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September 30, 2013 11:02 AM
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Why 'This Is the End,' On DVD This Week, Was a More Important Summer Movie Than 'Man of Steel'

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.

9 Comments

  • Anderson Astin | September 30, 2013 1:03 PMReply

    What utter nonsense. Seth Rogen and company made a movie for Seth Rogen and company and asked us to pay for it. His one dimensional stoner ad lib acting was imaginative several movies ago, better yet, while we where all in college.

  • Mouse | September 30, 2013 12:17 PMReply

    Another movie that supports where you're going is "Attack the Block". It's not the end of the world, but shows the lower classes banding together to fight a menace, and earning respectability in the process. It's especially interesting how the outside world remains oblivious to their actions - their success is entirely self-contained in the world of the story. In any case, it was certainly more entertaining and more exciting that most of the big budget comic book movies that Hollywood has been making.

  • Michael Pattison | September 30, 2013 12:53 PM

    Thanks for this -- still yet to see "Attack the Block" but from all reports, yours now included, I should get to it pronto.

  • Denny | September 30, 2013 12:00 PMReply

    Not sure how Pacific Rim got lumped up into this (that movie was all about the world coming together to build robots to defeat the Kaijuu; teamwork was a running theme throughout), but yeah. Man of Steel and World War Z were arguably the two worst movies of this awful summer season (especially Man of Steel. Good lord, for all it's gloomy ultra-serious pretense, it's easily one of the STUPIDEST, corniest movies I've seen in quite some time).

    Thanks for giving props to two of the best in This is The End and The World's End.

  • Denny | September 30, 2013 1:21 PM

    @Michael Pattison:

    I found the in-house bickering going down to be, again, one of the points of the movie. They had to squabble their personal differences and machismo egos in order to buckle down and get done what needed to get done. By the end of it all, they were willing to make the necessary sacrifices to allow our main heroes blow away the Kaijuu for good. It's a classic (and admittedly kinda tongue-in-cheek) scenario, but overall it was a good fun time at the movies.

    And Idris Elba is the next Morgan Freeman/Liam Neeson to where I'd buy just about anything they say, no matter how goofy. And really, with that mustache he had throughout the film, I'd be disappointed if he DIDN'T make a line like that xD

  • Michael Pattison | September 30, 2013 1:01 PM

    My problem with "Pacific Rim", other than more subjective stuff (its repetition, its clunky exposition, dire dialogue and so on), is that we're supposed to buy (a) the world is scientifically advanced enough to defend itself against hostile visitors, but (b) the pilots tasked with defending the front-line are all obnoxious jerks. If the Kaiju doesn't destroy the world, petty in-fighting just might. In imagistic terms, I did think it boasted a colour that "Man of Steel" seemed intent on avoiding, but having the guy who played Stringer Bell shout "Today we are cancelling the apocalypse!" without so much as a grin or a wink to camera is pushing it.

  • Dan | September 30, 2013 11:48 AMReply

    My god, why is the movie-media universe filled with so many blabbering idiots. Calling 'This is the End' more imaginitave than every movie this summer? You think it's that hard for celebrities to come up with that shit? 'Jizzing everywhere' is so creative compared to themes of war in 'Star Trek'. Jay bitching constantly about being too hipster for Hollywood or Jonah getting screwed by a demon took such brainpower compared to Superman and 'Pacific Rim'. Judging by this article, you wouldn't know genius if it was the end of the world and it's the only way to get to heaven to see a crappy Backstreet Boys reunion. But stay on your knees, maybe one of the guys will appreciate your 'talent', although I'm sure they find it just as absurd.

  • James Berclaz-Lewis | December 3, 2013 5:13 AM

    Pretty sure his argument isn't about it being more imaginative than every movie this summer, but instead about how its underlying ideology is more pertinent than the others' fatalism and determinism.

  • Chris | September 30, 2013 11:38 AMReply

    Superman had some very strong elements to its make up that have gone almost unnoticed because everybody is so pent up on the warmth of Christopher Reeves. It showed remarkable insight into how a civilization could potentially grow as they become more advanced at controlling the genome, whilst also agreeing with Hawkins and most other brilliant scientists that a race of that sophistication would need to eventually abandon a planet. It tackled those themes very well and they certainly aren't laughing matters because they deal with global genocide.

    If you want fun, bouncy, warm super hero stuff than The Avengers did that very well. Or, perhaps you should revisit Superman Returns -- when Singer tried to emulate that style -- and looked what happened there.

    DC has always been a darker comic range and Nolan's rendition was truer to that.

    With regards to Baffleck, well Batman and Superman don't belong in the same world, never have been, never should be, unlike the Marvel characters who were crossing over right from their origins.