In case there was any doubt, summer has ended. To be sure, the October 1 release of “This Is the End” on DVD/Blu-ray concludes what was, looking back, the summer to end all summers — not so much in quality as in theme, for Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen’s frat-pack caper was just one of many movies this blockbuster season to give us an end-of-days scenario.
Why, we ask — when our present global predicament is in such dire need of an alternative — were we dwelling with such fetishism on the apocalypse? Are we that far gone that all that’s left is to cash in on the commercial potential of our own annihilation? If so, at least “This Is the End” had the decency to be hilarious. Most of the others, though — “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Man of Steel,” “World War Z,” “Pacific Rim” — had a distinct lack of imagination.
On his song “No Capes,” hip hop artist Guante raps about Superman: “Just little more than a prisoner with a life sentence / honoring the roaches with his friendship / but look who he defended…as he battled robots for the status quo, not for the people / and tried to spin it into good vs. evil / but this is not a movie for us.” These lyrics anticipate Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” by three years. In the latest film to feature the DC Comics superhero, a defense of the status quo was indeed framed by a good vs. evil battle.
At its end, Superman (Henry Cavill) accepted his status as America’s Hero. But what kind of American hero is he? An immigrant, yes, but one who has had to gain the trust of his new people by convincing them he is on their side. A foreign invasion helped his quest: By defeating Zod (Michael Shannon), he saved America — and the rest of us — from oblivion. (No matter the collateral damage resulting from all this carnage.) Here, the American authorities got the hero they deserved: a strong silent type who punches his enemies to a pulp. This was not a movie for us.
In our age of austerity, there is no time for Superman to even think about donning scarlet underpants on the outside of his suit. A superhero’s sartorial preference for colorful spandex is today unthinkable, since the present buzzword is realism, and it must be fulfilled to more ridiculous and fetishistic levels than ever.
As scripted by David S. Goyer, produced by Christopher Nolan, directed by Snyder and performed by Cavill, the present Superman lets his fists do the talking. Personality, you say? Humor? Over two decades on, George and Jerry’s conversation in the first season of “Seinfeld” says everything about Superman’s potential funny side. Of course, in a first for motion pictures, the superhero’s next outing is to be alongside the king of pouts, Batman. Who will out-mope whom? My money’s on Batfleck.
There’s a reason for these dour ingredients. In “The Seeds of Time,” Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson notes that “it seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” It’s hard not to recall Jameson’s words when watching films like “Man of Steel” or “Pacific Rim.” As one action scene follows another, one begins to wonder: Just how did the end of the world become more readily accepted than our own capacity or willingness to prolong it? Is the apocalypse the only thing deemed marketable by the studios at present? And if we must make a film about the destruction of the planet, why does the resolution have to involve a bland succession of fistfights?
Needless to say, such questions may indeed point to some weakness in our imaginations. The worry is that in the decades or centuries to follow, we’ll look back at this period and see a pop culture so convinced of its own destruction that a positive alternative was inconceivable.
It’s no coincidence that the most anticipated films of this summer all concerned The End. It began with “Star Trek Into Darkness,” whose source material (humbly) claimed to (boldly) go where no man had gone before. By contrast, the latest big screen version was all carnage, fisticuffs and end-of-the-world misery, with just about enough token throwbacks to William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy to keep purists at bay.
But where was the adventure? In “Elysium”? That film wore the allegory on its sleeve, permitting everyone to read it as an especially topical blockbuster. From its clunky opening exposition, it told us that the world had become overpopulated and that the more privileged of its folk had jumped ship to preserve and enjoy a better life in space. Matt Damon, rugged and bald, was the Christ-like figure tasked with regaining our access to, well, healthcare. Adventure? When I could figure out what people were saying amidst all the chaotic cacophony, things felt merely depressing. And at the end of the film, overpopulation seems doomed to repeat itself.
In “World War Z”, there were suggestions at least that our end comes from within — that it has social foundations. In it, Brad Pitt’s survival expert protagonist assumes the problem is a rabies epidemic. As it turns out, however, it’s a zombie infestation that spans the globe. Hordes of the undead are running rampant in corners far and wide: Philadelphia, Korea, Israel…and Cardiff. While a writer such as Albert Camus could allegorize and politicize a plague as a symbol of fascism, however (as he did in his 1947 novel “The Plague”), it’s difficult to see in “World War Z” anything other than a succession of suspense pieces.
This isn’t an inherent problem, but in an era in which capitalism itself is in a kind of undead state, perhaps a trick has been missed. At any rate, the film appears to take a defense of the status quo for granted. While we watch humanity’s annihilation primarily through the eyes of a heterogeneous, middle-class, all-white American family, the film also asks us to invest in a leading male whose character is already equipped with the skills and resources required to survive the grim forecast. To hell with those at the bottom!
Conversely, amidst all this grim and grit, balance was afforded this summer by two comedies. As their titles suggest, both “The World’s End” and “This Is the End” are upfront about their subject matters, perhaps to the point of parody. The former, directed by English whiz Edgar Wright, is named after a drinking house, and features a group of five forty-year-olds returning to the town they grew up in to embark upon a pub-crawl they never finished as teens. Though a sci-fi comedy, “World’s End” centers on an alcoholic, played by Simon Pegg. Real-life pressures and responsibilities have driven Pegg’s protagonist to a ruinous journey to the bottom of a pint. Furthermore, all the other residents of his childhood home have been substituted for endlessly expendable, unthinking robots — none of the town’s youth, workers or elderly residents seems to be enjoying life. The solution to such collective misery? Stick together and be yourself.
The protagonists of “This Is the End” would presumably agree. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, James Franco and others — all playing versions of themselves — find their house party to end all house parties interrupted by Satan himself, who rises into the earthly kingdom to destroy everyone who is morally compromised enough not to be saved by God. Making digs at overpaid actors and their social insulation along the way, this unpretentiously comical take on the world’s annihilation made the self-serious pyrotechnics of the summer’s more obvious blockbusters look embarrassing.
Indeed, though it is not without its own weaknesses, the film’s basic premise — of a bunch of drunken layabouts sticking together when the devil rises from Hell — appears audacious alongside Henry Cavill’s solemn vow to save and protect the human race from an incurably grouchy Michael Shannon. Intentionally or not, the film seems to say a great deal more about the end and about escapism — and about escaping the end — than its more critically received rivals.
For its message, like that of Guante’s “No Capes,” is much less muddied: an alternative to our current trajectory does not come in the variable form of men in capes, but in our own strength in numbers, and in our capacity to recognize common needs and to enact a shared struggle in achieving them. That’s the real basis of imagination. Perhaps, then, the fall offers better, more hopeful fare. If summer was about the end, the coming awards season promises a more resilient spirit: “Gravity,” “All is Lost” and early Oscar frontrunner “12 Years a Slave” are but three films whose welcome emphasis is upon endurance amidst despair.