide super villain status.

It’d be close for Zelensky

The 2022 probing portrait of Batman tells us everything about our lack of true SUPER HEROES.  It takes the moral ambiguities of the franchise, the conceit of most superhero franchises, and gloomily plants a barely faux hero – our hero – smack dab into heroic territory.

But because the bar is sooo low we think nothing of it.

we did finally see Batman’s makeup, so we’ll give it points for that

He’s an avenger/vigilante with a personal agenda so internal and so intense that he barely feels human.  Certainly he’d have a less than zero potential by the standards of any other era to become anything even approaching a valiant do-gooder.

More importantly, no one around him has much of a moral compass.  And the few who do are either operating with their own secret personal agenda or have not received enough screen time for any real them to properly emerge.

We think Gordon’s good??

This weekend I went to the annual TCM Film Festival in Hollywood and rewatched the 1978 classic Warren Beatty film, Heaven Can Wait.  It was a fantasy comedy remake of the 1941 movie Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was based on a 1938 play of the same name.

And it shows – in all the best ways.

The late seventies were enough of a post Watergate time and pre-Ronald Reagan 1980s ME era for the world to still believe that a real life good guy could achieve hero status, inspiring others without giving into temptation himself. 

Classic

Sure, it helped that Warren Beatty at his most handsome played Joe Pendleton, a lifelong second-string quarterback for the L.A. Rams, who mistakenly dies and is escorted to a weigh station to heaven due to his incompetent Guardian Angel.

But when Joe is given a second chance and gets temporarily dropped into the body of a rich, unscrupulous industrialist, who among other things gleefully runs a conglomerate that thinks nothing of drilling oil and polluting entire small towns of people to slightly increase his profit margins (Note: Yes, this film was made in 1978), it seems a recipe for disaster.

Clearly, the good guy will be corrupted by all this money and power.  Because let’s face it, no believable good guy could ever be that heroic with all the oil and money in the world at his personal disposal.  At the very least he’d have to launch his own rocket ship to take him to the edge of outer space or perhaps invent his own super electronic auto before dropping back down to earth to help all the rest of us little people. 

I mean the guy already dresses like a supervillain

He’d have to become a bad guy who takes a stroll on the dark side, before rejoining the merely human race and inspiring them.

Because that’s the only way we’d believe it.

Except, well, no – not in the late 1970s.

Joe never succumbed to darkness.  In fact, he is nothing but good, well intentioned, hard working, loyal and kind, even to the two people he lives with who are trying to kill him in.

His everyman morality wins the day – a morality not born of some past traumas he has overcome but springs from the plain yet solid nice guy that Joe apparently always was.

Not sure I would consider this everyman hair #goodhair

He’s a regular fellow whose superpower is being moral.  A hopeful idea of a movie released during a time when we still had a few smidgeons of hope.

Heaven Can Wait was one of the top five grossing movies the year it was released. Among the others were Grease, National Lampoon’s Animal House and Superman.

It’s easy to sense a pattern here because there was one. 

Even in a year when two dark and raw post Vietnam War movies, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, triumphed over Heaven Can Wait at the Academy Awards.

See, it’s not that the late 1970s were an uncynical time.  They were just, well, a little less immoral.

Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out for a Hero”

The Foreman

The death of director extraordinaire Milos Forman this week makes one remember a time when movies were movies.

What do we mean by that?

Well, quite simply, he didn’t have a genre. He wasn’t an actor’s director. And his films weren’t all about how they looked, or how they were edited or how they sounded.

He didn’t really have a STYLE.

His movies were not all about the MESSAGE they sent.

Once upon a time, in a world that grows farther and farther away, movies were simply stories. About people. Who wanted something that was difficult or near impossible to get.

Tell em Norma!

They had real and imagined obstacles to get these things and whether they did or did not get them it was usually, at the end of the day, only about a handful of simple things: love, family, justice, or simply finding a place to belong where they could feel less alone.

This is generally why we tell stories. Yes, to be heard. But mostly, to feel less alone.

Oh you know.. just these little known films

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Hair (1979)

Ragtime (1981)

Amadeus (1984)

Valmont (1989)

The People vs Larry Flynt (1996)

Man on the Moon (1999)

Every one of them was about a recognizable person living on this planet. NONE of them had superpowers or were set safely in a dystopian future or reimagined past.

This is not a knock to sci-fi or action or horror or even the Marvel Universe. They can make for great stories on both the big and small screen. Heck, they’re even the setting for some cool books. Anyone remember those?

Allow me to get out my sweater…

These days we have a ton of imagined worlds and past, future and parallel-present imposing end-of-the-universe experiences. There is no lack of people who have cyborg-ish limbs which can throw an object the size of, say, the Empire State Building, from one coast to the other. Or perhaps even THE Empire State Building.

What we don’t have anymore are future movies from filmmakers like Milos Forman and very many film studios or large production companies willing to finance them.

Every detail indeed

One can argue every film creates its own pushed reality and exists in an alternate universe with larger than life characters not entirely of this world. Certainly Mr. Forman’s movies did just that.

I remember very distinctly seeing Hair at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and being transported into a 1960s universe in Central Park exactly how I wished it could be – but probably never was – with the help of sound, editing and great music that enabled a group of joyous actors to simply do their thing.

Sing it with me now…. AGE OF AQUAAAAARIUS

Or the anger and rage at the government that The People vs Larry Flynt gave voice to at what still felt like for me to be the height of the AIDS crisis.

Not to mention the comic hysteria and sheer tribute to artistic will expressed in Man on the Moon that somehow became oddly healing to a generation of us moviegoers still idealistic enough to believe somewhere deep down that iconoclastic comedian Andy Kaufman had not really died of cancer at the age of 35.

Or how the behaviors of all the supposedly insane characters in One Flew Cuckoo’s Nest exactly mirrored what all of the rest of us normal people on the outside saw or even exhibited on any given day in the 1970s.

Me then, and let’s be honest, me now

And, finally — the way the same group of petty, racist and haughty rich, straight white people manage to show up generation after generation, in decade after decade in various modes of dress illustrated in films like Amadeus, Ragtime and Valmont – films that managed to give many of us OTHERS hope because they showed us categorically that the Haughties will always be defeated either by themselves or some other group of more thoughtful and ingenious OTHERS. People who were, more or less, just like us.

Mr. Forman made just seven major studio movies in over 24 years where he managed to win two best director Oscars for himself, another two best picture Oscars for his producers and countless other nominations in pretty much every other category of excellence offered by the Academy and elsewhere all over the world.

Thanks Milos

These films also generated enough revenue, attention and critical acclaim for him to be given subsequent chance after chance (nee $$$) by the powers-that-be to produce the kind of work that would change the lives of several generations of filmgoers, many of them aspiring artists themselves who would go on to inspire still others, in the process. (Note: And if you think those facts are being overstated, just read the endless tributes on Twitter).

Point being, this was all done without EVER having to leave the planet, imagining a dystopic and/or end of the world scenario, inventing a superpower or coming up with a single tacky line, scene or sequence offensive enough to alienate any one marginalized group of people.

Some might say, Well, everything was different back then.

To which we all might consider the one question that all of Mr. Forman’s films did manage to ask – and answer:

Were they, really?

Randy Newman, “Theme from Ragtime”